Date published: 
2 January 2021
Media event date: 
30 December 2020
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

PAUL KELLY:  

Good afternoon everyone Paul Kelly here in Canberra with the COVID-19 update. Just to go through the numbers first of all, we’re now total cases in Australia at 28,381 – that’s 31 newly confirmed cases in the last 24 hours. Most of those are in New South Wales, so 25 cases there, seven of those are overseas acquired in hotel quarantine. But the other elements are the 18 new cases that have been confirmed today, up to 8pm last night - nine of those are in the Avalon cluster and in that area of the Northern Beaches, in the northern part of the Northern Beaches - most of those were in isolation and so those are not of a major concern. At the moment they are all reasonably well and are in that area which is essentially locked down.

The nine cases outside of the Northern Beaches, of course, are a concern, and particularly that cluster which has now been labelled the Croydon cluster in the inner west of Sydney. And that’s- all of those cases are close contacts of the case that was mentioned yesterday in New South Wales, and then a couple of cases in Wollongong as well as one other in northern Sydney. The other states not a lot going on - all of those overseas acquired cases.

We have, pleasingly, still very few cases in hospital, so despite the increase in cases in New South Wales we only 19 people hospitalised cross the nation in relation to COVID, and no-one in ICU. This is a very different situation to many other countries, as we've said a lot. There are- the Intensive Care Units in California, for example, are completely full and very much overwhelmed by the COVID situation. In the UK in the last 24 hours 51,000 new cases and many people who have unfortunately passed away and many in hospital. So we have a- still have a very much different situation here in Australia, but those extra cases, particularly those ones that are outside of the Northern Beaches area which we've been following for the last week or so, are a concern.

Just a couple of other matters that have come up. There has been some discussion around vaccines and where we're up to in terms of vaccination plans here in Australia. They are on target. We are going ahead with those, all of those preparatory phases which includes the procurement of vaccines, making sure that those deliveries are coming when they need to be here; that our regulators are continuing to work through this period and are eagerly awaiting further information from both AstraZeneca and Pfizer in the coming days.

There are no approvals yet, no full approvals yet anywhere in the world for any COVID vaccine. The emergency use authorisation or similar mechanisms that are happening in some parts of the world are exactly that – they’re for an emergency use, they are very limited and we’re now a few weeks into that situation in the UK, the US and other places. And we will be watching, and are watching very closely what is happening in relation to firstly the plans of the roll-out and how that's working, what we can learn from those things, but particularly any safety concerns that may emerge with this increased numbers of vaccines that have been given in other parts of the world.

We’ll do our full assessment. Our Therapeutic Goods Administration is onto that, they’re in close contact with other regulatory mechanisms throughout the world, virtually on a daily basis, and they’ll be fast, but they’ll be thorough. And [audio skip] we’ll keep that confidence and people should have confidence in that regulatory approach here in Australia, particularly around safety, but also quality of these brand new vaccines.

The third point I just wanted to make was in relation to pre-flight testing – that’s been mentioned in recent days and there has been some interest in- particularly in relation to the variant strains that are coming out of the UK and South Africa, whether we should be changing our mechanisms there. We’re meeting the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, the AHPCC is meeting under my chairmanship every day. We met again today, we discussed pre-flight testing yesterday, and in particular again today. There is no change from our medical advice as to what should happen there, but we are looking at those issues carefully going forward.

I would say of all- that Qantas some time ago had already introduced their own testing regime in relation to pre-flight testing, and so Qantas are the ones that are mostly the ones associated with our assisted flights, assisted by the Commonwealth to bring Australians home, particularly from the UK and from India at this time. And so Qantas is testing everyone before they get on the flight. Anyone that’s positive is not allowed to fly. So for example, in the most recent flight that came into Howard Springs, there were 12 people who were either positive or of indeterminate result from pre-flight testing and they, they were refused boarding.

So that’s actually happening with Qantas. We understand that Singapore Airlines is also doing that. And we’ll be, like Minister Hunt has requested that I write to the other airlines that are coming into Australia to make sure that we know what they are doing in relation to pre-flight testing.

So, I’ll leave it there and I’ll go to questions. I think we've got Tamsin from the Herald Sun?

QUESTION:  

Thank you, Professor Kelly. Just further on those two strains that are coming in. Some countries, New Zealand included, have introduced they’re doing three tests rather than two tests for people in their hotel quarantine system. Is that something that we would potentially consider here just to make sure we’re catching every case? And are there any other measures that we could be taking? Potentially testing staff in the hotel facilities or anything like that? Or is there any other, are there any other measures that we should be looking at?

