Date published: 
28 April 2020
Media event date: 
27 April 2020
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

BRENDAN MURPHY:

Good afternoon, I’m joined by Daniel Keys, who is our App Technical Whiz [Department of Health Chief Information Officer], in case there are any technical questions today. A general update. The current case number is 6720 confirmed coronavirus cases in Australia. Still 83 deaths, unfortunately, but our continual positive trend of low case numbers continues. So, over the last week, we've certainly seen daily numbers that were significantly lower than the previous week. But as I've also said on many occasions, the fact we have- still picking up new cases means that we obviously cannot be complacent. Someone was asking about the number of hospitalised patients. There are 113 people in hospital at the moment - 43 people still in intensive care and 27 people currently receiving support from ventilators at the moment - and those numbers again have come down significantly over the last few weeks. And as you also know, there are some jurisdictions in Australia that have had no new cases for some days. So, our suppression strategy is working well.

Our focus at the moment - I've said this on many occasions and many press conferences - is to build our public health capacity. We've just had a meeting of the Health Protection Principle Committee where we're talking about significantly expanding testing across the country, including for the first time, we will be starting some tests in asymptomatic people to try and be absolutely sure that we are capturing every case that we can and that we're not missing cases. We don't think we are missing significant numbers of cases in Australia, but if we're going to consider at the National Cabinet in a few weeks' time any relaxation of distancing measures, we have to be so well-prepared.

Part of that preparedness is the app. Really, really excited that over a million Australians downloaded it just in the first evening. That is an amazing and really gratifying outcome. I'm so proud of my fellow citizens. Not only did I and my family and every doctor and every staff member I know downloaded it, and I'm sure every journalist in the country downloaded it because they're all great citizens too. But that's really exciting. And today we're having continued further uptake and I'm hoping that we'll get even higher. Minister Hunt is going to make some announcements later on, but I'd be pretty confident we might be beating yesterday's performance if we keep going. It has been really, really great, the uptake by the Australian community, because they know that this is about protecting them. It's about helping our public health officials do their job and that's all it is, and it is a no-risk, highly secure very safe app. And I've said on many occasions, including yesterday, that the more Australians who take this up, the more secure we are about our public health response and the more secure National Cabinet will be about thinking about taking those gentle, cautious steps that we want to take, we all want to take. But no one in Australia wants to risk a situation occurring here like we've seen in many other countries with widespread transmission. We must keep our community safe and this app is about doing that.

I'll stop it there and take questions. And if there's any questions on the app, Daniel is here to answer them if there are technical questions. So…

QUESTION:  

Professor Murphy, I wanted to ask about community transmissions. Unknown- the number of people who are with no known illness and where they get it from.

BRENDAN MURPHY:

Yep.

QUESTION:

In New South Wales, we've seen just 15 in the last week…

BRENDAN MURPHY:

Yep.

QUESTION:

Over the course of the weekend, we've seen people out and about across the country in beaches and parks and shopping centres again. What's your message to those people? And how hard is it to actually catch coronavirus in Australia if just .01 per cent of the population has the virus?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

So, obviously, the lower the numbers and the better the testing, it's more difficult to catch it, but we have seen outbreaks of 35 people from one case in a wedding. It is highly infectious. So, if you have someone, particularly who we believe sheds a lot of virus, what we call a super spreader, that sort of person can infect a lot of people very quickly, and that's why even though we may have very low numbers of cases, we want everybody to practise social distancing even if we release restrictions in the future. People need to change the way they interact permanently. Permanently. Until- in the sensible way, like keeping distance from each other, hand hygiene, probably not shaking hands, but certainly for the foreseeable future. If we're going to relax these distancing measures, the things that we've closed, we have to change how we interact as human beings until we're through this virus.

QUESTION:  

How- then in terms of- if you're looking at easing those restrictions, what's your thinking behind the community transmissions? Obviously that's the error that you're most concerned about now.

BRENDAN MURPHY:

Correct. Correct.

