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

PROESSOR PAUL KELLY:

So first of all, the numbers. We have 7,060 cases now in Australia of this disease, of whom 99 people have, unfortunately, passed away. Most of the cases have now recovered. So, less than 700 active cases in Australia right now. Of those, 45 are in hospital, 12 are in ICU, and 7 are on ventilators.

So those numbers are continuing to decrease, which is very good news. In terms of the number of tests, we have over a million tests so far, with still less than 1 per cent positive. So, in terms of that flattened curve, it certainly is very flat at the moment, and remaining so, but we're watching very carefully, because of the changes in the restrictions that have happened over the last week or so around Australia in their different ways. And that will take some time for those effects to be leading to more cases if, indeed, that's what we might find.

The second point I want to make is about telehealth. So, during the early stages of this pandemic in Australia, we really looked carefully about how we could protect people in their own home and allow them to access primary care, particularly, so to see GPs but also allied health and now specialists, through telemedicine. And there's been an enormous uptake of that. Very popular for both patients and their carers. And we've reached another milestone there, a good milestone in this case, over 10 million telehealth consultations have occurred now in Australia. From a base of virtually zero over this short period, that's a remarkable change. Over 5.6 million people have— patients taken up that opportunity of telehealth, and that has led to $526 million worth of reimbursements to the practitioners. So, a big change to the landscape and a very welcome one.

I'd like to take this opportunity to remind people that COVID-19 is not the only health problem we have in Australia. There are people with chronic diseases. Please do not delay seeking help at this time, either by telehealth or by seeing your practitioner face to face. This is not a time to let those health issues run away and not have the check-ups that you need, either for physical health or for mental health.

The final thing I just want to say before opening for questions is just in relation to this first step that we've seen in the last week or so in relation to loosening those social distancing measures and the 10-person rule. There's a reason for that, why there's a 10-person rule. Firstly, it's a protection for a person going into a group of 10 for themselves and for that group of 10 from someone who may be sick. So it's important, as we do loosen up these restrictions over the next few weeks, that people that are sick with cold or flu symptoms, that they stay at home and do not mix with others. So that's the 10-person rule. That is a personal protection for personal health of that group.

The other way of looking at it is; why is it only 10 people even in a large space, a pub or a club, for example, as they open up? The reason there is about the mixing. It's not just the number of people, but the number of interactions that we have. So that close contact of 1.5 metres is an important component. But the reason why we keep it at 10 is so that that mixing is not happening. This can particularly be a challenge where there are a number of people who may not know each other and that can lead to a wider spread of the COVID-19 over this period. So that's the reason why we have the 10-person rule and the 1.5 metre rule together, particularly and including in large spaces. And as time goes by, if we find that the numbers of cases are not increasing, that will also be able to be increased.

The other thing, of course, to say is that this is now the time to download the app so that that can continue to assist our contact tracing efforts by our disease detectives. So I'll leave it at that for now.

QUESTION:

You said there's 700 active cases at the moment. How large is the risk going to be of opening those interstate borders in about a month or so, depending on what the states will do given that number of cases. Do you judge the risk is quite high or quite low?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Look, I'd just like to say that, at the national level, we've never said that— we've never suggested that internal borders in Australia should be closed. That's been a decision by various states, and it will be their decision as to when to open them. But if you look at when those decisions were made, some weeks ago, we had an increasing— rapidly increasing number of cases each day right around Australia, but particularly in the south-eastern corner of the nation. And so, when you look at what's happening now with just very few cases, only just over 100 cases in the last week, and only 11 in the last 24 hours, I think that things have changed a lot. But that'll be a decision for those states that have closed borders.

QUESTION:

Given that we've said that there's going to be further outbreaks and so on, is it realistic for state borders to be closed until no community transmission exists in some of those states? Is that realistic given that you and others standing right here have said we'll probably going to keep seeing small outbreaks going forward?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

I think we will continue to see small outbreaks going forward and as we release those restrictions, that may increase, and certainly we're looking very closely at that. I'm aware of Premier Palaszczuk's statement in regard to the Queensland–New South Wales border and, as I say, that's a discussion for the states to make for themselves.