PAUL KELLY:          

So, we are already- all states are testing their quarantine workers and others around the borders at the moment on a weekly basis at least. We’ve- AHPPC has issued a guidance on that regular testing as being an important component for staff. Similarly, with air crew in recent- in the last week or so that was introduced as [audio skip]. In terms of how often tests should be done on people in quarantine, that certainly is something we will look at in relation to what New Zealand has done - we learn from each other a lot across the Tasman, so I will follow that up. But at the moment there is no plan to change. Our quarantine system is very safe. We've had a formal review of all states except Victoria by Professor Halton, and also then the Coates Inquiry in Victoria examined that in some detail. So our quarantine system is safe and the current system is working well.

In terms of this variant, there are many variants in relation to this particular virus. It is quite stable, but that variation is helpful, it's how we do our genomic testing that people have heard about, and helps our disease detectives to chase down those chains of [audio skip] – where they come from and which ones are linked. And so the variations can be very useful from a diagnostic point of view.

The particular variant out of the UK – we’re getting more information about that. Public Health England provided some further interim results of their examination of that issue in the UK over the last- overnight. It confirms what we’ve said here before, is that this variant is not more severe, doesn't cause more severe illness; there is no increase in hospitalisation or increase in 28-day mortality - so they are positive signs. It does appear that it is more transmissible, but not majorly so. And I would maintain that our two weeks of quarantine with someone in their own room in a hotel, as long as that’s strictly adhered to, means that it doesn't really matter whether that's more transmissible or not, as long as those cases as has indeed been [audio skip] up to now are only occurring in hotel quarantine.

So, Jono from Nine News.

QUESTION:  

Professor Kelly, thanks again for your time during this time of the year. Can I ask you a couple of issues? Rapid antigen tests, we've seen some debate around those. Is there any consideration for rolling them out at the border as an extra level of security measures? Do you still have concerns about their effectiveness in terms of accuracy? And when it comes to getting the vaccine, who’s going to have information about whether or not people have been vaccinated?

PAUL KELLY:

So, firstly on the antigen tests. There have been some antigen tests that have been registered with the TGA, but in very limited use. They- Some of them are very good, some are better than others in terms of diagnosis of COVID. They are mainly licensed for [audio skip] you know, in symptomatic testing, not asymptomatic testing or screening at this point. But we’ve had, and continue to have conversations with our technical expert panels that assist the AHPPC in relation to antigen testing and how it would fit into our testing regime. What I would say, though, we've seen that massive increase in PCR testing just before Christmas, up to almost 70,000 tests in a day; most of those in New South Wales. And despite that – and just remember that's our gold standard test, the PCR test, in a laboratory – despite that major increase in numbers, the turnaround time for results remained very solid, so within a day, and in many cases, within hours. So we're relying on that gold standard for now. The antigen tests will have a role, definitely. But at the moment, it’s the PCR testing. And in terms of vaccination- so there are a lot of- there is a lot of planning going on as to how the vaccine will be rolled out, how it will be monitored, how we decide- how we know whether people have had their first dose, making sure they have their second dose, and making sure that that's registered so that people have a record of their vaccination. And all of those things are very important, and those plans are going ahead in consultation with the states and territories.

Nick from the Sydney Morning Herald?

QUESTION:  

Thanks, Professor. Two questions: Firstly, is there a realistic prospect of having a kind of vaccine pass that would allow vaccinated travellers to skip hotel quarantine at some point perhaps in the next year? And secondly, in jurisdictions where there’s decreasing(*) virus case counts, is it sensible in those areas to hold mass crowd events?

PAUL KELLY:          

So firstly, on the vaccine passport or immunity passport idea, that’s certainly a- something we’re looking at very carefully and closely. For the time being, and we will be shortly reiterating that on our Smartraveller website – I've been discussing with my colleagues in the Department of Foreign Affairs about the wording of that this morning; we were asked to do that by the Foreign Minister – is that there is no change. If people have been vaccinated or not, they will be having 14-days’ quarantine for the time being. And we should remember that although a vaccine has been rolled out in a number of countries, I think tomorrow will be the first person in the UK will be getting their second dose of vaccine. And we know that the Pfizer vaccine, even though it’s very effective, that maximum effectiveness doesn't kick in until a week after the second vaccine, which is essentially a month after the first vaccine. So we have some time to consider these matters. But for the moment, vaccination will not be an alternative to 14-day quarantine. And those decisions will have to be thought through carefully over the coming months as to how that will be handled. And the second one about mass crowd events, I presume you're referring to the Sydney cricket test match?

