Date published: 
1 July 2020
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

FRAN KELLY:

Victoria is taking dramatic steps to tackle the corona surge in Melbourne after the city had its 14th straight day of double digit growth in new cases. From midnight tonight, 36 Melbourne suburbs will go back into lockdown. A short time ago the Prime Minister was asked whether it would set back the national recovery.

[Excerpt]

PRIME MINISTER SCOTT MORRISON:

That is always a risk, but it's also important to keep it in perspective. We've got to keep our economy open because if we don't do that that will cost jobs. We've got to keep opening that economy. We deal with the outbreaks — you keep the testing, you keep the tracing, you keep the social distance, you download the COVIDSafe app, you do all of this, they're the protections against coronavirus and that's what we need to keep being diligent about.

[End of excerpt]

FRAN KELLY:

That's the Prime Minister speaking on Channel 9 just a short time ago. Well, Professor Paul Kelly is Australia's Acting Chief Medical Officer. Paul Kelly, welcome back to Breakfast.

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Good morning, Fran.

FRAN KELLY:

Paul, about 300,000 residents will be quarantined in Melbourne from the rest of the city. How confident are you that this will do the trick? And arrest that surge in infections?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Well look, I think it's a very appropriate and strong message that was put out by the Victorian authorities and led by the premier and Chief Health Officer, Brett Sutton, yesterday. It's a proportionate response to the situation in Melbourne. It's something we hoped wouldn't happen but we've always said that this is how we would handle this situation if it occurred. Very similar in some ways to the north west Tasmania issue that happened earlier on, but quite different of course in a urban environment. So, those measures have been put in place, very clearly they will be expanded if necessary and, importantly, they will be enforced.

FRAN KELLY:

Okay. And are you— do you presume or is it your hunch that other suburbs might also have to go into lockdown? Or do you think this will be enough?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Well as has happened since the beginning of this pandemic response in Australia, Fran, it's being led by the science. And so we've got the epidemiology in terms of where those cases are occurring. We've got that extraordinarily large testing regime going on, including door-to-door testing and mobile teams, and so forth. So we will know whether these cases are increasing or not. And we'll be very much on the lookout, that eternal vigilance issue that we need for this virus popping up in other suburbs. It's extremely infectious and so we just need to keep an eye on that.

FRAN KELLY:

It's a learning curve for the whole country. You say, we knew this would happen, we know how to respond. Well, we're learning how to respond. Tasmania first, this is an even more extreme response that we're seeing in Victoria. Is one of the lessons learned that Victoria didn't lock down quickly enough? There's been 233 new cases in Melbourne since last Thursday. Should this lockdown have happened before now?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY: 

Well look it happened yesterday, Fran, and I think rather than looking back let's look forward. So, we've got certainty now about what's required and that's being rolled out now. This is a national effort; it's always been a national effort. And so while Victoria has made those decisions we are very strongly supporting them from the federal level, and other states and territories are donating staff and expertise. We're continuing to meet daily in the AHHPC which I'm chairing now, so that will be our major discussion point for today as it has been over the last few days.

FRAN KELLY:

And, Paul Kelly, when we went for suppression not elimination, you know as you said, and as you said again today there will be outbreaks. But does this indicate we should have gone harder for elimination? Should we have sat the virus out before we reopened the economy? Is that what this is showing us?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Well, certainly reopening the economy and increasing movement of people around cities and mixing of people does increase the risk, that's true. But it's a balancing act, Fran. We can't, as I think the Prime Minister said, stay underneath the doona forever.

We do have to have an economy. Having mass unemployment is also bad for health. And so we needed to open up, it was a timing thing which is always difficult. As was reported yesterday by Brett Sutton and the Premier, we're pretty sure we know where most of these cases have come from, and that was a particular issue. And so they're looking at that, and again, a really strong learning lesson about how important infection control is when faced with this virus — and that's included in the quarantine hotels.

FRAN KELLY:

Yeah just on that, I mean, your predecessor in that job, Brendan Murphy, says hotel quarantine has been, quote: one of our most successful public health measures during this pandemic. Something's obviously gone very wrong in Victoria. Are we clear where the failure is? Was it a failure of leadership, in terms of departmental failure? Or a failure of individuals just not doing the right thing? Not following the protocols?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Look, firstly I'd totally agree with Brendan's comments on that. We've had over 60,000 people go into hotel quarantines across the nation since they were introduced, and these are Australians coming home so we need to welcome them in a way that it also creates safety for the rest of the population. So out of 60,000, we've had 2; in multiple hotels we've had these 2 breaches. There was also a similar but much less dramatic breach in Western Australia earlier on. There's a judicial review which will be looking at that, and I really look forward to seeing what they find. It's again a lesson that we absolutely have to learn.