QUESTION:  

What's- is there a number or a percentage- what are your limits-

BRENDAN MURPHY:

[Interrupts] No. There is- it's all about trends. So, clearly, if you've got less than 1 per cent growth in cases, as where we are at the moment, that's a good trend. Clearly, if you had no community transmission, as we've seen in some states, that might mean that some states might feel the need to relax things a bit more quickly. That might mean that's part of the reason why some states have been much more forward leaning in reopening schools. So-

QUESTION:

[Inaudible question]

BRENDAN MURPHY:

Not necessarily. If their epidemiology is different in those states, we've always set- National Cabinet always set what we call a baseline. And beyond that, some states went harder when their epidemiology was different, and beyond that, some states have now relaxed when their epidemiology is different, but they're still within that National Cabinet agreed baseline, and National Cabinet agreed to a set of parameters with which they could operate-

QUESTION:

Professor Murphy, just in terms of testing asymptomatic people, how would you figure out who to test and whether groups [inaudible]…

BRENDAN MURPHY:

So, we haven't reached final decisions on that but clearly, a high priority would be health and aged care workers because they're at the front line. They're the people probably most likely to see cases and they're very representative the community. And obviously, the consequences of health and aged care workers getting asymptomatic infection would be high. So we've had talks with leading professional bodies - the AMA, the ANMF and others - and they're very supportive of the idea of voluntary- what we call sentinel testing.

You can't test everybody. There are too many of them. There are 300,000 nurses in Australia. So you would test people on what we call a sampling or a sentinel basis. We're still working through all that. I know the Victorian Premier just announced today that they want to test a lot of people in Victoria and we certainly believe that they're keen to focus on health and aged workers in the first instance but there are others as well.

QUESTION:

Professor Murphy, a number of aged care peak bodies this morning called for the AHPPC to retroactively almost back their measures preventing all visits to aged care centres. What's your response to that request? And more broadly, the idea that a lobby group is asking health officials to change their scientific advice to suit what they want.

BRENDAN MURPHY:

Sure. So AHPPC's advice remains the same. We believe- and we have updated our advice to say that there are some circumstances, such as if there's an outbreak in a facility or if a facility is in a community where there is a significant community outbreak, then it may be reasonable to restrict visitors but beyond- and that doesn't exist anywhere in the country at the moment. But beyond that, we believe that it is possible, and in the best interests of the residents, to allow highly screened, safe, limited visitors. And our recommendation is that there should be no more than two visitors a day and they're obviously the very important, close contacts of the resident, and that they should be screened. Everybody coming into an aged care facility needs to be screened - staff, visitors, anyone else coming in. They need to be well. Nobody should enter an aged care facility if they've got a cough or a cold or a runny nose or a fever. So that's the important thing, is to make sure that everybody coming in is screened and that visits are of short duration, in a safe environment.

BRENDAN MURPHY:

We have not changed our advice and we won't be changing our advice. We understand that the aged care sector, many of the providers took these measures on what they believed to be in the best interests of the residence, but we think that has to be weighed up against the mental health of the residents as well.

QUESTION:

Professor Murphy, a question for you first and also for your colleague. Two NRL players appear to have breached restrictions. What do you make of their behaviour and with that have any effect on the NRL's determination to return to-

BRENDAN MURPHY:

[Interrupts] I'm sorry- I 'm not aware of the circumstance of that, so I really can't comment.

QUESTION:  

[Inaudible]

BRENDAN MURPHY:

Well I think anybody- it's disappointing when anyone breaches restrictions, but the behaviour of individuals shouldn't interfere with a holistic assessment of any proposals we might get in the future.

Yes, you can have a question.

QUESTION:  

Why didn't Australia release its own app before waiting for Apple's version?

DANIEL KEYS:

Apple and Google are working in partnership of introducing a native function to perform contact tracing. Now that's some way away. It's been rumoured to be sort of late May, but there is no definitive date for release. So we moved forward to provide a capability that can support the government's sort of agenda to allow us to then introduce a capability that we can then build on when the Apple and Google functionality comes in. I'd also like to add that that capability that's being built into their operating systems will only be available to those people who upgrade. Now, for some people the phones will not handle an upgrade, so we need to cater for a diverse range of users out there and provide solutions for as many people as possible.

QUESTION:

In terms of that capability, from a technical point of view, would that mean that for example that iPhone users wouldn't need to have the app open in the background, or do you know [indistinct]?

DANIEL KEYS:

It's unclear at this stage, so we're working with Apple and Google on their functionality to ensure that it can be consumed by the app to improve the app's performance.

QUESTION:

On the app, will you releasing the source code? And if not, why not?

DANIEL KEYS:

Yes, absolutely we will. We will be releasing the source code for everything that's safe to do so, and that's being addressed by the Australian Cybersecurity Centre. And as soon as they've done that assessment, we will make that source code available.

