Press conference at Parliament House about novel coronavirus
Joint press conference with Professor Brendan Murphy, Chief Medical Officer, about novel coronavirus on Tuesday 11 February 2020.
The Hon Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care
Good afternoon I’m joined by Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy and we want to provide an update on the global and Australian developments in relation to the containment of coronavirus.
And I particularly want to start today by acknowledging the challenge and hardship of many in the Australian Chinese community have felt, the Chief Medical Officer will make a statement about the conditions within the community and the safety within the community, and the fact that the quarantine arrangements in Australia are providing protections to the Australian community.
But we do know that many in the Australian Chinese community have had a stressful and difficult time.
In some cases, there have been reports of discrimination, and I want to denounce and reject those absolutely, and to say to the Australian Chinese community: we thank you, we honour you, we respect you.
And that the shopping centres are safe and if there are shopping centres in areas that have particularly strong concentrations of people with Chinese-Australian background, there is no reason not to be there. And I think that’s an important message of safety, of solidarity, and of respect.
In terms of the global data, the latest information that I have is that there are 42,723 confirmed cases, and I think that’s a continuous growth. And sadly, 1013 reported deaths to coronavirus around the world, all in China, other than two - one in Hong Kong, one in the Philippines.
Significantly, and very importantly, there remain only 15 reported cases and confirmed cases in Australia and five have, at this point, recovered. And the Chief Medical Officer will give you an
update on the remaining 10, but in simple terms, they are in stable conditions and generally, the recovery process is proceeding very well.
In terms of Howard Springs, there's ongoing monitoring and screening in conjunction with the Northern Territory that has the ultimate responsibility there. But everybody’s been doing a tremendous job, and I want to thank all of those involved at Territory and at Commonwealth level.
In terms of Christmas Island, I can confirm that an additional patient is now being tested. They have been isolated, and the advice from the AUSMAT team is that they regard this as a precautionary test and a low probability, but nevertheless, that test has been carried out, it’s now being analysed, and once we receive the results, then that will be made public.
But the advice from AUSMAT was precautionary and low probability. But nevertheless, the whole purpose of the quarantine and the testing arrangements is precisely to put in place optimal protections. There is, of course, significant awareness of the situation of the Diamond Princess cruise ship.
The advice that I have is that all up, there were 229 Australians on board; 11 of those have been diagnosed and confirmed as coronavirus patients. They have been given medical treatment by the Japanese authorities off the ship, and that means that 218 patients- 218 passengers remain on board.
In particular, and I've confirmed this both with the Foreign Minister's office but also with the head of consular operations, they- DFAT is working through the process of contacting all of those passengers, initially by email where they have that, and if other passengers have yet to receive an email because the cruise ship may not have had their details, I would say to friends and family – please contact Foreign Affairs and Trade on 1300-555-135, the consular support line, 1300-555-135.
And again, I will finish where I started, that the quarantine arrangements that- which we put in place, strong arrangements are- we recognise that they are challenging, but they are continuing to protect Australia. But at the same time, today, the message is for those Chinese-Australians - a real sense of support and to say that it is safe out in the community.
Thank you, Minister. So, as the Minister said, we've still only got 15 cases in Australia and all are clinically in good condition. They're all stable, as Minister said. Five have recovered.
This is consistent with the exported cases around the world, the 455 cases. There have been some severe cases in some countries, but they're very small numbers, and only two deaths in the exported cases, which is a positive.
But, as we know, there are- more than two per cent of the cases in Hubei Province have been reported as having an- unfortunately, a fatal outcome. So we are still evaluating the severity of this virus, and there's still a lot more information we need to know.
But as Minister Hunt says, our strategies so far have been working well.
We’ve identified and isolated those 15 cases, all of whom had come from Hubei province, or in one case, had had contact with someone who was a confirmed case from Hubei province.
We don’t- have yet- we’ve not yet seen anyone without contact from Hubei province or been from Hubei province detected in Australia.
So, Minister said also, our risk population is people who have come from China from 1 February. Not people of Chinese background, people who have come from China, whatever their background is.
And we are very concerned. AHPPC is very concerned about xenophobia and any sort of racial profiling which is completely abhorrent. We're talking about a relatively small number of people just because of where they've been, not who they are.
There is no community transmission of this virus in Australia. We have not seen any case of sustained transmission at all in this country. There is no reason for people to be wearing masks.
There's no reason for people to avoid anybody of any particular background or appearance. So I want to reassure the Australian community.
As the Minister said, our quarantine is working extremely well at the moment, and we're very, very pleased that the two facilities have had excellent medical support, and we're obviously actively screening everybody on a regular basis.
So, the situation is clearly evolving in China. There are still more and more cases in Hubei, but we are watching that very closely and there is smaller growth outside of that province.
The international scene is being very closely watched, and at the moment our containment strategies are effective and do seem to be working in Australia.
Thank you, Minister.
And over to you.
