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Press conference at Parliament House about novel coronavirus

Joint press conference with 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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We wanted to give you an update on coronavirus and preparations both within Australia and globally, particularly in light of the World Health Organization declaration overnight that this is a public health emergency of international concern.

A declaration which was expected and anticipated and, indeed, on 21 January, the Chief Medical Officer declared this within Australia to be a human coronavirus with pandemic potential, in anticipation and expectation of the subsequent WHO decision, which has now become reality.

In terms of Australia, as of this morning, there are nine cases of coronavirus that have been confirmed in Australia. Two in Queensland, three in Victoria and four in New South Wales.

I particularly want to thank all of the national health departments and the cooperation that they have provided.

As we look around the states, we know that those three states that have had confirmed cases have been especially cooperative.

Victoria, through their reference laboratory, has helped lead the nation. One positive development is that in New South Wales, two of the four patients that have been declared have now been released as being post-viral, and I’ll let Professor Murphy address the significance of that in health terms.

But that’s a very positive development and the advice we have is that all nine patients are stable and well-cared for.

And the first two have been released and declared post viral, with a third under way.

And I especially want to congratulate and thank New South Wales Health, and in particular the New South Wales Minister Brad Hazzard, for his co-operation which has been excellent and outstanding.

Equally, in Queensland, we've been working very, very closely with them, and their work has been very good and they provided early advice on their cases and we’ve shared our information with them as we have had it.

Beyond that, I want to note that obviously the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee has been meeting regularly, daily, in recent times under the Chief Medical Officer's leadership, and that where they have provided advice, we have implemented it.

Globally, the latest advice we have is over 7834 confirmed cases and sadly 170 deaths reported.

We expect today that those figures will again be updated and as we are in possession of confirmed official figures, we will provide those figures.

And we expect that the update will include an increase in those figures.

Equally, the World Health Organization, as I mentioned, has now declared new coronavirus to be an outbreak of public health emergency of international concern.

And that was anticipated and prepared for in Australia and, as I say, ten days ago, the Chief Medical Officer made the Australian equivalent declaration.

I would say this on Australian preparation, that the combination of the national incident room, the national medical stockpile, the national trauma centre – which oversees the Australian medical assistance teams – the Communicable Diseases Network of Australia, and then in addition to that, the coordination mechanisms with the states and territories are the reason that the WHO identified Australia as being at the global forefront, and they are being implemented.

The travel advisory has been updated in recent days based on the advice of the Communicable Diseases Network, and also based on the advice of the health – Chief Medical Officers around the country.

And in addition to that, three further matters – progress, as the Prime Minister and Senator Payne have indicated over the last 24 hours is ongoing, and we thank the Chinese authorities for that, in relation to the humanitarian mission of the assisted departure from China.

In preparation for that, I can confirm now that today, the first of the AUSMAT, or Australian Medical Assistance Team, pre-deployment personnel will arrive on Christmas Island.

I have spoken with the director of the National Critical Care and Trauma Centre Len Notaras this morning, and he has confirmed they have a team of 24, and the first members of those – the pre-deployment and logistical personnel – will arrive today.

And they will include significant medical equipment.

It will be a deployable hospital, which will include a negative pressure room and isolation capacities, and critical care capacity if required.

And further than that, we want to acknowledge the work of our researchers, the Doherty Institute, the University of Queensland, the CSIRO, which is taking further steps.

And masks have been deployed and will continue to be deployed through the primary health networks to be made available to general practices if they require. Professor Murphy?


Thank you, Minister. So as Minister has outlined, the World Health Organization has declared this a public health emergency of international concern.

That's on the basis of continuing export of cases beyond China into a number of countries.

There are small numbers of cases exported, but an increasing number of countries and in all of those countries, the disease has been contained.

But there has been very limited and isolated incidents of human-to-human transmission outside of China and they believe, therefore, that it constitutes a public health emergency of international concern.

