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Press conference in Melbourne about Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Read the transcript of a press conference with Minister Hunt and Alison McMillan in Melbourne about Coronavirus (COVID-19)

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

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Thank-you everybody and welcome here today, I’m joined by Professor Alison McMillan, The Chief Nursing and Midwifery Officer for the Commonwealth of Australia, and Alison has been embedded with the Victorian Health Department, assisting with infection control protocols, overseeing some of the activities and supporting their work.

Today I particularly want to thank our Australian community and our Victorian community.

This has been the most difficult of times, but they are rising magnificently.

I've seen, on my way to and from my office, a universal adoption of masks.

The way in which people are responding and supporting each other.

They’re keeping their physical distance, but you can tell that they’re looking out for each other.

There is a distinctly Australian and human moment.

And this is our moment.

In decades to come, people will look back on this time, and I think there will rightly be a justifiable pride in the way that Australians have conducted themselves.

So for Victoria, for Melbourne in particular, as we embark upon this new phase of the steps to protect ourselves and to protect our fellow Australians, the mandatory requirement of masks is confronting. It’s difficult.

But Australians and Melburnians are responding magnificently. And again, I want to thank them.

In Alison's presence, I want to say thank you to our extraordinary health and medical workers, whether it’s our nurse, our doctors, our aged care workers.

I said in March that over the coming months these would be our national heroes, and so it has been.

That is what they have done. They have put themselves on the front line, often at great risk.

I want to set out a number of facts today and then actions that the Commonwealth is taking with regards to ADF support, workforce and aged care support.

In particular, with regards to the facts, we now have, across Australia, 13,305 cases as reported to me shortly before joining you by the National Incident Centre. Very sadly, 133 Australians have now lost their lives to COVID-19.

This is in the context of a world that has now passed 15 million cases, and tragically, 620,000 lives lost, and almost certainly those numbers are far greater when the unreported cases are taken into account.

Against that, in New South Wales, what we’re seeing is a stable condition.

They are engaged in a massive contact tracing program and doing it magnificently.

I want to thank all of those involved. It is a situation which is being watched very carefully, but the numbers remain stable and the sources are overwhelmingly being found.

In Victoria, the task is greater again. And to put it in context, with over 400 cases, the contact tracing daily task is between 20 and 30 times greater than New South Wales.

That means it is a massive, herculean task.

The latest advice that I have from the National Incident Centre is that in the previous 24 hours, all Victorian cases did have initial contact tracing.

That’s a really significant national step. It's important for the country. It's important for Victoria.  It’s important for Melburnians.

And so, the country is coming together to support Victoria in this task.

As part of that, we know that testing is reaching record levels, 65,000 cases tested in the last 24 hours, over 3.7 million cases all up, and Victorians and Australians are putting themselves forward.

But there is more to be done.

And so as I look at that, I can give you an update in relation to the Australian Defence Force.

There are now approximately 1470 ADF personnel in Victoria, and their work includes testing, checkpoint control, isolation, compliance, logistics, data, but in particular, helping with that great task that Victoria faces of supporting the contact tracing, of ensuring that each case every day is followed because that is one of our frontline national defences against coronavirus.

Borders, testing, tracing and distancing – those are the four pillars of our containment process.

In addition to that, let me say this – If more ADF personnel are required, the Prime Minister has said to the Premier, more will be provided.

If more are required, more ADF personnel will be provided.

And so that’s a standing national offer made by the Prime Minister to the Premier of Victoria.

We are literally all in this together because our national success depends on Victoria's success.

In relation to aged care, the latest advice that I have is that with regards to residential services in Victoria, there are 21 services where residents have been infected.

All up, 213 residents have had infections. There are 38 staff only services.

With regards to homecare, there are eight services where clients have been infected and a further four where it is staff only.

Significantly, we are taking steps in those particular areas where there are special needs. I know in particular that Alison has been at St. Basil’s in the last 24 hours and the Commonwealth has moved in to support and assist.

