Date published: 
28 February 2020
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

HAMISH MACDONALD:

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has activated Australia's emergency response plan to contain the outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus which has now spread to at least 47 countries. The Prime Minister says the recent global pandemic is very much upon us.

[Excerpt]

SCOTT MORRISON:

So while the WHO is yet to declare the nature of the coronavirus and its move towards a pandemic phase, we believe that the risk of a global pandemic is very much upon us and as a result, as a Government, we need to take the steps necessary to prepare for such a pandemic.

[End of excerpt]

HAMISH MACDONALD:

That's the Prime Minister speaking yesterday afternoon. The Government has also extended Australia's travel ban for China and will now reassess it weekly.

Professor Paul Kelly is Australia's Deputy Chief Medical Officer. Welcome to Breakfast.

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Good morning Hamish.

HAMISH MACDONALD:

How soon do you expect the World Health Organization to actually declare this outbreak to be a global pandemic?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Pretty soon I'd say. I'm a bit surprised they haven't done so already when you look at their own definition of what a pandemic is. It doesn't actually bring in an issue of severity but rather spread and so they- their own definition says if it's spreading on more than one country- in more than one country, in more than region of the world, then that's when they start to move towards that definition.

HAMISH MACDONALD:

Are you concerned about the apparent hesitancy of the WHO to move with these declarations? Because it's not the first time this has happened in relation to COVID-19. 

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

So yes, we've been ahead of the curve all the way along by several days in terms of- it was the 21st January we, the Chief Medical Officer, declared this virus as having potential for pandemic and that we'd made it a Listed Human Disease which triggered various things that we are doing in Australia. And then the next phase of that was the Prime Minister's announcement which you just ran. So we've now activated our emergency plan.

HAMISH MACDONALD:

Can you just be clear with us though because obviously there has been a lot of reporting around the WHO being cautious, also praising China's response and then linking that with the funding model in relation to the WHO donor states, individual states donating beyond that as well and therefore a, at least a perception, that the WHO may have been too cautious to move on this, too cautious to criticise China for it's handling of it. What's your perspective on that?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Well Australia's always been, you know, an active member of the World Health Organization. We send substantial funds to the World Health Organization. Many Australian's work for the World Health Organization and we believe in the goals that they stand for. But we make, as a sovereign state, we make our decisions here in relation to infectious diseases and other health hazards and we'll continue to do that whilst watching carefully what the World Health Organization's doing and the rest of the world.

HAMISH MACDONALD:

Okay. That's a pretty diplomatic answer. I mean, could we just get a straight answer on this? I mean, are you concerned about the WHO and the relationship with China in terms of it's handling of this particular virus?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Well, it's important that the WHO continues to talk to China and they need to make their own decision on that. I'm not going to comment further, Hamish.

HAMISH MACDONALD:

Okay. We've had 23 cases so far in Australia. What does this emergency activation mean in practice for Australians right now? Because many people will have questions this morning. 

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Of course. And the 23, as been widely reported, that they're people that we've picked up quickly and known about because of their high risk. So the first group were all travellers from Wuhan that are still at the centre of this epidemic. The second group were from the Diamond Princess, the most dangerous place to be in the last few weeks in terms of their epidemic - extraordinary number of cases on that cruise ship and now they're in Howard Springs and we haven't had any further cases there in the recent days, which is good news. 

We've done a lot of testing as people have come from China into Australia. Over 40,000 people have arrived- Australians have arrived since the 1st February - not a single one of those have proved to be positive for the virus. And we've done many other screenings. I'm saying that because-

HAMISH MACDONALD:

[Interrupts] Where have you been doing that? At airports, or?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

So people that arrived from China have been screened for illness. Of those, hundreds have tests at the airport and they've all been negative. But they've continued to be followed up through their 14-day self isolation period and people have been extraordinarily generous with their time during that period and really taking that seriously - and that's an- that's going to be a key component of our next phase.

HAMISH MACDONALD:

There's obviously a fine balance to be struck here between public information and not creating panic. The front page of The Australian newspaper today, the bigger banner headline, everyone will get the virus, quoting University of Queensland Professor, Ian Mackay as saying essentially that it's here to stay and that everyone in Australia will at some point get this. Is that realistic? Is that alarmist? What's your view on that?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

So, there are a range of scenarios we've been looking at, Hamish, together with many modellers around the world - that's one of them, that the virus will indeed become like the common cold or a flu virus in terms of continuing to come perhaps in the winter months - that may happen. It may be a one-off wave that comes through and it picks a certain percentage of the population, it won't be everybody, I can absolutely guarantee that. Or it won't come at all. So all of those things are still possible. I think the latter one is less likely now, but those other two are. 

The other thing I'd say, Hamish, is that 80 per cent of people are, at least in China so far where we know most of people with the virus do only have a mild infection or indeed no symptoms at all. But there is the severe end of the spectrum and that's why we're taking this one seriously. About 5 per cent of people end up severe illness and, as you know, unfortunately over 2000 people have died now from this virus. 

HAMISH MACDONALD:

Obviously many people listening this morning would have seen the very disturbing videos that have emerged on social media from China of individuals, of families being effectively rounded up, hauled off the streets, screaming. 

Interestingly, earlier this week when I spoke to Raina MacIntyre from the Kirby institute she said that similar powers actually exist here in Australia. Can you explain for people listening this morning, what power authorities have when they suspect someone might be carrying this virus?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Well, I can assure listeners we won't be dragging people off like those disturbing scenes. However, Professor MacIntyre's correct that all states and territories and the Commonwealth biosecurity legislation do give certain powers in relation to quarantine. And when requests for people to not- stay in their house do not come to fruition then there are powers there. 

But look, I've worked in this field for almost 20 years and as the Chief Health Officer in the ACT I- those powers were available to me as a statutory officer, I never used them. Persuasion and talking to people, explaining and supporting people is definitely the way to go and it needs to be a proportionate response.

HAMISH MACDONALD:

But there is the authority to keep people in quarantine even if they say:I'm done, I want to leave, I want to go home.

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Yes, there is. And- but as I say, those 30,000 almost 40,000 people that have come- Australians that have come back from China since the travel ban was put in place on the 1st of February have all been asked to go into self-quarantine at home, self-isolation and the vast majority, if not all of them, have complied with that. And that's a remarkable thing to protect the public, to protect their families, and to help us to control and to stop the spread of this virus.

HAMISH MACDONALD:

And obviously, as Australia looks ahead to the winter months there are plans or provisions, as far as I understand it, under this emergency plan for things like specific clinics that are dedicated to dealing with this. Could you just briefly explain what that will look like if, indeed, there is a broader outbreak in Australia?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Certainly that is part of the plan and Minister Hunt will be meeting with the state territory colleagues today—other health ministers from around the country—where those types of plans will be discussed. It's important though that it's a local response; it needs to be individual hospitals, individual primary care networks, individual local hospital groups that look at this because there are different circumstances around the country.
For example, in major cities there's more hospitals, in smaller towns, less capacity. So there'll be a different approach but the general principles are in the plan which is to make sure that people are thinking about what would happen if we did get a large increase in this virus.

HAMISH MACDONALD:

Professor Paul Kelly, thank you very much indeed.

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

You're welcome, Hamish.

HAMISH MACDONALD:

Professor Paul Kelly is the Deputy Chief Medical Officer.

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