QUESTION:

With the motion for an inquiry for the World Health Assembly, it doesn't mention China at all. It's pretty accepted that it's really just kind of the epicentre of being Wuhan. Is that a problem for that motion not to make any mention of where this is understood to have begun?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

My understanding of the motion, which will be discussed tonight at the World Health Assembly and, indeed, tomorrow as well, potentially. Overnight, those discussions will take place amongst the over 200 member countries that are in the World Health Organization. I respect the process in relation to that, and they should debate the way that that resolution is stated in that normal process. I think the most important thing rather than apportioning blame to one particular country or another country is that we get to the bottom of what's happened, and part of that is about the origin, where this virus came from. And as we understand it, to be a zoonotic disease, spread from an animal or animals into humans. I think that's an important component of it.

But there is much that has happened with this pandemic since the beginning and I think, looking at the entire way that it has spread so rapidly around the world and what's happened in different countries in the ways that different countries have approached that problem will be part of that investigation. And I hope that that resolution will be successful.

QUESTION:

The chair of CEPI today was talking about that vaccine nationalism and fears that, while we're all in this together at the moment, as a world community, we're going to be less so when 1 country inevitably develops a vaccine. Do we have any concerns about that and about availability of a vaccine to Australia if it's not developed here, about how readily available that would be if it was developed in a different country, and they'd of course look domestically first?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

So, CEPI was set up exactly for that purpose; to really encourage a global, collaborative effort for dealing with pandemics, and particularly and specifically in relation to vaccine development. So I hope they will be successful, and I know that CEPI has, indeed, provided funds to, I believe, 9 different vaccine candidates. One of them is here in Australia. And part of the contract for those funds is that there will not be a nationalist approach, and whatever is discovered will be made available for the whole of the world. So I hope for that, although the history of these types of things is exactly as you describe, unfortunately.

QUESTION:

The concern, of course, is that CEPI has $1.4 of the $2 billion I think it wants for that funding and, in the Chair's words, many other countries are looking at other options developing vaccines in their own backyards. So the vaccine might not come from the 9 or 10 that CEPI has invested into. Is there a possibility, can you rule out a country developing it and it being hard for us, at least at the beginning, to have that available for Australians?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Look, I can't rule it out, of course, but what I have seen is an enormous global effort. Some of it with the CEPI group, but you're right, there's many other vaccine candidates that are being tested right now. There are a range of pharmaceutical companies, philanthropic donations, national donations, that are all part of that global effort. And there is a lot of collaboration, but that collaboration will rapidly become competitive, I'm sure, as candidate vaccines become more likely to be successful. We're lucky here in Australia that we do have a vaccine-making capability. We have fantastic vaccinologists and virologists and others working on this in terms of our academic institutions; the CSIRO, the University of Queensland, the Doherty Institute, and many others. So we may not win the race, but we're part of the race, and we will be looking to develop a vaccine here in Australia. If it isn't the first vaccine that's available, we'll be looking to join that effort to vaccinate people. It's really important that we do that in a way that is global, because infections don't know borders.

QUESTION:

Regarding that vaccine, the Chair was saying that she's actually quite against the idea of conscientious objecting to being vaccinated, especially when it's something as deadly and important as coronavirus. She said that's just flat-out vaccine refuser's, do you personally share that view?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

So, Jane Halton is the person you're speaking of, who was the secretary of this department some time ago. When she was secretary here, there were a range of measures that were looked at to increase Australia's immunisation coverage. And those have continued since she left. In terms of conscientious objection, I'm not in favour of compulsory vaccination, but I'm sure that it will be a very strong uptake of this, given how much we've seen and the devastation that this virus has caused around the world, that people will be queuing up for vaccination rather than the opposite.

QUESTION:

So you don't really have concerns of a pocket or part of the population being quite viscerally against being vaccinated against this pandemic? Is that a concern at all for you?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

There's always a pocket of people that are against vaccinations. What I've found, though, in these sort of circumstances, where there has been death and severe illness, people are much more attuned to getting the vaccine than previously. We've noticed, for example, almost double the number of flu vaccines have been delivered and injected already in this year compared with last year. And I think that's part of this sort of general sense that vaccination is a good thing. Marcus, did you have a couple of questions?

QUESTION:

One from the phone. Claire. Hi, thanks Professor Kelly. It's Claire from The Daily Telegraph here. I just have two questions. Firstly, I understand the AHPPC has been preparing public transport advice. New South Wales has actually launched their plan today before that advice goes to National Cabinet on Friday. Was that consulted with the AHPPC, and does it sit with the advice that you're expected the National Cabinet will vote on Friday?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

So, I don't think there is a National Cabinet this Friday, but certainly public transport has been, and remains, an important issue we need to deal with. As schools and workplaces go back over this next period, people, particularly in our larger cities, need to get from work to home and vice versa. So public transport's really important. It's also a place where it will be very difficult for people to minimise the number of people that they are close to and interacting with during their public transport trips.

So, I'm aware of the New South Wales statement. I haven't read it in great detail, but what I've seen about limiting the number of people on public transport looking for some space, therefore, in train carriages, on buses, on ferries and so forth, hygiene measures, cleaning measures, and hopefully an increase in the numbers of buses on the road and train frequency, because that will help people to actually get around. That's an important component. But there are other things that need to be thought through here in terms of our own personal hygiene, as one element, and then for employers to look at the types of flexible employment that have been introduced throughout our measures so far in terms of flexible work/home arrangements, flexibility of start and finish times. This will assist the public transport issue so that people are not crowded in too much. And then finally, just - I think if people can make that choice, if they see that it's a bus and it's crowded, if you can, wait for the next one.

QUESTION:

And just secondly, thanks for that. As retail, in particular, starts to reopen and individual stores are looking at ways to implement social distancing, there are large companies, for example Apple, that hands out surgical masks at the door of their store of their store. I wonder, has the AHPPC considered what pressure on PPE supply the use of it by private companies like Apple might put on the overall availability of that? And secondly, if there is any need for people to be having a mask handed to them on the way into a store, if there are other measures like the; 1 person per 4-square-metre rule in place?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

So, I've been very clear about my opposition to wearing masks in public if you're not in a high-risk setting, either sick yourself, therefore likely to infect others in a health-care setting, for example. I don't necessarily support it, but different shops will make their own decisions in relation to how they want to reopen, and they do have an opportunity and certainly a responsibility to protect not only their staff, but also the public. So if stores are making that decision, that's really up to them. In terms of PPE supplies, we're in a much better position than we were even a few weeks ago. And so I don't think that that's going to really affect our PPE supplies in the key professions that I've already mentioned.

QUESTION:

If I can just have a clarifier regarding interstate travel, less so about advice. But if some interstate border as we were saying about Queensland, New South Wales, whatever. If some were to open in, say, the next 4 weeks, would that be something that would concern you? Would that be seen as a risk by you?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

So as I said, in terms of the national advice, which includes me and the AHPPC, we didn't see a reason to close them in the first place.

QUESTION:

So if they open in the next few weeks, that's not a problem?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Not as far as I can see. It's quite a different situation for the international border, and we know that there are still a lot of COVID-19 circulating in almost all the rest of the world. So that's a key component of our control, is the external border. In terms of internal borders, the decisions are made by different states for their own reasons, and it'll be their decisions to reverse that.

QUESTION:

The risk/reward, the reward at this point would seem a lot higher than the risk, given we only have 700 cases. Is that fair to say?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Well, it's a decision for different states to make. But there's certainly— as we open up the economy, there will be benefits to allowing others to come in from other states, I would have thought. But that's for states to make their own decision. One last question. Nothing else? Thanks.

I'd just like to say that, because of the situation that we're in at the moment, we'll probably be only having these 3 times a week now. So, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, unless there is a specific reason to do it on another day.

Thank you for your interest.

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