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Press conference at Parliament House about coronavirus (COVID-19)

Joint press conference with Professor Brendan Murphy, Chief Medical Officer, about coronavirus (COVID-19) on 24 February 2020.

The Hon Greg Hunt MP
Former Minister for Health and Aged Care

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Number of confirmed cases is now at 78,973 on the latest information I have from the National Incidence Centre just prior to coming to this briefing.

And sadly, the number of lives lost is 2,466 globally to the coronavirus, although those figures will inevitably be updated during the course of the day.

Within Australia, within the general community, it remains as it has for some time now, that there have been 15 cases, 10 of which have cleared the virus and the other five remain stable.

And the figure remains seven who have contracted the virus and been confirmed from the Diamond Princess.

And all of those have now been medevacked back to their home states and in stable conditions in isolation and are very well cared for.

And we thank the States, we thank the Northern Territory, and we acknowledge the extraordinary work of AUSMAT.

In addition to that, the 266 passengers who were evacuated from Wuhan and housed at Howard Springs for two weeks have now returned home.

All of those passengers have left the Howard Springs temporary quarantine facility, and as a consequence of that, they are now free to go about their day-to-day activities.

There were no passengers in that group who were diagnosed or confirmed with coronavirus.

So, I think that’s a very, very important operation which has shown the importance of quarantine, and the results of the seven passengers who came from the Diamond Princess reaffirm absolutely, not just the reason that we sought to airlift them back to Australia, but the reason why on medical advice, we imposed a supervised quarantine arrangement.

And I think that that was strong, but very clear medical advice.

I would say more generally, that in relation to international developments, on the advice of the Communicable Diseases Network of Australia and the AHPPC - I will have to go in a minute - on the advice of the AHPPC, what we have done is lifted the travel advice to level two for Japan and Korea, and we will continue to supervise and review those through the work of the Chief Medical Officers as we go forward around the world.

So with that, I will apologetically have to slip away for a division.

I’ll leave you in the capable hands of the Chief Medical Officer of Australia, but we are well-prepared.

We have developed our plans around the country. I thank the states and the territories.

And the critical thing is that the advice to date from the Chief Medical Officer and the unanimous advice of all the Chief Health Officers is that the disease remains contained within Australia, but we are alert, we are focused, and at all times, we are seeking daily updates.

I’ll leave it with you, Brendan.


Thank you Minister. So as the Minister has said, there are some international developments that are cause for some concern.

The significant increase in reported cases in South Korea, the continuing number of cases in Japan, and more recently, the small outbreak in northern Italy and the increasing cases and particularly deaths in Iran.

All of these developments in other countries are cause for concerns, and all of those countries, they are making very extensive efforts to try and contain those outbreaks.

Within China, as we’ve said in previous days, the main problem continues to be in the Hubei province, where there are significant growth in case numbers and increase in the number of deaths in each day.

The developments in the other provinces of China have not been as great as they were early in the- this month when there was significant increase in case numbers every day.

But at the moment, the rising cases in provinces other than Hubei are a bit lower than they were, and we have some cautious optimism about what’s happening in those provinces.

But the developments in other countries are certainly of significant concern, and that’s why we’ve recommended the rise in the travel advisory to level two for Japan and South Korea.

We – HPPC - is meeting again today, and we will be obviously updating the ministers and governments collectively on these international developments.

But as Minister Hunt said, within Australia, we are very well contained.

We’ve only had 15 original cases that came from that original Hubei outbreak, and they were all appeared more than a fortnight ago, and the only other cases that we’ve had have been those seven people from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, who have all been evacuated back to their states, and there were no more cases from the Diamond Princess yesterday, which was a good development.

So in Australia, there is no community transmission of this virus at the present.

There is no reason for people to feel concerned at present, but we are certainly aware of the international developments.

And of course because of the risks posed by international developments, we are preparing as a nation.

We have a global pandemic plan, which is based on our pre-existing and long practised pandemic influenza plan, and we are certainly preparing as a nation, for every eventuality.

Thank you.


Air New Zealand announced today that it would suspend flights to South Korea. At what point would Australia recommend such measures, given we don’t have a local carrier flying into it and it would actually be a government decision instead?


We are updating those sort of advice on a daily basis. So we will be looking at the situation in all countries daily with the advice from CDNA.

So we had- the decision at yesterday’s meetings was simply to increase the travel advisory, but we will look at the situation as it develops every single day.


Can you rule out travel restrictions for (inaudible)?


We don't want to rule out anything. Clearly you cannot isolate a country from every- from a large number of countries, but you have to look at the proportionate risk of the number of cases in those countries and the capacity of that country to control them.

We know at the moment that the South Koreans have very strong measures in place to isolate the main epicentre of that outbreak and we are watching that closely.

