Interview with Neil Mitchell, 3AW

28 Feb 2020
Prime Minister

PRIME MINISTER: Good morning, Neil.

NEIL MITCHELL: Can we deal with the financial side first, a massive drop in the Dow Jones. What does this do to Australia?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we're not immune from this economic impact. No country is. And the United States, like Australia, who are very well prepared to deal with the health impacts of this crisis with the virus. But the economic impacts are very raucous. It's breaking down supply chains. It's just not tourism. It's just not students. It goes beyond that. I mean, the way that all of the economies are linked up these days means that it does have that domino effect. So we're in for a difficult time economically because of the coronavirus and the advice we've had from Treasury when the National Security Committee met yesterday was that we need to be quite targeted about how we address that. This idea of, you know, big cash splashes right across the economy, no, that's not it. That's not a good idea. So we that's not something that we would countenance anyway. But we have to be targeted and strategic about it.

MITCHELL: Is this the most significant crisis financially - and let's get to the health in a moment - since the global financial crisis?

PRIME MINISTER: I'd agree with that. I think that's a fair assessment. But I think the difference is this - this is not a financial crisis. This is a health crisis with significant financial impacts. And there's a key difference there is that, you know, went to financial stability, financial markets, things of that nature. The financial stability of the system and particularly the Australian system is strong. And that's not what's at risk here. What's at risk here is the breakdown of supply chains and the flow of people and goods and services because of the health issue. And that's why we've got to stay focused on addressing that health issue.

MITCHELL: I agree and we'll get to that moment. But does this mean there is a threat of a world recession?

PRIME MINISTER: Oh, look, I wouldn't speculate about that. I think it's still too early. The thing about this virus and this is what the Treasury advice was yesterday, Neil, is we had been and they had been conceiving this a bit like the SARS and the MERS event from previously where, you know, it dipped down and came back up. The Treasury advice now is that we need to be thinking about it differently and preparing for that and it's because of the very high rates of transmission, you alluded to in your introduction. I mean, overall, SARS and MERS last time there were about 10,500 notifications and sadly, there's about 1,600 people who lost their lives to those viruses. Coronavirus, as you said, it's about 81,000 and there's been 2,800, just under 2,800 people who passed away. So while the rate of mortality of this virus is much less than SARS and MERS, its spread is much more significant and that's why it moves to a pandemic phase much faster.

MITCHELL: How many people are being monitored in Australia at the moment?

PRIME MINISTER: At the moment we've got eight people who have the condition who are still receiving treatment and recovering. The 15 previously who had and they'd come from the Hubei Province, from Wuhan. They've all cleared the virus now and they've been discharged.

MITCHELL: You've got extraordinary measures here and rightly so. But what is the trigger point? At what stage do you say, yes, we need to do that?

PRIME MINISTER: That relates to when you're getting community transmission in Australia.

MITCHELL: But one community transmission?


MITCHELL: Do you mean one community transmission or significant? 

PRIME MINISTER: It would be a graded response and that's the whole point of this emergency response plan. It is very flexible to respond to the situation as it presents. 

MITCHELL: And what does it give you the power to do?

PRIME MINISTER: All the things you mentioned previously.

MITCHELL: What, close schools?

PRIME MINISTER: That is possible, but we don't see that at this point in time.

MITCHELL: Japan closed schools overnight, 35,000 of them.

PRIME MINISTER: Yes but they have community transmission in Japan. We don't have that. And my key point yesterday also, Neil, was Australians should go about their lives. I mean, we are well-prepared. We've got ahead of this. We're staying ahead of this. People should go out to Chinese restaurants. They should go out to sporting fixtures. They should get out and about in their communities, their kids can play with each other, have play dates, do all that sort of stuff. You know, you don't need to walk around wearing masks or any of this sort of thing. That's the medical advice. So Australians should go about their lives in the same way as they have been. We're very well prepared for this. So of course, we're not immune, but we've got the plans in place. And that's really what yesterday's announcement was. Should it elevate to that level of community transmission in Australia, then there are a range of measures the government takes. We're already uplifting what we're doing at airports, points of entry, because it's gone well beyond mainland China now. I mean, there are over 40 countries. 

MITCHELL: Are we doing enough at the airports? I mean, I was talking to some friends just back from northern Italy which looks to be the new epicentre. No testing at the airport, they arrived a couple of days ago.

PRIME MINISTER: I wouldn't say it's the new epicentre, that's certainly not our advice. The medical advice we had yesterday was there was no need, in fact, they didn't believe it was necessary to have the additional controls put in place.

MITCHELL: We're advising people not to go to Italy, but anybody from Italy can come here without being tested?

PRIME MINISTER: No, this is the next stage of the plan. This is what I'm saying. I mean, now we are uplifting for other places coming into Australia and the screening that is being put in place in airports. That wouldn't have been in place.

MITCHELL: Which ones? Which countries? 

PRIME MINISTER: Right across the board. This is my point. 

MITCHELL: So everybody coming into Australia will be checked. 

