Date published: 
3 May 2021
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

FRAN KELLY:       

Well, Professor Paul Kelly is the man with the most difficult job in Australia right now, the Chief Medical Officer. Paul Kelly, welcome back to Breakfast.

PAUL KELLY:       

Morning, Fran.

FRAN KELLY:       

Before I get to the rollout of the over 50s, can I ask you about the ban on return flights from India and the tough measures announced by the Government on Friday night to enforce them, including jail terms?

The Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, has said clearly on the weekend, the decision to bring in those tough measures was based on your health advice. Did you advise the Government to make it an offence to try and come home from India?

PAUL KELLY:       

Well, I think a couple of important points to understand there, Fran. We were asked to provide health advice to the Government, specifically the Minister of Health, because the Biosecurity Act is under his remit. Provide advice about appropriate and proportionate measures that are no more restrictive than required to deal with an emergency issue. And so, that advice was given and the decisions were made by Government on the basis of that advice.

FRAN KELLY:       

And was your advice to ban flights and to impose jail sentences on those who might try to circumvent that ban?

PAUL KELLY:       

So, the advice was based on what was the public health threat to Australia of an increasing percentage of people, of Australians coming back from India with the virus. And that's a fact. That's been noted over the last few weeks. In the last week, we were asked to look at what were the highest risk countries in the world in terms of, of that, of people coming into our hotel quarantine system and into Howard Springs - the Howard Springs facility in particular. And that was absolutely and clearly from the- from India, people arriving from India.

FRAN KELLY:       

Okay.

PAUL KELLY:       

So that was the advice that was given. In terms of the fines and so forth, that is just the- so that- they're in the Biosecurity Act as offences under the Act. So, there was no advice given in relation to fines or jail terms, that's just how that Biosecurity Act works. If there is a breach of what is seen as an emergency- a use of the emergency powers, then that's what transpires. So, we didn't give any advice in relation to penalties.

FRAN KELLY:       

So, you were asked to provide health advice about appropriate and proportionate measures. And your health advice was to ban flights from India for several weeks?

PAUL KELLY:       

Well, our advice was that we need to do something about the number of these cases coming into our hotel quarantine because of the risk of incursions, as we've seen again over the weekend from WA. So, that was the advice. And then the other part of the advice was, where is that biggest risk coming from - by far and away that was coming from people arriving from India. So, that was the advice given, the public health advice. And then the response to that was obviously a decision of Government to use the Biosecurity Act in that way.

FRAN KELLY:       

And the- in using the Biosecurity Act in this way, we haven't seen it used in this way before. Why didn't we see it used in this way when the virus was raging in the UK and the US?

PAUL KELLY:       

So, that was very early on in the in the pandemic, you will recall. And we've been looking at the percentage positive rate coming right throughout the pandemic. And in those first few weeks, yes, there was a huge number of people who were positive coming in from a variety of countries, rushing to come back to Australia at that time.

But then it actually really settled in for the last over a year to being around about one per cent of arrivals, sometimes a little bit more, sometimes a little bit less until about a month ago when we had the issue from Papua New Guinea. And there were decisions made there, as you'll recall, in relation to flights to Papua New Guinea and further restrictions on that. And that actually brought the issue, particularly in Queensland at that time, because that's where all the Papua New Guinea flights come into. And over a couple of weeks, that actually decreased the problem. And you'll recall, back then, that was when we were having a couple of breaches from hotel quarantine in Queensland.

So we know the cause and effect, we know how to fix it. And so, using the same rationale when we've seen that massive increase, particularly in the Howard Springs facility over the last couple of weeks in relation to Australians returning from India. So that was the rationale for making that advice.

Now, I would point out that it is only for two weeks. The instrument itself actually expires on the 15th of May. So, it can't continue without further advice and further decisions. And that's what we're absolutely focused on now, to see what we can do to deal with this situation. We're very committed …

FRAN KELLY:       

[Interrupts] So, what is the definition - what is the definition of a high-risk country then, that you would evaluate in two weeks' time if the virus is still raging in India? Could you change that advice?

PAUL KELLY:       

Well, I - no, I think, you know, as I heard you talking earlier about on your program, about the predictions of what's going to happen in India, I agree that it's going to continue to be a terrible situation there and our hearts really go out to anyone in India, not only Australians, but the entire Indian population. This is an enormous pandemic, very clearly underestimated at the moment, I would say, in terms of numbers.

