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Press conference at Parliament House about novel coronavirus

Joint press conference with the Hon Dan Tehan MP, Minister for Education, and Professor Brendan Murphy, Chief Medical Officer, about novel coronavirus.

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

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Thank you very much to everybody for being here, and in particular to Minister Tehan and the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Murphy.

Earlier today we indicated with the Prime Minister - who has passed on his apologies because he has returned home prior to us having the information, and he is obviously preparing for his father's funeral tomorrow - We indicated that as further information and medical advice becomes available, we would provide that to the public.

In particular, given the evidence which was emerging overnight, the Chief Medical Officer was leading a review with, firstly, the communicable disease experts within Australia, and then subsequent to that, with state and territory chief health officers.

And if medical advice has changed, the Government would accept that.

Consistent with that, we have also made the decision that was announced earlier today as part of any assisted departure from Wuhan and Hubei province to ensure that people were isolated for up to 14 days.

And as a consequence of the work which the Chief Medical Officer has been doing, new advice is now available in relation to quarantine and the situation of those who have returned from Hubei province, and where there has been contact with anybody who has had coronavirus in that situation.

I will pass over to the Chief Medical Officer to provide the agreed medical advice of the states and territories following the preliminary advice of the communicable disease experts.


Thank you, Minister. So, I might for simplicity read the advice of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, who just concluded their deliberations a short time ago.

AHPPC, the committee, is aware of very recent cases of novel coronavirus who are, at the time of diagnosis, asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic.

And we're also aware of one fairly convincing case of probable transmission from a pre-symptomatic case to other people two days prior to the onset of symptoms, and that's the German case that we talked about this morning.

These data are very limited and preliminary, and AHPPC still believes that most infections are transmitted by people who have symptomatic disease, and that is a very important statement.

However, AHPPC believes that we should take a highly precautionary approach, and is making the following new recommendations – contacts of any confirmed novel coronavirus cases now must be isolated in their home for 14 days following exposure. Return travellers who have been in the Hubei province of China must also be isolated in their home for 14 days after leaving Hubei province, other than of course seeking medical care.

Given the substantially low number of cases in China reported outside of Hubei province, we do not currently recommend self-isolation for travellers from other parts of China or from other countries.

We are however closely monitoring the development of cases outside of the Hubei province, and will update this advice if necessary.

Given the lower number of cases in China reported outside- oh, sorry- AHPPC recognises that the evidence for pre-symptomatic transmission is currently very limited. And this policy is highly precautionary.

At this time, the aim of the policy is containment of novel coronavirus, and the prevention of person to person transmission within Australia.

Further details of the extent of pre-symptomatic transmission is being closely monitored by the international community and may result to changes in policy at a future time.

Thank you.


Thank you, Brendan. As a result of this change in advice, all state and territory education ministers have been advised that this advice has changed.

And they will all be reviewing their policies with regards to what should happen in terms of attendance at school.

We will also be advising all childcare providers, all vocational education providers, and all universities of this change of advice.

I want to be very clear - we have made it absolutely abundantly clear that any change in the advice, we would notify both education ministers and all other education providers immediately.

We are also obviously advising parents through these statements today, and education ministers will be further now looking at their guidelines and will be making decisions as a result of this change in advice which has come from the relevant medical experts.


Great. Happy to take any questions.


Can I just clarify, the new advice is that anyone who has been in all of Hubei province, not just Wuhan.


All of Hubei province, yeah.


And even if they haven't been in direct contact with someone who has it but they’ve been in the province they should self-isolate?




Before retuning into the country or if they already.


Already in the country or on return to the country they should self-isolate. Yeah.


When you say there’s evidence of pre-symptomatic transmission, are those people passing on the disease then going on to experience symptoms or is the (inaudible).


Correct. The case in Germany is of a Chinese national who was addressing a seminar in Germany. And apparently was not symptomatic.