PRIME MINISTER: No, that's not what I'm saying. What I'm saying is when you move to a pandemic phase and you're dealing with a broader risk of people coming through, I mean, people might be coming from the UK, but they might have been in Japan. People might be coming from Singapore and they might be coming through the United States. It doesn't matter where people are coming from now. Once things get to a pandemic stage, then you need to be lifting your overall level of protection at the entry point.

MITCHELL: So I’m not quite clear. Does that mean if it gets to pandemic stage, that everybody coming to the country will be tested, or not tested but checked?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, there'll be procedures to deal with a broader range of people coming into the country. I mean, we've currently asked the Border Force Commissioner to give us quite specific plans on what they will be able to lift up over the course of the next week or two. Right now, that's not presenting as a major risk right now, but we are lifting it up to ensure that as this spreads more and more globally then our protection at that the airport will increase. But I want to sort of qualify that. The suggestion that when it gets to a global pandemic phase and even more serious than it is today, that, you know, that Australia would be able to completely lock itself off for the world, that wouldn't... that is not a realistic scenario.

MITCHELL: So you wouldn't close the borders?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that's not realistic. That's not practical. What you do then is you manage and slow it down. And that's what this response plan, that's what the health advice is. And in the same way you manage a very bad flu and you know, almost a thousand people died of the flu in Australia last year and because of the complications that arise. This virus is more severe than the flu, but it's nowhere near as severe as those other conditions like SARS or MERS.

MITCHELL: So I just wanted to clarify that. How many people are being monitored, you said eight. I think it's eight infected. Do you know how many are being monitored?

PRIME MINISTER: There'll be many people who, across the community, Australians who have returned from mainland China who will be in self-isolation and then working with their local medical practitioners. I mean, I said the other day, I mean, in February, the figures I had the other day since, you know, we put the travel ban in place from mainland China with Australians and Australian residents and others coming back to Australia, there's been over 34.000 people returned to Australia during that time and they've gone into self-isolation and that has proved to be extremely effective at all. 

MITCHELL: All 34,000 of them?

PRIME MINISTER: 34,000 Australians, Australian residents and others have returned to Australia since the 1st of February and self-isolation has worked to date.

MITCHELL: Ok, just on the hospital issue, is it correct if it becomes a pandemic that elective surgery would be stopped?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, they’re decisions that states are working through now to advise on how they'd be able to achieve their surge capacity at hospitals and establish the appropriate quarantine facilities and isolating people with the virus and to do that in a way that could be contained. That's why the health ministers are meeting now and they'll be meeting in the weeks ahead and they'll come back to us with where the gaps would be in how we fill those gaps. And it's also, you know, things like the personal protective equipment for frontline sort of workers.

MITCHELL: Yes, have we got enough of that? I'm getting a message there mightn’t be enough of that to go around. Is that correct? 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we've got 20 million masks…

MITCHELL: But protective gear for, say, ambulance officers or doctors, the hazmat suits. How many of those have we got?

PRIME MINISTER: We’ve got 20 million masks and the other types of masks, not just the paper ones, but the other ones, I forget the name off the top of my head. But there’s 20 million of those and we're now, we will be replenishing those stockpiles and we'll be working through all of that PPE type equipment. You're just talking about right now - P2 masks, that's what they’re called.

MITCHELL: But the next step up from the mask is - well, it's a couple steps up - is the full hazmat gear and the ambulance officers will need that, some police will need that, doctors will need that.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, this isn't, you know, Ebola. We're not talking about those types of viruses here. And I think we've just got to get a bit of measure here about what we're dealing with. Yes, it's a bad virus, but it's nowhere near as deadly as what we thought with SARS or MERS. As I said, 1,000 people passed away in 2019 as a result of the flu and what we're seeing is a rate of mortality on this virus up to about 10 times that. But when you're talking about SARS or MERS, it was many, many more.

MITCHELL: But it is very hard to know the mortality rate. I mean, Iran's reported reporting 11 per cent, which may be a sign of mutation. China, 3 per cent, South Korea, under 1 per cent. It's very hard to know what it is. I was talking to one of the professors the other day who said, well, the figures aren't reliable or really assessed.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that's why you... as it's gone to more countries, I mean, take Iran, for example. I mean, you've got to sort of try and get a sense of what the base figure is, of how many people actually have the virus. They know, obviously, how many people have passed away, but we know what that's as a proportion of it is, I think, the challenge for the health advisers. So as it goes to more countries and we're connected to all of those countries and talking to them, we're getting a better sense of what that severity is. But from the health advice we've had, it's been quite consistent. It has a high rate of transmission, but it's severity is far less enhanced than we've seen from similar types of these viruses before. So its great risk is its high rate of transmission.

MITCHELL: And then vulnerable people, of course. 

PRIME MINISTER: Of course, particularly the elderly. And they're the ones who have been most at risk and that's what's proved to be the case overseas.

MITCHELL: Professor MacIntyre who is head of biosecurity at the University of New South Wales has estimated between 25 and 70 per cent of people could get it. We could need 650,000 ICU beds. Now, we just can't do that, can we?

PRIME MINISTER: This is why when you get into a pandemic phase, you have plans which work to slow the rate of transmission and to contain and that means the health system can respond to it. And that's exactly what this plan is about achieving. And I would caution, obviously, against, I mean, they're not in any way, you know, questioning the credentials here. But I mean, at high rates of transmission, you can run all sorts of arithmetic. But the issue here is how we respond, work together to slow its rate of transmission and to ensure that the health system is able to keep pace. Now, at the moment, we have no community transmission at all. I mean, there's no evidence. There are no cases that have been the result of community transmission here in Australia. And that's why people can go about their business. I mean, this is one of the safest places, if not the safest place in the world at present in relation to this, because we got ahead of it early and we called it long before the World Health Organisation did and we're doing that again now.

MITCHELL: Is that reason to sort of pre-empt the pandemic and get some of this stuff into place now?

PRIME MINISTER: That's what we're doing, Neil. That's exactly what we're not doing. 

MITCHELL: Well, not the more extreme things, though. You’re not closing schools.

PRIME MINISTER: No, you don't have to close schools. You don't have to do any of that. That would be unnecessarily disruptive and quite potentially damaging to Australian livelihoods and what they're doing. That is not necessary. That's not the health advice. And there is no need to go beyond that.

MITCHELL: So what are you doing? You’re going to test more people coming into the country, is that correct?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the first stage is to lift the level of screening that is occurring at airports. But what we're doing right now is getting the preparedness in hospitals, getting the preparedness with stockpiles of PPE equipment, securing issues around medicines and these sorts of things. The Education Ministers I have tasked our Education Minister to look at the contingency plans they would need to put in place if there was a scenario that presented that schools could be an issue, places of mass gathering, all of this, you would need to know how that's going to work and ensure that you were drilled to do that. Because you don't want to be doing this at the time it hits. You want to be planned and have your procedures ready to go now.

MITCHELL: Do you genuinely believe - we all hope this, Prime Minister - do genuinely believe we can get through it without a large death toll?

PRIME MINISTER: Look, on the advice I have at the moment, yes, of course. That's the indication at this point. But I mean, we're not immune from this. That's why we have to focus on being prepared and that's exactly what we're doing. We go into this with a strong, stable financial system and economy. We do it with a world-class health system, best in the world, arguably. And so that prepares us very well to deal with this. I should stress also, we're working closely with our Pacific neighbours as well. They are obviously a lot more vulnerable because they don't have the benefit of what I've just mentioned. It was a matter that I discussed with President Widodo when he was out recently and I'll be with the New Zealand Prime Minister today here in Sydney and it'll be a big feature of our discussions because we're working very closely on the coronavirus.

MITCHELL: Grand Prix coming up in Melbourne. Should it go ahead?

PRIME MINISTER: Yes, there is no reason for it not to, there's no suggestion from anybody at the moment that there's a need to change any of those arrangements. So I wish them well for it. It should be great for Melbourne, as it always is, great for the economy and people to get out there and have a good time.

MITCHELL: The Mardi Gras in Sydney this weekend, 20,000 people from interstate and overseas. It can't be stopped but you would hope there would be a bit of care taken, wouldn’t you?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, again, there's no community transmission of the virus at present. People should just go about their lives. It went ahead last year, it’ll go ahead this year.

MITCHELL: You mentioned the Indonesian leader. It seems a little peculiar, Indonesia's about the only country in the world hasn't reported any cases. Do you believe that?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that report is a function of how many their capability to test.

MITCHELL: What, so it was likely to be cases and they haven't confirmed them?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, you know, it's a very big country with a lot of islands and it would be very difficult to be able to give absolute assurances about those numbers. I don't mean that in any way disrespecting, Indonesia has a different health system to Australia's and we both have different capacities to be able to sort of provide those assurances.

MITCHELL: Just so, I know you're in a hurry, just finally there is also some medical advice this is likely sort of turning to the flu season. So we could have flu and coronavirus at one time. Do you believe this challenge, if you view it, could be with us for quite some time?

PRIME MINISTER: We have to make that assumption. I hope that proves to be not correct. I mean, I hope that, you know, six months from now, Neil, we will look back on this conversation and say, well, you know, you guys acted with an abundance of caution and that proved not to be necessary at the end of the day. I hope that's the outcome. And that's what acting with an abundance of caution and getting ahead of it and staying ahead of it is all about. I mean, you've got to put health first and that means taking sensible precautions, but not things that unnecessarily disrupt people's lives.

MITCHELL: Could be a test of Australian character, couldn’t it?

PRIME MINISTER: And I have no doubt Australians will pass with flying colours. And can I say, particularly to the Chinese Australian community in Melbourne, because I was down Box Hill the other day. I mean, I talked about 34,000 people having just come back from China and also we had a lot of people who came through those quarantine arrangements up in Darwin and Christmas Island that have returned to Melbourne. They've been fantastic. You know, the self-isolation practices, the working through the quarantine - absolutely magnificent. Best way to say thanks is to get down to Box Hill and have a great meal.

MITCHELL: Thank you very much for your time. 

PRIME MINISTER: Good on you, Neil.