Acting Chief Medical Officer, Paul Kelly's interview on ABC Friday Briefing on 18 December 2020

Read the transcript of Acting Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly's interview on ABC News Friday Briefing on 18 December 2020 about coronavirus (COVID-19)

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PATRICIA KARVELAS: And returning to our top story this afternoon, New South Wales Health officials are continuing investigations into the source of the COVID-19 cluster on Sydney's Northern Beaches, which has now grown to 28. Professor Paul Kelly is the Acting Chief Medical Officer and my guest this afternoon. Professor Paul Kelly, welcome.

PAUL KELLY: Hi, PK. How are you?

PATRICIA KARVELAS: How serious is this outbreak on the Northern Beaches?

PAUL KELLY: Well, we've certainly got quite a few cases and more have been reported to us today. So, we're watching that with some concern. I think the- a few positives though. Firstly, all of the cases so far are linked to two specific places in Avalon, an area of Sydney I know quite well, to adjacent, a bowling club and a RSL. So, every case so far has been linked to those two locations. So it appears like that there was some sort of super spreading event on the 11th and/or the 13th of the month and… So that's the first thing, it's just two places. The second thing is all of the cases so far, virtually all of the cases have been in that Northern Beaches area, a very small cluster of suburbs in that northern part of Sydney. The third thing is the tremendous response from the community in terms going out and getting tested. Really extraordinary there. And I guess the last thing I would say, which is positive there, is that this is NSW Health. We know how competent they are and they've gone through these type of events before. People will remember the Crossroads Hotel and various other clusters. So, they used- they know what to do and they're doing it well in their usual calm, consistent and very rapid fashion.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: And should we expect the number of cases to increase given how long people with the virus have been moving around?

PAUL KELLY: Yeah, I expect there will be more cases, yes. They're doing a lot of testing and they know who was at the RSL in particular. They've kept very good records. And the bowling club also. So, they're going through that very meticulously and then working through, as has become the norm now with our contact tracing exercises around Australia, taking very detailed information from each of those people to see where they might have been through that infectious period. I guess the concerning thing for me at the moment is we still don't know exactly where this might have started. We do know there is a link with a confirmation of the genomic sequencing overnight in relation to this particular virus that it is a United States of America strain and very similar to a person that arrived on a flight from LA on the 1st of December. So, that's the likely source. But how it got to the bowling club and the RSL and then consequently on to this cluster of cases remains somewhat of a mystery at the moment.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: And if it's a mystery, that's key, isn't it? Because that means of course it could have spread to other parts of Sydney.

PAUL KELLY: Well, that's possible. And I would join my New South Wales colleagues at the moment by saying anyone who's, firstly, have been in any of the places of interest, that they're on the New South Wales website now, they should get tested. And anyone, anywhere in Sydney, or indeed, anywhere in Australia right now who have these symptoms of COVID-19 and everyone - we've been talking about it all year now so people know what that is - don't ignore it. Don't put that off. If even- just because we haven't had a lot of cases throughout Australia in recent weeks, we should not get complacent about that. If you're sick, stay at home and get tested as soon as you can.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: New South Wales Health has actually just issued advice that afternoon that due to increasing COVID-19 case numbers associated with the Avalon cluster, New South Wales Health wants- is advising for people in the Northern Beaches to wear a mask at all times when indoors. Now that advisory is effective immediately. It's in place for 72 hours. Are you surprised the Government hasn't mandated the wearing of masks for people in the hotspot up until this point and it still seems quite limited?

PAUL KELLY: Well, I would join that advice as well. If people can't physically distance, particularly if they are indoors at this time in that area. Absolutely, if it was me, I'd be wearing a mask. But to make it mandatory, I don't think it's necessary at the moment. One thing I will say from everything that has happened in the Northern Beaches in the last couple of days, people are incredibly engaged with the information and making the right choice, and I have faith in the people of Sydney and particularly the Northern Beaches that they will do that.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: We know that from past experience, the mantra is that you go hard and you go early. Should the New South Wales Government be considering tougher measures? I mean, we saw in, for instance, South Australia, pretty hard lockdown for a week. Lots of other details on that which aren't worth exploring but a really different response to what we're seeing here in New South Wales.