And then developed symptoms 24 to 48 hours after that seminar. But now four people in that seminar have contracted novel coronavirus.

This is an extremely unusual situation. It's very surprising but we must take a highly precautionary view.

And as I said, there's no other real strong evidence of transmission in someone who is pre-symptomatic, but any evidence we need to take action upon.


How likely is it that we will see some sort of pre-symptomatic transmission within Australia?


I think it's probably unlikely because we believe that the nature of coronaviruses is that they generally are only infectious when symptomatic.

That's what we saw with SARS, that’s what we saw with MERS. And I think all the evidence from China suggests that nearly all of the cases are only infectious when they're symptomatic.

But if we have any evidence that the pre-symptomatic transmission can occur we need to act with a precautionary approach.


Can I ask about the decision announced today by the Prime Minister about the evacuation process and the quarantining period in Christmas Island as well?

That was before the change in advice and the decision then was that a quarantine period was needed for 14 days.

We haven't seen the US and Japan impose that kind of quarantine period for their, you know, likewise repatriation processes so can you perhaps explain the rationale behind that?

GREG HUNT:         

Sure. So what this does is it makes Australia one of the most forward leading and one of the most cautious countries in the world. We make no apology for that.

Our job is to save lives and protect lives. Our job is to make sure that above all else we are protecting the health of Australian citizens.

And with these decisions we have become one of the world's most cautious and conservative countries with the decisions we've taken but it's been done on the basis of the medical advice.

The basis of the decision this morning was precisely as professor Murphy has said, advice to the National Security Committee that there has been some development overnight.

He indicated to the committee he would be taking that to the medical experts and then to the state and territory chief health officers.

And what the National Security Committee did was to take an abundance of caution and to say, right, we know that may be the case. 

And we will exercise our judgement to protect Australian citizens whilst also if we are able through the diplomatic processes that the Foreign Minister is making very strong progress on, protecting those people who had come from Wuhan and Hubei province.


Will that apply to the foreign nationals that we may also be returning back? Or will they have to go through potentially a quarantine period in their own countries?

GREG HUNT:         

This applies to all people who are in Australia under those circumstances.


In terms of the cost, the Government said that these people will be expected to make a contribution to the recovery. So is that paying for the airfare, is that paying for the cost of staying on Christmas Island as well?

GREG HUNT:         

Look I’ll leave that respectfully to the Foreign Minister. But I think historically it's been a contribution towards airfare.


In regards to the one million surgical masks that have been handed out to GPs for people who have either travelled or for health workers, the prevailing advice is that P2 masks rather than surgical masks are better protection for health workers.

What's the rationale there given we heard this morning we’ve got 12 million of them?


The prevailing advice is that surgical masks are perfectly adequate for the clinical assessment of a suspected case and their examination.

Where P2 masks are very important is when you're collecting the diagnostic specimen. And we would ensure that anyone collecting the diagnostic specimen is provided with a P2 mask. 

The GPs are seeing a lot of people who don't have this disease and many of them have flu and they just need some protection and a surgical mask on the patient and a surgical mask on the GP, all of our expert advice suggests that that is adequate.

It's not adequate if you're collecting the specimen and if you're a proven case in hospital who is coughing and we know that they’re treating the virus then generally P2 masks are used.

But for- we're talking about a population that 99 per cent of them don't have the virus and the surgical masks - all our experts say - is fine.


Just a quick follow up on that sorry, the New South Wales Health Chief Officer said just this afternoon that they're still waiting on those Commonwealth masks and in the interim the state has had to start handing them out themselves.

When can we expect the Commonwealth supply?

GREG HUNT:         

They are.


They are being distributed also today but the state has stepped in for some practices because they had stocks very close by, and we always work in cooperation with the state and territory health services. We're helping them with some resources and they're helping us.

