Date published: 
8 June 2020
Media event date: 
7 June 2020
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

……been six newly confirmed cases in Australia in the last 24 hours which makes 7260 as the total. No new deaths, so 102 deaths so far since the beginning of this epidemic. The vast of people have recovered from the virus and recovered successfully. We now have fewer than 460 cases in the whole of Australia, less than 20 in hospital and only three in intensive care. So we've done remarkably well in relation to the first wave of the pandemic here in Australia. We're continuing to test a lot, over 26,000 tests yesterday which makes a total over 1.6 million COVID tests.

I want to talk about the Black Lives Matter protests of yesterday, that's the main news of the day and it does potentially affect how- the issues of the pandemic here in Australia. Firstly, I really want to stress and state my own personal view that black lives do matter – all lives matter – and I absolutely understand the depth of feeling that people expressed in those protests yesterday and are expressing in other ways over this matter. I certainly also would like to say that myself and the Australian Government absolutely understands the democratic right for people to protest about things that matter to them.

In the lead up to the protests though that happened in several of the major capital cities yesterday there were strong messages from state governments as well as from the Australian Government, the chief medical officer and chief health officers in various states. We were all at one in relation to that and the Australian Health Protection Committee put out a statement on Friday suggesting strongly that people did not go into what we would call a mass gathering in the streets yesterday. And that was for reasons that we're concerned about how infectious this virus is and how it can spread very quickly from person to person in close contact.

The other element of a mass protest or a mass gathering of any sort is it does bring people from widely dispersed parts of a city or a state that may not know each other into close proximity which allows that virus to spread from person to person and then for people to widely scatter to- within the city or the state. This is of concern if there was someone in one of those large protests yesterday with COVID-19 and they were infectious. That infection can rapidly go to other people and those people could become sick over the next week or two right around many other parts of the cities or the states. So this could spark an increase in the number of cases and this is what we were trying to avoid.

So, it happened, we're now having to wait and watch. We've talked about vigilance before, that cautious approach, that alertness we will need to take and really watch out for cases that may occur in the next week or two around Australia. My message to people that were at the protest yesterday, and this is not a blame game at all – there was a decision made and the protest happened, we can't roll back time – but anyone who was at the protest it's the same message we have for all Australians, but particularly for people that have been in mass gatherings in the last couple of days – if you do get sick with symptoms that we have talked about a lot, cold and flu like symptoms, it could be COVID, please get a test as soon as possible so that we can know that is the case and start the process of contact tracing to try and decrease any outbreak that may occur. There is no need for people who are at that protest to get a test unless they're sick, but if you are sick please get a test quickly and stay home until the result is available. This will protect your life, the life of your families and lives further into the community.

So, I'm going to leave it there and I'm happy to answer questions.

QUESTION:

Do agree with Mathias Cormann calling it self-indulgent? Given that- the message did go out to please not go and people did defy that. Do you think that's a fair categorisation?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Of course, the Ministers can have their own views. My own view is that it's unfortunate that this mass gathering happened but I understand why it happened. The issue now is that we are on more of on an alert than we would have otherwise been and so we'll just have to keep watching. And that message, please if you get sick, get a test and then we'll know.

QUESTION:

[Indistinct] wanted to be on alert, but you will be. Do you have an idea of how likely it is that in a week or two weeks we're going to start to see a spike in cases? Would you say that is actually likely given the scenes we have seen over the weekend?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Well, the first thing that needs to happen for this to be a problem, of course, is for someone who was infectious with the virus to be amongst those groups. Now, we know that there have been very few cases in Australia out in the community over the last few weeks, but there have been cases, there have been cases and several small clusters of cases in Melbourne. There has been a new case diagnosed in the ACT this weekend, and in Queensland - the first of those for some time. And in New South Wales, not so many recently. But there are cases out there. So, what is the chance of a group of 10,000 or 20,000 having someone who was infectious in there? It's certainly more than being evenly spaced away from a small group of five or 10 or 20, as is our current recommendations in most states.

