Date published: 
2 November 2020
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

FRAN KELLY:

Australia's reached a significant milestone in the battle against COVID-19. For the first time since June, yesterday, the entire country recorded zero cases of locally acquired infections. That great result is in stark contrast to the overseas experience as we watch on with the UK joining France and Germany in nationwide lockdowns – well England anyway – and the United States setting a world record 100,000 new infections a day.

Despite the success here at home, the freshly re-elected Queensland Government is digging in and refusing to open the border to greater Sydney and to Victorians.

Paul Kelly is the Acting Chief Medical Officer. Paul Kelly, welcome back to Breakfast.

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Morning, Fran.

FRAN KELLY:

The entire country's gone 24 hours without a single case of community transmission. Have we beaten COVID-19?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Oh look, we haven't beaten it yet, Fran. I must admit the national doughnut, as you called it, made me do a very celebratory jig yesterday, but it was just a short run thing and we need to absolutely keep our eye on the ball. As you said, there is a global pandemic going on and those disturbing numbers from many of our friends overseas gives us food for thought.

FRAN KELLY:

Yeah, well, we're talking to Norman Swan – I was talking to Norman earlier about wondering if the biggest risk from this point is complacency, because, you know, a lot of jurisdictions have gone for weeks and weeks now without any locally acquired cases – I visit a couple of them – and you know, in those part, it just feels like life's back to the old way of normal.

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Yes, that is one of our major risks going forwards, Fran. We need to remember that this virus hasn't gone away. So you mentioned zero community transmission cases yesterday, but there was and continues to be an increase in cases coming into our quarantine hotels, and partly that's due to the airlifts into Howard Springs. But four jurisdictions have had increasing numbers of cases coming from overseas, from whether that's crew on freight carriers – particularly in WA, or people arriving from overseas into hotel quarantine.

So that's all very safe, and the Jane Halton review showed that the quarantine standards are excellent, but it's still a risk. So we still need to remember to get tested if you’re sick wherever you are in the country.

FRAN KELLY:

Are you worried – we’re talking about complacency – are you worried about testing rates, particularly in some parts of the country, that people just are out of the habit now of getting tested if they've got a sniffle or a cold, they just think, you know, if you're living in Adelaide, you just think: oh well, it's cold.

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Yeah. But we're moving into a new phase there, Fran, I think. So late last week, let’s keep the weekend aside for a moment because that always, since the beginning has been a lower, lower rate. But on Thursday last week we had over 50,000 tests around the country, 75 per cent of those were in New South Wales and Victoria and that's not surprising – that's where the cases have been over recent times. So we're moving to a more kind of targeted approach in many states and that's very appropriate at this time.

So we use the wastewater testing to see where, where there may be cases that’s led to a really strong response in the community. We saw that in Shepparton when those cases were found; we saw that in parts of Queensland …

FRAN KELLY:

[Talks over] Right.

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

… where the wastewater’s gone positive. [Indistinct].

FRAN KELLY:

[Interrupts] Right. So are you saying, Paul, are you saying, Paul, that if you are in one of those states or territories that hasn't had the virus for a long time, might be Canberra, might be Adelaide, might be Darwin, then if you've got a cold you shouldn't go get a test?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

No, definitely if you've got symptoms that could be COVID I’d absolutely be encouraging everyone to firstly isolate and then to get tested as soon as possible.

FRAN KELLY:

Okay. The battle might not be over – epidemiologists warn the virus is still out there. But Victoria's Chief Health Officer, Brett Sutton, revealed yesterday the Irish Government has come asking for advice. Are we the envy of the world?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Well, I'd say there are –  between ourselves and New Zealand and some of the other countries in our region, we've done extremely well, and one of those reasons is because of our very good contact tracing – test, trace and isolate policies. Now, there’s been a lot of talk about how that was, was in Melbourne a few months ago, but I can say that Victoria has made enormous strides in the last few weeks and months. And the Chief Scientist, Professor Alan Finkel, has been travelling around the country the last couple of weeks with a small team really comparing all of those test and trace and isolate policies, as well as the public health response capability in each of the states, and there'll be a report coming to National Cabinet Friday week.

FRAN KELLY:

Yeah. Well that the horse has bolted I think for a country like America where they've got almost 100,000 new cases a day in the recent days, France is back in lockdown. On Friday, Germany locks down, Britain locks down. It was only back in August that Victoria peaked at 725 new cases a day. It's done such a good job. It's now gone four days of zero cases in the past week. Is it now fair to look back and say that Victoria was right to pursue the hard lockdown down for as long as it did?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Well certainly, you know, we've – I talked on your program before, Fran, about having discussions late one nights with Professor Sutton and Professor Allen Cheng, myself, and Brendan Murphy, and really, really nutted out what was happening at that time when things were peaking. And it was – you know, it was a scary prospect what might happen, and we looked at the modelling and where it might go without those drastic measures, and we supported them in their view that that was what needed to happen.