Australia has been acting in anticipation of such a declaration, as the Minister said, for some time.

We are one of the most forward leaning countries in terms of our public health response to this outbreak. But the declaration does means that the World Health Organization, which has already had a significant activity in response to this outbreak, will further increase their activity, particularly with expert technical teams going into China, enhancing their work in research and vaccine development, exploration of potential anti-viral drugs, diagnostics, and the like.

And of course, they also have a strong interest in ensuring that if this disease does be exported to a low-income country with poor health system that they are there to help prepare them.

It's important to note the World Health Organization is still saying that containment of this outbreak is the goal and is still possible. Clearly, what is happening in China is of concern.

The outbreak is still not under control, but the Chinese are making very, very substantial efforts and as you know, they've locked down the major epicentre in Hubei Province and are doing exit screening at other airports.

So we are extremely well prepared and one thing I have – the Minister also alluded to earlier – was that it's interesting that nearly all of the exported cases from China and all the other countries have been relatively mild so far.

So while we do know that there have unfortunately been about 2 per cent of people reported have died, certainly the cases we've seen in Australia have been relatively mild and two, as the Minister said, have been discharged.

So that is a positive, but we’re – it's too to make very definitive assertions about the severity of this condition.

Thank you, Minister.


Thank you. Happy to take any questions.


(Inaudible question)


Look, I’ll respectfully leave that to Minister Payne. I know that she and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade are working very co-operatively with the Chinese Government and I want to thank the Chinese Government for their work and co-operation and I know they're making significant progress.

So we are about to have a meeting of the National Security Committee and we’ll get an update, but I know that Minister Payne will be the relevant person to provide those details as and when they're ready for- they're completed.


So how long will take these teams on Christmas Island to set up the necessary facilities?


Oh they're beginning today and so.


How long will that take though?


They will be ready over the course of the weekend. So the Australian – I should talk a little bit about the Australian Medical Assistance Teams and the National Critical Care and Trauma Centre.

That was established following the terrible tragedy of the Bali bombing and it was developed following that at the lead of Prime Minister Howard, but it was supported under the previous Labor government. It's been supported through ours.

It's a real national asset and it has a network of medical and logistical and engineering personnel from around the country.

It is about deploying medical personnel and hospitals to positions of need or crisis.

Although the humanitarian airlift, the assisted departure program, at this stage, is not dealing with anyone with coronavirus, they're preparing in case.

And so what they have is the ability, as they have just done in Samoa, to provide medical assistance.

They have had medical personnel in place with what is a far more contagious disease, although the consequences may not be as grave, but far more contagious disease.

So these are some of the world experts in contagious diseases and in rapid deployment of medical facilities. So they’re doing that.

I confirmed again just prior to coming to this briefing with the director Len Notaras that that’s under way and he said – as he said to me yesterday, ready, and as he said to me today, it will be done this weekend.


Qantas has said they’ll only pull flights from China if the Federal Government tells them to. Is this something you’re considering?


So I might ask Professor Murphy to indicate on the medical advice.

I’ll make the policy point that wherever the medical experts have provided medical advice, we have implemented swiftly and immediately.

For example, the declaration in relation to a disease of pandemic potential, the travel advisory and then also the 14-day isolation period. So we have followed those with immediate decisions, immediate implementation and immediate announcement.


Thanks, Minister. So we’re obviously closely looking at this issue.

The World Health Organization strongly recommends that country – nations do not ban flights from China because unless you lockdown exit from the country, banning flights, direct flights, doesn't stop people coming from China.

They could come from all sorts of other ports and at least we know who is coming from China and we can meet and do very intensive border measures for those flights.

The airlines that have stopped flying from China around the world, a couple of them have done so for commercial reasons.

No country in the world has suggested this. It seems likely that China is increasingly blocking export of its residents, so they are reducing tour groups coming out of China and if the outbreak in provinces other than Hubei, which is now completely locked down, increase, I believe they will stop exits from China which is a more effective way.

