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

LAURA JAYES:     

Well, joining me now live is the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly. Thanks so much for your time. Did you advise the Government to make it illegal for Australians returning home from India over the next two weeks?

PAUL KELLY:       

Well, late last week I was asked to provide advice and the Department of Health was asked to provide advice to the Minister in relation to the public health threat, and issues that we had observed over the last few weeks in relation to the number of- numbers and the proportion of positive cases coming into Australia - and that was very much related to people returning from India. And so, even with the other things that we’d developed last week in terms of stopping some of those flights, or delaying them at least, there was still an issue. And so, we were asked to provide public health advice, to inform a decision under the Biosecurity Act - there’s a certain section in there, section 477, I think will possibly become a bit famous, that requires the Minister to seek advice, in relation to the proportionality of potential decisions, as well as making sure that they are least restrictive for the least amount of time necessary to deal with an issue of public health threat. And so, that was the advice that we provided.

LAURA JAYES:     

Okay. So, the advice that you provided was to make it, essentially, illegal for any Australian citizens returning home from India for about two weeks. Is that correct?

PAUL KELLY:       

So, the advice we provided was what we were asked for, which was related to that particular section of the Act, which was the public health threat? What is the nature of that public health threat? What would need- what sort of time would need to decrease that threat? And also, what sort of things could be done to decrease that threat? So, that was what we provided. And then, under the law, there are- once that decisions been made under those emergency powers, in another section of the Act is about the penalty.

LAURA JAYES:     

Yeah.

PAUL KELLY:       

So, we weren’t asked about penalties - that’s the law.

LAURA JAYES:     

Okay. But, you talk about this S- Section 477 under the Act, which also had notes about five years’ jail time or a $66,000 fine, and you’ve signed off on it. So, it was your advice?

PAUL KELLY:       

So, that’s a different section of the Act. Just be very clear. What we were asked for was public health advice, and the nature of the threat, and what could be done about it, and for how long that was needed. That was the advice given. Once the decisions been made, then there are other part of the Act that says: okay…

LAURA JAYES:     

Right.

PAUL KELLY:       

… if someone breaches those, those elements then there are penalties involved. That’s, that’s written in there, it’s an Act that which was passed by Parliament in 2015, and that’s always been there. The fact is that this is the only time-

LAURA JAYES:     

[Talks over] Forgive me, Professor. Forgive me, because – so, I just really want to clarify this, because yesterday we heard from Marise Payne, over the weekend we heard from Josh Frydenberg that says this decision to make it illegal for Australians to travel home was the medical advice given. So, are you saying you provided medical advice, and the Government made the decision to make it illegal? Or, was it you?

PAUL KELLY:       

I’m an advisor, I don’t make decisions of Government.

LAURA JAYES:     

Okay. Why so extreme?

PAUL KELLY:       

So, I think you played a bit from the Minister for Education, just there, about the level of concern. So, we’ve seen now 14 breaches of hotel quarantine over the last– since October last year, several since the beginning of the year. Almost all of those have been related to variants of concern, and that has led to various actions, including what’s happened in Perth over the weekend. So, this is continuing to be a threat from overseas and our objective has to remain to keep Australians in Australia safe - that has got to be the fundamental element, and that was what I was asked to give advice upon. So, over the last couple of weeks, as we’ve seen on one other occasion in the last year, we’ve seen a very rapid rise in the percentage of positives in our hotel quarantine system, particularly, but not only in Howard Springs in the Territory, and so, action needed to be taken. And so, we were asked what, what was the problem? And what could be done to fix it? And that’s, that’s the advice we gave.

LAURA JAYES:     

So, can hotel quarantine systems only handle 2 per cent of positive cases? Is that correct?

PAUL KELLY:       

So, that’s the benchmark that we agreed with the states and territories very early on in this pandemic, and it was the advice of the Australian Health Protection Committee at that time - that that would be a benchmark of concern, that we should take action once we got to that level. And in Howard Springs at the moment, it’s over 15 per cent of which 70 per cent– over 70 per cent of them are people that have arrived back from India. So, I think you can get a sense that- where the issue was and why action needed to be taken. We need to make our quarantine systems as safe as they can. And in particular, in the Northern Territory, they do have limitations in their healthcare for Territorians. I’ve worked in Darwin, and I- there is- that hospital, the Royal Darwin Hospital is almost always full. And so, we need to take those things into account as well.

LAURA JAYES:     

Just one final question, what responsibility do you have to those 9000 Australians in India who are at great risk of contracting COVID?

PAUL KELLY:       

So of course, this is a- has been a very difficult decision of Government to make this decision, particularly for those 9000 Australians that are in India - and my heart, my heart definitely goes out to them and to their families that are here as well. Just to very much stress this is a two-week pause, there will be a lot of work that’s done in that two weeks to make sure that we can resume getting Australians home from India, and that’s, that’s a really important component of this, and why that two weeks was necessary. But, we need to, need to get them home.

LAURA JAYES:     

[Talks over] So, the Government says that will just be reviewed in two weeks. Are you guaranteeing that that will change? Your advice will be that that will be lifted in two weeks so those Australians don’t remain stranded?

PAUL KELLY:       

So, we’ll continue to give advice based on the information that we have and the data that we’re, we’re collecting, not only here but also in India, in relation to the pandemic there and the- and different ways that we can look at decreasing the number of positive cases coming home from India - and so, we’ll continue to do that. The actual instrument under the Biosecurity Act, which was signed on Friday night, is, is for a two-week period - it stops on the 15th.

LAURA JAYES:     

Alright.

PAUL KELLY:       

So, that may need– if it needs to be continued, that’ll be a whole different process. 

LAURA JAYES:     

Okay. Well, we’ll hopefully ask you about that process when we get closer to the time. Paul Kelly, thanks so much.

PAUL KELLY:       

You’re welcome.

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