Date published: 
21 July 2020
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

LEIGH SALES:

Dr Nick Coatsworth is the federal Deputy Chief Medical Officer, and he joined me from Canberra.

Dr Coatsworth, thanks very much for being with us. If we can start with masks; why shouldn't New South Wales give itself every chance of avoiding where Victoria's gotten to and mandate mask-wearing in highly populated areas and hot spots right now?

NICK COATSWORTH:

So, Leigh that is a question that we're getting a lot at the moment, and it's got two elements to the response. The first one is; we want Australians to be absolutely clear that their primary mechanism of defence against COVID-19 is distance. Physical distance. Getting themselves tested when they're unwell, and supporting our contact tracers.

The second thing is that mandating mask use, it sounds like a very easy and straightforward policy to implement but, if you mandate something, you have to enforce it. You have to give people fines. You have to ensure that the supply of masks is adequate. And for those reasons, we're encouraging mask use in New South Wales at the moment on public transport, where you can't socially distance, where the community transmission is increasing.

LEIGH SALES:

This situation in Victoria has renewed the elimination-versus-suppression debate. You have people at the elimination end going; Well, that's what they did in New Zealand, and life there's basically back to normal and that's what we should do. What's your take on that?

NICK COATSWORTH:

The elimination-versus-suppression debate is ongoing. The aggressive suppression policy that we have advocated for has led to 6 out of the 8 states and territories being in a state of virtual elimination. But I think we should change the wording now to: no community transmission. This is the situation in 6 out of the 8 of our jurisdictions. That is the target we'll be going for in New South Wales and Victoria once we get the current outbreaks under control again, which we will do. Zero cases of community transmission. But to work for pure elimination would mean hermetically sealing Australia's borders when we've got many millions of cases around the world is not a realistic option.

LEIGH SALES:

It's not clear exactly what went wrong in Victoria. There are unanswered questions that the Premier keeps referring to the judicial inquiry. Do you feel, from your position, like you understand what actually went wrong in Victoria?

NICK COATSWORTH:

I think the first thing to say is that, in a public health emergency, in a pandemic, understanding is critical. So every piece of additional information we get - whether it's about breaches in hotel quarantine, whether it's about transmission within our culturally and linguistically diverse Australians' households, or people who are from lower socioeconomic strata and have to go to work at all costs, there are a multitude of reasons why this has happened. But timely understanding is critical. So, we have to get the judicial review done, we have to understand exactly what happened to put the outbreak in Victoria as it is at the moment, and essentially we need to do that so it doesn't happen again.

LEIGH SALES:

But the information's really important right now. I don't think the public does understand why, for example, the hotel quarantine was outsourced to private companies, how it actually got out of control, there wasn't enough supervision? We are being told to wait for the results of the public inquiry but I'm just asking, at your level, do you feel that you understand what went on? Because that's pertinent right now.

NICK COATSWORTH:

I think, at our level - I mean, obviously, Leigh, we do when there's a judicial inquiry need to wait for the results of that, so we can't speak to things in a great deal of detail, but what we do understand is that community transmission was almost, if not completely, eliminated in Victoria at the time when this second peak, this second wave, started. That is what we understand. And then to get to the bottom of why it started, that's where we have to understand whether it was purely hotel quarantine or whether there may have been some undetected chains of community transmission going on. They're the two choices, I think. They're the two possibilities. It may be simply hotel quarantine. It may be a combination of both. But the unanswered questions will be taken care of by the judicial review regarding hotel quarantine.

LEIGH SALES:

Dr Coatsworth, thanks for your time today.

NICK COATSWORTH:

Thank you, Leigh.

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