So at the moment, our Health Protection Principal Committee does not recommend banning direct flights from China, as it's not a public health measure.


But at the Government's request, this exact question has been put to the medical experts, the Health Protection Principal Committee and they’ve considered it on a number of occasions and their advice hasn’t changed.

If their advice does change, we will implement it.


Minister, the Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has been (inaudible) withholding information on people who could potentially be infected with the virus.

What is the policy around that? Wouldn’t it be more beneficial to share that information with the states?


Any information that we have, we have shared and we will share.

I would like to confirm that the Tigerair flight manifest, the emails, the contact numbers and other known details, were provided to Queensland at 4PM yesterday.

Just to reaffirm, those details were provided to Queensland at 4PM yesterday.

I would also indicate that in relation to daily engagement with Queensland, Queensland has been part of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee meetings of 20 January, 23 January, 24 January, 25 January, 27 January, 28 January, 29 January, 30 January and I believe there’s one scheduled for today, Brendan?

Queensland has also been part of and indeed is the chair of the Communicable Diseases Network of Australia committee meetings of 10 January, 20 January, 23 January, 24 January, 25 January, 27 January, 28 January, 29 January, 30 January and I believe there is also a meeting scheduled for today.

Queensland was part of the Joint Health Ministers and AHPPC ministerial teleconference of 25 January and only yesterday, our first ministers’ departments, meaning the Premier's own department, was part of the National Crisis Committee hook-up.

And so if that information has not been provided within the Queensland system to the Premier, I would respectfully urge the Premier to seek that advice from her own system, but everything that is available to us is available to them and again.

I've confirmed that with Minister Dutton directly, by contact half an hour before coming here and the information about the manifest being provided at 4PM yesterday.

That may not have been passed by the Queensland system to the Premier, but it was certainly made available to Queensland at 4PM yesterday and any and all other information that we have can and will be shared.


The last flight out of Wuhan to Sydney arrived only a week ago. Can you talk us through what kind of follow-ups are happening with those passengers? Can you guarantee that they have all been self-quarantined?


They – contact tracing has been undertaken for every passenger on that flight.

A couple of people on that flight are actually confirmed cases that we've had and each of the state and territory health departments has contact traced and followed up the passengers on that flight and I believe that they will have ensured self-isolation for those people.

I don't have the exact detail from the state and territory health departments, that's their responsibility, but we have certainly contact traced everyone on that flight.


What about flights before that?


I just want to ask a quick question about some – sorry, you go.


And what about flights before that, what kind of follow up is being done with them?


Well we – the risk is – the incubation period of this disease is probably – the average is about a week, and the upper limit is, we're still reviewing that at the moment.

We're currently saying 14 days for an abundance of caution, but there's really been no one who’s developed it within 14 days.

So the risk is much greater for that last flight and that’s where the focus has been at the moment.


But other flights where there have been confirmed patients, obviously the contact and tracing details have been provided and undertaken and we've been working with each of the states and territories on that.


In hindsight, shouldn’t we have been doing border screening at our airports sooner, especially for flights arriving from Wuhan?


Actually, we followed the medical advice absolutely and always been forward leaning. I have to say that our quarantine restrictions are arguably some of the toughest in the world.

I know some have been critical that they are too tough.

But we have followed the medical advice and we make no apologies for the fact that they have been very, very tough decisions but in terms of that medical advice, which, as I note, included a declaration ten days ago, ten days prior to the WHO of this being a human disease of pandemic potential. I’ll let Professor Murphy comment.


And I think it’s important to note we were the first country that I know of, to require isolation of people who’ve come from Hubei who haven’t been in contact with a known person with the disease.

We are of the view that even though the international evidence suggests that people are almost certainly infectious when they are symptomatic, there’s very limited evidence now that they could be infectious when they’re asymptomatic or before they develop symptoms and that’s why we have been very forward leaning in requiring the self-isolation.

