Press Conference

01 Jan 2021
Australian Parliament House, ACT
Prime Minister

Prime Minister: Happy New Year, Australia, for we are one and free. Our Anthem is about us, who we are, and who we hope to be as well. We are a strong and vibrant liberal democracy. We live in a timeless land of ancient First Nations peoples, and we draw together the stories of more than 300 national ancestries and language groups. How good is Australia? And our Anthem should reflect that and the changes we have made and we have announced today, I think, achieve that goal. It simply reflects the realities of how we understand our country and who we will always hope to be and the values that we will always live by. It's a straightforward proclamation by the Governor-General that he signed off on the day before yesterday and followed the same process as was undertaken back in 1984 when the change was made by Prime Minister Hawke. It's a change for all Australians, and I've already been encouraged by the strong response from Australians right across the country, Indigenous, non Indigenous, people of all different backgrounds, people of all different political views and I think that is very much sits in the mainstream of where Australia would like us to go and I think it's a great way to start the New Year. 

But, of course, the New Year does not start without its challenges. COVID still hasn't gone away, it hasn't taken a holiday, it won’t be going anywhere, and as a result, we continue to deal with the very serious challenges and that is why I am pleased to be joined today by the Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly. I want to congratulate Australians for doing the right thing last night, and not just last night, but over a longer period of time, particularly in Sydney and Greater Sydney and the Central Coast and now including down in Wollongong, as New South Wales has done extraordinarily well to get on top of this latest outbreak. Today's news is encouraging. The news in both New South Wales and also in Victoria. And I will ask the Chief Medical Officer to speak more to today's points of information that have come through, particularly in the last 24 hours. I want to thank people, particularly in New South Wales, but also for the people of Victoria for their response to the public health messaging and the controls that have been put in place. Especially those coming forward for testing. The record numbers we have seen come forward for testing has been extraordinary and enormously helpful for those who are doing the job to keep Australian safe, both in those areas and for the benefit of the other parts of the country. And in Victoria, we are seeing already, I think, the results of the strengthening of their tracing systems that have been put in place over many months and it has been good to see how that has swung into gear over the course of the last 24 hours or so or longer and we are seeing them getting on top of that information very quickly which is assisting them in managing this most recent outbreak in Victoria. 

I also just wanted to note that the wastewater testing results that the Premier of New South Wales referred to in her own media conference just recently which revealed that the areas where we know there to be cases have been confirmed in that wastewater testing but elsewhere across New South Wales, outside the Greater Sydney area with the exception obviously of Wollongong where that was confirmed, that remains low and negligible risk and the Chief Medical Officer can speak more to those issues. The Aged Care Response Centre has activated in New South Wales and continues their work in Victoria. Asymptomatic testing has a ready been under way in New South Wales some time and it is being expanded into a number of other areas as we speak and that has been reinforced both by the Aged Care Quality Commission and the work done by the Department in reinforcing messaging around infection control and use of PPE. We have no active cases in aged care across the entire country, including New South Wales and Victoria, there has been some primary contact exposure in the five cases we know of in Victoria but three of those have proven to have had no positive impact from those contacts and we are waiting on two others. But the news there is pretty encouraging.

Just finally before I hand over to the Chief Medical Officer, since the 18th of December as we have now drawn to the close of last year, the figures on December 30 was that 63,109 Australians were able to get home by the end of the year since the 18th of September. As you know, that is more than double the number we had as our target of just around 26,000 back in September. Obviously, more people are put themselves on the list and there are still quite a number on there at a similar level as to what we have talked about in recent times. Australians want to come home and we're going to keep help them come home. Those flights will continue to come to Australia. Expanded quarantine and support in places like the Northern Territory and others are doing their job as those flights continue to come through and that will continue to be an issue we manage into the New Year. Our process here as a Federal Government continues. The AHPPC medical expert panel continues to meet every day. I will remain here in Canberra for the foreseeable future over the course of the next week. If there are any changes to the arrangements with ACT that may enable me to get back to Sydney next week but that is unlikely. So I will continue to work out of here over the course of the next week. We are taking regular health briefings and meeting with the Defence Force and the National Coordinating Mechanism out of the Department of Home Affairs to stay on top of the many requests or other issues we are dealing with to support the states as may otherwise be required. At the end of next week, from the following weekend, I will be taking one week's leave. The acting Prime Minister will be the Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack and he will continue in that role over the course of the week.

So with that, I will pass you over to the Chief Medical Officer. Paul.

