Date published: 
21 July 2020
Media event date: 
20 July 2020
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

FRAN KELLY:

Well the outbreak in the southeast of the country goes on despite those strict lockdown measures in Melbourne that have been in place for almost two weeks now. Over the weekend, Victoria recorded its second highest daily infection toll, and there are fears of a growing cluster in New South Wales. From Thursday, mask wearing will be mandatory across Melbourne and the adjacent Mitchell Shire in a bid to curb community transmissions. While Sydneysiders are urged to avoid public transport and social gatherings, and even tighter restrictions have been imposed on border crossings with Victoria.

Professor Paul Kelly is the Commonwealth's acting Chief Medical Officer. Paul Kelly, welcome back to Breakfast.

PAUL KELLY:

Morning Fran.

FRAN KELLY:

Another 363 new cases in Victoria yesterday; 18 in New South Wales, which is the highest number in New South Wales since April, I think. Many of these are community transmissions. Are you concerned things are running out of control in New South Wales now and joining Victoria?

PAUL KELLY:

Well certainly any community transmission and particularly, any chain of transmission is a concern. And so we're working very closely, together with our New South Wales colleagues, on that emerging situation in south-west Sydney and Batemans Bay and a couple of other places. But our focus is really at the moment on Melbourne and Mitchell Shire, where, as you say, for the last couple of weeks at least, there's been large numbers of cases every day. So, don't take one day at a time but look at those trends and just see what they're doing, including those extra measures you've mentioned over the weekend to get that under control.

FRAN KELLY:

Well the trend's not actually improving yet in Melbourne, is it, despite the lockdown for almost two weeks now. And when would you expect to see the case load down to single figures or even zero? Can we predict that in any meaningful way?

PAUL KELLY:

I think that's going to take quite some time, Fran, but I think…

FRAN KELLY:

[Interrupts] Weeks or months or…?

PAUL KELLY:

Well certainly at least weeks. We know that with this virus, we've learnt over time that because of the nature of the virus - this is the biology of it, we can't change that - that the time between introducing a measure and seeing its effect is at least two weeks and sometimes longer than that. So, I'm very hopeful that things will come under control, and some of the modelling we've had demonstrates that those measures around decreased mobility, people mixing less, people taking those physical distancing measures and advice seriously in Melbourne, shows a positive sign. So, that will help. We are continuing to add more and more resources from the Federal Government and other states in relation to contact tracing and so forth. That continues. We have now our military presence in Victoria, assisting the authorities there in all sorts of ways, including in that contact tracing effort.

So, these things will have an effect. Patience is required. But for the people of Melbourne, please take care and also really listen to that advice that's being given by the authorities down there.

FRAN KELLY:

I'll come back to that, the taking care for the people of Melbourne because the advice is coming from Sydneysiders too now. But before we get to that, can I ask you about masks? Mask wearing in public and at work in Victoria will now be enforced by police. Masks have not been recommended yet by the Australian Health Protection Committee [sic], the committee that you get your advice from to government. Will your official advice now change given the severity of the Melbourne outbreak, and do you accept that masks are necessary to stop aerosol spread?

PAUL KELLY:

Well Fran, from the beginning, the Australian Health Protection Committee has advised that masks have a use in certain places and in certain situations. What-

FRAN KELLY:

[Interrupts] But sometimes we got told that masks could be counterproductive and they could be more dangerous than safe.

PAUL KELLY:

Well, if not used properly, they can be counterproductive. But can I say, from the beginning, mask use in places of high risk to decrease that transmission and to protect people that are in those high-risk situations has been absolutely part of our advice. We've got a very different situation in Melbourne now, where we have community transmission which is continuing to grow, and this is another step that has been put into place in that context. So, the mandating of masks, that is a big step. The Victorian Premier announced that yesterday for those areas. And that's part of a suite of issues that they've put in place, including lockdowns, including the increase in testing, huge numbers of testing being done, the absolutely rigorous contact tracing and isolation of cases, and the movement restrictions of people both from their house and also not being able to leave Melbourne except particular circumstances. So, this is all part of that suite of issues.

FRAN KELLY:

Sure. But just on masks, I've had a number of people write in saying: well, the advice on masks has been confusing. Norman Swan told us earlier that the health advice on masks have been found wanting. We've got the Victorian Chief Health Officer now, Brett Sutton saying that mouth and nose coverings could reduce transmission rates by two-thirds and is citing international evidence that masks have some success in suppressing the virus. Does that accord with your advice and do you regret that you haven't advised mask wearing sooner, more broadly in the community?