We know that the challenge was great, and our task has been to maintain those standards.

It is a difficult task given the gravity of the situation, but the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commissioner Janet Anderson did not hesitate to take the steps immediately as required.

I also want to say this with regards to aged care and our actions, we have made 400 staff available for workforce surge, very important.

Wards have been opened within hospitals to ensure that there is the capacity to receive patients that test positive.

Masks have been made available – 5 million masks for aged care facilities within Victoria.

And we’ve stood up five mobile testing teams to test staff around the institutions, and if any institution has a positive staff member, all resident- then all staff and all residents will be given tests on an immediate basis.

Finally, I have spoken just prior to coming to this conference, with the state and territory ministers, on a national hook up.

We’ve obviously discussed the national situation, the New South Wales and Victoria situations.

In particular, Victoria is well placed with its staffing and hospital requirements.

I think it's important to provide that reassurance from the Commonwealth level that the time that we have had has allowed the country and individual states and territories to prepare.

So Victoria is well-placed in its ICU capability, in its ventilator capability, but in particular, what we have said is we have asked all states and territories to have a contingency reserve if it is needed, to assist with workforce in Victoria.

That is a very important thing, and that sense of national unity is strong.

The sense of a single country, a single Australian community amongst the states and territories is very real.

And so as I sat at the outset, this is our moment.

This is the time when we come together, and Australians are doing that.

Today, in Melbourne, is a difficult day.

But it is also a day where we are seeing the strength of our community, the resilience of the community and that commitment.

I invite Alison to say a few words, and then we will take questions.


Thank you, Minister. One of the things I have just done is one of the things that we need to emphasise to everyone.

Before I removed my mask, I hygiene my hands. It is really important that you take it off carefully and don't touch the front. I'm going to put it down carefully so I can put it back on.

Thank you Minister, and I take this opportunity to reflect on the tremendous work that all of the health professionals are doing out there, whether it is in contact tracing, testing, in an intensive care, or caring for those most vulnerable in their homes or aged care facilities.

This is a challenging and difficult job for them all and it is difficult often to be working, not only with masks, but with gowns and all of the PPE that comes with that.

This is what we train to do to some extent and I ask everyone if there is a healthcare worker who is in your family, just give them a bit of a call and congratulate them on the amazing work they’re doing.

As the Minister said, I went out to the aged care facility, St Basil’s yesterday morning, it is part of our role in the Commonwealth to support facilities that might need our help.

I sought and saw the amazing work that those staff have been doing under very difficult circumstances.

That they see those residents as their family and the family they work with.

They have worked tirelessly to hand over to a new team of staff so that they could go home and commence their isolation as they are required to do so.

Our aged care system is a terrific system and it has amazing people working in it.

But we need to remind all of our colleagues in aged care and healthcare, if you have any symptoms at all, however minor, you must stay at home and you must not go and work anywhere else, or anyway.

Until you have been tested and cleared.

Please do that to protect not only yourself, your family, but all of the people you work with and those you care for because this is how we will prevent the spread across other important aged and healthcare systems. Thank you, Minister.


We may as well- we’re going to have to manage some questions. Now, I will take questions, I think, from Tony in the room and then go to those on the phone.


The border restrictions led to 80 interstate staff at Wangaratta hospital not turning up to work at the hospital because they are to isolate for 14 days, should the rules be changed to help deal with this?


I understand Victoria and New South Wales are working through that. If they need additional assistance, will be very happy to step in and support them.


And there are clusters growing amongst Victoria aged care facilities, in particular, St Basils in Fawkner. How is this being addressed?


So the action in relation to St Basil’s is that the Commonwealth has stepped in.

The aged care quality and safety Commissioner has acted swiftly and decisively.

Janet Anderson who is the Commissioner is empowered to make rapid and immediate decisions to take interest in the best concern for residents, or to take action in the best concern for residents and she has done that.

Additional staff are being brought in. We are making sure that any residents that should be in hospital are immediately transported to hospital and so we are developing surge workforce.

