Chief Medical Officer, Prof. Paul Kelly's press conference about COVID-19 on 22 December 2020

Read the transcript of Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly's press conference about COVID-19 on 22 December 2020.

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Good afternoon, everyone. Paul Kelly, the Chief Medical Officer of Australia here. And just going to give you the update on the latest information from the COVID-19 pandemic here and internationally. I'll start with international first. There are over 77 million people that have been diagnosed with this disease this year, since the start of January. Over 1.7 million deaths. We should keep those figures in our mind as we think through what's happening in the Australian context. In the US alone, there were over 200,000 people diagnosed yesterday. Their hospitals are absolutely chock-a-block full. Their ICUs are overflowing. That is a very different situation here in Australia, even despite the hot spot that we've seen in recent times in the Northern Beaches of Sydney.

So, there were 21 new cases diagnosed in Australia yesterday. Most of those, well several of those, I'll get on to that in a minute, in New South Wales, and related to the New South Wales hot spots. But importantly there has been no new deaths for some time. Hospitalisations remain extremely low. There are only 22 people in Australia right now in hospital. No person in intensive care, and therefore, of course, no one on ventilation. So, there's been no changes in that, despite the cases that have occurred in relation to the New South Wales event in recent days.

So, in the past seven days, we've had 173 cases. Of those, roughly half have been in the Northern Beaches of Sydney, and that related cluster, plus the rest are in overseas quarantine.

Testing, and I really want to emphasise this as well. We are doing an enormous amount of testing. Yesterday was, we believe, a record. I'm pretty sure it was a record for any state since the beginning of the pandemic. 44,000 tests in New South Wales alone. 76,000 tests across Australia. So, that's how we're going to find this virus. We're really- all of my chief health officer colleagues have been stressing this in their own states. We really want you, if you are symptomatic, get tested. If you are asked by any of the health authorities around Australia but particularly in New South Wales right now, because of the linkage, perhaps with a place of interest or a close contact with someone who has this disease, get tested. That's how we know where this virus is and where it might be spreading. So, those are the figures for today.

In terms of New South Wales, eight new cases diagnosed in the 24 hours to 8 o’clock last night. That brings up to 90, the cases related to the Avalon cluster. 92, in fact, now. So, 90 of those are close contacts with the known places where the transmission has happened. And two others are residents of Avalon, one of Avalon, one of the adjacent suburb of Palm Beach.

There is a second area of concern. There is a nurse that has been part of the transport from the International Airport to the quarantine hotel who was found to be positive. And so we believe at this stage - but that will be confirmed by genomic analysis later today - is a different cluster to the Avalon cluster. But that's obviously a crucial component of the investigation that New South Wales Health is currently undertaking. So we're watching that with great interest. Also, the case of the teenager that was diagnosed in Victoria, again associated with that Avalon cluster. They did everything perfectly correctly. They heard that news about the Avalon issue. They’d been at one of those places of interest. They isolated and got tested. This is what we need anyone, anyone that has been in the Northern Beaches area, particularly in that Avalon and northern part of the Northern Beaches LGA since 10 December, please isolate and get tested, wherever you are.

The Australian Health Protection Committee has been meeting every day since last week. We met again just a few minutes ago. I've come straight from that meeting, where we discussed particularly the New South Wales issue but also this emerging concern with the changes to the virus, a variant of the virus which causes COVID-19, in the UK. So, we'll be issuing a statement hopefully later on today in relation to that. Our view is that this is a concern in the UK. Certainly, their scientific groups met overnight. It is a new variant of the virus. But here in Australia, we have our ways of dealing with people coming from overseas in terms of our hotel quarantine system, and that has been extremely effective, extremely effective in controlling any virus that may be coming from other parts of the world. And so we put faith in that. We don't believe there's any reason to change our border arrangements in relation to people coming from the UK. We have a lot of Australian citizens that live in the UK right now, are wanting to come back to Australia, and we still are welcoming them. They will be going into 14 days' supervised quarantine.

So, just to give you an idea of the numbers there, we've had, since March, over 200,000 people have come across the border back into Australia, most of those Australian residents. So, 200,000 have arrived. Almost 2500 cases have been diagnosed in hotel quarantine. And we have four cases that we know of, of this new variant, this variant strain which may be associated with further transmission, or more increased spread. But if you are a person coming into- by yourself into a hotel room for two weeks, you're not going to transmit that out of that room. And in most of the cases, for most of the time, our quarantine system has been very safe and effective. So, that's related to that.