QUESTION:  

Yes.

PAUL KELLY:

Yes. So I’ll admit I'm a cricket tragic. I've been to many Sydney test matches, the most memorable one – I will give a shout out to my 91-year-old mother-in-law and my 86-year-old father. We had a wonderful day at the cricket, and I know it’s a great thing for Sydney to have that event. We know that outdoor entertainment that is in a seated venue is much safer than indoor gatherings, and that was stressed by New South Wales Health today, and I agree with that. I must say that - and I know that there are very good COVID-safe plans that have been reinforced with New South Wales Health, the SCG, I'm sure, as well as Cricket Australia, and that will be able to be looked at in coming days. There’s crowd restrictions, for example, masks will be available, et cetera. But I would just reiterate with my family, I wouldn't be taking them to this particular cricket because of their vulnerability, and so there is risk. It needs to be outweighed with the benefits, of course. The other thing I would say is that the start date is 7 January, and nine days is very long in COVID time. So let's see what happens in Sydney in the next week.

Any follow-up questions? Tamsin first?

QUESTION:  

I’m just wondering how confident you were that, I guess, the way that other states have dealt with the Sydney outbreak. They've managed to stop the virus getting in. Do you have any concerns that we haven't detected the virus in other cities [indistinct]… cluster?

PAUL KELLY:          

Well, I’d reiterate the advice we’ve been giving from the beginning. If people have even the mildest symptoms that might be related to COVID – and everyone knows what they are now – to please get tested. Come forward and be tested. The testing rates in other states and territories outside of New South Wales are pretty low at the moment, but, please, just consider getting tested if you have those symptoms. And watch out for that advice, if you have travelled from Sydney- from the Greater Sydney area. There are a large number of venues now of interest, not only in the Northern Beaches but elsewhere. And so if you have been to any of those places, please take that advice from New South Wales Health. At the moment, in terms of – other than that, I think the states and territories have made their assessments in relation to risk, and they are re-examining that actively every day when AHPPC is meeting.

Anyone else with a follow-up? Jono?

QUESTION:  

Chief Medical Officer, if I could, thanks very much. We’re obviously about 24 hours, slightly more away, from seeing out this year. What's your hope, your vision for 2021?

PAUL KELLY:          

Well, let's hope for a better year than 2020. I think it has been a very long year for everyone, and there is great hope with the vaccines. That’s certainly something that we should pin our hope on early in the New Year. That will change the way we are able to deal with this virus into the next year. And apologies for the people in the room. I was just looking at the phone. Thanks.

QUESTION:  

Can I just confirm, given the current restrictions in Sydney, do you still think it's okay for the SCG to host the cricket?

PAUL KELLY:          

So that's a decision that’s ultimately for the New South Wales authorities. As I said, I'm happy to see the cricket going ahead. Whether that should happen is a matter for the authorities, as well as with Cricket Australia and so forth.

QUESTION:  

[Talks over] [Indistinct]… you're happy with that?

PAUL KELLY:          

If they have the COVID-safe plans in place at this stage yes, I'm happy with that. But as I said, nine days is a long time in COVID time, and let's see what happens particularly with that Croydon cluster.

QUESTION:  

Professor, are you aware of a shop in Brisbane that has put up a sign saying: people wearing a surgical mask aren’t allowed to enter the store? Saying your body makes particles when you’re healing. They’re not contagious. If you are fragile and believe you need to wear a mask, do not enter. What do you think of that?

PAUL KELLY:          

Well, I don't agree with it. I think as I've made clear on many occasions in terms of mask use, that’s a matter for people's choice. Particularly if you’re vulnerable to more severe COVID infection, you should be considering that, particularly in places of community transmission. Now, there is no community transmission that we know of in Brisbane at the moment, but certainly I would be interested in the details of that shop.

QUESTION:  

Do you think it's reckless of them to be putting up signs that say things like that?

PAUL KELLY:          

Well, it's firstly not true. And secondly, yes, I would prefer that they wouldn't be putting up signs like that.

QUESTION:  

How concerned are you about the Sydney clusters? I mean the Croydon cluster has no known links to the Northern Beaches. Is there widespread, undetected community transmission in Sydney? And do you think that it would be wise to perhaps go through a Melbourne-style lockdown now to prevent that later?

