Right, so, Paul Kelly here, the Acting Chief Medical Officer to just give an update on the COVID-19 situation here in Australia. I've just come from a AHPPC meeting - we're back to meeting daily again as the situation emerges in the northern beaches of Sydney.
So look, I remain very reassured by the excellent work of New South Wales Health and their very experienced and skilled set of contact tracers and others under the leadership of Dr Kerry Chant, their Chief Health Officer. We're in, at least, daily, if not more often contact, and as are all of her colleagues and my colleagues on the AHPPC. So, we have our best epidemiology and public health minds on the situation in assisting New South Wales Health where necessary.
So far there are, of course, more cases that have been reported in the 24 hours to 8pm last night, so that's- that continues to be an emerging situation in Sydney. But really - and this is the important point - almost all of the cases have been diagnosed and very much linked and associated with those few clust- few venues in Avalon, so just a single postcode area in the northern part of the northern beaches.
So, today New South Wales Health have announced further measures for the wider Sydney area, and that's appropriate to decrease mixing and movement at this time. As we've talked about many times before, the virus moves with people, and so, if we can limit the movement of people and limit the mixing of people that have moved, that really assists with the decreasing the transmission of the virus. So, they are, the measures that New South Wales are putting in place, relatively soft touch for the other parts of Sydney, and then that lockdown in the northern beach LGA.
Talking to my colleagues on AHPPC and other states, they are taking a very proportionate approach to this, using that hotspot definition of looking at the northern beaches, which I agree with - that is a hotspot from the Commonwealth point of view - and they are- they've put in place various measures and are looking at those as the situation develops. There'll be further announcements from the various state governments in relation to that, and there have already been some of those today.
So, that's the situation from the Commonwealth perspective. We have, again, offered our support to New South Wales, particularly around testing, to see if there's anything we can do to increase the availability of testing, particularly in the Northern Beaches, but also other parts of New South Wales, so that those queues could perhaps cut- be shorter, and the people that do need to get tested are being tested in an appropriate way and as quickly as possible. So, that offers on the table and we're working through that.
We're doing specific issues in relation to aged care, particularly in that Northern Sydney area, and the northern beaches in particular. And so, we have introduced, because of the hotspot definition, all of the supports there about PPE, really examining and strengthening the infection control practices in those aged care facilities, and all of the other measures that we've looked at, including staffing in those particular aged care facilities. So, that- that's what we're doing from the Commonwealth perspective. We've talked about ADF resources as well, being- to assist there and in any other way in relation to this outbreak, and those measures are being looked at very carefully by the Minister for Defence, and Minister Hunt from the health side.
I will point out, there are already 1500 people, Defence personnel, that are working in COVID related matters, mostly around hotel quarantine at this point around the country, and that includes 250 Defence Force personnel in Victoria. But if there are further needs, we'll be looking at that. Of course, Defence is very much focussed at the moment on support to our near neighbour, Fiji, after the cyclone there. So, there are a range of issues we're looking at, but we're there to assist.
So, I just do want to acknowledge at this time that this is a disruption, again, in our lives from this COVID-19 pandemic. We've had it all year, I know of people that have had to cancel or postpone weddings, interfere with other major events, and Christmas is another one of those. So, it's unfortunate that this is happening, but we need to put safety and health concerns at the forefront at the moment, and particularly for those in the northern suburbs- in the northern beaches of Sydney. My heart goes out to you, that this is a tricky time in the lead up to Christmas, but please stay the course, and I'm sure that my colleagues in New South Wales Health will get on top of this.
So I'll go to questions now, thanks. Firstly, in the room.
Professor Kelly, we still don't know the exact [indistinct]… where this coronavirus has come from in Sydney. How concerning is that for you? And are you confident that we will work that out? Or do you [indistinct]…?
Look, it would be very useful to work out where it actually came from. We know from the genomics analysis that it points very clearly to a person that came into the country from the US, was in hotel quarantine, a passenger, an Australian returning to Australia, and there's a very close match in the genomic analysis of the virus. So, that's our presumed place of origin. But how that particular virus, through a person, got to the Avalon, the various venues that we know about now in Avalon, is a mystery, as you say, and the contact tracers are looking into that.
I think, more important now, is really to look at where we are in terms of the cases that we know about, where they have been whilst they've been infectious, and also, as is the normal case now, particularly in New South Wales, looking back from when they became infected to where they'd been in the week or two before that. And that will give us many clues, and hopefully that will also include where this missing link, if you like, may be.
Professor Kelly, given the reinstatement of certain restrictions around Greater Sydney, had the northern beaches been locked down a few days earlier, could that have been avoided? And what's your message to the people in New South Wales, or Greater Sydney, rather, that are a bit frustrated and upset that they're being affected by the outbreak in the northern beaches? Because, it's obviously something that would cause a lot of frustration at this time of year.