So, I don't think that's going to be fixed in two weeks. This is going to take months to get better. And the vaccine program rolling out in India is absolutely crucial to bringing it under control. What can change, though, is the way that we look at people prior to departure.

And so, we have already insisted on having a test 72 hours before departure. We're going to strengthen that by using antigen testing at airports as well. And we're looking at various other measures to decrease the positivity rate of flights coming from India, as well as what we can do once they arrive. So, there's a whole series of things we're looking at now.

FRAN KELLY:       

So, you're not thinking you'll extend that ban?

PAUL KELLY:       

Well, that's ultimately a decision for Government. We will no doubt be asked advice. I'm sure I will continue to be asked advice on a daily basis, and the Department of Health will provide that advice as required. And through the next two weeks, we'll be working very carefully and strongly to deal with that matter.

FRAN KELLY:       

And in terms of the notion of making people, you know, in a COVID-safe position to come home. What about the notion from Yadu Singh, the President of the Federation of Indian Associations of New South Wales who told us the Government should be looking at vaccinating Australians stranding overseas or at least vaccinating those 600 or so vulnerable, people classed as vulnerable. Are you considering that?

PAUL KELLY:       

Well, it's certainly something to consider, I guess, from the vaccination, we'll get to that in a minute in Australia. But, you know, a big day today in terms of eligibility …

FRAN KELLY:       

[Talks over] Sure.

PAUL KELLY:       

… and rolling out to others. But in any vac- we've had the issue of vaccine supply; we've been very open with that. We are sharing vaccine with our near neighbours, with Papua New Guinea, with Timor-Leste and other Pacific island countries. So, what could happen in India it's certainly worth looking at. I would say, though, that we know that many of the Australians that are in India at the moment, they're very scattered. So it's a huge country; being able to get to them would be a challenge, particularly [indistinct]…

FRAN KELLY:       

[Interrupts] But if we could offer it at the consul- at our consu- at our High Commissions and other places, are you considering that at all?

PAUL KELLY:       

It's certainly a worthwhile idea and we'll- I'll take that on board. [Indistinct]…

FRAN KELLY:       

[Interrupts] But you've not been looking at it yet?

PAUL KELLY:       

We can consider a whole range of things, Fran.

FRAN KELLY:       

Okay. Let's move onto the over 50s vaccination because today, from today, people in the over 50s group, which I think was classed in the old classification system, 2A, will be allowed to attend COVID vaccination hubs for their first injection. If it all goes to plan, that's 6 million Australians vaccinated against COVID-19. How long do you expect this phase to take?

PAUL KELLY:       

Well, it certainly is a big day. We've- as has been the case all throughout the rollout of the vaccine, we're ahead of schedule on starting 2A. We decided this was the time to get on and open up that eligibility to people over the age of 50. And from today, there's 136 GP respiratory clinics that are already open for bookings and 400 general practices as well, have come forward, that they wanted to start earlier than 17 May, as was planned.

FRAN KELLY:       

[Interrupts] And they're allowed to?

PAUL KELLY:       

Yes. Yeah, they're already up on the eligibility checker and I'd encourage everyone to go and see where you can get that jab. Roll up your sleeve and get going…

FRAN KELLY:       

[Interrupts] It's not universal-

PAUL KELLY:       

…And that's in addition to the state and territory clinics, of course.

FRAN KELLY:       

Okay. And it's not universal, though. In New South Wales, for instance, is delaying the rollout until 17 May primarily, I think, because it's got to deal with its 1A priority group first that hasn't received- not everyone there's received an injection. Is that going too slowly or is this that- a reflection of, that there has more work, people to vaccinate in that group and-?

PAUL KELLY:       

Look, so we've got our - sorry about the beeps, there's lots of calls coming in. So, all states have the ability to adapt to their own circumstances. We've got our- the national program and we're rolling out where we can. And the states and territories that have agreed to do that from today have agreed to do that and are going on with that program. New South Wales has made their own decision; you'd need to ask them about that. But suffice to say, that the 1A and 1B continues when- in every state and territory. They remain our priority groups because they're frontline and at highest risk of either severe disease or being exposed to the virus. And so that absolutely has to continue and including and in particular in our quarantine workers.

FRAN KELLY:       

So for anyone listening, just to be clear again, how do- because from what I'm- get the messages here to the program, still a lot of confusion about how people find out where and when they can get their vaccine. Where do you go to find out?

