Date published: 
15 April 2020
Media event date: 
14 April 2020
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

PAUL KELLY:

Hello, Paul Kelly here again for the daily update on the COVID-19 situation in Australia. So, the figures for today 6,375 cases with unfortunately 61 deaths. So, that’s been only a small rise again from yesterday so those numbers, those daily numbers continue to be less than they were even a week ago, so we’ve made great strides. Now, part of that would be related to the Easter Weekend and less testing than would normally be the case, but there certainly was testing yesterday, and we only found those small number of cases. So, good signs.

I just want to thank the Australian public for continuing to work together on this in relation to those main messages we've been giving about social distancing, good hygiene practices, cough etiquette, and the important message about if you are sick, stay at home. Do not go to work if you are sick. But we do continue to need a cautious approach in relation to the next steps as we go through this pandemic together. These same messages that we've been putting out for some weeks remain important, and the Australian Health Protection Committee again met today to finalise our- or to continue to work on our advice to government, will go to National Cabinet on Thursday, as they've requested in relation to the next steps that should be taken by Australia to this global pandemic.

But really, an excellent event over the Easter break, people really did listen. We saw that Australia was taking those messages very seriously. And I'm sure- we won't know for a couple of weeks because it does take a couple of weeks for us to know what the effects of measures either going forward or being taken back will have in relation to the numbers of cases. But I'm very confident because Australia has been so cooperative with each other in relation to this to keep ourselves protected, our families protected and the whole community protected that we are in a very good place. Much better than many other countries around the world. So, I'm happy to take questions now, thank you.

QUESTION:

Professor, this morning Brendan Murphy made a comment about an illegal dinner party in Tasmania in relation to a coronavirus outbreak there. He's since retracted that comment, but what was the source of that information?

PAUL KELLY:

Yes, so, the Australian Chief Medical Officer, Brendan Murphy, did make a comment in discussions with a New Zealand Parliamentary Committee this morning. And he referred to the suggestion that a dinner party may have been the source of some of the transmission in north-west Tasmania, related to healthcare workers and the two hospitals in Burnie. Whilst this possibility had previously been mentioned to him following initial investigations, he was informed that the contact tracing was not yet confirmed and that such a dinner party had occurred. So he has retracted that statement, or clarified that statement in relation to that.

QUESTION:

Can I just further clarify that, sorry. So has he retracted the statement- is the dinner party still under investigation, or was it an unsubstantiated rumour? Is there still a possibly it occurred, or was he completely wrong?

PAUL KELLY:

Just to clarify, he clarified his statement. It was something that was mentioned to him at some point. But that is an ongoing investigation. I understand the police are involved. So, I'm not going to comment on that further.

QUESTION: 

Did the Chief Medical Officer speak to the Tasmanian Premier at all today about what he told that New Zealand Parliamentary Committee? The Tasmanian Premier was very upset.

PAUL KELLY:

So, we've had discussions with various officials in Tasmania. Certainly, myself and Brendan Murphy have both had discussions with them, and they've moved on and they're continuing to investigate that issue and clarify the situation. The most important element of this really has been that there has been a disruption in healthcare services in relation to the north-west of Tasmania. The Tasmanian Government put out a call for support from other states and that's been provided with both the Australian Defence Force and an AUSMAT team being deployed to continue the emergency department running at the Burnie Hospital.

QUESTION:

Is it surprising for such a large health outbreak to happen in a hospital, if healthcare workers are adhering to the social distancing?

PAUL KELLY:

Well, as I said, it's an ongoing investigation and we have discussed here previously about our concern we have for healthcare workers in relation to their risk, in relation to their work and COVID-19. And so the provision of personal protective equipment, of training in relation to infectious disease control, of minimising the contact with people that do have this disease or may have- may be developing this disease is really crucial. So, all of those things are important.

There have been some healthcare workers, clusters that have happened in other parts of Australia, and here is another one. It's very important we get to the bottom of how that occurred.

QUESTION:

Should state governments start housing healthcare workers in hospitals- in hotels instead of [indistinct] community?