Yeah, of course. And as I said, I really understand the factors - it's disturbing all sorts of peoples plans. At the moment, those disruptions in terms of public health orders only lasted till midnight on Wednesday. So, you know, we're still hopeful that Christmas can be some kind of COVID-safe normal, but I understand that that is an area of frustration and that's how it is.
Look, in terms of what should be done when and so forth, these are really difficult decisions and it's a decision for New South Wales Health and we have, you know, they have great experience in these matters. But, it's always a trade-off when you're making these sorts of decisions that lead to disruption; if you go too early, you're criticised for going too hard too fast, if you go too slow then it's the opposite. I think they've got it about right. The other thing I would say is that people in the northern beaches in particular, have been amazingly collaborative. So, well before any restrictions actually went on they were doing all the things that ended up being in the written orders. So, mainly staying at home, mainly not going to venues; many venues closed as we know, including hotels and so forth. So, I don't think it would have made a big difference. We are already talking back to around about the 10th, 11the and through to the 13th, is when the major events happen, in terms of spread - so, that was well in the past already.
I think the most important thing looking forward is if people will take note of what's being said today by the New South Wales Premier and really come on board with those restrictions.
Just to follow that up, you said you want to make it case by case, you can't sort of make any just broad assumptions on some general things. But, considering how well Australia's done in almost eradicating COVID before this, is there a case for those bigger, broader, harsher lockdowns to be coming in sooner? Or is this a sort of graduated approach that we see New South Wales? Like smaller restrictions, then suburb restrictions and then Greater Sydney restrictions. Is that still the best way to do things?
I think it is a case by case arrangement. I know in South Australia recently, they did go hard and fast and quicker and that was their decision to make. My view is - and I'm backed up so it's not just my view, it's the view of Alan Finkel, the Chief Scientist who did a review only a few weeks ago was completed on behalf of the National Cabinet into our contact tracing and public health resources and he had some recommendations there, we are continuing to follow that on. But, his general, general impression was we are prepared and we do have good resources, and they are able to be put into place quickly and are effective. Now, they're not going to be effective every time - this is an extremely infectious virus, it moves quickly and we've seen that in these really- You know, one large event in the RSL in Avalon on 11 December has led essentially to most of these cases, and it has spread and can spread quite quickly.
I reiterate that almost all of the cases so far are only in that very northern part of the northern beaches LGA - so it is quite localised at the moment. And we won't know for another week or two as to whether that's been successful, what's been done in the- in that time.
You said New South Wales, their increase in restrictions, it was an appropriate measure, you just said that now. Yesterday, you were asked if they went hard enough straight away. What's changed your mind? Was it different today from yesterday?
Well, there were more cases yesterday and I think the key difference is-
[Interrupts] If we wait for more cases then aren't we - with a 14-day incubation period, aren't we- shouldn't we not be waiting for more cases to appear before we go into a lockdown situation?
So obviously, as I said, this is a case by case basis and there are issues that need to be taken into account. The clincher that's changed in the last 24 hours is the extra clusters that have been found that are all from the RSL and the BOWLO - the gym in particular, with another hundred or so people that have potentially been in, in close contact - so, that does change things. And as I said, if you go to hard and fast early, you'll be criticised for going over the top; if you go too slow, you'll be criticised for going too slow. These are very difficult balancing, balancing acts. I just got Talia from ABC News on the phone.
Hey. Hi, thanks Paul. So, I want to ask a question in relation to vaccines. So, public health experts are saying to people, we shouldn't be shamed for asking questions about the COVID-19 vaccine if some people do feel nervous about it. What message do you have for people who are unsure about getting the vaccine? And when are we going to start seeing the $24 million health campaign by Greg Hunt that we've heard about?
So firstly, people should be asking questions about the vaccine, absolutely. And we will try to anticipate as many of those questions as we can in the communications campaign which we'll be rolling out by early next year. But in the meantime, events like this is when those sort of questions can be posed and we will continue to answer them as we can.
The vaccines are very new. There is, as of yesterday, the second vaccine in the world started to be rolled out in the US. No vaccine has yet got full approval from any government and we will be looking to have our full approvals done on the basis of all the information that will come from the manufacturers of that vaccine, and indeed the real world experience of what's happening in the roll out in the US, UK and other places. So, I think I answered both those questions there, was there something else I missed?
No, that's great - and can I just ask as well? If people are going to pubs, clubs, venues, that kind of thing, is there- Are you confident with the approach at the moment with QR codes and signing in and that kind of thing? Is it, is it doing its job? Is it consistent enough? Or is perhaps a more national streamlined approach needed to make sure that no contact details are missed?