There is also a process of reaching out to the families. It is a very stressful time for these families, and they rightly want to seek information. We have stepped in.

Happy to hear from, I think Steph, first.


Hi Minister. Can you please give us some more details on the contingency reserve that was discussed with the states? What are states being asked put aside, is it strictly workers or is it resources as well?


So each of the states and territories is very well-equipped, both in terms of workforce and resources.

With regards to testing, with regards to ventilation, ICU, Victoria is in a very, very strong position.

What we're doing is three steps down the track, were there to be a worst-case scenario, as we did with our hospital preparations around the country.

We're just preparing on workforce and so the states and territories will consider and advise as to what they have available.

So, it's always about making sure that we are planning three steps down at the track and looking at the best case and the worst case and planning for the most difficult of circumstances.

Okay, Amelia.


Hi Minister, we were wondering, COVID test results are being delivered, in all different methods, text messages, emails, phone calls.

We were wondering should there be a blanket method across the country to reduce confusion as to where people get their results, especially because we are hearing some people are getting their results by a phone call and they don't have any evidence to show their employer that they are COVID negative.

Do you think- that’s the other question is; that the other question, should everyone be getting some kind of official document so that they can show their employer if need be?


Sure look, I will leave that question of any official documentation to the medical expert panel.

I think that is an appropriate place for that to be addressed.

More generally, our focus is to make sure that there is a timely turnaround of tests.

I know that the Commonwealth is today meeting with and talking with both public and private providers of tests to ensure that the turnaround is rapid, that as many shifts as possible are being deployed, and that all of the available equipment is being deployed.

So we have stepped in to ensure that where there may have been some delays or inconsistencies at state level, that there is both speed and certainty of advice being provided.

I think that is our role and our task, and I have asked for that to happen, and I know that is happening today.



Hi, Minister. There’s been some conflicting reports coming out of Victoria about the advice people have been getting in terms of isolating after they’ve been tested.

Some people are saying that they were told once they were tested, that they didn't have to isolate while they were waiting for their results if they were showing any symptoms.

What’s the advice from a national level on that? And are you confident that everyone in Victoria who has been tested is receiving the right information?


The official Victorian advice – and this is consistent with national – is that if you have been tested, you should be isolating.

If you have symptoms, you should be isolating.

And if you have been in close contact with somebody who has tested positive, you should be isolating.

Those are the three very simple and clear positions. I understand that there may have been, in some Victorian instances, some advice which related to earlier asymptomatic testing.

My advice is that they have now updated that information for the public.

So a fair question, but to Victoria's credit, they have now taken the steps to update them.

But to be very, very clear - and I’ll just speak to the public for a second here – if you do have symptoms, you have been in contact, or you have been tested, you do need to isolate.


Sorry, just quickly as a follow-up on that: are you confident now that everyone in Victoria is receiving the right advice?


The advice that I have, again from the National Incident Centre just prior to joining you, is that, that is now being widely and consistently reaffirmed across Victoria.

Of course, I can't speak for the actions of every state health official.

I can say that they are very, very ceased of it, and they’ve had our constructive input on that to help assist with the consistency of messaging.



Thanks, Minister. Today, obviously the Budget Outlook was based on a lot of health-related assumptions.

Was the Health Department consulted on those, and is it your opinion that, or are you being recommended that, it is likely international borders will be open from 1 January which was one of the key assumptions that today's estimates were based on?


Look, firstly, we have been consulted as we have been preparing the budget work.

I have a role on the ERC, both with my Health hat and more generally in my Cabinet role.

But both myself and the Department are engaged in these processes.

Secondly, that remains an assumption for budget purposes.

The health advice is one which will be constantly reviewed.

But that’s the national presumption at this point in time. And as ever, everything remains under review.

Alright, Dana.


Thanks, Minister. Just a follow-up to Tam’s question around the confusion on self-isolation.

We are being told that people are being advised by (inaudible) that they don't need to self-isolate as long as they haven't been in contact with anyone who is a confirmed case or has been overseas; which is as I understand is old advice.