Other countries are not – have not been so quick to do that, so I think our approach has been very, very proactive.


Professor Murphy, on 26 January, China authorities were saying, as early as Sunday, they were saying people could pass on the symptoms before they were symptomatic and on Tuesday you said, look this was very unlikely based on previous experience.

Now we're saying it is likely, it is happening.


No, we're not saying it’s likely, we’re not – we are saying that there has been one or two confirmed cases in the world, from several thousand, where there is evidence that suggests that someone just in the day or two before they became symptomatic may have passed it.

The experts around the world still think that coronavirus is generally only infectious when people are symptomatic, but because of this new evidence – the Chinese comments were not backed up by any evidence – now we have some new evidence, which is why we've taken the further measure.


Do you trust the Chinese authorities? If they're saying this as early as Sunday and then we're fact checking China authorities and they're at the epicentre of this virus?


The Chinese have a huge challenge in gathering and reporting information. We believe that they are being transparent at the moment.

They're certainly being cooperative with the international community, as evidenced by the fact they've invited in a World Health Organization technical expert group and that's a very, very positive sign.


Just one final one – is it ideal for you to be Acting Chief Medical Officer and also, you know, filling in the role of Health Department Secretary at the same time?


I can answer that. The – Glenys Beauchamp, the Secretary of the Department, who was going to take leave prior to retirement said to me over the course of weekend, I think I should be back on deck to fill those roles.

And I thank Secretary Beauchamp who put that proposal to me. We accepted immediately.


I'm focusing entirely on this issue at the moment.


And you will continue until?


Until – we will assess the situation on a regular basis and I’ll consult with the Minister about what’s the appropriate time.


The Secretary’s offered to continue to stay and so she's been tremendous and so she's running the department, the Chief Medical Officer is doing this, yours is an entirely fair question.

The Secretary Glenys Beauchamp pre-empted it before any of us got to the question on Australia Day when we spoke.


Will there be any extra precautions taken around Parliament next week, such as temperature checks for staff or visitors?


I – there would be no indication to do that, there is no suggestion that there is human-to-human transmission in the Australian community.

Our focus is on identifying the, as yet, very small number of cases, contact tracing and isolating those. Temperature checking is not an effective measure of screening.

We have never practised it at the border for this epidemic. We did it in the swine flu epidemic and it detected hardly any cases.

The World Health Organization does not recommend entry screening. They think the most effective screening, if you’re doing any screening, is exit screening which is what’s happening in China.


So I would also say this, and that is that the same standards for the Parliament as everyone else in Australia, neither lower nor higher, we don't deserve any special or better treatment than anybody else. One in, all in.

This is an Australian challenge for all of us. It's a global challenge, as the World Health Organization has indicated.

And I've got to say with the – although it’s a great challenge, one of the things to keep in mind is that of any country in the world, we are as well prepared as anybody and with the extraordinary work of our scientists that have led the world this week, we should know this: that in the end, even though this is a challenge, we will rise to it and we will beat it. Thank you very much.


Excuse me, cannabis has been legalised here in Canberra here today, what do you make of that, do you (inaudible) concerns about the health impacts of that?


We don't support it, but it's a matter for the ACT, thank.




Last question.


Medical Officer, what do what do you make of cannabis being legalised in the ACT?


I'm supporting the government's position, I think cannabis has a medicinal role and the evidence suggests we need much more data.

It needs – still needs a lot of evidence about its role in health and that's being done under a proper medicinal access.


Final question.


Minister, how much interest has there been in people possibly taking up the offer to go to Christmas Island?


Look, I’ll leave that with the Foreign Minister, thank you.


Is there any indication though, has there been?


No, no, I understand that they are reaching out to every person in Wuhan who is registered, but I’ll leave that to the Foreign Minister who has those details and that update.

Thanks a lot.

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