So the QR codes have been rolled out stately in each state and territory, specifically to that state and territory. Alan Finkel, who I mentioned earlier in his review, did suggest that we should have a national approach. He found that the - having gone around the country and used each of these QR codes over a couple of weeks' period - found that the ACT one was possibly the easiest to use. But, we have what we have - we have very different systems. The point is that they are all reasonably good, but they are completely useless if they're not used.
And so, I encourage everyone that goes to anywhere over these coming weeks in particular, to use whatever QR code or similar system, signing system, et cetera, that is there. It's really helpful for the contact tracers to be able to have that. So, we found two contrasting issues already in this Avalon outbreak - they are still very good, very good record keeping some of the other venues not as good. So, we'll please encourage all people that are going to venues to make sure that they access the QR codes and I also encourage all venues to encourage their patrons to do that, it's very helpful.
On that, I'll also again call out for people to download and have active their COVID-Safe app. That is- this is exactly the time where that was designed as a tool to assist our contact tracers to do their work. Clare Armstrong, Daily Telegraph.
Thanks Professor Kelly. I have two questions; before I do, I want to say I believe happy birthday is in order. So, get that one out of the way.
[Laughter] Thank you.
So, my first questions actually are related to two of the groups that aren't subject to monitored quarantine. Firstly, airline crews on international flights - are they the responsibility of the states or the Commonwealth? And are you confident that the strengthening of those rules that New South Wales is putting next week? And the second group, just on that, what is behind the AHPPC decision to advise not to have to require them to do the hotel quarantine? And are you satisfied that the risk remains low there as well? So, on those two groups, who has jurisdiction and are you satisfied the risk remains low enough that it doesn't have to be a more strict quarantine?
o, that the questions about is about exemptions from quarantine. So that's a state matter. But we have done, as we've always done throughout this pandemic, tried to go through the AHPPC discussion to come up with a consensus across Australia - sometimes that hasn't been completely successful. But, in terms of air crew, the main reason for the exemption, there's two reasons. One, is this is for both- there are other two groups in the aircrew, one of the main Qantas air crew based here in Australia. So, we need them to keep doing their job, we need to allow them to do that job in a way that is safe to the community, but also allows them to have some sort of normality in their life. But, they are, they are essentially in home quarantine in between their flights - they're not really doing anything else, and we've found them to be very, very good - certainly the locals, the local ones
In terms of other airlines from outside Australia, they're often here only for two, maximum three days, and they have been in hotel quarantine, but not in the very strict manner as has been the case, yeah, for other arrivals. But again, we haven't had any evidence that that has led, other than the last couple of weeks, to any cases in the community.
So, so we've had a lot of aircraft coming in with a lot of crew since March without major issues. Now, there have been a couple of cases recently where that's- that hasn't been the case, that has led to a discussion in AHPPC about strengthening those arrangements and all states are putting in place some sort of strengthening. New South Wales has announced their, their particular issues in recognising that they can have up to 3000 air crew overnight in Sydney during any, any particular week right now - so it's large numbers. They, they made their arrangements to bring them into, I believe, two specific hotels from what was a very much larger number previously - just to monitor that more carefully.
But, you know, we need our air crew; we need our, our air bridge to the world - that's how we're getting our Australians back, that's how we're getting a lot of freight back into Australia as well, including emergency medical supplies.
In terms of diplomats - foreign diplomats, there is a, there is an agreement, there is a convention that we have which, which would affect our Australian's diplomats overseas, as well as foreign diplomats here in Australia, and we have specific arrangements for that. Again, there's been close to 900 diplomats from other countries that have come into Australia during this period of the pandemic. And we've had only two breaches of, of quarantine there and no, no spread into the community from the nine positive cases - so one per cent positivity there.
So, so that's worked mostly well. But again, as we've seen less and less other cases in the community we're looking at all of these things and really tightening up on, on those matters right now. And that's, just to answer your question there, that's a combination of the Commonwealth and the states. And Jonathan Kearsley from 9News, last question.
Happy birthday, I guess, Paul. I hope you're having a good day. You touched on this before, the COVID-safe app. Do you- the government updated it in the last 48 hours or so in terms of the Bluetooth technology. But are you disappointed it hasn't work as well as what it was intended to?
So we've been continuing to improve the COVID-safe over time. It's- the thing is we actually introduced this at the time when we were going- when we were finishing our first wave. And, and other than the second wave in Victoria, we haven't really seen a large outbreak in the community since that time. And in Victoria, of course, there was major lockdowns quite early, and so that wasn't- it was used, but and it added some value at that time.
