Date published: 
4 March 2020
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

GREG HUNT:

I have the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Brendan Murphy, with me.

With regards to developments in relation to the spread of coronavirus around the world and our response locally, I can give the following update.

Globally, the numbers have increased to over 92,000, with over 3,100 lives lost, very sadly.

It has now spread to over- to 78 countries.

So the virus has now spread to 78 countries with the Ukraine and Morocco included amongst those new countries.

Beyond that, what we have seen is that it’s clear that in Iran there is an uncontrolled spread.

And as a consequence of the Prime Minister’s request yesterday, through the Chief Medical Officer to the Australian Health Protection Principle Committee, the consideration has been given and the requirements in relation to people who have travelled to Iran has now been extended.

That means that any person who has arrived from Australia, having been in Iran from 19 February forwards, will be required to conduct home isolation.

As has been the case with people from China and has been the case with people from Iran from 1 March, they will be required to do that for 14 days from arrival in Australia.

And that will now take effect for everybody who has arrived in Australia, from and including 19 February.

We do this out an abundance of caution, but recognising that the situation in Iran is clearly far worse than has been documented and significantly higher than the recorded case numbers.

Domestically, the number of cases has now grown to 41 and what that means is that we are continuing local containment measures, and I want to thank the states and territories.

And that as a consequence of that we are aware and New South Wales Health has released details that they are conducting contract tracing for a worker who was in an aged care facility.

In particular, the Dorothy Henderson Lodge at Macquarie Park in New South Wales, who has been diagnosed with COVID-19 and that they are working in isolating all of the residents who have been in contact with that worker.

And at this point, the advice I have is that they have isolated all of the relevant residents who have been in contact and that there are two patients and residents who have been under investigation. A 95-year-old has passed away.

At this stage New South Wales Health has not identified whether that resident has, in any way, shape or form, been subject to coronavirus but, for full transparency they have identified that case.

There’s one for investigation and a further resident has been placed in hospital for respiratory conditions and will be diagnosed and tested for coronavirus.

I think I should say this – that both the facility and New South Wales Health on the diagnostic have acted precisely, in accordance with the agreed plan.

So across the country, there are real challenges.

But what we are doing is making sure that we are prepared – and as we have seen wherever these cases have emerged, we are responding, as has been agreed in the planning processes.

And, in the case of Iran, we now have on top of what were some of the strongest bans in the world, even stronger conditions. Professor Murphy.

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Thanks, Minister. So just in relation to the development in New South Wales, so I think what we’ve seen over the last couple of days is further importation of cases from- single numbers from some countries.

But, in particular the aged care worker, who is not a return traveller, seems to be a community transmission, presumably from someone who has been a return traveller.

This is obviously of concern and why New South Wales Health has taken this so seriously.

But it’s very important to note how closely they’ve been working with the Commonwealth in the aged care sector- the Aged Care Safety and Quality Commission, which involved and the aged care branch in the Commonwealth was involved overnight in trying to support this facility.

The facility has behaved in an exemplary fashion, I’m advised.

Public Health New South Wales has been in there from last night and ensuring that all contacts have been traced and the staff members who have been in contact have been isolated and the patients who’ve been in contact will be isolated.

Obviously, this is a concern for the relatives and for those residents, but it’s in their best interest if they do that.

We always did expect some degree of localised community transmission from return travellers and obviously, New South Wales Health will be doing all they can to trace back the contacts of that additional case, as they’ve done for the doctor, also in New South Wales.

And, they will be doing all they can to identify potential contacts, bring about isolation and try and make sure that this small community outbreak it contained.

That’s always been part of the plan; this is what we expected to happen.

But again, I emphasise, whilst this is one small incident of a couple of cases, there is no evidence of broad community transmission of this virus in Australia.

And our general advice to the general community, remains unchanged. Thanks Minister.

JOURNALIST:

You told the Senate Hearing this morning that there would be a planning day with the aged care sector, later this week. Are you fast tracking that, in light of what’s happened?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

No, no, look there’s been lots of planning work happening, so we’ve- the aged care sector has- they all have good infection control plans.

They are required to have it under their standards, they have to have it for every flu season.

So they all know what to do, but we have to make sure that they’re all at the same top level.

So we’re doing a lot- we’ve done a lot of preliminary planning work to look at how we can surge the workforce, how we can make sure that we and support them to make- to have their plans up to speed.

We can do an assessment of the protective equipment they require.

So we're bringing all the planning stuff to the workshop with the aged care sector on Friday, so it’s not to say that the planning hasn’t been done.

We’re basically socialising all of the planning with the sector, getting their buy-in and ownership.

GREG HUNT:

So that was already within the next 48 hours

JOURNALIST:

So, could you just explain - if you’ve got a relative or parent in an aged care facility in these particular circumstances, what’s that going to mean?

Is that going to mean that you can still go and visit them? People who’ve been identified as being at risk, are they isolated at the facility, or only if they get sick and move to hospital?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

So, if someone were obviously unwell enough to require a hospital treatment, they would go to the hospital.

