Interview with Sabra Lane, ABC AM

16 Mar 2020
Prime Minister

PRIME MINISTER: Good morning, Sabra.

SABRA LANE: An Australian arriving back from overseas this morning, returning to their family this morning, is the whole family required to self-isolate?

PRIME MINISTER: No, that's not the medical advice, that they practice the distancing that's required in the household. That'll be the same for everyone else who has been going through the isolation period when they've come back from overseas, from the countries that have been subject to these arrangements. Those who are coming back today, the risk is low. That's the advice from the medical experts. And that's why the arrangements that are in place today is that people should just return home. If they have presented at the airport and they have been, as you were just reporting there, they've been asked about their own health. Then they would get that PPE equipment and they would put that on to accompany them on their journey home. For the rest, the medical advice was that that wasn't necessary. These are low risk cases at this point. And by getting these arrangements in now, what it does is it's another measure which enables us to slow the spread. If we slow the spread of the virus, which we've been successful so far, ahead of the rest of the world, then that means the peak impacts on hospitals and things like that will be a lot less.

SABRA LANE: What about taxi drivers and those on public transport? How are they meant to feel?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, as you know, as just reported, they're exercising the precautions that you would expect people to to undertake. And as we're saying, the medical advice for those who are getting off those planes today is that it's a very low risk group. But by taking these large steps, whether it's mass gatherings, whether it's this, what it's doing is lowering the broader risk right across the population of the spread of the virus. Eight out of 10 people who will contract this coronavirus, they will have a very mild illness. And what we need to do is slow the spread so we can protect the more vulnerable in the community who are at a much greater risk. So if we slow that spread, we are going to save more lives.

SABRA LANE: People are scared, though, and they're not remaining calm, with panic buying and fights at supermarkets, medical staff being abused because people are impatient over tests or not being allowed to have one. What is your advice?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that sort of behaviour isn't acceptable. I understand the anxiety, but it also means we need to understand that this virus is a global, it's a global problem. It's one that Australia is responding to. We have a world class health system. We're putting the economic supports in place as well. And that's under constant review. This will be a difficult six months. I said that on the weekend as well. And we expect it to be around about six months. It could be longer. It could be sooner than that. But our job is to work together to slow the spread of the virus, which at present has been so far, compared to other countries, much more advanced. And these new measures we put in place on the weekend through the National Cabinet, particularly whether it's mass gatherings or the travel arrangements we've put in place, then that will help slow that spread and that will protect more vulnerable people in our community. But it does require people to get on with, you know, under some greater restrictions with their lives and to carry on.

SABRA LANE: Is the panic buying a symptom of the level of community distrust in the government? People aren't heeding messages to be calm.

PRIME MINISTER: No, what it's a function of, I think, Sabra, is frankly a lot of misreporting misinformation and social media. I mean, this is the first global health crisis I think we've seen with social media. People should not listen to Twitter or social media for their health advice. They shouldn't be listening to opinions on health, they should be listening to the medical advice that has been provided to us through those who have the responsibility. And that's the state health officers, the Chief Medical Officer federally. They have the responsibility of producing consensus medical advice to the government. And we're taking that advice and we are putting decisions in place that support that advice to slow the spread of this virus.

SABRA LANE: How will you tackle the online myths? Already there are WhatsApp messages circulating. We've seen one this morning claiming that New South Wales will be locked down for two weeks from tomorrow. Are you going to be talking with the social media companies about what they can do about that?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we'll do whatever we can on that front, Sabra, but it also is helpful if media companies don't report that either. These things are just untrue and it's important that people go to to get their advice on what the instructions are. And an important one we've been sending out with the advice that was received over the weekend is particularly the stronger social distancing measures that are in place. That means not shaking hands, avoiding that physical contact. Coughing hygiene, which means into a handkerchief or into your elbow. It means washing your hands frequently and it means avoiding contact where possible with the more vulnerable in our community. We do all those things, Sabra, then we will slow the rate of transmission of this virus, which will protect the more vulnerable. It will lessen the impacts on our health system, which will come under strain. That's to be expected with a virus of such global proportions as this one.

SABRA LANE: As we've been on air, the Victorian Premier has been declaring a state of emergency there. Will that be broadened out federally?

PRIME MINISTER: I mentioned that yesterday in the press conference. It was one of the things discussed at the National Cabinet meeting yesterday, which is unprecedented, to have a National Cabinet of that order brought together to respond. And what it means is that there is great coordination now, more than I've ever seen between the states and the Commonwealth in managing the response. And they all agreed yesterday that they would be going through their various declarations on public health emergencies over the next few days. South Australia did it yesterday. Queensland's had it in place for some time. And they're doing that in concert and talking to each other. And I think that's really important. In the same way, the priority we gave the medical experts yesterday was to give us further advice on the arrangements we have around aged care facilities and about enclosed gatherings. Now, we expect to get that advice late on Tuesday, and I've convened another meeting of the National Cabinet for Tuesday evening to consider that advice, where we'll make further decisions on those matters and communicate them.

SABRA LANE: Given the level of anxiety, was the government too slow in getting public ads on air?

PRIME MINISTER: No. I mean, Sabra, we've had the Chief Medical Officer out every day for, going back to mid-January. I mean, I remember the day...

SABRA LANE: Mid-January, but the Government only engaged the creative agency on March 3rd for public ads, the first only went to air on the weekend.

PRIME MINISTER: Several weeks ago we put in place the resources and support for a public information campaign. Sabra, this is going to be with us for many, many months. And there'll be further upgrades to the public communication, and we're getting that information out to people, and I'm pleased that they're getting that information and acting on it. And we'll continue to do that. But it's important that we understand the gravity of this. The government has been taking it seriously from back in mid-January. We were one of the first countries to actually identify it for what it was. We called the issue of a global pandemic more than two weeks before the World Health Organisation did. Put the travel bans in place, evacuated people, Australians out of hot zones around the world, particularly up in China and Japan. And we've been taking action on a daily basis. We've never had a National Cabinet. Your listeners may be interested because I actually saw this also on the ABC website. This is a one in 100 year event. I mean, back during the Spanish flu in the early 20th century, one of the things that failed in that process is states and territories and the Commonwealth didn't work effectively together. Well, we've fixed that this time around. The National Cabinet is ensuring a level of coordination this country has never seen before.

SABRA LANE: Why aren't schools and public facilities being closed down now to get ahead of the curve? Nicholas Christakis, physician and social scientist from Yale University, says closing schools before there's a case has been shown to be one of the most powerful non-pharmaceutical interventions that people can deploy to keep kids and the community safe.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, there are many medical opinions, and it's not the medical advice of the state health officers and the Chief Medical Officer that that is a step that has been recommended at this point. And in particular, they highlight some of the risks that are associated with that type of a measure at this time and in particular, which would put children who may have the virus in contact with elderly Australians and equally ensure it would mean that we would have nurses and others who are forced to stay at home and not be in the public health system and supporting the broader community treatment of the virus. Now, that's the advice that we're getting, but we'll continue to take it, and that situation may change in the future. But when it does, that's when we'll act. But this is something that changes each day, and you proportion your response to the information and the caseload that you have now. And when it comes to mass gatherings, I mean, we've acted with a small number of cases on mass gatherings compared to other countries in the world. They are in the hundreds, if not more, well in excess of where Australia is today. I mean, the clock on this is more about the number of cases you have, not the number of days since the start of the year. And on that clock, Australia has been performing well, relatively, and we're looking to keep doing that by taking advice and prompt action and coordinating our response across the country.

SABRA LANE: Prime Minister, thanks for joining AM this morning.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks very much, Sabra.