PAUL KELLY:

No regrets, Fran. But we continue to get our advice from our experts and to really look closely at the international and the Australian evidence on this. So, I've asked our infection control…

FRAN KELLY:

[Interrupts] And is it changing, that advice?

PAUL KELLY:

So, I've asked our infection control experts yesterday to have an absolutely close look again. But at the moment, the advice is, as it has been, that masks are a part of a suite of issues that we can do to deal with this virus. And in certain circumstances, they may need to be used. And those circumstances are now what is currently the situation in Melbourne.

FRAN KELLY:

All right. But I'm asking you now for everyone listening. Victorians have their direction, but for the rest of the country if people want to know in- perhaps in Sydney where there is some community transmission - it's still low but it's out there. Should people, to be on the safe side, wear a mask when they go to the supermarket for instance? What would your advice be?

PAUL KELLY:

So, the advice that we've given and the New South Wales Health officials have also given is that people should consider wearing a mask in those places where that community transmission has been found as an abundance of caution, as Norman called for earlier. So those are certain areas of south-west Sydney. People should go to the website on New South Wales Health to check those postcodes, but that place in particular, they should consider using it. The Victorians have gone further, and that's their prerogative and it's a different situation down there with- you can see from the huge numbers of cases that is continuing to be diagnosed.

FRAN KELLY:

You're listening to RN Breakfast. Paul Kelly, Professor Paul Kelly is the Acting Chief Medical Officer for the Commonwealth. In Victoria, we know now that 80 per cent of transmissions right now are occurring in the workplace. Does that tell you employers aren't taking the issue seriously?

PAUL KELLY:

So, this is emerging evidence, Fran. And as we've said from the beginning, this is a new virus and we look very closely and learn enormously from outbreaks. And so yes, you're quite right, there are areas of concern in terms of workplaces and we're starting to get a better handle on what they are. They're places where people cannot easily physically distance. There's places where, for various reasons, there are a large number of cases that have that have come up and the contacts are also increasing. So, we know about health care settings, we know about aged care for those particularly high-risk places. But we've also now seen, as has happened in the rest of the world, meat processing plants for example, distribution centres and others where there is large numbers of workplace mixing. And when their community outbreaks are happening, the chances therefore of people coming in contact are higher. So that is definitely a learning we are getting, and specific advice is being given to those particular workplaces, some of which are very essential for us to, you know, we have to keep them open.

FRAN KELLY:

Well, some are essential but has that definition of what's an essential worker been too broad right now? I mean, you talk about the meat works, it seems as though it's very difficult to stop the spread of the virus in a workplace like that. Should they be, or most of them be shut down for a while in Victoria, in Melbourne?

PAUL KELLY:

Well, certainly when there is a case, and there is contact tracing exercises going on, there have been closures.

FRAN KELLY:

[Interrupts] No, but in advance, I mean.

PAUL KELLY:

Well, we need to consider what is the risk and what is proportionate to that. We do need to eat, Fran. So if people don't have food, that would also be a problem. So at the moment, we are absolutely committed to making sure that we do have supplies in Victoria in particular, but right throughout the country of all of essential items. And there's no issues there at the moment and we need to be absolutely careful about those sort of things.

FRAN KELLY:

Paul Kelly, how worried are you about the situation in Sydney where community transmission is there? There's been cases which contact tracers have found no known links to any of the current clusters. One of the acting chief medical officers suggested a day or two ago that people in Sydney aren't social distancing enough. Are you concerned that in a city like Sydney, which is not in lockdown, that we've forgotten the rules about social distancing?

PAUL KELLY:

Well, I would really appeal to anyone throughout the country I would say, Fran, not just in Sydney, but to really consider what has happened in Melbourne and that we need to be absolutely vigilant about that issue everywhere. This virus has not gone away. We see now we're well over 15 million cases around the world and it's continuing to spread very quickly throughout the world. So, this virus is not going away. We need to consider those messages about physical distancing, about hand hygiene, all of those things. I'm sure people will be sensible.

FRAN KELLY:

I mean, I think everyone understands the- has got the hand washing thing now. But I think generally in a lot of places where there's not much virus or no virus, people feels like life's back to normal. And some of the advice is a bit vague. In New South Wales for instance, the rule is you can have 20 people in your home, but the Premier says that really, you shouldn't have more than 10. The Premier also has advised against non-essential outings, but they're not banned. I mean, can you forgive people for not following strict social distancing rules when the guidelines aren't strict? Do we need to be clearer in reinforcing these messages?