We're not going to rule anything in or out at the moment.


So, evacuation plans. Is there any preliminary work afoot to get Australians out of Japan, for instance, or South Korea?


No, there is no particular focus other than that city in North Korea- South Korea, sorry, where I'm not aware of the circumstance of any Australians there. We have no plans for that.


How likely and/or safe would a temporary lift on the travel ban for the tertiary students to get some of them in- as we saw on the weekend, some (inaudible) were high school students. How likely is that?


Again, that's something that will be considered later this week on the basis of what's happening in the provinces other than Hubei.

Nobody's going to let anyone come into Australia from Hubei province.

But if the epidemiology in those other provinces of China suggests that the risk is low, that's something government could consider, but again, it’s something we will consider on a case by case basis, and I can't make any predictions on how likely or otherwise it will be.


(Inaudible) for the way the high school students should be self-isolating when they are in Australia. Is it okay of them to be, like, in a host family or with their own families, or do they need something more.


No. In a host family or their own family, if they’re properly informed, and we’re making sure that they receive the appropriate fact sheets how to do it, that’s fine.


And a boarding school?


A boarding school is much less likely to be acceptable, and you would need- the state health authorities who have to sign off on all these plans, I think, would need a lot of reassurance before they would accept a boarding house.


(Inaudible) university student. The government was told there could be an ease of the ban if, you know, there was no material increase.

In the case, it’s outside of Hubei province. If that ruling is made, and the numbers say that is okay, is it possible for most of those students to come over, given we’re looking at numbers of upwards of a hundred (inaudible)?


Some of those students are already coming, because they’ve left China over a fortnight ago and have been to other countries, so we don't quite know what the volume would be.

It's certainly something that government could consider.

The medical advice will be at the end of this week based on what the risks are perceived to be of such an increase. But ultimately, that's a decision for government.


Do you think it’s safe for tens of thousands of those students to suddenly be allowed to come in?


It depends on the risk of transmission from those provinces.

At the moment, we're talking about outbreaks of less than 2000 in provinces of many, many millions, and there hasn't been, at this stage, more than a handful of cases that have been exported around the world from provinces other than Hubei.

So we look at all of that data and we'll make a recommendation to government.


How far in advance are the contingency plans if there is an Italian style community outbreak? For example, if there's a community outbreak, do you have hospitals, quarantine camps that would be (inaudible).


Yes. Every state and territory has advanced pandemic plans.

We've had them for many years because we have always been expecting pandemic influenza to reappear.

So there are a range of plans where they have isolated- designated areas for quarantine, they designate what we call fever clinics where GPs set up to treat people who have the same condition.

And there are many, many isolation wards in hospitals that are designated and prepared.

So every state and territory works through these plans, and we are obviously updating them all now.


Are you considering any extension to the 14-day quarantine break, doctor, now that there's been this report out of Japan- out of China that a man was found to have coronavirus 27 days later after contact with his infected sister.


No, we’re not. That particular example is obviously being investigated, but all of the data we’ve seen, all of the case serious data suggests that our 14-day quarantine period is adequate for the incubation period.


Given that the travel restrictions or travel recommendations for Japan have been raised to level two, what plans are in place for the Olympics?


That's not something that I can comment on.

Obviously the Minister for Sport and sports authorities will have a look at that. I don't believe there's any- I think obviously the Japanese government will look at all of the developments over the coming weeks.


What is the threshold for actually looking at increasing- introducing travel restrictions for other countries?


It all depends on making a risk on the basis of the size of the pandemic, the profile on the- and the travel to Australia, and to look at the risk of importation. So it's a balanced risk.


Just on the same question, what are your- what’s the latest thinking in relation to Bali and Indonesia?


There have been no cases detected in Bali or Indonesia. We are- the Indonesian authorities have commenced testing.

We are obviously concerned about countries where there's been lots of travel from China and no cases detected, and we're watching that closely.


Just on the Northern Territory from our Darwin colleagues - there's seven of the 160 from the Diamond Princess have tested positive. Is there any chance that number could rise or be a specific.


There is a chance. It was positive yesterday that there were no more cases, but they are checking everybody every day.

And there's certainly a possibility there could be more, and if there are they'll be managed appropriately.


And for Darwin, if there’s a need to bolster resources in the top end, are there plans in place to (inaudible) those?


They’re well-resourced. The plan is for anyone who develops the positive virus to be removed to their other states. So they don't need any more health resources.

I think I’ll leave it there.


(Inaudible) travel advice being raised for flights such as Italy and Iran, given that the (inaudible).


Again, it would depend on a daily review of the epidemiology. At the moment they're not at a stage where that advice is being reconsidered.

Thank you.

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