Clearly, someone who’s just been a contact who is not unwell, but has been exposed, would be isolated.

And in general, we would try and reduce contact with staff and with relatives. So, there will be some degree of isolation of those people while they’re in the quarantine period, absolutely.

JOURNALIST:

Just a question on the (inaudible) workforce issue. Is the Federal Government prepared to provide any extra funding to aged care facilities that might need it to put on extra staff?

GREG HUNT:

So part of the planning workshop is to look, as we said last week, at what’s called surge capacity – the ability to make sure that workforce is there.

New South Wales Health, to their credit, has already worked with the facility to make sure that they have adequate staff.

And so, what we agreed at COAG last week was to continue to observe the situation and to respond where necessary.

But at this point in time, we are able to deal with those issues as they arise.

JOURNALIST:

We’re hearing from doctors at medical clinics that they’re being told by suppliers that there is a wait until the end of April for supply of new masks.

So why aren’t they getting access to the government stockpile?

GREG HUNT:

We have actually made over half a million masks available directly through the Primary Health Network in a first round and a second round of- we’ve allocated another five hundred- actually, 550,000 that are available to doctors through the Primary Health Networks.

So, if there are any GP practices that are having any issues, they should contact the Department of Health, or first port of call would be their Primary Health Network.

JOURNALIST:

With regards to the most recent Queensland case, a 20-year-old Chinese international student, he came to Australia through Dubai for a 14-day transit period- quarantine period, but still came sick several days afterwards. Do we need to or does- will Australia be reviewing its policy, which allows (inaudible).

GREG HUNT:

I think we should make it clear that there’s no policy that formally allows that.

Our policy is to exclude everybody who has come from China until they have spent more than 14 days outside of Australia, having left China.

And so, that’s not about students; that’s about anybody, any traveller, non-Australian, and we’ve applied that across all categories of people, whether it’s by their occupation or by their nationality, and that’s been a blanket ban and we will continue to apply that blanket ban.

JOURNALIST:

Doesn't that need to be looked at at all just in terms of the restrictions - if people are passing through other countries, now that it’s spread more widely, do further restrictions need to be (inaudible)?

GREG HUNT:

What the Prime Minister referred to the chief health and medical officers yesterday was looking at whatever requirements are needed with regards to high risk countries, which was why they came forward with the extra Iranian requirements today.

And though- they have free reign where they have views, to recommend those views, and they are encouraged to be completely frank and fearless, and so far they have been exactly that.

JOURNALIST:

Should people be concerned about foreign international students potentially being carriers of the disease?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

So, there are now a very large number of countries with outbreaks.

So, we are concerned with anybody coming from any country that might have been in contact with cases and that’s why our advice is to all travellers, all travellers coming to Australia, is if you- to check the website for the daily update of the countries at high risk.

But if you’ve come from a country that’s of high risk, we want you to be very mindful of your health.

The most important thing is that those travellers report any unwell- any symptoms of fever, cough or the like, and contact their medical centre or their hospital to get a test and get advice, because that’s the most important thing.

It’s not really about blocking people from 90 countries; it’s about blocking people from the highest risk countries but also making sure that everybody who comes from the wide variety of countries with outbreaks now is aware of the risk and takes the appropriate precautions.

JOURNALIST:

In terms of where the aged care worker may have actually gotten this disease, is there any early indication it was a family member, a member of the public?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

No. New South Wales Health is obviously actively investigating that and I suspect that they’ll be able to provide more information shortly.

JOURNALIST:

Just to the Minister - Minister Hunt, I just wondered, in terms of the surge workforce, what

does that look like in practice?

Will we perhaps need volunteers or only people from the aged care centre called on to help out in these (inaudible)?

GREG HUNT:

No. What we discussed at COAG last week with all of the state and territory health ministers was looking at workforce requirements for primary care.

So for our GPs and our surgeries, the aged care sector, and for the hospital sector. And that means that we’re able to have staffed moved between different areas as is appropriate.

In this particular case, given where we are in the course of the virus, they’ve been able, through a combination of existing staff and other staff, to be able to ensure that they have sufficient.

And what we're doing as part of the planning which Professor Murphy is leading this week, is to make sure that when we look across the whole of the aged care sector, as well as primary care, as well as the work, which states are leading, with regards to each of their hospital systems – whether it’s people who have been working part-time, whether it’s people who have been taking leave, whether it’s people who might be recently retired – that there’s that capacity to add.

JOURNALIST:

Minister, just on the case in the aged care centre – We’ve heard that this worker was sick from 24 February, which is obviously over a week ago. Are you concerned that it’s only really been reported publicly now?

And secondly, we heard yesterday that people returning from overseas from Italy, from some of those high risk countries that are in this sector, should self-isolate. Should staff members who are just having flu symptoms at all at this point potentially self-isolate to avoid taking it into a high risk place like an aged care sector?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Well, certainly anybody who has an active viral respiratory infection shouldn’t go to work.

We say- they could have the flu; we don’t want them to spread the flu around.

So that’s generally the principle of people working in vulnerable situations, it’s a general principle that they adhere to.