PAUL KELLY:  

So, there have been a couple of states that have offered that option to healthcare workers to stay in a hotel, rather than going home. This is an understanding of the anxiety that many healthcare workers are feeling about their risk and also risk to their families. And so where that's been offered, of course, that can be taken up by healthcare workers. But that's really a state matter for them to consider that in relation to their own workers.

QUESTION:

In WA, a trial has beginning to use tuberculosis vaccine on healthcare workers to see if that's going to have a preventative effect for COVID. Is that something that's of national interest, and would be considered on a national scale should there be success?

PAUL KELLY:

Well, of course we're interested in any treatments and indeed vaccines that could be used in relation to preventing or treating this disease. At the moment that is all experimental. There are a range of clinical trials we're aware of, not only here in Australia, but the rest of the world in relation to vaccines and to treatments and to prophylaxis. And so, this is another one and of course we will be watching that very closely.

QUESTION:

Just in relation to not going to work when you're sick. There's been a healthcare worker test positive at an aged care facility in Sydney. A lot of aged care workers are casuals. Does the Government need to offer more support to the sector to make sure that people are not going to work when they're sick?

PAUL KELLY:

So this is a crucial issue. Aged care, of course, we know the residents in aged care are the most vulnerable group in relation to COVID-19. So we have done a range of measures so far to protect people within aged care, both in relation to staffing, staff training, personal protective equipment, restriction of movement both in and out of aged care facilities. And so far that's been extremely successful. But it is a concern that a healthcare worker did go to work I believe for several days whilst they were sick. So number one message; if you are sick, please stay at home. In relation to casual workers, of course that is an extra issue. And we need to look at that in terms of support that might be able to be put in so that there isn't that incentive to continue to soldier on because that is so dangerous, particularly in aged care and other vulnerable group settings.

QUESTION:

Professor Kelly, this morning the Prime Minister made it clear that these social restrictions that we're currently under, are going to remain in place for quite some time. But he did flag there is potential for some sectors of the economy to start up and potentially ease some restrictions for people to return to work in some sectors. In terms of HPPC advice, are you working on coming out with strategies to opening different sectors or what's going on in that space?

PAUL KELLY:

So as I mentioned at the start, we have been asked by the National Cabinet to give quite detailed advice in relation to what we should do next. We've been very successful as a nation, working together to flatten that curve. In fact, decrease to a very large extent the number of new cases we are seeing every day. This is very good news. The question is what do we do next?

We definitely don't want to just open up everything that we've dampened down on so far because we've seen in other countries what has happened with an uncontrolled epidemic and we just cannot afford to do that in Australia. And so there will be a range of matters that we will put to national cabinet to consider, but particularly the strategies moving forward and then within that would be what to look at in terms of the restrictions which may be least risky in relation to increasing the number of cases and on the other hand having the most benefit for the wider society.

QUESTION:

Professor, Tasmania has engaged a skilled epidemiologist to try and get to the bottom of the cluster in the north-west. But their Health [indistinct] said a clear link is obviously the fact that the initial cases in the region were Ruby Princess passengers. Given what we know about this virus so far in terms of ow infectious it is and that it can spread between asymptomatic patients, is it possible to ever really for sure if an outbreak such as this one is connected to the Ruby Princess and it's going to be a question that comes up throughout this outbreak if there are links to that ship again? Will we ever be able to know for sure if that has been the source of these clusters?

PAUL KELLY:

So field epidemiologists are close to my heart. I used to run the Australian Field Epidemiology Program, so I'm very familiar with their work. We otherwise call them disease detectives, and so they are specifically trained to try to get to the bottom of cases and their contacts and to trace back as far as possible any links there may be with other places such as the Ruby Princess or indeed other cruise ships. Over a third of our cases now that we've had have been involved with cruise ships. So either primary cases themselves or where they've spread that to other members of the community. In relation to the Ruby Princess, very few people have spread from the Ruby Princess itself to other members of the community so far. But as we've seen, people have gone back to their homes in different states and so those investigations will continue for some time. The crucial component here is for people who are sick to stay at home. I'll keep saying that. But in relation to people that have been diagnosed and their close contacts, that is the way we can get on top of these chains of transmission as we call them, so that spread can be minimised. I'm sure that will be a concentration of the investigation in north-west Tasmania. Partly where it first came from but to make sure we have found all of the close contacts.