But during that period, we did, we did find that we needed to think through how to improve it. We've been incrementally improving it, adding new, new languages, for example, improving the Bluetooth technology, thinking about that handshake that happens to allow this to work. And all of those things will assist with the COVID-Safe app and its operations. But, but I will stress that this is a tool it's one of many tools that that is there to assist our contact tracers. There are many things that absolutely need a manual face to face human interaction. And that's what's happening predominantly with the with the outbreak in the northern beaches and has been very successful and very quick in finding, chasing people that are that are close contacts - getting them tested, getting them isolated. And that's our major thrust at the moment for getting that outbreak under control. Okay.
PAUL KELLY: Okay, one each quick - quickly. Thank you.
Thank you. Brisbane company, AnteoTech, is on the verge of commercialising a technology that can detect COVID-19 in 15 minutes, but it's not receiving any government funding to expedite that. Would it not make health sense and technology- technological sense to be able to expedite this technology as soon as possible?
So that- I'm not familiar with that particular company, but I believe it's an antigen test. We've got many antigen tests on the market at the moment - some of them have been developed here in Australia, some of them are on the, the register of the TGA to be used in Australia. Look, we're looking at all of those options, particularly around rapid antigen tests. At the moment we have-
[Unrelated content - phone interruption]
Someone's left the group call - I'll turn them off.
So we've got plenty of those. But we also have very good PCR testing - that's our gold standard, it's the gold standard around the world. And unlike many other countries, we haven't exhausted that. Even with this big surge of, of testing in Sydney, we still have the capacity to do that. And it is a little bit slower, but the turnaround time is still the same day at the moment - do we believe that that's quick enough. The advantage of the PCR test, it is, is more accurate, and so that's the crucial thing at the moment.
Professor Kelly, just to these quickly - borders obviously have now been shut right across the country, but the proportionate measure at the moment should New South Wales- it would be alright for anywhere else [indistinct] where they are. And secondly, masks - they're still not mandated across New South Wales, let alone the hotspots. Is that something you'd like to see introduced?
PAUL KELLY: So, mask's first. Masks have a place where there's community transmission. You know, if I was in in the northern beaches right now and I was indoors, and I was unable to keep my physical distance from others, I would be wearing a mask. If I was on public transport in Sydney, I'd be wearing a mask - so masks have their, have their place. I understand that masks- mask use in the wider Sydney area has increased substantially - didn't need an order to make that, people made their decisions, most people make sensible decisions.
So I'm not in favour of mandatory mask use, I recognise there is a particular issue in Victoria and that's the decision of the Victorian health authorities and the Premier - and I respect that. But in terms of mandatory mask use in New South Wales, again, that is a particular issue for New South Wales Health and their Premier to, to make that decision and I respect that.
The first part of the question?
Borders. Same answer. Borders are really a matter for the states. I am encouraged by their proportionality so far. Almost all of the states use the hotspot definition of the northern beaches first. My understanding is that they're widening out some of those definitions at the moment as, as New South Wales Health has done- the New South Wales Government has done today in terms of the wider Sydney area. But, but that's a matter for the states and they'll make their announcements when that's appropriate.
One very last one, thank you. You've been saying for weeks that international borders are, I guess, the real danger zone now for COVID coming back into Australia. The last couple of outbreaks we've seen have been linked to, I guess, from hotel quarantine. Now, we're talking about airline crew quarantined as well. Are there other gaps in this system that you have identified? That you're aware of? The AHPPC, state, federal governments are working- aware of the gaps that we still need to fix.
So, so we had a review some time ago by Jane Halton and, and there were some gaps found then, and they've been they've been fixed. We're continuing to learn about these matters. But there's one thing which we've always known is the human factor - and mistakes happen. Most of the people that are working on, on the quarantine hotels and other parts of the end to end quarantine systems - so it's not just the hotel; it's, it's when people arrive, how they come through the airport, how they get transported from the airport to their accommodation, what interactions happen at the accommodation - and we've looked very closely at all of those, all of those elements, particularly in light of what happened in South Australia recently and other, other events.
Mostly, it's worked extremely well. We've had very few quarantine breaches, actually, and there have been many tens of thousands of people - Australians, mainly, who've come home since 28 March when we introduced that hotel quarantine. Can we continue to improve? Of course we can. Can mistakes happen? Of course they can. And so we keep looking at those- all of those elements to make it make sure it improves.
But I think the reality is we're asking people to do things that they've never really been fully trained to do. So, you know, even, even in our health care workforce, there are challenges with getting personal protective equipment used absolutely perfectly every time. And so this is always going to be the risk for us. And we just need to get better and better at the training, better and better, the better and better at the improving - quality improvement, and continuing that. And just looking at any way we can improve that is important.
Okay, thanks very much.