Doorstop - Melbourne, VIC

18 Feb 2020
Melbourne, Victoria
Prime Minister

PROFESSOR SHARON LEWIN, DIRECTOR OF THE PETER DOHERTY INSTITUTE: Good morning everyone. It is a very warm welcome to the Doherty Institute. My name is Sharon Lewin, I am the Director of the Institute. The Institute is a joint venture of the University of Melbourne and Melbourne Hospital. We have had a long-standing interest and tremendous expertise in all different viruses and most recently in Covid-19 and we were the first place outside of China to grow and then share the virus internationally with many of our colleagues. A lot of work continues here on anti-viral diagnostic vaccine development and understanding transmission. So it’s a very, very great pleasure to welcome both the Prime Minister and the Minister for Health, Greg Hunt, to visit us today and I’ll hand over to them.

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you very much for allowing us to come here today and see the amazing work that’s being done here by the Doherty Institute. The world got to know a lot about the Doherty Institute on about Australia Day when they were the first to grow and share the coronavirus and that spoke volumes about the capability of the science and technology base that we have here in Australia. Not only to deal with serious issues such as coronavirus here in Australia and how we can address it within our own borders but the fact that we were sharing this with the world and were assisting all other nations as the world together seeks to deal with the coronavirus. Overnight successes take years and years and years to achieve, as we all know, and this was another example of that. The investment in the facilities here by the Commonwealth and partnerships, which Doherty enjoys with other organisations, particularly the university here, Melbourne University, as well as up in Queensland and CSIRO and a number of other great research partners who are working in this area. It really does put Australia at the leading edge. And for Minister Hunt and I and all of the members of our National Security Committee and, of course, Dr. Brendan Murphy, who's been our constant source of advice as we've been dealing with this issue. 

What is incredibly important is that we get the best possible medical advice and expertise to ensure that we're making the decisions that can best protect Australians here and we've been very successful to date in containing this virus here in Australia. But the challenges are still present going into the future and we've had a good opportunity to talk about some of those risks into the future and how we might be able to manage those. And one of the things we're announcing today is we're going to put $2 million through the Medical Research Future Fund and we're going to be putting that money into a competitive program to find a vaccine. Now, there are many research projects that are going on around the world to do this very task, and Australia's going to play its part in that process. Already here at Doherty there is much work going on in this area and we continue to support that work and we want to get as many of the brightest and smartest minds in Australia working on this task. This is a task that's not only important for Australia, it's very important more broadly for our region as well, which is very exposed and very vulnerable at this time. And so that is our focus, working the science, working the problems and putting the right measures in place to protect Australians. But looking to the future and using the best minds we have available in this area and they're the best in the world to ensure that we can put our best foot forward in keeping Australians safe and ensure that we can manage our way through this process. We're very conscious of the significant impacts that this virus is having on the Australian economy and where we're not alone in that. This is a global issue and it's affecting many economies around the world and we're working closely with our partners around the world, whether it's gaining access, as we've just announced yesterday, with the Diamond Princess assisted departure flights that are going into Japan or where we've operated in China itself. There's a lot of collaboration going on between governments, a lot of sharing information to ensure that we can make the right decisions to protect Australia's future. Not just their health future, but ensure that we can move quickly to mitigate any impacts that could occur when it comes to the economy. 

Let me make just one other point. Yesterday I was in Box Hill and there's a lot of information that people are getting at home about Chinese Australians living in Australia and they can have every confidence, if you're a Chinese Australian living in Australia, unless you've been in mainland China in the last 14 days and you're subject to that self-isolation, you should feel free to move around. You don't need to stay at home. You can go to those wonderful restaurants out there in Box Hill. You can go in and participate in the community. You don't need to stay home. I'm raising that with you because that's what was raised directly with me when I was out there yesterday. There seemed to be some misunderstanding about that. Unless you're subject to self-isolation because you've been in mainland China for the last 14 days, then you should feel free to move around because Australia has been successfully containing the coronavirus to date. And the cases that have presented, many of them now they've left hospital and they're getting on with their lives and so we need to continue to deal with this issue very regularly. We're getting regular updates about what the best information and science and medical advice is, and we're acting on that advice on a daily basis today. 

Today, last night, we’re welcoming home Australians who had been part of that quarantine up in Christmas Island. We thank them for their patience and we thank them for their grace and the way in which they undertook that process. And we're so pleased that they're home now with their families and whether it's here in Melbourne or elsewhere, I think that's tremendous. There'll be another group that will be coming out of Howard Springs in the not too distant future and, of course, we've got those that will be going into Howard Springs in a few days’ time off the Diamond Princess. We thank them for their patience. We understand how terribly frustrating it must be for them. But we're doing this because of the best medical advice, which is on display here. We have the best information of anyone in the world when it comes to this thanks for the wonderful work that's being done here. And that means we can make decisions which are about protecting Australians safety. So we thank you for your cooperation. We thank you for your patience and the way you're responding to this and the Government will continue to make the decisions which are in your best interests and the country's best interests, but will also make a contribution to how this issue is being managed globally. I'm going hand over to Greg to go and a few more details.

THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH: Thanks very much, Prime Minister and Sharon. One of the reasons that we have been able to successfully contain the coronavirus in Australia and to keep Australians safe is because we have extraordinary scientists, extraordinary institutes such as the Doherty and institutions such as the National Incident Centre, the National Medical Stockpile and the National Trauma Centre. All of these structures have been years in the making. And so this is a case of preparedness meets need, preparedness meets need. And what we see here, Sharon, with you and your extraordinary team, Mike and Julian and Jody and all of the researchers, a truly international collaborative team, that were the first international team to grow and share the details of the coronavirus. We have people who are at the frontline of protecting Australia and helping to keep Australians safe. For us, we've been able to contribute to the work of the Victorian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory with $25 million over the current four year period and more broadly, an additional $50 million through the National Health and Medical Research Council for the Doherty Institute. World-leading research here at the University of Melbourne. Right now, it is helping to save and protect lives in Australia by allowing us to test early. It means that we can find and isolate cases which helps with the quarantine. So we have our border measures, but we also have our internal measures and these two things come together and that's why we're contributing to the funding for a vaccine to look at the next stage going forward whilst we're also bringing people home from the Diamond Princess and providing protection and care for them. So all of these things come together. I want to say two thank yous - one, Sharon to you and your extraordinary team of world-leading researchers and two, to those Australians, whether it's the Defence Force, Border Force or in particular, I want to thank the AUSMAT medical team, which has been doing such a great job of taking care of our passengers on Christmas Island and in Howard Springs. Thank you.

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you. We also have Dr Brendan Murphy here, the Chief Medical Officer, if you've got questions that relate to this. But happy to take some questions.

JOURNALIST: Just why are you going through this $2 million grant process if the work is already being done by the Doherty Institute, the CSIRO and UQ?

THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH: So what we've done is we've taken advice on the best way forward. What we're seeing is that they are currently doing work. We're providing an opportunity for additional funding over and above that which is already occurring. As I said, we're contributing $25 million to the work of the Reference Laboratory on an ongoing basis and $50 million through NHMRC grants to this particular institute. But we're hoping that that funding will encourage even further work. That's the key point. We're hoping it will encourage even further work in line with the call from CEPI, so the international coalition, to encourage this vaccine development and work across the world. 

JOURNALIST: How were these grants be rolled out, will it be capped, what’s the application process?

MINISTER HUNT: So there's the Medical Research Future Fund will issue that grant materials in the course of the coming week. We've been able to do this with the bushfire, a very rapid turnaround and a competitive process. And that's a great way of encouraging collaboration and further work. And we're following exactly the same process as we've done with the bushfire health funding research. 

JOURNALIST: What would you hope though with the cap on the grants would be?

MINISTER HUNT: So it's an initial $2 million, and that will be determined by the quality of the grants. We'll get the NHMRC to advise on the merit order of those. 

JOURNALIST: And presumably within the, with that body you’ve got people that would know the best ones to go to that have the expertise-

MINISTER HUNT: This is what the NHMRC does. They are equally, some of the best people in the world in rapid assessment and ranking of world-leading research Australia.

JOURNALIST: The Royal Australian College of GPs says doctors are being given conflicting advice from the states on the coronavirus, does there need to be, more to be done to ensure that this information is consistent?

DR. MURPHY: So the advice to GP's is, comes from the Commonwealth and it’s signed off by the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee. All of the states and territories, chief medical officers, chief health officers, we've all got one consistent set of GP advice. There are some differences in the states about where the states prefer people to be tested. Some states are favouring the public hospitals. Some states are favouring GP assessment and private path lab testing. That's a matter for the states. But the advice, the medical advice, how to deal with these people, how to diagnose, how to protect yourself is utterly consistent across the country.

PRIME MINISTER: And I stress that is the same with the advice that's coming forward to the government at the National Security Committee as well. Dr. Murphy convenes that forum that he's outlined. And that process has been very much a pulling together the views of the various states and territories medical officers. And then Brendan is relaying that to the National Security Committee in the decisions that we are making. And as you know, the committee is meeting on a very regular basis throughout this coronavirus outbreak.

JOURNALIST: The college also says that the advice to call GPs if you’re concerned means doctors are giving advice over the phone which they can’t bill for, is it, is there a concern or is it fair that they have to give this advice for free?

DR. MURPHY: Well, I think, that's something I'm happy to have a chat to the college of GPs about. We're dealing with a fairly small number of cases at the moment. I'm happy to talk to the college about that issue.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister on a separate topic if I can?

PRIME MINISTER: Are there any other issues relating to the announcement today or coronavirus? Because I’m happy to excuse our friends. Yep, happy to go to other matters.

JOURNALIST: So will Australia actually push for a technology investment target, over a commitment to reach a net zero emissions by 2050 in Glasgow? And does this then in turn actually cause more division amongst moderate MPs in favour of the net zero emissions?

PRIME MINISTER: There's a very speculative report in the papers today. And what I've said is that we favour technology over taxation. What I've said is that anything we sign up to will be signed up to if we were to go down that path, having thoroughly looked at what is the impact on jobs, what is the impact on electricity prices? What is the impact on rural and regional Australia? And currently no one can tell me that going down that path won't cost jobs, won't put up your electricity prices, and won't impact negatively on jobs in the economies of rural and regional Australia. And my Government is absolutely committed to the jobs of rural and regional Australians. 

I don't think the answer to these issues is more taxes. There's a lot of people at the moment wanting us to put more taxes on people to solve problems. I don't believe higher taxes are the solution to our problems. I think what we've seen on display here is the amazing work of our scientists who have prepared us very well for what is a very real situation we're confronting at the moment. And the investments that we're going to make will be in supporting technologies. I mean, we've got half a billion dollars at the moment that are going into hydrogen research in partnership also with the Japanese government. I mean, this is the sort of research which would enable steel plants to be able to be funded by hydrogen-based power. That's where we're looking to the future. We're looking to the investment in these technologies that can make a big difference. And we are already leading the world in renewables technology and some $17 billion or thereabouts, in fact, I think a bit more than that that is recently invested on an annual basis in renewable technologies. Now, emissions reduction targets we're meeting in fact, we're going to meet them by more than 411 million tonnes this year. Now, that is about 80 per cent of our annual emissions. That's how much we're going to beat this year's target by. 

So, you know, when you look at the facts, what you can see is Australia's leading the world on renewable technologies. You know, we're beating and meeting our targets. Many countries, others, Canada, New Zealand, they're not doing that, not to the same extent that Australia is. So we're making our way and the smart way in dealing with this, to get emissions down, to keep jobs, keep electricity prices down, support rural and regional Australia is to focus on the technology and making sure that that technology is affordable and it is scalable. You want to get global emissions down? That's what you need. You need the technology that can be accessed and put in place, not just here in Australia, but all around the world. Meetings won't achieve that. Technology does and I can tell you taxes won't achieve it either.

JOURNALIST: Can I just quickly ask about Ford, are you confident that Ford won’t follow in, are you confident that Ford won’t follow in Holden’s footsteps?

PRIME MINISTER: We'll continue to watch that situation closely. But as I said yesterday, what we saw yesterday was after taking billions of dollars of taxpayer’s money, they walked away. And that has not been a process which has proved very successful for Australia. Our industries and what we're investing in now as a country is our defence industry capability, our space industry capability. We're looking to the future about where the jobs are going to be in Australia. And they are in heavy industries. They are in science. They are in technology. They are in renewable investments. They are right across the board. And those are the jobs that we want to support into the future and ensuring that we're getting the right skills to Australians at all ages is an important part of our economic plan. 

So our plan is getting taxes down. Our plan is building infrastructure. Our plan is expanding our borders when it comes to our trade. Our plan is about ensuring that we're getting the skills that Australians need and Australian businesses need their employees to have. These are the things we're doing to build and grow our economy because you know what? Our focus remains on building and growing our economy, because without that, you can't invest in magnificent institutions like this. You can't put $2 billion down, without putting a levy on people to respond to the bushfire crisis. The careful financial management of this government has put us in a position where we can make these investments, record investments in health, record investments in education, supporting institutions such as this. So we're prepared when these sort of challenges confront. The ability to go and put assisted departure flights out of Wuhan, out of Japan. We're able to make these responses because of the careful financial and economic management the Government has provided. So keeping the focus on the economy is incredibly important to build Australia's resilience for the future, and what we see on display here is just the amazing capacity, the amazing capacity of Australian scientists to underpin so much of that growth into the future.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, just in regards to the bushfire crisis, the ANU survey shows that one third of Aussies are actually less confident in your government since the bushfire crisis, so is this your handling of the issue behind the result that is in that survey?

PRIME MINISTER: Our Government responded with the single largest compulsory call out of Defence Force reserves to put boots on the ground in response to the bushfire crisis, within several days of a state of disaster being declared here in Victoria, we'd announced the National Bushfire Recovery Agency. We'd put $2 billion down. Money was flowing to councils within days. Over $150 million has already gone out in disaster recovery payments all across the country. Our Government can tell you where our money's going and where it's going, and we can do that on a daily basis. We're going to continue to do that because that support needs to reach, on the ground. Mental health support, $76 million is one of the first announcements we made because we understood the deep traumatic scarring which has occurred, not just the physical scarring of the landscape and the physical damage to homes, but the traumatic scarring to Australians who've gone through these bushfires, $76 million down straight away. Responding to that as quickly as possible, the recovery is where the Commonwealth government has had an important responsibility with the states and territories. We've been working closely with them. But Andrew Colvin and that agency is doing everything from ensuring we get fences up through Blaze Aid to getting cheques out to people who need that disaster recovery support $75,000 grants to primary producers, farmers and graziers, we even put the roof back on the Mogo Zoo. These are the things that the Australian Government has been doing to respond to this. And it's action that matters and it's action we've been delivering. Thank you very much.