PAUL KELLY: So, I think New South Wales, when you think back right to the very start of this back in the end of January in terms of Australia's experience with the pandemic, the first case on the 21st of- 25th of January, they've been going right through this in terms of small outbreaks, large outbreaks, clusters. They had their first wave. They were affected by the Victorian second wave through the Crossroads Hotel and other clusters that have happened since then. So, they know what to do and they're doing it in the proportionate way as they always do. And I must say, my hat really goes off to Kerry Chant and her staff because they are remarkably good at what they [audio skip] and I would trust them. I do trust them and they will do what is needed.

So, so far, it's more advice, and particularly that widespread testing and doing that very detailed work in contact tracing, that disease detective work that we know they do so well. And through that, they'll get to the bottom of this, and let's hope that it hasn't spread further than outside of the Northern Beaches. That's certainly the case at the moment.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: So we know that a number of states have announced and may announce further hard borders. In WA, they're saying they haven't ruled out their hard border going back up. Victoria has got a permit system. What do you make of all of these different measures? Are they necessary at this point?

PAUL KELLY: So, back some months ago, we did work through hotspot definitions. We weren't able to land a very specific hotspot definition that all states agreed on but we did have- we do have a Commonwealth definition of a hotspot. And since the time when we decided on what that should be, we haven't actually had to enact that. But as of today, I will be enacting the Commonwealth hotspot definition for the Northern Beaches LGA of Sydney. So…

PATRICIA KARVELAS: [Interrupts] And what will that mean, Professor Paul Kelly?

PAUL KELLY: So, it acknowledges that there is an area of concern in terms of COVID-19 in that particular geographic area. It also engages a range of Commonwealth supports to that area, particularly around aged care. And so, we will- we have already now added some Commonwealth staff into the state health emergency operating centre, particularly in relation to aged care. We've- the Aged Care Commissioner has been doing specific checks right throughout that LGA for, I believe, 31 aged care- residential aged care facilities in that place. We are providing PPE if required, so, masks, et cetera. And also, the issue of the one worker, one site, that support from the Commonwealth will be available if it's needed. So, it's mainly about aged care response but it's also the wider response. We have put in place anything that New South Wales wants in terms of support for contact tracing. At the moment, they're fine, but they've appreciated that. So that's what it means.

So back to your specific question around what other states have done, of course it's up to them to do whatever they need to do to protect their own people within their state boundaries. And each of them have essentially, other than WA, have been very proportionate in that in terms of looking at a hotspot definition, their own hotspot definition, which is similar to mine, as it turns out, for the LGA of the Northern Beaches. So, if you look through those…

PATRICIA KARVELAS: [Talks over] The Victorian Minister has said to people in Victoria don't go to Sydney. Do you think that's fair enough?

PAUL KELLY: So, he's not alone in saying that. Some of the other health authorities are giving similar advice. Certainly, for the Northern Beaches…

PATRICIA KARVELAS: [Talks over] Is that your advice too?

PAUL KELLY: Well, the New South Wales Health advice, which I would go by, is that people from within Sydney should not be going to the Northern Beaches. So, I think, at the moment, what we know is it's the Northern Beaches that are affected and the Victorians have put in place a graduated response, a more detailed and more firm view on the Northern Beaches LGA, less so for the rest of Sydney, and then the rest of New South Wales Health is not affected by those measures.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: And what do you make of the grading? You're right, there is a grading system. Do you think that's a reasonable approach?

PAUL KELLY: I think that's proportionate. At the moment, the issue appears to be confined to actually just a small component of the Northern Beaches, just from Newport to the north. So, I think that's a proportionate response.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: It's going to be a busy summer, unfortunately. Thank you so much for joining us not only today but throughout the year. Really appreciate your time.

PAUL KELLY: You're welcome, PK. Thanks for asking.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Professor Paul Kelly, who has the same initials as me, is the Acting Chief Medical Officer, and of course, he's going to have a busy season ahead. We were hoping that we would stay at those zero cases but it clearly is not the case.


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