PAUL KELLY:          

So, New South Wales Health right throughout this pandemic have been the- our poster people, if you like, in relation to their contact tracing. They are superb at this, and it always amazes me how quickly they get onto things and how quickly they work through what are sometimes very complex chains of transmission and get very detailed genomic analysis very quickly. So they’re onto this. They were onto it immediately that first case came forward. And well done for them coming forward and getting a test. And now we need to wait and see. They have introduced new issues today in terms of household gatherings, and I think that's appropriate. New Year's Eve celebrations are a concern, and I know that they’ve looked at that very carefully and they've decided on the course they've taken today. But I know the Chief Health Officer in New South Wales will be looking at this very carefully in coming days and make that proportionate decision, weighing up risks and benefits, which, of course, they need to do.

QUESTION:  

Professor, are you concerned about misinformation on COVID-19 spreading on social media? Are you worried that could lead to breaches of protocols, hotel quarantine, or affect the uptake rate of a vaccine? And then would you like if these social media platforms provided you with the information of the most viral content so that you can see what information people are absorbing? Do you think that's a good idea?

PAUL KELLY:          

Well, certainly my call, not so much to the people who are putting those things up, but particularly to those who might be reading them, there is a very good source of truth – it’s through the experts that you can trust, through the Australian Government and state and territory governments, and I would suggest you listen to them rather than other things on social media. In terms of our monitoring of social media, we do monitor social media very carefully, and when there are reasons for us to counter some of the less scientifically based arguments, we do so.

QUESTION:  

Would you like, then, more transparency from the social media platforms themselves? [Indistinct] maybe we(*) have a live list of all the things that are most viral, the most- information most people are consuming, so you can keep an eye on it- make it easier for you and your team?

PAUL KELLY:          

Well, we have ways of looking at that as well, and I know that several of the social media platforms have been very fast on removing misinformation in the past, and I encourage them to keep doing that. Last question. Yes.

QUESTION:  

Can I have two?

PAUL KELLY:          

You can have two. Yes.

QUESTION:  

So, back in March or April, Brendan Murphy said that there were likely 10 times more cases in Australia and across the globe than were detected or that were recorded. Do you think that is still the case in Sydney right now? Is the first question, and then I’ll…

PAUL KELLY:          

Yeah. So, early on, when we started back at that time, when Professor Murphy made that comment, we were restricting who was being tested, and so I'm sure in those early days there were some that had the disease and were not picked up by the PCR testing. And that has been confirmed by the serological studies that have been done in Sydney, and that one in 10 is about right, but I think things have changed rapidly and enormously since then, so- particularly when we look at the numbers of tests that were done just before Christmas. I would be very surprised if there were many people wandering around Sydney right now with a lack of diagnosis. But just to re-emphasise, if anyone does have even the mildest of symptoms, anywhere in Sydney, Greater Sydney, including Wollongong and the Central Coast right now, please come forward and get your free test, because that's the way we can tell- we can answer that question.

QUESTION:  

And just on the vaccine, why is the TGA delaying emergency approval? What's the difference between an emergency approval and final approval? Isn't an approval an approval? And if it does- if the timeline is still correct and we get approval in January, why will it take until March for the rollout? Isn't that just too long?

PAUL KELLY:          

So firstly, the TGA is not delaying anything. There is no mechanism in Australia which is similar to the emergency approvals that have been put forward by other regulators. Just to be very clear, emergency approval is very different from a regular standard full approval. All of those emergency approvals that have happened overseas come with very strict guidelines about who can be given it, what sort of wrap-around in terms of safety and so forth and monitoring will happen. So it’s a very different process. We don't have that process in Australia. We don't have an emergency here in Australia. In terms of when that approval will come forward, once we have all the information that we need to make that approval from the companies that are making these vaccines available, that will be very quickly but thoroughly looked at, and these are many, many pages of- tens of thousands of pages of documents. So we have our team on stand-by right now. As soon as that arrives, we will be looking at it.

And that will be an independent regulator's approval process, as is the case with every vaccine and every new medicine in Australia. As soon as that's done, that's not quite the end of the story. There needs to be some batch testing and so forth for quality. The- and then the final distribution will happen very rapidly after that. So the rate-limiting(*) step, really, is getting the information from the companies themselves – the full information, so they can be absolutely and fully looked at and the regulatory decision can be made.

Yep, okay. Thanks very much.

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