Just another couple of things on that virus, the variant, there's no evidence at the moment that it has any effect on the severity of the illness from the virus. There is no evidence at the moment that it interferes with the vaccine. There is no evidence at the moment that it interferes with diagnostic tests. So, that's the truth of it. We're obviously looking closely. But at the moment there's no need for this to be a cause of us changing any of our arrangements here in Australia, or to be concerned about people coming from the UK.

So, I've got Clare on the phone, Clare Armstrong?


Thanks, Professor. Just regarding the vaccine, I know the Government and yourself have said you won't be rushing approving that. But given the consistent breaches from hotel quarantine we're seeing, can you explain exactly what is taking time? Are we waiting on certain data? What is the process there that means that you're suggesting we won't have the vaccine until about March? And will the TGA be working through the Christmas period, or do they have a shutdown? What's the time frame like for their consideration of the vaccine?


So, in terms of the vaccine, we are continuing with all of our planning, as has been already outlined in our strategy for vaccines, including the prioritisation process, including specific arrangements and agreements with every state and territory. We're in the second round of negotiations on that. Because the states and territories, of course, are very key partners in relation to the implementation of any vaccination strategy. So, they will be- they are progressing. The plan is to have them completed in early January, those implementation plans. We have a specific meeting tomorrow with the chief health officers and the secretaries or directors-general, CEs and so forth of all of the health departments around Australia. We’ll be talking through those practical matters about the implementation of the vaccine strategy.

So, there are various components to this work. We firstly have to purchase the vaccines and make sure that they are coming to Australia, or are, indeed, being manufactured in Australia, as we have with our CSL partners in Melbourne. So part of that has been completed. We continue to have discussions with the pharmaceutical companies in relation to those matters. We then have to move on to the regulation pathway. And just to be clear: there is no vaccine anywhere in the world, in any country in the world that has received its final approval for open distribution to the population. There are several countries in the world that have emergency use authorisation, because they have emergencies. I talked about the US earlier: 200,000 cases yesterday. They have an emergency. They need to get on with it. Same in the UK. Same in Europe overnight. We are not going down that pathway, because we don't have anywhere near that need right now. But we're certainly not stopping in our preparations, so that will proceed. The regulators will look at all the information. Just to answer your specific question there, Clare: no, they're not resting over Christmas, they're continuing. And they will- as the information comes from the various companies, particularly Pfizer and particularly AstraZeneca, because they're our two main first vaccines off the- that will be looking to be approved and rolled out early next year. As we get any information from that, it's processed. There are tens of thousands of documents and so forth that will need to be processed as part of the usual approval.

I'll go to Chloe.


Professor, hi. Obviously, it's very clear that you don't think Australia needs to change its border arrangements with the UK. What did you think of the other countries though, moving forward with that? Do you think they're overreacting? And what's your advice on this strain to the Australian Government? What would you need to see to change the border arrangements? How bad would it have to get?


So, as I mentioned, the AHPPC met today, and we have a draft statement that we'll work through this afternoon just to finalise that, and that will go into where we believe, as a group of medical experts advising the National Cabinet, where we think that is landing at the moment. It's a moving feat. This is yet another new part of this whole pandemic journey that we're on, in terms of this mutation. I will say this, though, there have been minor mutations of this virus since the beginning. There have been thousands of them. And there have been many mutations that have changed the particular part of the virus, the spike protein, that we're quite interested in, because that's the way it enters into cells. But none of them so far have really been of major concern. So, that's something that we're looking at. In terms of why we are taking perhaps a different view of this compared with some other countries that have closed their border to the UK. As far as I'm aware, none of those countries have quarantine arrangements for international arrivals, and so that's certainly a very big difference here. It was one of those first and early and very important measures that we put in place, of our rings of containment, to protect the Australian public, right back on the first of- early in the pandemic, was to close the border first to China and then to other parts of the world.



Good afternoon, Professor Kelly. Thanks for your time. Today, I understand New South Wales is moving air crews into similar quarantine arrangements, as others … the first day that's taken place. Can I just get your view on why that shifting is important? And, secondly, with the UK strain, is it the priority of returning Australians? Is that the significant, overwhelming factor in not banning flights coming from the UK?


So, I'll do the first one- the second question first, about who we're trying to get back into Australia. Absolutely, it's returning Australians. They're our number-one priority. They have been for a long time. We've committed to get people back, whoever wants to come back, and the Australian Government is assisting many people, whether they're stuck overseas or whether they're wanting to come back to have those assisted flights and so forth. In terms of where those Australians are right now who want to come back, the UK is right up there as one of the major places. UK, India, South Africa, and then a whole range of other countries. But the UK, I think, is first or second on that list of the numbers. So, that is a priority. And the first part of your question, sorry, Jonathan?