Has that been brought to your attention and does there need to be more of an effort to make sure that the GPs doing this testing know what the new rules are?


Look, we will provide additional information to the AMA and the College of GPs, and the College of Rural and Remote Medicine today.

Thank you for bringing that to my attention. And so we’ll make sure that this afternoon, that the national advice and Victorian advice are reaffirmed.

The advice is very clear: if you have symptoms, if you have been tested, or if you have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive, you do need to isolate.

I know it is difficult and I know it is challenging, but overwhelmingly, people are doing an extraordinary job.

But given that there may be some examples such as that of individuals who might be putting out older advice, then we will again reaffirm and update that with all three bodies this afternoon.

And then Kate, I think Kate you may have questions for a few organisations.


Oh, hi. Thank you, Minister. My question is actually for Professor McMillan, just in relation to your visit to your visit to St Basil’s.

We have reports from the union that there has been massive problems with PPE, that staff has recently, as the weekend were not wearing gloves or masks.

Did you hear stories along those lines while you are out there?


No, I certainly didn’t. I met with the leader- the nursing leadership team yesterday morning who were all wearing full PPE and who had provided me with a very clear understanding of all of the efforts they have put in to ensure that they weren’t spreading this outbreak.

The PPEs provided by the Commonwealth to aged care facilities, and there were certainly- when I arrived there yesterday morning, everyone was wearing appropriate PPE and they were doing it as per the requirements.

And I was confident that I could see that was happening, and there was ample PPE within the foyer of the facility and really good supervision about how to use it and when to put it on and remove it.

So, I saw only excellent standards in that facility, and many staff who were very sad and disappointed at what had happened in the facility and they were required then to go and isolate for 14 days.


Do you mind if I could ask if you could mention the asymptomatic staff who’ve tested positive? It is an interesting example.


It is. It is our understanding that the staff meant- that staff members had been tested positive, but were telling their friends and their team that they were not having any symptoms whatsoever, even however mild, which is an unusual situation and very concerning for them all.

So, they were keeping in touch with each other, which was really encouraging because it’s, as I say, very difficult for them at this point having to leave that facility and go home.

But many of them who had tested positive at that time yesterday morning were saying that they had no symptoms whatsoever.


They weren’t at work when they were- after they were positive, though?


No. Anyone who was positive had been- was at home, but because all of the staff were considered close contacts, we had to completely change and replace the entire nursing and support staff in that facility with new staff, which is a significant undertaking when there's more than 100 residents in that facility.

And so, there were large numbers of staff there getting handover. But no, none of the positives, but the close contacts all had to isolate from the point when handover occurred.


Just quickly, (inaudible) your midwifery role, (inaudible) saying that after a woman gives birth, her partner can only (inaudible) short time, and then can only visit two hours a day.

I understand it’s a difficult time in terms of preventing the spread of the virus, but that must be terribly difficult for these families.


It is terribly difficult, and I think we never make these decisions lightly.

But primarily, we have to think of the safety of mother and baby, and the other mothers and babies and staff within that facility.

So, we're trying to balance that very carefully through the- giving an opportunity for the partner to come and visit, but minimising that time and contact so as to mitigate the risk of any spread in the facilities.

We really do appreciate this is a difficult time, but we all have to play our part to prevent the spread.

And as soon as of course mum and bub go home, then of course they can be a part of that family unit.


All right. Well thank you everybody. I'll just finish by saying this, that yes, this is a significant and unprecedented day in Victoria, but Victorians have responded in a significant and unprecedentedly positive way.

The near-universal adoption of masks in compliance with the law, but much more importantly in compliance with the spirit.

That's a sense of the commitment, the community, the way in which people are supporting each other.

So, I want to finish where I started by thanking Victorians, by thanking Melburnians, but also by thanking our health workers and Australians more generally.

And believing this, that it is absolutely clear: whilst this is a challenge, we will get through this. Thank you very much.

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