QUESTION:

Just on Tamsin's point regarding, rolling things back. [Indistinct] roll back everything or restrictions? But can I clarify, is the AP…

PAUL KELLY:

AHPPC.

QUESTION:

Thank you so much. Is there a position that some very particular position- restrictions will probably be able to be rolled back in the near term? Is that the position of that committee at this point in time?

PAUL KELLY:

So, what we've been asked to do by National Cabinet is to look at a range of options. We have looked at those options and we'll be providing our advice to the National Cabinet. But, of course, in the end this is a cabinet decision. We live in a democracy and it's important that the Government's, not only the National Government but all of the governments around Australia, who meet as first ministers in that national cabinet, make the decisions based on our advice but other advice as well. It's very important that these things are balanced.

QUESTION:

So the committee doesn't have a position on that right now. In terms of rolling back some of those lower risk restrictions?

PAUL KELLY:

So we've given that information that we've discussed today or we will be giving it to National Cabinet and they will consider those things, I'm not going to talk about them now.

QUESTION:

Professor are you able to say what industries will be looked at first in terms of the roll back?

PAUL KELLY:

So the general principle is let's look at where we are in terms of the epidemic and we can see that we've flattened that curve and decreased to a very large extent the new cases each day. There's a range of matters we have also done around capability of the healthcare system to be able to respond to a large outbreak. We're not currently having a large outbreak but we need to have those things absolutely ready in the best way we can do in case it did break out and we had more cases. So in terms of what is done next, that's a very difficult and balanced decision that needs to be made by a government.

QUESTION:

Professor, Sharon Lewin from the Doherty Institute said yesterday, that one of the most exciting bits of research in Australia is being done by the University of Sydney in regards to potential immunity testing to explore how many people in the community may have some level of immunity to coronavirus. How significant is that work in particular to potentially going toward opening up some of the restrictions that we've been talking about?

PAUL KELLY:

It's very important that we understand about how widespread the disease has been and indeed whether immunity has occurred. So, for example, we know how many cases have been diagnosed in the laboratory and that's that number we keep talking about each day, the over 6000 cases now. How many people have asymptomatic disease or indeed are exposed to the virus and develop immunity without any symptoms at all, or have a mild case of the disease and never have gone to get their tests done? These are a mystery to us at the moment.

Most other countries in the world are not in the situation of Australia. Most other countries in the world are still concentrating on the very sick people in their hospitals, in their intensive care units. Whereas we have an opportunity now to look more broadly across society and really get a sense of how many people may have been exposed to the virus and how many of those have developed immunity. What we don't know yet of course is how long that immunity lasts. We don't know whether a vaccine will come and when, or indeed how successful that vaccine may be in giving lifelong immunity for example. That would be the absolute aim. But all of these are part of the puzzle that we are now embarked on, really understanding about how this virus has affected Australia and to know what to do next.

QUESTION:

Professor, Qantas has confirmed it seated some people side by side on flights as recently as the weekend. What's your message to airlines about what their obligation is in terms of in aiding social distancing, and should airlines face sanctions if they allow this?

PAUL KELLY:

So, we certainly have been involved with, and indeed over the weekend in relation to bringing our Australians back from Uruguay from the Greg Mortimer ship, with how to best do transfers via air from international destinations where there is a high risk of infection. And those coming from cruise ships as we've discussed many times are probably the highest infectious group. So for those types of flights we have certainly had very strict criteria and discussed in great detail with the airlines how best to do that safely. In terms of domestic flights, we have put out that very strong advice to people, and indeed several states have put their own restrictions in relation to this, that people should not be travelling domestically unless it's absolutely essential. They should not be travelling if they are sick. And anyone who has come back from overseas has spent their two weeks of quarantine before getting on a domestic flight. And so for all of those reasons, plus the very short duration of most domestic flights in Australia, we don't see this as a high-risk setting.

QUESTION:

Sorry, can you just also provide an update, if possible, on the surveillance in app development in tracking contacts of cases?

PAUL KELLY:

Yeah. So we're very much interested in relation to what we can do to find close contacts of cases as quickly as possible. And so one of the things that's been looked at is the use of apps or some other digital technology to do that. Google and Apple have talked in recent days about their own investigations. Several other countries are indeed using such apps. And so that is part of the broad discussion the Government will be having in relation to the next steps.

