Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly's interview on ABC Radio National on 12 August 2021

Read the transcript of Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly's interview on ABC Radio National on 12 August 2021 about coronavirus (COVID-19).

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NORMAN SWAN: Professor Paul Kelly is the Commonwealth's Chief Medical Officer. Welcome back to Breakfast, Paul.

PAUL KELLY: Hi, Norman. How are you?

NORMAN SWAN: Fine. Well, kind of fine. I mean, Juliet O'Brien's analysis there would be no surprise to you.

PAUL KELLY: No. And she's obviously looked very closely at the, all the data coming out of New South Wales as, of course, we do every day, and work with the New South Wales authorities to understand that data. In latest - like 11 o'clock last night, we were talking through the Walgett issue. And so, yes, she's very wise in terms of what she's looking at, those unlinked cases, the story behind the data, if you like, that's the important way of working out what's going on and how things can be supported. And, of course, we are supporting them.

NORMAN SWAN: We'll come back to that in a minute. How dangerous is this time for the nation?

PAUL KELLY: So, the situation in Sydney is very familiar to us all in terms of what happened in Melbourne last year. I think the contrasts are that we got onto it very quickly. There is, I mean, a lot of discussion about what the lockdown is and what it isn't. But, you know, lockdown did occur. It is occurring. Those particular hotspot areas within southwestern Sydney, where still the majority of the cases are, and I recognise that that has spread to other places, but in small numbers to date …

NORMAN SWAN: [Interrupts] But you only need one super spreader and you're stuffed.

PAUL KELLY: So, it is absolutely a concern to Sydney and into regional New South Wales and we're all, we're all watching very carefully and we're having discussions every day at AHPPC. We're still having those daily meetings where we talk through what's happening in New South Wales and what support we can give from the Commonwealth and from other states. And a lot of that's, a lot of that's happening …

NORMAN SWAN:  [Talks over] No, do you-

PAUL KELLY: … in terms of the - yeah? Go on.

NORMAN SWAN: Sorry. Do you believe that they are following the health advice? I mean, it's hard to find an epidemiologist in Australia who does- who thinks that the lockdown is sufficient in New South Wales. They're chasing the virus; they're closing down behind the virus rather than ahead of the virus. It's said that Kerry Chant actually said, advised the Government over a five-kilometre radius, not a 10-kilometre radius to make that uniform, I think you know that as well. I mean, are they following health advice?

PAUL KELLY: Well, look, you know, New South Wales, the New South Wales Government is the government that's elected to look after the people of New South Wales and they need to take the advice as they do. It's difficult to take these decisions. And every decision has pros and cons and risks and benefits outside of the virus. And that's exactly why we have democratically elected governments to make those decisions.

Our job as medical advisers is to look at the facts, work out what might be feasible and possible to do and present that to our governments, I do the same. And it's up to them to make the decisions and how those decisions are made, I'm not privy to that. That's a matter for the New South Wales Cabinet.

NORMAN SWAN: Well, what levers can the Commonwealth pull here? I mean, operationally, this is a state matter, but you're there to help. What levers can you pull at a Commonwealth level?

PAUL KELLY: So, well, let's say the example of Walgett, which I was going to get to just now which- so, this is a very concerning issue. We have been extremely successful as a nation in stark contrast to many other similar countries in protecting our First Nations people. Right up to now, we recognise that as an issue and a risk. In the early days of the pandemic, we set up a very good collaboration at the federal level with our state colleagues and the Aboriginal community-controlled health sector and others across the Australian Government to make sure that we were doing whatever we needed to do. We set up those networks early on and they kicked into gear last night, exactly as planned.

So, we're working with New South Wales Health, we're working with the local Aboriginal community-controlled organisation in Walgett and their national equivalents to see what can be done. Immediately, we've looked to redirect vaccines, they'll be going today. We've looked at upskilling and making sure there's enough cartridges for the gene expert rapid testing facility, which we've forward placed in Walgett exactly for this issue. So, that's happening today. We're working with the Royal Flying Doctor Service to see if a further workforce needs to be there. So, these are the sort of practical things that we can kick into gear, you know, on the same day, overnight, when these matters happened.

NORMAN SWAN: You've got a national perspective. And Juliet O'Brien, in that interview we did earlier, compared and contrasted New South Wales second wave to Victorian second wave last year. One of the things that happened in the second wave last year in Victoria, they made some mistakes in the north western corridor. And you heard quite unfortunate language from Dan Andrews, which was changed. And then they put people into the suburbs to do community-based work, which seemed to control it. It looks from the outside that there are real issues, and that's in the southwest corridor in New South Wales, and that, for example, low vaccination rates compared to other suburbs. Now, that is an issue for the Commonwealth since most of the vaccines are being provided by GPs and clinics funded and supplied by you. What can you do about that? And do you feel there's enough community development going on and lessons learnt from Victoria last year?

PAUL KELLY: Yes, look, we've learnt lessons all the way through the pandemic, as you know, Norman, and some of those ones you mentioned are absolutely key, really understanding the data where the problem is, working very closely with community, absolutely key, particularly in our most multicultural suburbs, in our major capital cities. But- and I've mentioned our reaching out to First Nations people as well, particularly in remote areas, but also in our cities. So all of those things are very important. In terms of vaccination, yes. Look, that is our way out of this to a large extent, decreasing the transmission potential over time, absolutely protecting our most vulnerable people is important. And in these sort of settings, that's amplified. And so we have done a lot in the last few weeks in terms of bringing pharmacists on board. So that was- there were only very- thinking back to when this started in Sydney, there was just a handful. Now, I believe by the end of this week, there'll be 1500 pharmacists across Australia that will be vaccinating and with a real focus on southwest Sydney in relation to that, plus GPs, plus the respective clinics.

NORMAN SWAN: Do you feel you have a deep understanding of why vaccine uptake is low? Are you getting on the ground data?

PAUL KELLY: Yes, so some of that is - it's not surprising. I'm sure you're not surprised, Norman, that the social determinants of health lead to all sorts of issues in terms of health. So we know that that southwestern part of Sydney has a particular demographic with insecure employment, casual employment and so forth. It has a lower density of general practise compared with many other parts of Sydney and other parts of Australia. And so it's not surprising that even- that the access component of vaccination is lower. It's complex to talk to people from a wide variety of cultures if they have their own understandings of vaccination and of health. All of these things play out and particularly in that area. But I have to say that there's been an enormous increase in the vaccination coverage over the last few weeks, particularly in southwest Sydney. It's been a huge focus on getting that information out. It's been a huge focus of individuals understanding their own risk, of course. And so that's led to perhaps a change in attitudes in relation to vaccination. And there's just been a large amount of vaccines that have been put into arms, specifically in that area of Sydney.

NORMAN SWAN: I don't know if you heard the interview about the Israeli situation earlier on the program. So 80 per cent full coverage of the adult population, so just the point where we move to the third stage in Australia, and they're seeing a worrying surge of compelling data supporting booster shots for the over 60s; it's quite extraordinary, their data. And they're also seeing school aged children spreading Delta, something which the Doherty model suggests that we shouldn't be concerned about. How confident are you in our roadmap, particularly with what's going on in New South Wales and in that 80 per cent coverage of the adult population being a reliable spot to move on from?

PAUL KELLY: Yeah, I did hear Professor Cohen earlier on your programme, Norman, and we've actually had quite a lot of engagement and discussions with Israel from the beginning. I personally had four or five discussions with their officials and some from that group that Professor Cohen's on advising the Israel government. I think there are a few key things I got from that. Yes, we know the best information we have at the moment in terms of the waning immunity, particularly in older people, is that we know that it has very good cover- the vaccine still works after six months. We don't know a lot more after that. And so what was been described in Israel is about that six-month time. So they've gone on to start their booster shots in those over 60s for that reason. We're of course right now planning our booster strategy for the next year. And that'll be the next frontier after we get to every person who wants one by the end of the year, their first doses of immunisation.

The other key thing I heard him say, was this - whilst there was a waning of the vaccine effectiveness against symptomatic disease and that would tie into transmission, even the over 60s, even those who were vaccinated over six months ago still had very good protection against Delta for severe disease. And we just have to remember that that is our number one aim of the vaccination program, to protect people from severe disease. And what do we see at the moment in Sydney? We're seeing what's been seen in the rest of the world. It's a- this is an epidemic of the unvaccinated. And so the people that are in the hospital, the majority of those are unvaccinated. I believe there is no one in intensive care so far that's had a double vaccination, and the unfortunate 30 - more than 30 deaths now from this outbreak, none of those have been doubly vaccinated up to date. So this is mainly an issue for the unvaccinated. So the message is clear, get your vaccination.

NORMAN SWAN: Thanks, Paul.

PAUL KELLY: Thanks. Norman.

NORMAN SWAN: Professor Paul Kelly, who is the Chief Medical Officer of Australia.


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