PAUL KELLY:

The guidelines are guidelines, and I hope people will take care in relation to the guidelines. In terms of enforcement and so forth that has happened in Victoria, that is in response to a very different situation than what is currently in New South Wales. But we've seen over the last week an increasing number of restrictions and increasing strength of those- of that guidance, and also indeed changes in - as you've referred to - in terms of gatherings and restrictions in pubs particularly. So that will need to be proportionate and they will go further if that is required.

FRAN KELLY:

I'm sorry to have a laundry list of things to ask you, but it's a lot of questions coming in. A lot of questions about schools too. I mean, it's obvious that Victoria's schools are part of lockdown, except if you're doing the HSC, and that's obvious why you'd want to keep the students- the most senior students at school. But there is this evidence now from a very, very large survey in South Korea, a study in South Korea, which shows that students, particularly high school students- senior students, can spread the virus as much as adults spread. Does this evidence change your thinking on the federal government advice, which was really never needing to close schools down?

PAUL KELLY:

The advice has never been never. I would counter that, Fran. There are certain circumstances, and it's been in our COVID-19 plan from the beginning that we published in January...

FRAN KELLY:

Isn't the evidence that schools are safe generally?

PAUL KELLY:

Yes, and generally they are.

FRAN KELLY:

I mean, isn't that the advice?

PAUL KELLY:

School closure can be part of the plan when community transmission is high. And so, the advice in Victoria is exactly the same as that plan. And that is about not so much safety of kids at school, but for decreasing mobility around the city, and therefore decrease [indistinct] movement restriction approach to decreasing, mixing, et cetera which we know is an effective threat.

FRAN KELLY:

Sure, but this South Korea report is something different. It says kids, the students themselves, can be the ones spreading it at school.

PAUL KELLY:

Yes. So senior students, and we've known that for some time. It's- the younger kids are not as much of a problem. But senior students really are adults, and so we know as we age, that spread is easier. And let's look at what has happened in south-west Sydney and in most parts of Melbourne, the majority of the cases are people between sort of late teens to just into their 30s. So, it's relatively younger people transmitting it. It's relatively older people that are seeing more severe illness. But I'd just like to say about this, Fran, people should not just think this is an old person's disease. We've seen that in terms of mortality, absolutely. But this can be a very severe disease leading to people being in hospital, being in intensive care, being on ventilators for weeks or even months, and for long term damage to the lungs and other parts of the body. So, this is not a trivial illness. People need to consider what they're doing and to assist. And we are all in this together. I know we've said that a lot before, but it's true. The more that there is transmission, the higher numbers we're going to see in hospital. and unfortunately in deaths. So, this is a call out to all of us to really consider what we can do to assist in this at this time.

FRAN KELLY:

And Paul Kelly, just one final question. Acting on your advice, the Prime Minister has cancelled the next sitting of Parliament. Again, a lot of people writing in about this, saying, well, if they're- we're talking central businesses, surely the seat of our democracy is an essential business - why isn't there a way to make a physical sitting of Parliament safe? If you're social distancing in the Parliament, if people are maintaining distance in their offices, if we reduce the number of people perhaps in the building at any one time, why can't it be made safe?

PAUL KELLY:

And that's what we've been following since the beginning of this pandemic. You'll recall, Fran, that Parliament was- the sittings were delayed early on for the reason that many states and territories had cases at that time. And the Parliament House is a very big mixing pot for the whole country, when you consider where people come from, both parliamentarians and their staff coming to Canberra, mixing, meeting and so forth. Very difficult to keep those physical distancing requirements. The situation in Victoria is ...

FRAN KELLY:

[Talks over] The same could be said for the meatworkers, but they have to go to work.

PAUL KELLY:

Well, parliamentarians are continuing to work in their electorates. Absolutely. And the government is continuing to work. That's why I have a meeting with the Prime Minister and other members of the cabinet in eight minutes. So, I will need to go there. But we- so this was looking at the risk. I was asked to give my advice. I gave my advice to the Prime Minister. He discussed that with the opposition leader and other parties, and that was the decision that was made. It's not- it's- at this stage a two-week delay and it will be reassessed as that time comes closer, and any essential components of government will obviously continue. Like most workplaces, they've got- they moved to Zoom- not to Zoom but to secure video platforms and so forth. And there will be occasions where ministers of state may need to travel to Canberra for very specific reasons to meet with their officials and so forth in a safe way. And so, Josh Frydenberg will be doing that as the Treasurer because of his economic statement later this week.

FRAN KELLY:

Alright. Paul Kelly, I do know how busy you are. Thank you so much for giving us this time.

PAUL KELLY:

You're welcome. Fran.

FRAN KELLY:

Professor Paul Kelly is the Acting Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer.  

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