I’ve heard that statement about the- that that worker may have been sick for a few days.

That is very unfortunate.

Nearly every case of imported COVID-19 we’ve seen, the people of the return travellers have been very responsible, and have identified early on.

So we are- that’s the single most important message I want to get out to return travellers, that if you become unwell at all in any way, immediately isolate and- with respiratory symptoms, and get help.

That’s really, really important. And if that is true that that worker unfortunately went to work for a number of shifts when she was unwell, that is very unfortunate.

GREG HUNT:

So, I’ll just add something. On those particular facts, New South Wales Health is investigating and we are looking forward as a matter of absolutely priority to the briefing and the facts behind it.

The case, I believe, was only identified last night.

I got preliminary information- and they said they’d be confirming and then providing public information as soon as everything was confirmed today, which they have done.

So on the identification, they have acted swiftly and immediately.

On the circumstances behind the individual, they will be carrying out a very, very clean investigation, as they do with contact tracing.

I do know that 11 patients have been isolated as a consequence of identifying those patients with whom the worker had potentially had contact.

JOURNALIST:

In relation to the Iranian advice for Iranian travellers that you’ve demanded self-isolate, how is the Government enforcing that?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

So, I think- it’s very hard to enforce, so what we’re saying is publicly - and all the states and territories are doing it- we’re asking people who came back from Iran before we instituted the formal measures last weekend, if they can please self-isolate.

It’s particularly important if in that week before, because we thought the incubation period is more than a week, but going back for 14 days before that weekend, we will ask them to self-isolate.

And again, most people are doing the right thing and they are following the public health advice.

It would be hard to track them all down because they could have come from a variety of different flights.

That’s why we put the border measures in on the weekend to address this. The highest risk group as the numbers are increasing on the weekend.

GREG HUNT:

Having said.

JOURNALIST:

Minister, just in terms of direct arrivals – I mean, is the Government contacting those people directly to give them this information by phone or in some way, if they can use the flight manifest, for example.

GREG HUNT;

So, we don’t have direct arrivals as I understand it from Iran.

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

We don’t.

GREG HUNT:

But in any situation where people are coming directly, they’re being met at the airport and we’re talking about them- for example, the China case is the very clear one.

Firstly, we have had- on our understanding, an overwhelming national compliance with self-isolation.

I'm aware of one couple in South Australia where the South Australian authorities took immediate action.

Between the Commonwealth, there are strong powers. And each state also has very strong powers, so there is effectively mirror legislation between the Commonwealth and the states.

The states have been overseeing the implementation of that, but I’m only aware of the one case so far where the states have had to take action, and I’m not sure they have had to enforce the legal position, but they made it absolutely clear that if required, they would enforce the legal position.

So, the powers are there. The compliance has been there.

But we will not hesitate, either through the states or if required the Commonwealth, to enforce if necessary.

So- to Dana first, and then I’ll finish up.

JOURNALIST:

Professor Murphy said at the estimates this morning that if there is a large outbreak, that most elective surgery will have to be cancelled.

I know the states will be seeking federal assistance to pay for this if they have to shift to the private hospital system.

Do you have modelling on how much this is going to cost, and is the Federal Government prepared to stub that?

GREG HUNT:

I won’t get ahead of where we are. We’ve said last week at COAG, and I’ll stick to this, that we’ll work cooperatively with the states on requirements as they emerge.

And then the last one?

JOURNALIST:

Just on the situation with Iran. Have you had any advice from- perhaps from Home Affairs about how many people- we are talking about Australians who might (inaudible).

GREG HUNT:

So, on.

JOURNALIST:

And just- sorry, just further. You’ve said that you think that the situation in Iran is worse than what’s been disclosed. Is- have you got concerns about other countries that might similarly be hiding the real facts?

GREG HUNT:

Well, I think the Iranian situation is firstly about capacity of their primary health system to identify and treat. That’s been our primary concern.

As to the willingness or otherwise of the regime there to disclose, I will let others who are better place than me comment on that.

But let's be clear, that it’s absolutely the case that the real numbers must be higher than the identified numbers.

That was why, on Saturday, we made the very forward leaning decision before the vast majority of countries in the world, to put the travel ban on Iran.

And it is because of that information - and frankly, that’s been borne out by the case numbers in Australia, where we now have a significant number of cases from Iran that have been identified in Australia.

So putting all of those things together, it’s clear that the case level is far higher.

JOURNALIST:

And the number of Australians?

GREG HUNT:

So, the advice I have, and I would want you to check with Border Force, is that in any one month -and it can vary seasonally - there are approximately 900 arrivals in Australia from Iran.

JOURNALIST:

The case numbers in Italy- concerns have also been raised about that. At what point do we (inaudible).

GREG HUNT:

So, as we’ve said, the Prime Minister referred areas of higher risk to the AHPPC only yesterday.

The first response was Iran, Italy and South Korea were specifically identified.

We won’t pre-empt their advice, but we will commit that if they advise for stronger action, we’ll take that action.

Thank you very much.

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Thank you.

Ministers: