Date published: 
19 May 2020
Media event date: 
18 May 2020
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

Momentum is building internationally for the World Health Assembly to pass a resolution calling for the World Health Organization to investigate the cause of the COVID-19 outbreak. China and the US could still veto the resolution, but short of that, it has the numbers to pass.

Over the weekend, much of the nation celebrated the reopening of bars, pubs, clubs and restaurants, although many have put strict limits on the numbers of patrons. And already, there's alarm that many of us just aren't social distancing like we used to. Professor Paul Kelly's the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, and he joins us tonight. Welcome to the program.

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Hi, Patricia.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

You've announced today that those daily briefings given by the Chief Medical Officer or the deputy — like you, for instance, today — will no longer be daily, but 3 times a week. Why? I mean, some people are saying— in fact, 2 politicians I've spoken to on the record today, Liberal and Labor, that that's not good enough, that we need more public accountability. We need to see the scientists front and centre to ask questions every day.

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

We're still available for questions, Patricia, but I guess there's less to say, which is good news. Things have settled down quite a lot in terms of the pandemic in Australia. And really, now the main thing is what's happening in the different states and territories in terms of those steps back, on the roadmap to recovery. We're always available, and we'll continue to be available. But the last couple of times I've given a press briefing, we've only had 1 journalist. So, just a sign of the times, but it's a good news story.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

Wow, so— like, people have stopped turning up?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

People have stopped turning up, yeah. I know that people are still watching, we've been following who's actually watching and the number of stories that are picked up by other mechanisms. But reality is that we're no longer as popular as we were. So, we'll be available, we'll be doing it 3 times a week. We'll— if there's major announcements, of course, we'll do that and cover that, and our hard-working media team will always be available 24/7 to respond.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

Well, just hats off to you. We've watched you, you've worked incredibly hard during this period. I don't ever do this in interviews usually, but I think the public would recognise the incredible effort you've all put in. But to you personally, too. So, there you go, I've finally said something nice to someone I'm first interviewing on this show.

Help me out here though, yes, you say— you know, not many people turning up, there's less news, all of that is true. But I think this is a really key question. Andrew Laming, actually — he's a Liberal MP — said people want to see less of the politicians and more of the scientists, especially around this. Do you agree with that? Does that— has that been key, that we need to hear scientists front and centre, medical people talking about these issues?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

I think one of the major extraordinary things about this pandemic, at least in Australia, has been the amount of airtime that's been given to scientists, medical practitioners, and nursing specialists as well in relation to this. I think it has been fantastic that those voices have been heard. I would say behind the scenes as well, that one of the extraordinary components of this for me throughout my whole career, I've never seen a time when politicians have been so receptive to the scientific message, and I think that's been an extraordinarily good part of the Australian response, that Brendan Murphy, myself, and the other deputies have really had the ear of the Prime Minister, the Health Minister, and I know that's been the same through the other states and territories. So, whilst it might be the politicians that are front and centre at the moment, you can— the Australian public can be absolutely assured that behind them is the best scientific and medical advice. And they always say that, and it's actually a true thing.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

Now, China has vowed to tackle their wet markets, their wildlife wet markets, to sort of standardise what's going on there. Do you welcome that?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Yes, I think it's an important point. I actually had a PhD student a few years ago who— her PhD is— an Australian, working in Geneva now, Gina Samaan(*). She did her PhD on wet markets in Indonesia. I was one of her supervisors. So, it's not only China that has wet markets, it's an important cultural and nutritional thing for many countries in our region, and the thesis that Gina was looking at was the rise of avian influenza in those wet markets, and what can be done to make them safer. So, it might not necessarily be that they need to be stopped altogether — that may be actually a bigger issue in some countries in terms of nutritional security for the population, but there are certainly ways that they can be done safer.

The particular issue that we've raised through the World Health Organization [indistinct] in Australia, and other countries is about the wildlife wet markets. So, this is where not just the usual fish and poultry and so forth are there, but other exotic animals. That's where we've found in the past with the first SARS outbreak, that was a key component to that. And so, that's one of the things we've certainly been calling on China and other countries to have a look at.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

There's growing international support for a World Health Assembly resolution for an investigation into the pandemic, as you've just referred to. What are you actually hoping that that investigation reveals?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Well, so, firstly this is a European Union motion originally, but with— the Australian Government has been very supportive and has been in discussions with the European Union, and now 62 countries are involved with cosponsoring this resolution and it'll be discussed tonight, we believe, at the World Health Assembly which will be done virtually for the first time, I think, ever. And it will be discussed then.

