Date published: 
23 March 2020
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

BRENDAN MURPHY:

[Hello] everybody. Today I'm giving another update on the COVID-19 outbreak in Australia and the whole world. We still continue to have increases in case numbers in Australia, which is what we have expected. Still, a very significant number of those cases are imports - people coming back from overseas, from countries with much larger outbreaks than we have at the moment. Some of those people have not quarantined properly and have spread to others and that's unacceptable.

Every single Australian who lands on our shore, whether it's from a cruise ship or a plane, or any other means of transportation, needs to rigorously quarantine for 14 days now. You are placing your fellow citizens at risk if you don't. So, if you know of anyone who has come back from overseas and is not quarantining, please, come down very hard on them.

We are now in a different world. This world could last for some time. This is the world of social distancing. This is a new way of us interacting with each other all of the time. We've got to keep that social distancing that we've been talking about over the last week, which people didn't really take very seriously, so all of our governments collectively last night decided that we had to take some fairly draconian measures to protect our society, because the way to protect our society from this pandemic is to slow, very significantly, community transmission in Australia.

Certainly, we have to stop the imported cases - and they will slow down - but the challenge in coming weeks and months is to stop and slow and control community transmission. We have to make sure that everybody who gets the virus - most of them will be pretty well and not be too sick - but they must be quarantined. They must identify their contacts. We must quarantine them too. We must isolate everybody who is unwell. We must make sure that we protect the vulnerable people in our community, particularly the elderly. The elderly: those who we know can get this severe disease in most cases. Those young Australians, who might have a cavalier attitude about ‘well, if I get this far as it doesn't matter’, just think that your transmission or your spread of this virus could lead to a serious and even fatal disease in one of your elderly relatives or friends.

Fortunately, we've only had seven deaths in Australia. One of the lowest death rates in the world. Very good evidence that we are capturing a lot of cases. We've tested over 135 tests- 135,000 tests now and still, a very low positivity rate, which is good. But the numbers are increasing. We need to stop and slow and control transmission.

Thank you.

QUESTION:

Professor, to go to the issue of schools, there are a number of issues that the community clearly don't understand. Whether that's a communication issue, it's not for me to say. But there are primarily, one, that they don't understand - the difference between not allowing their child to be in a group at the mall versus being allowed to be in a group in the classroom. Two, that your measures don't consider the risk to teachers. Three, that they're concerned that the children, because they go on public transport and they're out and about, will bring the virus home. And lastly, they don't see the difference between health workers needing to put in extra measures to look after their kids at home during a shutdown, versus what they would normally do in school holidays anyway. Can you clear any of those concerns out now?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

So, schools is obviously a very vexed issue and let me say again, we know that very, very few children contract COVID-19. All of the international data shows that it's very, very uncommon for children to get symptomatic disease. Let me also say again, we don't know whether children have a significant role in transmission. We have not seen evidence of major transmission amongst schools in children. It's possible that they could play a role in transmission and the reason those people, who are advocating for school closures in some countries have done it, is not so much because they're worried about their children catching the disease, because there is theoretically some benefit in potentially slowing transmission.

Having said that, there are lots of downsides of children not going to school. They can practice reasonably good social distancing and hand hygiene and other practices in the school, and this, as we have said, is our long-haul measure. And the impact on children of potentially missing several months of school is material.

But these risk benefit calculations are assessed on a regular daily basis. The expert panel that I convened for two hours on Sunday came to the conclusion that the risks of children not going to school were greater than the risks of them staying in school. That position may change.

Now, we know that some parents have decided that they don't want their children to go to school and they're removing - when the premiers and the Prime Minister all agreed last night that parents would be allowed to keep their children away from school, but they are very keen for schools to stay open, not just to look after the children of people in essential services, but to provide education to those children whose parents choose to send them to school. I realise it's a very vexed and controversial issue.

QUESTION:

Professor Murphy, just- you mentioned earlier about people not- failing to self-isolate and quarantine when required. What is going to be done to crack down on these people? I've noticed a lot of people complaining on social media that they know people that are out and about. Is there- will there be a 1-800 number where people can dob people in?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

So, each of the states and territories are responsible for implementing the regulations around that. The Victorian Government, I think, has announced a police force of 500 to enforce social distancing measures. I think each of - the Queensland Government has actually put legal quarantine orders on people, and I imagine that many of the states and territories will be significantly ramping up their regulatory compliance.

Most Australians do the right thing, but it's no longer acceptable for someone to breach that. So I think those responses will come from the states and territories.

