Date published: 
19 January 2022
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

PETER STEFANOVIC:           

Well, isolation rules for Australians who test positive to COVID-19 could be reduced to help ease workplace shortages. Let's bring in the Chief Medical Officer now, Professor Paul Kelly, for a bit more on this. Professor, thanks for your time, as always. So when do you expect that those isolation periods could be reduced from seven to perhaps five days in line with the US and the UK?

PAUL KELLY:                        

Well, of course, we're learning all the time from international experience and our experience here in Australia. And several countries in the world have shortened those periods of isolation or quarantine in recent days and weeks. I think we have also done that here in the last couple of weeks and worked through the National Cabinet and AHPPC. But it's all about balance. The more that you decrease those isolation and quarantine periods, the higher the risk of transmission in the community, versus the issues we have seen and we have dealt with very quickly in relation to essential industries, healthcare workers, and aged care workers in the last couple of weeks. And that balance about what to do if people are asymptomatic and testing negative and coming back to work earlier than previously was the case. I would point out there in that case, we've gone way further than the US, the UK, and other part- and parts of Europe in terms of our bringing even the closest contacts with the highest risk of developing COVID, that is household contacts, back to work if they are asymptomatic and testing them to keep them at work. That's much further than other countries have gone, and so we do need to take that into account. We also need to, in my view, allow some of the things we have introduced over the last couple of weeks to play out and to work as we are doing very closely with industry to make sure that we know what the actual problem is. Is it the furloughing or is it people that are sick? And we're finding both of those. If you're sick, you're not coming back to work. If you've just got symptoms, if you're positive, you're not at work. So these are the trade-offs. They are difficult decisions. They're decisions that have to be made and are being made, and there'll be further discussion about that at National Cabinet this week.

PETER STEFANOVIC:           

Okay. So given the problems that we're having with worker shortages at the moment and those huge supply chain issues as well, have you got a time frame that you might be working towards on when you would like to see those isolation periods for those who test positive brought into five days?

PAUL KELLY:                        

So we've had discussions last week and this week after the last National Cabinet at the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, we've talked through those matters. So there'll be advice from us going up for discussion by the premiers, chief ministers and the Prime Minister at their Thursday meeting. So that's a matter for them to decide. And you know, there could be further announcements after that. But as I said, there is a balance and we need to take that into account.

PETER STEFANOVIC:           

So would your advice be days, weeks, months before that happens?

PAUL KELLY:                        

Look, I've spoken with colleagues at AHPPC in the last few weeks that we do need to consider, even though we're extremely busy working with this peak of - or close to peak - of Omicron cases all through Australia, except for WA at the moment. We do need to be considering and spending time thinking about what happens in the future. I think the next month or so will be dominated by this particular wave, but then it will decrease and we may, you know, need to consider going back to some previous normality there in terms of how we're dealing with the virus. I think we need to start getting ready for a winter with COVID and influenza. We haven't had that for the first two years of the pandemic. Other countries in Europe and in North America are experiencing that right now, and we can learn from their experience in regards to a dual pandemic- a dual epidemic.

PETER STEFANOVIC:           

[Interrupts] Okay, so a couple of questions there, Professor. Sorry, you make some good points there. So when do you expect this peak to emerge, this current peak? When will it pass?

PAUL KELLY:                        

So I've I believe that we are very close to the peak in New South Wales and ACT, probably soon in Victoria, a little bit further down the track in South Australia and Queensland. Queensland cases are increasing quite rapidly at the moment and hospitalisations. South Australia also has issues, and I was speaking with my counterpart in the Northern Territory last night as well, because they've got some issues emerging in remote Aboriginal communities. That's a very risky situation, which we're helping them with. But I think in the next few weeks, we will start to decrease. We've found the Omicron waves to be a rapid-rising, quickly-falling phenomenon in other countries, and we expect that to happen here as well.

PETER STEFANOVIC:           

Okay. And you brought up the winter problems that may emerge in a couple of months. So what plans are you going to have in place for an expected winter surge? And like you said there, this strain of flu that's happening right now in Europe, which will inevitably come to Australia if it's not here already.

PAUL KELLY:                        

Yes, so we're obviously continuing to have surveillance for flu as well as COVID, and we haven't seen any signs of that increasing at this stage. Been very, extremely historical lows of flu cases right throughout the last two years. But with open borders and with a relatively open society, we expect COVID will continue to be circulating, and flu almost certainly will be here in winter as it normally is. It's abnormal a couple of years to not have it. …

PETER STEFANOVIC:           

[Talks over] Yeah, sure. But just on the...

PAUL KELLY:                        

So we have all of our plans that we always have in flu, including very large numbers of pre-purchased vaccines for the flu season.

PETER STEFANOVIC:           

Okay. And just speaking of plans, a final one here, you've triggered the emergency powers. They were activated yesterday. Are there any more bullets to come after this to help hospitals?

PAUL KELLY:                        

Look, the Commonwealth's leaning in and assisting the states and territories who run the hospital systems to support. Lots of plans were done [audio skip] capacity and ability to know what's happening in hospitals. We report on that every week. So far, all hospital systems are coping. But the Victorian announcement yesterday, which was theirs, not a Commonwealth announcement of a Code Brown, it just means that there is an external threat to the hospital system, and they're taking the appropriate- they've activated that plan so that the appropriate issues could be dealt with. We, from the Commonwealth, have the private hospital guarantee, that's in place where the National Medical Stockpile, is continuing to roll out record numbers of personal protective equipment. Rapid antigen tests are coming from the National Medical Stockpile to the states and territories, and to aged care facilities, and that will increase over the coming weeks and other supplies, including, and very importantly, new treatments. The TGA is finalising their independent review of a couple of oral medications to assist in decreasing the chance of severe illness in people that are most prone to that, and there'll be announcements about that in the coming days.

PETER STEFANOVIC:           

Okay, a bit to come. Paul, appreciate it. Professor Paul Kelly, thank you.

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