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

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

…Yesterday we unfortunately recorded our 100th death in the pandemic here in Australia. It's a sad occasion for that person at the Newmarch aged care facility, but it's an opportunity for us to really reflect on the last couple of months. That's just a number to us that are counting it, but of course, for so many people that are associated with those that have lost their lives, I just really want to add my condolences to others that have made that observation. These are real people with real families, friends, and loved ones, and so it's a sad day for us to reflect about that.

Of course, we're in a much better situation than many other countries in the world in relation to both the number of cases as well as deaths, so that's very fortunate for most of us. At the moment, we have around 650 active cases in Australia. 45 are in hospital, nine in intensive care, and seven on ventilators. And so we continue to have a very small number of cases, and indeed over the last couple of days, very few cases outside of Melbourne and Sydney. And so most of those cases indeed are related- continuing to be related to overseas travel, and people coming back from overseas and into the 14 days' compulsory quarantine. So, that's the situation as we are at the moment in Australia in terms of the pandemic.

The second point I'd just like to make today, there's been quite a bit of media around the app. And so, I just want to really stress that the COVIDSafe app is working as designed. We've had discussions today in the last 24 hours with both Victoria and New South Wales and they confirm that they have used the app and they are using it as part of their contact tracing exercises. The Digital Transformation Agency has undertaken comprehensive testing on a technical nature and can confirm the functionality of the app on a range of devices, operating systems and manufacturers of phones. So - and as I say, Victoria and New South Wales have used the app and are using the information from the app as part of their contact tracing exercises.

At the moment of course we're in that very fortunate case, as I've demonstrated by the number of cases just now, of having very few cases each day in the country, and most of those continue to be in returned travellers, for which the app is not particularly useful. They come from the airport, into quarantine. They don't have contacts that we can follow in the community. The app will really come into its own if, as we open up the economy and society over the coming weeks, we do start to see cases here and there or indeed clusters of cases as we've seen recently in Melbourne and that will be where it will be absolutely very useful as part of the contact tracing exercise by our disease detectives in state and territory public health units.

So, just to reiterate, we've got 5.9 million Australians with the app on their phone. It is working as designed. And it has been tested and it is being used. So, the app is there. It's part of our component of controlling this pandemic as we go forward.

The third point I just want to make - overnight the World Health Assembly, a very important body which advises and makes decisions, actually, for the World Health Organization, met in session by distance, through Zoom and other mechanisms. So very empty room which is usually full of people giving their advice to the World Health Organization. Minister Hunt, Minister for Health made a speech on- not last night, but the night before, where he talked about the experience of the pandemic in Australia, and called amongst another 136 countries for an independent, impartial and comprehensive examination of the World Health Organisation's approach to the pandemic, so that we can really learn the lessons of the origins of the virus, the source of the virus and what has happened over the last few months in relation to the spread around the world and our global response. And so, Australia really welcomes that unanimous support that came from all of those co-sponsors and we look forward to that, the findings of that as it happens in the coming months as would be necessary so that we can really look at the entire response.

So, I'm happy to take questions now.

QUESTION:

Professor Kelly, you said last week that the Queensland Government's decision to keep borders closed doesn't make sense. In your opinion, is there any medical grounds for keeping state borders closed as of now?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

So, on borders I've said many times that that was a decision by states and territory governments at a point in time. They made that decision to protect their own population and that's- as the elected represent of the various states and territories, I respect their decision. At that time, we were seeing large numbers of cases starting to develop, particularly in New South Wales and Victoria. And so, I can understand why those decisions were made, but I would really stress at the national level, in the National Cabinet or the Australian Health Protection Committee, we made no decisions or advice in relation to that. It was made on by the states and territories themselves.

If we look at the situation now, several of those states and territories have not had any cases for the last few days. Indeed, the Northern Territory has not had a case for many weeks. And so, they will need to make their own decisions on that basis. There are still some cases, mostly in quarantine, in Melbourne and Sydney. From a medical point of view, I can't see why the borders are still closed but, as I said, that's for the states and territories themselves to decide when that time is right for them.

QUESTION:

Professor Kelly, continuing on that border issue, one issue that has arisen is for boarding students - for example in New South Wales, Broken Hill students often go to Adelaide, and they're not able to comply with the 14 days of self-isolating at school. They can't get back to boarding school. If states are going to insist on maintaining these measures, should they at least be looking at exemptions such as boarding schools for kids given that you've advised that the risk to children with this virus is low?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

So, I'm not familiar exactly with the South Australian example but I am familiar with a similar situation in school students from northern New South Wales who board at schools in Brisbane. So, I was asked specifically to look at that in recent weeks. And I can absolutely say in Queensland and I believe in all states there are opportunities for compassionate exemptions. And so certainly boarding school students would potentially be in that category. And indeed, in that Queensland example, they are in that category. So, anyone who is in that situation from western New South Wales, for example, I would suggest that you look into the ways that you can actually apply for that exemption through South Australia Health.