GREG HUNT:         

And so look I’ll just add to that. That was one of the agreements that we'll provide but in the interim where they have stocks immediately on hand, and particularly the case in New South Wales, we provided over a million P2 masks for bushfire purposes, they have significant stocks readily deployable, immediately available.

But we gave the order this morning and that's being rolled out over the course of the next 24 hours with that commitment.


I just want to ask about the need for a quarantine island, as it were. Do we not have the adequate quarantine facilities on the mainland?

And will the people who go there be allowed to walk around the island, or leave the detention centre? What measures do you have to protect the local residents?


Sure. So, I'm very happy to make some general comments on this.

Firstly, the choice of the Christmas Island was made on the basis of the ability to establish quickly to provide the capacity to deal with all those who were likely to arrive. It was the ability to establish over the course of the next few days, and that was the key point.

Secondly, one of the things that is very important is that we have full and absolute protection for Christmas Islanders.

And so- I'll leave the circumstances to Home Affairs and to Foreign Affairs in terms of those people, because they're being developed at the moment, with regards to anybody who were to arrive on Christmas Island.

But there are two elements here: protection of and quarantine for those who would be coming from Hubei and Wuhan province.

And then, secondly, protection of and full health assurance for everybody who is currently on Christmas Island.


So no decision yet about whether they can leave the detention centre?


I'll leave it to Home Affairs.


What are the actual laws (inaudible) to this- under the Constitution there’s the power to make laws to quarantine people. What are the actual laws that allow the Government to.


Well, both the state and Commonwealth laws exist in relation to biosecurity. I think, Brendan, you signed the law last week, or the declaration.


Sure. So, in terms of the quarantine for citizens in their homes, at the moment the state and territory health officials obviously are monitoring those people who are known contacts of cases in Australia.

For returned travellers from Hubei province, we are asking them to remain isolated. We don't intend to use enforcement powers. And in terms of the people coming to Christmas Island, they will have to consent to coming to Christmas Island as part of being transported.

GREG HUNT:         



Just while you're up there, perhaps could you give us an insight into the significance of the replication of the coronavirus that's being done by Australian scientists and explain to us how that might assist in tackling this issue?


It's an incredibly exciting development. To have grown the virus so quickly is just evidence of the world-leading Doherty Institute.

So they’ve actually grown the virus in culture. That enables rapidly positive control standards for tests and particularly the early development of a serological test.

That’s a blood test to detect antibodies against the virus, which nobody has in the world at the moment. So, we’re very excited at that development.

GREG HUNT:         

Great. Look, I’ll take one last and then I apologise, we better keep going.


Any advice to schools? There are some schools that are saying as much as anyone who has been to a country with coronavirus should stay away from school, which could even include Australia.

Is that getting a bit hysterical or going too far?

DAN TEHAN:          

So, one of the things we’ve been very clear about is that, from a Commonwealth Government’s position, we think that schools should follow the medical advice which has been provided by our experts here in Australia and internationally.

Now, some schools have decided to go further than that. That is their individual right to be able to do that. Some states have taken a more cautious approach.

But our view is that we should follow the medical advice provided by our experts here in Australia and internationally.

And we've said that we will constantly monitor that advice and provide updates on it on a regular basis.

That's what we're here doing this afternoon. I want to assure all parents – all parents – that our number one priority is keeping students safe, and that is why we're taking the advice of the experts.

GREG HUNT:         

Yeah. So on that, I understand that both New South Wales and Victoria may be making statements shortly. So I don't want to detain them.

I will say we want to thank the Chief Medical Officer and all of the medical experts for truly frank and fearless advice. Yesterday, they advised that it was time to upgrade the travel advisory for China, and we did that.

Today, off the back of the new evidence overseas, they've advised that it was the right time to update the domestic advice, and we are doing that.

This means we will now have, off the back of the medical advice, some of the strongest precautions in the world. And as Professor Murphy has now set out, some of the world leading science in this.

Thank you very much.

DAN TEHAN:          

Thanks a lot.

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