What could explain the difference in death rate in Hubei (inaudible) outside China?
So, there are a number of factors. One could be that the disease has been present for a lot longer, and sometimes if deaths occur late in the course, you could see that.
The other very likely factor is that because of the sheer scale of the outbreak in Hubei province, there may well be a large number of cases that are mild and undetected.
So, the denominator may well be falsely low. There may be more cases there than we know about. We just don't know the answer to that, but there are two potential explanations.
You mentioned in the past that we haven't yet seen the peak. We've now gone past 1000 deaths and the death from SARS. Do you think we've yet seen a peak to this virus?
Have we see its peak yet (inaudible)?
No. We're clearly getting growth every day. The rate of growth, potentially, is flattening a little bit at the moment, but again, very early to say because most of that data is coming out of China.
China, sometimes- the data sometimes can be a little bit patchy so we've just got to watch that. But there doesn't seem to be quite the rate of growth in the last few days as before, but I wouldn't want to draw any conclusions from that.
Minister, when does the quarantine period on Christmas Island end, and what will happen to those people afterwards? Will they be subject to any kind of follow-up check or will they be monitored?
So, the respective dates for the quarantine for Christmas Island are ending 17 February for the first humanitarian flight, and 19 February for those that came from New Zealand via Air New Zealand –and we thank the New Zealanders.
They will be tested before they leave, and if health authorities believe that additional testing is required, then they'll do that. But they'll be able to go home, subject to having a very clear process of having been checked and declared disease-free.
Minister, is the Government being advised of, or will the Government extend current travel bans?
So, look, that is an important question. The Prime Minister said that will be reviewed this week. But the Prime Minister, myself, the Chief Medical Officer, have indicated that the situation in China is ongoing and so we don't want to set a false expectation, but that is likely to change yet, at this point.
With that ban, would it be another two weeks, do you do it week by week, do you say a month?
Look, we follow the medical advice.
I think we will- we’re going to have a very serious consideration of that at the end of this week.
And I think the important thing is whatever period is put in place, we are reviewing this every day, and if the situation changes, we'll provide advice to Government on a daily basis as necessary, because everybody understands the huge implications of these travel bans, and if there's any reason or basis for relaxing them, that advice will come as soon as it's there.
Oh, hang on- there’s (inaudible).
The tertiary education sector is especially concerned about that ban because classes will begin on, sort of, 24 or 25 February. If it does start to impede on that time, would we consider trying to get some more, like, students out to get to these universities in Australia, or what would you be considering?
Can I say something as a government principle and then let Brendan talk about the medical side?
The Government principle is to protect Australians, first and foremost, which is why we have taken the very difficult decision with regards to the quarantine. And that was not lightly taken.
That was taken off the most serious of the medical advice, not just from the Chief Medical Officer, but from the Australian Health Protection Principle Committee.
Within that, we are always taking advice both where there are requests from particular sectors, such as the education sector – are we able to provide online support for students, which I know that Dan Tehan is following up, or are there possibilities where safe passage to Australia could be achieved?
But we're not there at this point, and that is subject to proposals and subject to medical assessment.
Could the ban take the form of a, sort of- if you’re from a different province, you're allowed to come to Australia? I mean, is there any sort of discussion around that? And you talked about the people avoiding shopping centres and things like that.
Why do you think that is? Has it been an overreaction? Is it the media coverage? Is it the Government has been hyping this up too much? Is it just racism on behalf of Australians?
So, on the medical side, I might let the Chief Medical Officer speak first in terms of how the advisory process works, particularly with the consultation with state chief health officers, and then I'll deal with the community elements.
So I think in terms of province by province, it would be really difficult because people can move from province to province in China.
We know that there are some provinces that have much higher numbers- much larger numbers of cases than others, and there have been some suggestions that maybe you could look at it.
I think that would be logistically very difficult. But Government has asked us to look at all options in their advice.
Now, in terms of the community, I've got to say that the Australian community has been overwhelmingly extraordinary in their response, but there is a lot of stress, particularly within the Chinese-Australian community.
And so, today, I am absolutely making the point that not only are public areas is safe, this isn't about people from any one background, it's simply about those that have been in the affected areas. And that is an important message to send out.
And so, we're providing that support. I think the Australian community, I think the Chinese community, have been tremendous. I have no criticism of the media whatsoever. I think, as a country, we've responded well. But one of the things we have to do is to provide that support to an affected community.
Following on from that, there is a lot of misinformation being spread, mainly through social media. So, is there anything that the Government is doing to counter that, or you're planning on doing?
Do you want to talk about the?
Some of the online work?
So, the Department of Health has a daily updated coronavirus website, there’s- and it also refers a 1-800 number that people can ring to get advice.
We've provided a large number of fact sheets for all sorts of- for the community, for various health professionals, for airlines, for cruise ships, and so I'd encourage anybody who wants to get the facts to go to that Department of Health website.