Sorry, Professor Kelly. In relation to the New South Wales changes on quarantine in regards to air crews moving in line with other quarantine protocols today, why is that being taken by the New South Wales Government important, and why now?


So, early on in the pandemic, particularly to allow us to bring Australians home, also to keep our air bridge open for important freight, we did have specific arrangements with air crew, and we negotiated that with various companies, unions, and others to make sure that we did have air crew to staff our planes, and that that air bridge continued. Now, as we've gone along- and just to be clear, they're not- they have very strict arrangements there, in hotels, or sometimes at home quarantine. But very much strictly adhered to wearing masks, et cetera; all of the things that happened for others going into the supervised hotel quarantines. Over time, we've realised that that hasn't worked completely well all the time, and so we've become stricter on that. All states and territories have done something more strictly.

[Coughs] Excuse me.

In recent weeks, the New South Wales example has a particular issue because of the nature of Sydney Airport. It's always been our busiest airport, even at these times of much constrained travel. So, on any given week, they can have up to 3000 air crew who are overnighting here, resting, before they head back to their normal places of residence. So international air crew. So what's happened in recent days is that New South Wales has consolidated what was a large number of hotels into two and really strictly made it clear what those expectations are, and they're examining that as they go forward. Other states have done something similar. In Queensland, they've also looked at tightening those controls, and elsewhere.

Steph Dalzell?


Hi, Professor. Just on that variant. I know you're releasing your statement, but the UK Government said that the new mutation could be 70 per cent more transmittable than other variants, that figure has been contentious. Does the Australian Government agree [indistinct] concerns about that mutation? And then secondly, on your review into St Basil's and Epping Gardens... it sounds like operators had poor infection control, inadequate emergency planning, and deficient leadership. Does the Government take responsibility for those failings?


So, firstly, on the variant virus, so we have an excellent genomics- so in Australia, we have a very comprehensive network of genomic analysis that we've built up since the beginning of the pandemic. And it's been- there have been major advances there. So, in New South Wales, for example, all of those cases that are being diagnosed at the moment, and particularly the ones in hotel quarantine, are receiving genomic analysis. And that's how we're getting on top of where that Avalon outbreak probably started from, in terms of an arrival from the US. Partly because of the huge number of cases that are in the UK, they're certainly nowhere near analysing every case of the virus. So just to give you some idea of that, over the recent period where this report that's come out in the last few days came from, there's been around about 1.5 million cases reported in the UK. Of those, about 69,000 have had genomic analysis; 69,000 out of 1.5 million. And of those 69,000, 3000 are of this new strain. They're mostly in a certain part of the country, in south-east England, London and surrounding areas.

So, there are some issues there that come to mind, but it's not every genomic analysis. So how widespread this virus is still not clear. There are a range of reasons why transmission and growth may increase. There seems to be an association with this new virus. But at the same time, it's winter, there are Christmas parties, there's Christmas shopping, a lot of mixing, all of those things are happening at the same time. And the way I view this is, it’s almost always when there's a change in the epidemiology of a viral infection like COVID-19, it's a combination of what people are doing, the environment, including the climactic conditions like winter, and the virus. And so that's what needs to be looked at. In terms of– and then I'll come back to the fact that we have 14 days' compulsory quarantine, and so even if someone from the UK came with that virus, and there have only been four so far, it would be controlled in the Australian context.

In terms of St Basil's and Epping Gardens, very welcome to see those reports. They're very detailed. There's many recommendations there which touch on a range of matters. Some of them are under the responsibility of the Commonwealth Government, others the Victorian Government. And we will look at those very carefully. And certainly, a terrible tragedy for people in those environments, and those that lost loved ones. So, it's really important that we learn from all of those outbreaks, and we are learning, and have learnt. One of the key learnings there was the setting-up of the Victorian Aged Care Response Centre, which did eventually get those large number of outbreaks in aged care homes in Victoria under control. We've really learnt from that experience, in terms of the importance of coordination and collaboration between the state government health authorities, the Australian Government, the Australian Commission of Safety and Quality in Aged Care, and the sector itself. And importantly – and this is something really important that's come from both of those reports – is with the families and the residents themselves. So, all of those things have played into the improvements we've made. And that's playing out right now in New South Wales. We've had an association with two aged care facilities now in that New South Wales outbreak – the Avalon outbreak – and there's been not a single case in a resident. And that remains the case, and we're absolutely committed to making sure we're on top of that.

Alright. I think that's the end of the questions. Thanks very much for your interest.


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