QUESTION:

Professor, over the weekend New South Wales Health started reporting its interstate acquired coronavirus cases in the same category as its overseas cases, and we've been advised yesterday to revert back because obviously that conflates those two very different categories. What is the advice being given to states and how important is it that as much as they might want to make their own local transmission numbers look as low as possible, that they still are at least accurately reporting when there are cases that were contracted in Australia?

PAUL KELLY:

So I think as the national government, we're very interested in the national picture. So as long as the total is right, we're happy with that. Different states will look at their own epidemiology in relation to where they believe they should be targeting their efforts in terms of getting on top of the epidemic. For some of those, interstate travel is an important component; for others, less so; international travel has been an important component, is now less so. So these things will evolve as we go through. We have an international obligation to the World Health Organization to report cases as every country also does. And so that's our priority from the national picture. From the state's picture, they'll have their own local epidemiology.

QUESTION:

Just on the comments by Professor Murphy on the dinner party, do you know whether he regrets those comments given the importance of information in this whole epidemic?

PAUL KELLY:

Information is important. He's clarified his statement. I think I'll leave it there, thank you.

QUESTION:

The statement was though that the allegations about the dinner party is a rumour at this stage. Are you concerned though about the public perception, and does that need to be cleared up? And can you comment on how important it is for healthcare workers to stay home when they're not at work?

PAUL KELLY:

Yeah. So healthcare workers definitely should stay home when they're sick, and in terms of their profession they need to take on board everything that we say to everybody, which is about social distancing, hygiene, and all of those measures, particularly healthcare workers, particularly aged care workers. In terms of the ongoing investigation in north-west Tasmania, rumour surveillance is part of that. The disease detectives we talked about earlier, they take these things on board. If it's just a rumour they'll discount it, as Professor Murphy has done now as well now. So I think we'll move on with that investigation and they'll get to the bottom of it and we'll know more in the coming days.

QUESTION:

[Indistinct] managed to move on, but the Nurses' Federation is asking for an apology. There are a lot of health workers in Tasmania who are really upset about these comments, they feel that it was completely based on a rumour. Is it incumbent on you today to make a statement to them about how this has impacted on them?

PAUL KELLY:

So, I'm not going to make a statement about that, but of course we just absolutely appreciate the work that all healthcare workers in Tasmania and north-west Tasmania, around Australia are doing. And certainly the comments made by the Chief Medical Officer, I'm sure, wasn't meant to take anything away from that incredible appreciation we have of the work that all healthcare workers are doing. Last question, thanks.

QUESTION:

Professor, the Prime Minister has been talking about a six-month- this, we will be in here for six months, for several weeks now. What was the start date of the six months? Do we actually have a defined start date for that? Are we technically five months in?

PAUL KELLY:

I'd have to take that on notice. I was thinking about it this morning to make sure I had the six months right. But I think we're talking about around September was the six-month mark. I think the six months is an indicative time. That was given by the Prime Minister early on in relation to this to really stress that this is not a short-term thing. This is not a sprint. This is a marathon. There may well be during that period some opportunity because we have got on top of this so far and flattened the curve in relation to new cases in Australia. There may by some opportunity to rollback some of the restrictions. But at the moment we have to stay that course, and the six months is an indicative time which would get us basically through winter, through the usual flu season and then that may be a time to reassess. But at the moment that's how it is.

QUESTION:

So September is kind of your deadline at the moment?

PAUL KELLY:

That was the six months as I recalled it this morning. But look, we can't say exactly a date that this is going to be. It needs to be based on where we are at the moment, where we are at in six-months-time. I mean, to be honest, I think we're in a much better place than I thought we would be at this point. And so how that translates into the future is still a crystal ball thing, and we need to take on board our improving modelling, our improving epidemiological understanding of this virus. We will look at the research that's coming in relation to better treatments, to preventive treatments and to vaccines and all of these things will be really important to take into account. As we've seen right throughout the time since we first found out about the new virus in early January, a day is a long time in this fight against the pandemic. Six months is an incredibly long time and I can't really say where we're going to be at the time. Thank you.

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