QUESTION:

Do you actually have an idea sort of when you actually can release the source code?

DANIEL KEYS:

Within two weeks is what we've said.

QUESTION:

Can you rule out that intelligence services will build a back door into the app as a [indistinct] I head the telecommunications [indistinct]

DANIEL KEYS:

Absolutely. So the Biosecurity Declaration that was signed by Minister Hunt completely rules out secondary use of the data within the app.

QUESTION:

Just a question about people worried about this and running- inadvertently start running background, what kind of things are you doing to stop things like battery drain on phones because of the app and making sure that we don't inadvertently turn it off? How are you fixing those kind of [indistinct]?

DANIEL KEYS:

So there's a few things in there. So the first thing is our testing indicates that the app- if you're already running Bluetooth, it only uses marginally more normal battery life than any other app. So if you're already using it, it's only a marginal increase on the battery drain of the phone. And if you're not, it's obviously equivalent to an application that uses Bluetooth, or an equivalent application such as Spotify, or something that connects to, say, your car. We have enabled a push notification for all those people who downloaded the app overnight to, I guess, remind people to run the app. So for those people who- it does slip into the background, we know that the performance is better if it comes to the foreground of all the apps that you're running. So there's a reminder in there to allow people to almost refresh the app status.

QUESTION:

So does the app stop working if you have to many different apps running with Bluetooth and location tracking at the same time?

DANIEL KEYS:

It's quite dependent on the phone, the settings on the phone, the battery of the phone, and the power of the phone. So what we see is that the more things you have open, the more, I guess, interference as possible within the signals of the Bluetooth and the reduction in the Bluetooth strength which also affects the accuracy.

QUESTION:

(Indistinct) both the fact that the app really works if you are around someone for about 15 minutes. Is there anything that can be done to reduce that time? Why is it currently 15 minutes? As Professor Murphy has talked about, it takes 15 minutes for you to catch coronavirus?

DANIEL KEYS:

So actually, I might refer to the professor Murphy there.

BRENDAN MURPHY:

So the- you have to make a balanced assessment on that. Obviously you wouldn't want to be capturing every brief contact. Our case definition based on the epidemiology that we've seen around the world, that that sort of level of time in a contact presents a much, much higher risk than just brushing past someone in the corridor. So you have to- we don't want to give the contact tracers a list of a thousand phone numbers when there are 25 of them that are much more relevant in terms of potential contact. So those decisions are made on the best available epidemiological advice at the time.

QUESTION:

Do we know what states are leading are leading the uptake of the app?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

No. We have- the Commonwealth has no access to any of the data. The data- we have locked this down so completely, so thoroughly with the bio security bill, with legislation that is coming, the only people who can access the data are the states and territory health officials. All they were told is how many people are uptaking it. Because we won't know anything about who they are or where they live, because we have a compact with the Australian public. This app will only ever be used by public health officials in the purposes of contact tracing. That's what it is for, it will never be used for any other purpose.

QUESTION:

Professor, you've talked about the app complimenting the existing work that the state and territories are doing. Are you able to speak to what capacity is there- I know that it is done at a state level, but do you have numbers of those compared to say a month ago?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

Sure. So we think there's currently between 5- about 7000 public health workers. There are multiples more than there were at the start of this outbreak. Some big jurisdictions had a workforce that was well under 100 and are now several thousand. And so they have recruited a huge amount of new workforce. They've set up a new call centres, they've set up new systems. And at the moment, because the epidemiology is pretty good and there's not a lot of contact tracing to do, they're training up those new recruits to make sure that we have this huge and highly effective public health workforce. So, I don't have exact numbers, but it's between 5000 and 10,000 when I last looked, and I think around 7000.

QUESTION:

Professor Murphy, just on the active case numbers, how much is there of their is this virus in the community? And if there is not a high number as [indistinct]… study yesterday around about maybe 700 active cases across Australia. If there is that number there, is the risk of reopening and releasing restrictions low?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

The risk- we will not release restrictions until that risk is seen to be sufficiently low that its manageable.