QUESTION:

Is there a mechanism in place though for people to essentially dob their neighbours in?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

That's certainly something that we are looking at, and again, I think will be done at a state and territory level.

QUESTION:

Professor, you've mentioned several times now in particular young people having a cavalier attitude to social distancing, but there's also a wealth of potentially anecdotal but not unfounded evidence of young people really upset at their parents who are not necessarily elderly but in that middle age bracket who aren't practicing social distancing either. So, I guess in fairness to my generation, what is your message to people who are just broadly not following those measures and might be actually confused by the advice they have received from premiers even this morning that has been conflicting and flip flopping on certain types of gatherings?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

So, there may be minor differences in the interpretation, but the message is very clear: you do not get close to people other than in your family, and you do not go to places where lots of people can gather and get close. It's pretty clear now. And I absolutely agree with you, it's not just young people. I was saying, young people have often been quoted as saying: well, I'm going to not get a serious disease so it doesn't bother me.

Older people, people of my age, are more at risk of serious disease, but we all have the social responsibility to slow the transmission of this virus. This is serious business now. Nobody can take this in a cavalier way. We've got a significant growth in case numbers and we can really bend that curve and slow it back down if everybody does the right thing, because we know that one infected person in one wedding in Sydney infected 35 other people. That's what can happen at a social gathering where people don't obey the rules. So, I absolutely agree with you. This is not - I'm not just directing it at young people, I'm directing it at every single Australian. You are putting the vulnerable people in the community at risk if you don't toe the line. Knuckle down, get on with your life, but change the way you interact with people. This is a long haul. We've got to all do it.

QUESTION:

On testing, it's been said by your colleague Professor Kelly last week that it's important while there is this shortage to kind of get bang for your buck out of the people you test, hence the criteria. Now that we have more tests coming, is there any value in potentially massively ramping up and expanding, having widespread testing now to potentially slow the curve, and hope that a further testing method is delivered down the line that we can use?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

Sure. So, we are continually reviewing the testing criteria. We are expanding them already to look at aged care workers, health care workers where there is a serious risk of them transmitting. We've also set up what we call sentinel testing. So, we're testing, sampling the community to pick up anyone with a flu-like illness and test them to see whether we are seeing undetected cases. And we know that, in fact, the testing is done more liberally than the criteria at the moment. We know a lot of the tests that are being done actually are - have been a bit loose in the interpretation of the criteria. And in a way, that's good because we still have a very low positivity rate. One of the lowest in the world. But we will need to expand our testing criteria. We are getting good indications of significant expansion in testing capability, and the testing is being expanded, and that's being reviewed every day. At the moment, though, we can't test everyone with a flu-like illness. We have to be risk-stratified in our testing.

QUESTION:

Can you just unpack that sentinel testing idea? Where it might be happening, what the benefit of that data may be?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

We've always had sentinel testing, for example, every flu season. We have a number of general practices around the country that we contract with them to test everybody who comes in with a flu-like illness or any other respiratory [indistinct], even if they don't really need the test for their treatment, just to see what's in the community. So, we've added COVID-19 to those. So that range of general practices that are testing every person that comes in, and that will give us a read if we're seeing examples of transmission that we haven't seen. One more question?

QUESTION:

There are anaesthetists and surgeons that are complaining that they don't have access to PPE and elective surgeries are still being carried out. Is it time that we cancel all non-essential surgeries?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

So, I think the states and territories have all agreed that they are slowing down elective surgery. They're not going to be doing Category 3, low priority elective surgery. They're going to focus on Category 1, which has to be done - that's cancers and heart surgery - and urgent Category 2s. And they are continually reviewing that. Because PPE stocks are precious at the moment. We have done a lot of work. Minister Hunt has personally driven a huge international procurement process. We are actually setting up local manufacturing of masks. So, we are confident that the PPE situation will get better. But in the meantime, we are definitely tailing what's happening in elective surgery with PPE supplies as a nation.

QUESTION:

Just quickly, do you have any figures on how many Australians have recovered out of the people tested [indistinct]?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

I don't have current figures, but we know, as I said, that most people in Australia have very, very mild illness. We probably will no longer be doing viral clearances. If people are well for a few weeks, we can assume that they're cleared. It's probably a waste of a test. But we know that most people are well. Only seven deaths in a large outbreak is very good, and we've had still very few people requiring intensive care relative to other countries. And that all suggests that we are picking up the majority or certainly a greater proportion of the cases in Australia than some other countries.

Thank you.

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