PAUL KELLY:       

So, for the GP's that are eligible, they'll be calling you. If you're in their practice, they'll be calling you. You can also go online at health.gov.au and look for the eligibility tracker. And all of the places that are available and who is eligible to go to those places to get the vaccine are available online. There's also a phone option if you go to that website.

FRAN KELLY:       

There's been a little- fair bit of talk about vaccine hesitancy sort of on the increase after the reports of blood clot risk with AstraZeneca. What can you say? What advice do you have for people, particularly who perhaps on the cusp of 50, they might be 51, 52 with trepidation about the blood clot risk?

PAUL KELLY:       

So, you know, we continue to look at that issue. And the TGA is meeting pretty much every day with international - or every night - with their international counterparts in Europe and the UK in particular, because they've- they're ahead of us in terms of the numbers of people that have had the AstraZeneca vaccine and they're able to follow that. We continue to look very carefully at every report of blood clots and to analyse that as to what the cause is. The clear- my clear message is that the benefit of the vaccine outweighs the risk. People are seeing what's happening in India. We know that we're, and our absolute objective here is to keep Australia safe while we navigate our way through this to a post-COVID future. But incursions are happening and an outbreak could happen in Australia. And so please do not hesitate, obviously, if you- this is not a compulsory vaccine. And so people have their choice, but waiting until the end of the year is not advised.

FRAN KELLY:       

[Interrupts] A lot of people want to wait till the end of the year because then they think they might get Pfizer. Will they? Will people over 50s get Pfizer later in the year?

PAUL KELLY:       

So we know that we've got- we will have 40 million doses of Pfizer coming before the end of year, but it will be close to the end of the year. Winter is close. And as I say, where we are, we can get an outbreak in Australia any time. And so far, we've been very successful in controlling those, those small outbreaks.

FRAN KELLY:       

[Interrupts] But if people wanted to wait, they wanted to take that risk. They do the risk benefit, cost benefit equation for themselves and they wanted to wait in the hope they'll get Pfizer; will they be able to get Pfizer?

PAUL KELLY:       

The vaccination is not compulsory, Fran. And so people will need to make that assessment themselves and-

FRAN KELLY:       

[Interrupts] But will there be Pfizer available for people beyond the under 50s later in the year?

PAUL KELLY:       

Well, the vaccines will be available later on in the year. We have the Novavax hopefully coming as well. So there'll be a range of possibilities later in the year. The fact is, at the moment, if you're over 50, the only vaccine that you will be offered is AstraZeneca.

FRAN KELLY:       

And just finally, media reports that Australia is negotiating another vaccine contract with the French company, this one Valneva, which, as Norman explained to us earlier, is an inactivated vaccine. So it's not the same as the successful mRNA vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna. Why are we negotiating for an inactivated vaccine when the evidence so far, which is the Sinovac I think, is it's not terribly effective. It's only got a range of effectiveness, of about 50 or 60 per cent.

PAUL KELLY:       

We're continuing to have discussions with a range of companies around the world, Fran, and when we've made decisions about purchasing any of those under contract, that will be announced. So, you know, which vaccines we get is certainly not absolutely decided at the moment. What we have is the Pfizer vaccine as an mRNA vaccine. The AstraZeneca is a viral vector vaccine. We're looking to get the protein-based vaccine of Novavax. All of those are very safe and effective vaccines and there are a range of other options we're looking at.

FRAN KELLY:       

[Talks over] Moderna is the only one designed for the South African variant. Are we looking to get that?

PAUL KELLY:       

As I said, Fran, we're continuing to talk to a range of companies and there'll be announcements whenever we make a successful contract.

FRAN KELLY:       

Alright. Paul Kelly, thank you very much for joining us.

PAUL KELLY:       

You're welcome.

FRAN KELLY:       

Appreciate your time. Professor Paul Kelly is Australia's Chief Medical Officer. So plenty of information there - health.gov.au. The role for over 50s begins today. If you want to know where you can go to those 136 respiratory clinics, they're all there on the eligibility tracker, and some 400 GPs clinics from today. Though, most GPs won't be handing out the vaccine to over 50s until 17 May.

Contact

Departmental media enquiries

Contact for members of the media

news [at] health.gov.au (subject: Media%20enquiry%20-%20News%20item%20ID21431, body: URL - https%3A%2F%2Fwww.health.gov.au%2Fnews%2Fchief-medical-officer-professor-paul-kellys-interview-on-abc-radio-national-on-3-may-2021)

View contact