QUESTION:

What does that mean in terms of- you spoke about the trend before. What are you looking for?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

Yeah, so the trend- well we're- if a current trend stays as we are now with sort of 20 or fewer cases a day and very few of them being those community cases without an epidemiology link, that would put us in a very strong position, an even better position would be no cases in two weeks. So-

QUESTION:

Is it going to have to be no cases?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

No, it doesn't have to be no cases. National Cabinet has endorsed a strategy of significant suppression, if we get elimination as part of that which we probably are seeing in some parts of the country, that is fantastic. But elimination is never a certain situation, because you can never be sure, the fact you haven't detected any cases for a week doesn't mean there might be some cases circulating. So you still have to have all those public health response measures. Another question?

QUESTION:

On the topic of elimination, the New Zealand Prime Minister says there are no undetected transmissions and that the country appears to have won the battle. Your kiwi counterpart says that the goal of elimination has effectively been achieved. What's your assessment of that?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

So I think it's a somewhat semantic difference between our situation here and in New Zealand is very similar. In terms of per capita case numbers, they have certainly- because they're a smaller population they've got very few cases at the moment. But they would recognise that elimination is a label, because you cannot be 100 per cent sure there aren't cases you're not detecting, so you still have to do all of that surveillance, testing, and have all the response capabilities ready if you release measures. You can't be sure about elimination for many months, until after you have released measures. So we are in a very similar position, it's a somewhat semantic difference. Both of us, both countries are committed to really, really controlling the virus to as low as possible, and if possible elimination, that's great.

QUESTION:

Does that mean there won't be a similar declaration in Australia if we get to that point of elimination?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

Obviously if we had no cases across Australia for a period of weeks we could make such a statement but it won't change our response.

QUESTION:

Just in terms of testing of asymptomatic cases, when asked about it a few weeks ago, the Prime Minister said they wouldn't be doing it broadly because there was an issue of how many tests we actually had. Does this mean that now that we're considering asymptomatic cases we're in a better position in terms of our stores? And also would you be considering testing even children or elderly people as part of this expansion?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

What was the last bit?

QUESTION:

Would you be considering advising states to begin testing either elderly or children?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

So at the moment, on the first part, we have much more security over our test kit supplies, Minister Hunt is going to be making some more announcements about that in the coming days, but we have done a lot of work to ensure we have got better supplies so we can expand our testing. We have already expanded our testing to everyone who has a respiratory illness, anyone with a cough or cold or a runny nose can now get tested, that was a significant expansion and we encourage people to do that. There probably isn't a lot of value in testing children or elderly people, the most important target for testing asymptomatic people are those who we know are transmitting the virus and that is the young adults. So that is where we'll will be largely going. But we have got to have a strategy that samples right across the community.

QUESTION: 

Professor Murphy, did the AHPPC make any headway discussing the principle guidelines around community sport, other types of sport? Do you expect that might be completed by that three- now two and a bit week deadline?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

National Cabinet would like some advice within that deadline we haven't had any discussion of it yet.

QUESTION:

Could I ask you about the elective surgery ban? Because there's a lot of discussion in the medical community about surgeons who appear to have conducted operations, that appear to be category 3. Would you be disappointed if this is found to be happening and what action should be taken against anyone who's been doing that?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

Look I don't have any evidence on that. I've seen some media reports, I would be disappointed if people were conducting cases that weren't in the urgent category when we were pausing elective surgery, but I would have to understand the circumstances. I think it's unlikely that action would be taken. The reason we stopped elective surgery was mainly to preserve personal protective equipment. We have pretty good stocks of that at the moment.

QUESTION:

Professor Murphy, just on your estimation about what you were saying before about the possible easing of restrictions, is it your view that if we maintain this trend over the next fortnight or so, when AHPPC and National Cabinet will next consider easing of restrictions, that you could look at a faster - what the Prime Minister calls - a faster road out. Could you lift more soon?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

I don't want to pre-empt the National Cabinet discussion because- and it's not just the local epidemiology, we've also got to assure the National Cabinet that our public health response is up to scratch, is- well, we think it's probably one of the best in the world, we want it to be the best in the world. So we've got to have that testing expansion that we were talking about, we've got to have all of the elements in place as well as the local epidemiology. So- and we do strongly feel that making too many changes too quickly, could be risky. We have seen what's happened in other countries, that suddenly had a problem that appeared that they didn't know about.

QUESTION:

Given that, what do you say then to people who were seen gathering in very large numbers at beaches, parks, shopping centres over the course of [indistinct]?

BRENDAN MURPHY: 

Don't.

Any more questions? Thank you.

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