FRAN KELLY:

You're listening to RN Breakfast, it's 18 to 8. Our guest is the Acting Chief Medical Officer for the Commonwealth, Paul Kelly. Important now is the testing, and the tracing, and the social distancing, as you say. The Victorian Premier, Dan Andrews, says: more than 900 people, in 2 suburbs, have refused to be tested in this recent testing blitz. Do we know why people are refusing a test? Do you understand that? Is it a failure to communicate the benefits of it? Is it some kind of personal belief? What is it?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Look, that's certainly something that we need to get on top of it. It's a complex thing. I was thinking about it myself last night; if someone turned up and knocked on my door and I hadn't heard that they were coming and offering me a test, how would I respond? I think I would say yes but, you know, it needs very careful explanation. We've done a lot of work with multicultural communities and it's a very multicultural part of Melbourne. So, you know, we've translated all of our stuff into 22 languages, there's 63 [indistinct].

FRAN KELLY:

[Interrupts] Sure. But still, 1,000 people nearly saying no, it's not good enough. It's not safe, is it?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Well, we'd like to see that improve. So, I guess the point I'm making is we've done a lot of work with multicultural communities, but we need to redouble those efforts. So, there's 500 staff from the Commonwealth that have been asked for, in Victoria, to assist with that community engagement as we go forward there.

FRAN KELLY:

Yes, but if people are saying no are we're going to come to a crunch time where testing should be mandatory?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Well, testing can be mandatory. All of the states and territory chief health officers have powers under the Public Health Act that can make testing and other mechanisms mandatory, but it's a last resort. I think explaining to people and getting cooperation is the first way and I know that the Victorian authorities are absolutely committed to that.

FRAN KELLY:

I'm sorry to keep hammering this; but, if nearly 1,000 people have said no so far, is it time the Victorian considered, you know, accessing those powers? And making it mandatory for people to take tests?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

I think 100,000 have said yes, Fran, so let's concentrate on the positives.

FRAN KELLY:

What about wearing masks? Is it time to mandate the wearing of face masks in the cluster suburbs?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Yeah, so masks is an interesting thing. It's come up again. I would reiterate our national view that masks are not necessary in most circumstances, but all the way through we have said there are exceptions to that. Masks are not 100 per cent effective, and there are other ways of avoiding the virus, but sometimes that can't be done.

One of the key areas where that advice may change, and we've always said that from the beginning, is that if the local epidemiology shows that there's a large outbreak, that it might be part of the solution. And so, I know the Victorian authorities are looking at that very carefully and we'll back them in on that as they as they develop that for those suburbs.

FRAN KELLY:

So, just some clarity around that. Obviously, we've got a large outbreak in these 10 postcode areas. Are you saying that the advice, where there's a large outbreak, is likely to come to wearing face masks in public?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

It could come to that, Fran, but I'll— I know that the Victorians are looking at that carefully and—

FRAN KELLY:

[Interrupts] Are you recommending it to them? You're the Chief Medical Officer, what do you think?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Well, it may be part of the solution. So, I think the clear things that were put forward today — and we've all heard these things before, but let's reiterate them — if you're sick stay at home, is the first absolutely important thing; the hygiene measures that we've talked about; and also hand washing and all of the rest, as well as social distancing. These are the important things and in those suburbs that's going to be enforced. So, stay at home orders are there for that reason. But if people are in that setting and cannot avoid large groups of people, masks may be part of the option — it's not the only solution.

FRAN KELLY:

Okay. Can I just go to borders before we leave you today? The New South Wales border with Victoria remains open. The Prime Minister has criticised states like South Australia and Queensland, which remain closed to Victorians. He says: you can't just shut Australia up every time there's an outbreak. But, given this alarming outbreak in Melbourne, can we afford to elevate the economy in this way? I know you spoke earlier we can't stay under the doona forever, but there are moments when the equation has to change, aren't there?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Yes. And I think the issue there, Fran, is we, you know, I know people uncertainty and that's very difficult to give in these circumstances. We'd need to be nimble and flexible in relation to how we respond to this virus now. And so things will change as time goes by and that's what's happening in that localised area. And if you can think about it, it's kind of like a border within northern parts of Melbourne. So, in terms of state borders, that's a matter for the states and Queensland has to make their own decisions for their own public and I respect that. Let's look at a glass half full — they opened the border to everywhere else yesterday, so that's, I'm sure, warming the hearts of many people who want to head north over the next few weeks.

FRAN KELLY:

You want warm bodies as well as warm hearts. Just one final question. Yesterday, here on the program, Mary Louise — Professor Mary Louise McClure — she's with you in SW, a member of the WHO's Health Emergency Experts Advisory Panel for COVID-19 — told us that Australia's response to the virus is relying too much on modelling and is playing the management of the virus against the economics of the pandemic. What's your response to that?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Well, modelling is important — we've used it all the way through. There was a good modelling paper published yesterday that showed how important and useful the app can be. In certain circumstances, for example, we used it to decide how we should get equipment for our intensive care and so forth early on. So, modelling is useful and has been from the beginning, and will remain so. It's not the only thing we're using to craft our response. This response in north— in Melbourne is not based on modelling. It's based on real data, real time data and good public health practice.

FRAN KELLY:

Paul Kelly, thank you very much for joining us on Breakfast. We appreciate your time.

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

You’re welcome, Fran.

FRAN KELLY:

Professor Paul Kelly is the Commonwealth Acting Chief Medical Officer.

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