QUESTION:

Professor Kelly, the AHPPC's advice prior to protest conceded that contact tracing would be pretty impossible with so many strangers gathered together, what value, if any, could the COVID app be? And, if it can't help us contact trace if there is a cluster, what's the point of it?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Alright. The COVIDSafe app would be absolutely critical and crucial in this type of setting. It's exactly what it is designed to do, is to pick up cases when you don't know the people around you. Unfortunately, we don't know how many people that were at the protest that might have had the COVIDSafe app on their phone and so it would rely on that. We've had a very good uptake of the COVIDSafe app, but the majority of people that have mobile phones have not downloaded the app so far. So, I certainly would encourage people to reconsider that because this is exactly how it would be helpful.

QUESTION:

Just continuing that, given that it is possible there may be more protest, more gatherings on this issue going forward, the level of personal responsibility here - we saw some with masks, many without – what kind of personal measures would you expect those protesters to be taking if they're going to breach the health orders?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

So, I was encouraged to see the masks yesterday. We don't- well, we hoped that the protest wouldn't go ahead or they would be very small. Those people with masks on were doing the right thing in terms of- when you are in a situation where you can't physically distance it may have some benefit. But look, I think the message will remain from the AHPPC that we would prefer that people found other ways to protest about this matter, recognising it is an important matter and people are strongly concerned about it and I totally understand that. But further protests of this nature will increase further the risk of the COVID-19 pandemic continuing.

QUESTION:

Just on the numbers of people that were there, we've seen people in high risk situations being told to quarantine for two weeks, or at least until they've passed that period of time. Would you like to see people who were at protests either quarantine or reducing what they do in their everyday lives in a bid to stop the spread?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Look, I think at this stage we would just be asking them to watch out the symptoms and as soon as symptoms occur to get the test. I wouldn't be going as far as anything else really at this stage. If we were to start seeing cases crop up in the next week for example, then we may need to change that message, but at the moment what has happened has happened, watch out for symptoms, if you have symptoms please get a test, and in the meantime stay at home if you're sick.

QUESTION:

[Indistinct] the circumstance where downloading the app would be some kind of precondition to protests- that are protesting – whereas that you say that you understand that they're very important – would that put you, as a medical professional, at greater ease? Knowing that look, to do this we just ask that you all have this contact tracing app to make sure that following this we can contain it better should that happen?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

The reason why we brought the app into being in the first place, and have pushed it so hard in our press conferences and at other times, is exactly to aid the contact tracing effort and to decrease the risk of widespread community transmission leading to a second wave of the pandemic. So, yes, I would be very much relieved if we had a larger increase in downloads of the app over the next week or two.

QUESTION:

[Indistinct] making the protests illegal, or that will overturn. What about some kind of situation where that will protests go ahead in the future? As you've said, they could go on, but it is about pre-conditions – you have to have the app downloaded, you must wear a mask. Could anything like that be possible?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

So, we've been very clear from the beginning that the downloading of the app and the use of the app is totally voluntary, and that's tied into the legislation that's been passed around the app. So making it mandatory is not an option and so that can't happen. But certainly, talking with organisers of protests, as has happened in recent days and has been very beneficial I think, and getting them to suggest and to encourage people to download the app would be extra reassurance. But realistically, mass gatherings of any reason including protests, at this time, are very risky and I really would prefer it, on medical grounds not to go ahead.

QUESTION:

[Indistinct] would the structure of the easing of measures over those Three Steps includes two weeks at least to consolidate those gains, see what the epidemiological impact has been. Would the AHPPC consider, or consider looking into slowing down or relaxing those measures to wait and see what the two weeks from these protests impact has been? Rather than continue on the planned trajectory before that?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

So, we'll be having an AHPPC meeting tomorrow and these matters will be discussed at that point. The path that we are on in relation to releasing the various measures that have been in place over the last month or two is a matter for the states. And so we have seen different states and territories making slightly different changes at different paces over time, and it will be again up to them really to decide what effect, if any, this might have had on their trajectories for that relaxation.