I'm not going to pre-empt that process, but the actual resolution itself does call on all countries to get together to consider a range of issues in relation to this pandemic, not just where it might have come from, but the response early on and subsequently in multiple countries. So, it doesn't name any particular country but there will certainly be I hope a wide support for the concept and then to move ahead with that in the coming months.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

Australia originally actually pushed for an independent investigation into the outbreak. This resolution calls for a World Health Organization investigation. Are you satisfied by that?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

I'm a great supporter of the World Health Organization, Patricia. It's important that we put aside any particular single country elements to this pandemic. As you know, pandemics mean people everywhere. And this has affected people everywhere almost every single country in the world has had at least a few cases and many of them terribly affected of course. So this is time for the whole world to get together to look at this health issue and to see what we can learn from it. So when we think about a global community coming together that's exactly why the World Health Organization was set up and they are, I believe that the best way to look at this issue now.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

Queensland's Chief Health Officer wants to wait for what's been described as two incubation periods before giving the all clear to reopen the border with New South Wales. That's July the earliest but actually the Premier has said, Annastacia Palaszczuk, that actually means September. Is that your advice?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

So at the national level the Australian Health Protection Committee and the National cabinet and I'd include myself in the former of those as a member of AHPPC, have never made a particular— given any particular advice in relation to domestic borders. Certainly, the external borders of Australia is really important or remain important how we work through that because there's still plenty of virus circulating in the world so they external borders they'll remain in place for some time I would imagine.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

Sure, but when you say you haven't made any recommendation is it like you're sitting on the fence on it or you don't think it's necessary to shut them down.

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Oh well, I've never believed that it's been necessary to shut them down. But the actual shutting down and therefore the reopening will be a decision by the elected governments of the particular state.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

We know and of course you know they're accountable to voters and there's going to be an election in Queensland. I get all that and I think you know listeners get all that. But again, just like Victoria on schools, we've got this disconnect in this case between their chief medical officer in Queensland and what you're telling me which is that you've never— right, that's what you just said never thought there was a case to close down borders. So why is it such a disconnect?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Look that's my opinion but it was also the opinion of the AHPPC given that now the border is closed I think it's right that the Queenslanders have the say as to when they want to open their border the same as WA, the NT, South Australia and Tasmania.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

Are they are basing their medical advice though like the chief medical officer in Queensland said today. This is based on medical advice isn't it?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Well I haven't heard those comments sorry Patricia. I can't comment on that.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

Have they provided the medical— because you all sit together sort of drill down. I'm just trying to figure out what that medical advice is when you're in the room together saying that the border has to stay closed.

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Well, as I said we haven't really discussed that at AHPPC in terms of closing the borders. In terms of reopening, we've certainly had discussions about how that might fit into the 3-step plan that was announced by the PM Friday a week ago. You know, look, if you look at what's happening there are very few cases anywhere in Australia including New South Wales which I presume is the major concern that Queensland has in terms of cases crossing the border and indeed yesterday there were more cases in Queensland than there were in New South Wales. So they'll have to make their decision there. It doesn't make a lot of sense to me to be honest, but that's a decision for the Queensland Government.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

Former Health Department secretary Jane Halton is now on the board of the COVID-19 coordination commission. She says she's worried Australia's early success has bred complacency. And anecdotally, I'm in Victoria, and first time we can hang out with 5 people, we're all very excited — well, I don't know if we all are, but I was. I didn't get up to 5, I'm very into calming it down, but still, I went to a park and, whoa, I have never seen so much traffic, people very close together too. Wasn't like everyone had the metre and a half between them. Are we getting complacent?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

I think we have to be very cautious in this next period. So, going up until, let's say, the middle of June. And Victoria's been a little bit slower and more cautious than some other states, although announcements over the weekend suggested that they were going to catch up. I think the thing to remember is that this virus is very infectious and we are continuing to see the occasional case, not a lot, but we have seen some pretty rapidly spreading outbreaks. The Cedar Meats one, and now it's related, McDonald's outbreak, and it has nothing to do with the meat but it does demonstrate that the virus can spread between people fairly rapidly. So, almost a hundred people in that Cedar Meats outbreak now, [indistinct] under control and many people are now leaving their quarantine having tested negative which is great news. But then several— I think 90 people have been tested and are in quarantine now in relation to a number of McDonald stores in Melbourne.

So, it just shows how quickly that it can change. And so, I really do suggest to people to take those messages about social distancing and not mixing with too many people too close for too long for these next few weeks, because the last thing we want is to start dropping backwards into that— where we were a few weeks ago.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

Professor Paul Kelly, a pleasure to speak to you and again congratulations on your work.

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Thanks Patricia. I appreciate your call.

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