QUESTION:

Professor, why is it okay for Qantas to fill a plane of passengers of more than 100 people, yet more than 10 people can't sit outside at a coffee shop at the moment? How is that safe?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

So we've had a lot of discussions with Qantas since January in relation to safety, not only for passengers but also for their staff, and it's been a very challenging time for airlines all around the world in relation to this particular virus. I would say that on aircraft there are very specific engineering things that happen in relation to the ventilation on aircraft and so forth which can make it safer than a closed room for example. Probably not as safe as an outdoor café. But, look, we live in a very big country. We do need our aircraft to get around this big country of ours for all sorts of reasons, whether that's family or business or other reasons. And so we do want to see our airline industry got back on their feet and to be able to operate. We had a discussion last week with Qantas and worked through the sort of things that they might want to look at but we made it very clear that like all other industries in Australia, they needed to do their own risk assessment and come up with their own way of mitigating that risk. And so that was announced yesterday and there's been a lot of media about that today, about how they're going to do that. They've included masks. We didn't specifically say they should include masks but that was one of their ways that they've really looked at how they can decrease the risk whilst also looking to have a viable industry and to be able to fly.

QUESTION:

Did you suggest maybe not full capacity of passengers? Because on the health.govt.au website at the moment as you would know, one of the sheets does suggest that there should be spacing of passengers but Qantas is saying there's essentially no need because it's not economically viable?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

So I think we should sort of separate- most of the advice that we've given to Qantas up to now has been related to international flights and particularly for those that went to very sort of hot spots, if you remember the original evacuation flights from Wuhan for example. So that was quite a different situation to what we have in Australia at the moment with only 600 cases, most of those in quarantine. And with all of the other things that they've put in place from an engineering point of view in relation to the planes but also for their pre-tests that they're going to do, pre-checks to make sure that people know that if they are sick they shouldn't be travelling. Checking whether they're sick at the point of going on to the aircraft, provision of masks and so forth, they've made that risk assessment and they've mitigated as much as they can.

QUESTION:

Just on the borders again, at a news conference in Perth today your views were quoted and the Western Australia Premier, Mark McGowan, said he didn't know who you were. Do you think that the premiers of some states are taking the health advice of you and your colleagues seriously enough?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

So, just to let Mr McGowan know, I'm a proud Western Australian. I grew up in that state, so I hope I'll be claimed. But he has Dr Andrew Robertson, who's the Chief Health Officer in Western Australia, and I know that he's meeting him almost on a daily basis. And so Western Australia will make their own decisions in relation to their border and I talk to Andy at least daily as well so I'm sure that he's getting the best advice. Happy to meet him any time. It might be a while from now depending on the border closures.

QUESTION:

Can you understand the confusion? You're saying that medically it's fine for the borders to be open but your state counterparts at a medical level, are they advising the premiers not to open? Where is the difference? Why is there a difference?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

So at the national level, I can say that the AHPPC is a consensus body and we talked through these matters and we decided not to have a position on borders but we left, as has been the case with much of the national advice, specific issues related to states to be done at that state level. So Western Australia can close their border, and they have. And it's up to them as to whether- when they want to time that to change those arrangements. And I know for sure that Mr McGowan is listening to Dr Robertson. And they'll make their decisions when they make them.

QUESTION:

Queensland has set [indistinct]… of zero cases in New South Wales and Victoria. How realistic is that, that there would be four weeks in a row of zero cases?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Yeah. So we've talked a lot in the past about what we are trying to achieve here in Australia which is that suppression approach where we are not looking to achieve elimination, even though in some states that seems it may actually have occurred at the moment. So we, I believe as we do open up the economy and society, we may well see more cases. We have designed a system and strengthened that system to find cases quickly and to minimise the numbers of so-called chains of transmission. So someone infecting a couple of others and those infecting a few others and that's how we get our large clusters of cases. So as we're minimising that, I believe that the chances are that we will see some cases. It may be some time for us to get four weeks without any cases in the larger states. So I hope that Queensland will take that into account.

QUESTION:

Just to clarify what you said before that the AHPPC has decided not to have positions on borders, is that that you wouldn't have a position in the affirmative that they were safe to open? Would you have given advice if you thought medically they should have been closed? What exactly I guess was the parameters of what you felt [indistinct] was?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

So the domestic borders were not part of our plan for control of this, either opening or closing. We certainly did a lot of work and continue to do a lot of work at the international border and I still believe that was the very best decision that was made on 1 February, to start to decrease the number of people coming from high risk countries at that time and eventually all countries and bringing the virus to Australia. So we've done a lot of work on the international border. The domestic borders we've left to the states and territories.

QUESTION:

Earlier today the Deputy Chief Commissioner at the US Embassy credited Australia's success in suppressing the virus and giving it enough credibility to go out on to the world stage and be a leader on the coronavirus issue, the review and looking at wet markets. What's your response to the WHA passing that resolution and to the idea that Australia has now international credibility in dealing with COVID-19?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

So I think we've been lucky in Australia to have a range of world-class experts in relation to infectious disease control, infectious disease treatment, infectious disease research, vaccines and so on. And so Australia has always been at the forefront of that. Certainly we welcome both the comments from the US Embassy and also as I mentioned before we certainly welcome the result of the World Health Organisation and the World Health Assembly resolution last night. So we certainly want to go ahead and find out more about this epidemic and we'd be very happy to be part of that process.  One last question.

QUESTION:

Professor what can you tell us about the student that's tested positive to coronavirus in Riverview? Are you concerned that there could then be a local outbreak?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

So, yes, this is part of the process of opening up. We do expect to find cases from time to time, including in schools. And so New South Wales has a plan for dealing with that and it generally includes a short-term closure of the school and cleaning and then investigation of the students. We hope that will be a short-term thing. Riverview, a school I know well, my son and my father both went to that school so I'll be watching with great interest. But they're also a boarding school with people from around New South Wales and more broadly. So that gives an even more potentially complex component to this particular outbreak, although I understand it was in a day boy. Okay. Thank you very much.

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