QUESTION:

Professor Kelly, Indigenous populations have been noted as particularly vulnerable to this disease and we've seen, obviously, these mass gatherings. Was the AHPPC able to engage in any conversations with Indigenous leaders or any of the protest organisers ahead of this? And what will you do moving forward.

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

So, of course one of the extraordinary successes we've had so far in Australia compared with many other countries is the protection of our first nation people, and so we recognise very early on that they were potentially a particularly vulnerable group in relation to this disease. And so many of the measures that we've done and taken into account, both at the national level and in jurisdictions, has been to protect vulnerable groups in general but including, in particular, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

So, I know that there were discussions at the state level in relation to that, as well as particularly related to these protests and I know that Minister Enoch up in Queensland for example made a very strong message along those lines on Friday – she is Indigenous herself and she said she was not going to go to the protest and she would really prefer that other Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders did not go, and particular elders. And I know that, I believe in Sydney that was also part of the discussion.

But look, the communities have decided for themselves about what they have done and the strength of the feeling was obviously there in the streets.

QUESTION:

You said last week that the AHPPC and the government in general will start looking ahead beyond Stage 3, slowly but surely. Will the events of the past weekend potentially going forward have any bearing on that moving forwards?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

I hope not. Certainly, as I say, we'll be on alert – it will depend on what happens in the next week or two. If there were to be a number of cases that were to develop related to the protests, then that certainly may be a factor. The AHPPC will be meeting tomorrow in fact to discuss Stage 3 plus, Stage 3 and beyond, and we've had previous discussions about that in the last week - so, we'll take it into account. At the moment it won't change how we are viewing those processes, but in particular states it may do depending what happens in relation to cases that crop up.

QUESTION:

Professor, given the number of people that turned up to the protests and the rate of infection currently in Australia, in your medical opinion how likely is it that we may see spikes, a second wave or clusters emerge from any of these protests?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

It is certainly a possibility. There has been very few cases in the community in most of the states, but as I said earlier, there has been a community acquired case in Queensland in the last 24 hours, there's been another one in the ACT. So, they're still there and so all it would need would be for one or a few people that are infectious with COVID – and remember, you can be infectious before you feel sick and this is a very infectious virus, very difficult to control. And that's why we have been so strong about the restrictions we've had, and why we have been so slow, slowly decreasing those over time – that cautious approach is really what we need right now. And so those mass protests yesterday were not cautious.

QUESTION:

Thank you very much, Professor Kelly. This is Patrick Cummins from The Australian. I just want to push you a little on the impact of these mass gatherings on the timetable for easing restrictions. I mean you said it won't change how you view those processes and assessing when the restrictions to be used- eased in moving into Stage 3 and beyond. I just don't see how this can't delay the reopening of the economy of the country when you have 20,000 plus people- thousands of people in the same place. I mean it is like saying we have 20,000 in the MCG social distancing and that wouldn't make any difference. How can this not delay the opening of the economy and the easing of restrictions?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Well, as I said, it's definitely a factor that we will take into account. But the most important thing would be, if there were cases – community acquired cases not otherwise linked to known clusters - occurring in the next week or two, and then as we investigate those cases we find they were at the protest – that would be a game changer. But at the moment all we have is mass gatherings – we don't know if anyone in those mass gatherings were infected or infectious, and so it's a wait-and-see approach. We're certainly on alert, we're putting out that strong message, anyone who has been at the protests or any other mass gathering should really consider getting a- well, they should get a test as soon as possible if they were to develop symptoms. So, we're in a wait-and-see approach at the moment. Do you have a follow-up, Patrick?

QUESTION:

Yeah, thank you. Just I suppose in terms of wait-and-see, that that wait and see suggests a delay. Because, I'm sorry for pushing this, but I mean that wait-and-see means a delay, up two weeks, while you wait and see if anyone presents with any symptoms or tested as COVID positive?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Well, the states and territories have their timetables, many of them have gone into their next phase of releasing of restrictions on the last couple of days and so they would already have that extra time already factored in for the next two or three weeks. Whether it leads to a delay in particular states views, that is really up to them, but we will be discussing that at the AHPPC tomorrow.

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