The length of the lockdown, really, that's, that's a case for the Victorian Government and they’ll need to justify and explain that to, to their public. We're – they’re in a very good state now and, you know, we've been saying for some time now that it would be, would be good to start opening up. They have started opening up because that's, that's what's going to test their contact tracing abilities. And then we certainly look forward to welcoming Melburnians to the rest of the country.

FRAN KELLY:

You’re listening to RN Breakfast, our guest is the Acting Chief Medical Officer, Paul Kelly.

Well yes, the Prime Minister wants everyone welcomed everywhere before Christmas, all the internal borders open by Christmas. For your job, which is looking at the medical evidence, can you see any reason why they should still be closed or some should still be closed, particularly say, the Queensland border with Greater Sydney?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Well, I think we could say that in the last few weeks almost all of the states that have had border closures, and that’s been their decision to do that, have shown signs of opening up. So, the NT’s now going to be open to everywhere except Melbourne; Tasmania’s now open to everywhere except New South Wales and Victoria; WA and Queensland have made announcements in recent days as well. So, we’re certainly heading towards that goal. I’m very, very hopeful that it will be reached, and certainly, as you say, the Prime Minister’s very keen for that to happen, and I’m sure all Australians are if it can be done safely. But those border measures, internal border measures are really the decisions for the state.

FRAN KELLY:

Do we though now need a definition, a national definition of a hotspot? Because this virus will come and go, we know that. Queensland’s definition of a COVID hotspot is no community transmission for 28 days. Given the success we’ve seen both New South Wales and Victoria have had in recent days in testing and tracing and suppressing the virus, is that benchmark too tough? Where would you like it to be reconsidered to?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Well, we've got our Commonwealth definition of the hotspots, and I'll stand by that one. I think the reality is that –

FRAN KELLY: [Interrupts] Can you remind us what that is?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

So, that's rolling averages of 10 or more cases per day in an urban area, three or more cases per day in a rural or remote area. And we've found that that's been helpful in deciding how Commonwealth Government assistances can be made to places which we see having a hotspot – for example, in aged care and so forth. So, that’s stood the test of time from my point of view. We've been using that also to look at the level of risk in terms of the one-way travel bubble with New Zealand, and again, that's worked well.

Look, yeah it would be good to have agreement on that, but at the moment that's what we're using, and it really comes down to risk appetite for the states as to how they want to go with their own hotspot definitions and I'll leave that to my colleagues in the states.

FRAN KELLY:

Okay. Australia’s obviously been helped with our tough border closures, our external borders, our international borders, but there is pressure on for those to get open to in some kind of managed way. We've got the New Zealand bubble. Do you see more of those one on one bubbles being created in the short term? Do you think, you know, international travel, more international bubbles will be something we'll see even before we get a vaccine?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Yeah. Fran, we've been asked to look at that, particularly for the very few countries in the world that are doing close to as well as Australia, or even better than Australia in terms of some of the small Pacific island nations, for example.

FRAN KELLY:

So, what sort of countries were you thinking?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

So, we’re – yeah, so we're doing that risk stratification work, the National Cabinet has asked us to do that, and so we're looking closely at those. But we've got to be cautious about any of those sort of decisions in terms  or advice to government about decisions around borders. As I say, there's a global pandemic raging in most parts of the world right now. And so, New Zealand is a special case –  we have a very close relationship with New Zealand, of course. And it's a great ability for me to pick up the phone and talk to my colleague in New Zealand to find out what's happening, as well as being very, very confident of their own public health system and their ability to test and trace and isolate, et cetera. So, New Zealand is one thing –

FRAN KELLY:

[Interrupts] What sort of countries might you think- what sort of countries- can you give us the name of a few countries you might recommend?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Well, there's no surprises there, Fran. If you look at the global figures that countries like Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and others around our areas, but particularly in the Pacific island nations, have way less numbers of cases and are quite stable in relation to the pandemic at the moment –  but things can change very quickly. So we'll be looking at some of those countries that have done well. But there’s no decisions to be made yet, and of course, the decisions will be with the national government to make. We'll just be giving our views about the risk as it relates to the health systems in those countries, as well as their numbers of cases.

FRAN KELLY:

And just finally and briefly, given how well Victoria has done in recent times, should we be wearing masks? It's still mandatory there.

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

So yeah, so masks are, you know, we've been very clear from our expert panel that are – the infection control expert group, their advice, particularly for health care settings and aged care settings and the like, but in the community for people to be – to consider wearing masks where they cannot physically isolate safely, where there is community transmission. And as we've said, zero community transmission at least for one day …

FRAN KELLY:

[Talks over] Right.

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

… anywhere in the country. So, I think masks have their place. It's only mandatory in Victoria because of the difficulties that have happened there in recent months.

FRAN KELLY:

Okay. Paul Kelly, thank you very much for joining us again on Breakfast.

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

You're welcome, Fran.

FRAN KELLY:

Paul Kelly is the Commonwealth's Acting Chief Medical Officer.

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