And the Deputy Chief Medical Officer and myself, Professor Paul Kelly, specifically briefed the Chinese and Chinese-Australian media.
The Prime Minister is also sending out messages on WeChat, carefully crafted with Department of Health input, but also experts in Chinese-Australian culture and messaging, and it's being done in the appropriate language.
(Inaudible) kids, teenagers and people in their early 20s, with all due respect, they’re not looking at the Department of Health websites.
No, which is why we've been using WeChat as well.
But there’s a lot of white Australians obviously not on WeChat. How are you getting through to them? How are you stopping this social media misinformation? Like, it is a big problem.
Well, things such as covering as many different channels as possible. Press conferences such as this where these messages are obviously translated into all of the different platforms that you have in front of you, and I want to again thank you, but if I can ask for your help and your support, it's entirely a matter for you.
But sending these messages about safety and support within the community, of respecting the Chinese-Australian community; that's our request to you.
Sorry. Dana and then yourself. Sorry.
Professor Murphy, can I just ask you about Indonesia?
Are you concerned about the lack of confirmed cases in Indonesia, despite the fact that they had direct flights from Wuhan in the early weeks of the outbreak?
Every single neighbouring country has confirmed multiple cases. It's our second most visited tourist destination and the World Health Organization did raise concerns about the lack of testing kits in the country. Should we be concerned about the potential exchange of the virus there?
I think we're watching that situation in Indonesia. Obviously, it is somewhat surprising that there are no cases, but I believe that they do have some testing capability now and we’ll be closing watching what happens in Indonesia.
Have you asked the States to prepare their own quarantine areas?
The states have been working through the AHPPC with Professor Murphy. So Brendan, do you want to talk about the process?
So some of the states- they've all got the capacity to isolate and quarantine people. At the moment, in most cases, they're formally isolating only the detected cases and they generally are using hospitals to do that.
But some of those people are now being isolated in their home. Certainly, Queensland has explored the potential of more formal quarantine facilities for people to isolate but generally, at the advice of AHPPC across the country, has been for people who have come back from China after 1 February - Australian citizens, permanent residents - that they should self-isolate in their home, and we're encouraging them to do that.
But the states are well prepared because where we've seen the individual cases come up, the 15, they've been able to immediately isolate them.
This has been not something that’s done just in response to the coronavirus, but it's been part of the national communicable disease network’s preparation.
And so there is an established process, and that swung into action the moment that Professor Murphy declared this to be a disease with pandemic potential.
Are you looking at resorts and hotels and that kind of thing?
I'll leave that respectfully for the individual states.
Just on the cruise ship that is in Japan, we've seen a rise in the number of confirmed cases on that cruise ship. Is that concerning? And are we going to see that number potentially rise? What's the situation there?
So, cruise ships are well known as a place where communicable diseases can be rapidly transmitted. We've all heard of norovirus on cruise ships.
It can, you know, pretty much affect half or more of the population. So at the moment, given the quarantining period, it's still likely that all of those cases were infected before the quarantine was instituted.
We don't yet have any information that any of the people who were quarantined by the Japanese health authorities have been infected after that quarantine period.
Now, obviously over the next week, we'll watch that. I have a lot of confidence in the Japanese public health authorities.
I think that’s perhaps why the experience on the cruise ship is, for those who are quarantined, is not the most exciting way to spend a holiday, but I think that they are very good at what they do.
And I'd be confident that they'll be practising high quality quarantine. It remains to be seen, though, what happens over the next weeks. But it's not surprising given that people are so close together in a large cruise ship that there was a lot of transmission before the quarantine period occurred.
Many of these people, as we've seen in other exported cases, are actually very mild. Some with hardly any symptoms, and the Japanese are testing a lot of people.
So I do want to finish there and thank everybody, and thank all of the states and territories who are carrying out ongoing testing and they provide the outcomes of those as they emerge.
(Inaudible) Can I ask about the.
Very briefly. Yeah.
(Inaudible) this Saturday.
If I was to book, or think about booking a flight for Sunday or Monday for example, I'd be doing that now, not on Friday or Saturday or whenever it might be that you announce your decision from then on. What's your advice to people in terms of making bookings and the expectation that this ban might lift this weekend?
Sure. So the first thing is, of course, with any travel advisory that DFAT gives, it remains in place until it changes and we're not indicating that that is about to change. And the Prime Minister has given guidance, the Chief Medical Officer has given guidance; I've given guidance.
And the existing DFAT advice is level four - which means do not travel to China at this stage and there are the other quarantine restrictions in place.
And so, that remains the case and we're not indicating that it's about to change. We're considering all of the other options, but just to finish - to say that the quarantine arrangements are working. We can never guarantee that there won't be additional cases.
That's why we have these arrangements, but today in particular, we are reaching out to and supporting Chinese-Australians and saying to people that the shopping centres, the restaurants, these circumstances are safe and we'd encourage you to go about your daily business.