Professor Paul Kelly, Chief Medical Officer: Thank you, Prime Minister. As the Prime Minister has said, we're meeting every day, the AHPPC, which I think everyone knows who is on that now but all of the chief health officers from all of these states. We get updates at that meeting from all the states but particularly New South Wales over the last few weeks and now Victoria. And that group of experts that has got us through that very long year of 2020 with the advice to the National Cabinet and to their own governments to continue to give that advice to offer assistance and so forth to particularly New South Wales and Victoria at this point of time.

I am very encouraged by what has happened in New South Wales over the last couple of weeks and that news today that there is a definite genomic link between all of those clusters that they have seen in Wollongong, in Croydon and the Northern Beaches, as well as other parts of Sydney. That demonstrates a couple of things. The PM has mentioned the wastewater testing as a guide to where issues may be occurring and that at the moment is only in the Greater Sydney area and Wollongong, including the Central Coast. That has been regularly looked at and interpreted by the public health authorities and the genomic testing which this time last year we did have that ability to be able to do so quickly and link in the laboratory, as well as the epidemiological investigations what has actually happened, and to guide the public health response. So that test, trace and isolate part we have talked about so often is really excelling in New South Wales and again in Victoria. So in the last 24 hours, the linkages they have made between the various cases, and they are all linked, where they have been is guiding the approach now. That has linked into, as the PM has said, our approach and response in relation to aged care facilities. No cases there in staff or in residence at the moment but a very precautionary approach using all of those learnings we have learned through the long year of 2020.

So just to stress that it's really important, particularly in Greater Sydney but throughout New South Wales and the same in Victoria, and indeed all around the country, if you even have the mildest symptoms of the disease and we all know what they are now, get tested. We have seen enormous response in Sydney over recent times and I'm sure the same will happen in Melbourne with these recent cases. Just a real callout to the Northern Beaches. In the week up to the 21st of December, 432 per thousand of the population were tested. That is 43 percent of the population of the northern part of the Northern Beaches were tested in that week. That is the sort of response we need whenever we see even the wastewater testing become positive or a case being found in an area. So I think we need to remember that while there are active cases in the community in both Victoria and New South Wales at the moment in Sydney and in Melbourne, I should say in Gippsland, it's only 11 cases yesterday confirmed in Australia. There were over 50,000 confirmed cases in the UK yesterday and when we think about our experience here in Australia through 2020, although it has been so difficult, it is so different from the rest of the world and that is a real, you know, we should really remember how well we have done as a nation but also with the public health response and the political commitment to really tackle this disease had on and we have done a great job. 2021, of course, will add an extra tool to our toolkit in terms of approaching this, in terms of the vaccine and that is coming soon and we continue to work through this holiday period on all elements, including the implementation of our rollout plans as well as the regulatory response to making sure we have a safe and effective vaccines for Australians, for Australians who want to get that vaccine throughout this year. Thank you.

Journalist: Prime Minister, with borders going up and people being forced into quarantine at the last minute, delays in traffic, concerns about employment prospects, can you understand that some Australians may not be feeling one and free at the moment?

Prime Minister: I understand the frustrations that people have with the disruption that comes from those changes. We are dealing with a pandemic, that hasn't changed, but it doesn't change who we are as Australians. Australians are Australians whether they are in Queensland, New South Wales, Western Australia, Tasmania, whatever happened to be. That is not affected by those things. These changes have been put in place by states for public health reasons and that is their purpose, not to divide Australia but to, in their decisions, to seek to keep Australians safe. Now, each state and territory has over the course of the pandemic had their own approaches from time to time, particularly when it comes to borders. I welcome particularly the approach we have seen from Queensland most recently. They have adopted that hot spot around Greater Sydney. People know my view, I think, about the great approach the Northern Territory has taken all throughout this crisis. They identify hot spots and they come on and off the list and I think that has proven to be a very effective way. Tasmania, similarly on this case, continues to treat Victoria and New South Wales on a hot spot basis. I think that is a constructive way and I welcome that approach. But look, the end of the day, state governments are elected by the people of their states to exercise their responsibilities when it comes to the public health of people in their state. And as much as we would like there to be greater consistency across all of these things, we must respect their jurisdictional authority because they are ultimately responsible for what would happen in their state if there were to be an outbreak in their state. As Prime Minister, I do respect that. I can have whatever view I may wish to have but ultimately they are responsible for those things and I have to respect the authority they have derived from their own electoral processes in making those decisions. So I can understand the frustration. We are similarly in a situation. One of the reasons my family and I remain in the ACT is because I need to be in Canberra and if I were to go to Sydney at present it would mean I would not be able to return here. As a result we are remaining here because this is where I need to be able to be with Paul and the many other advisors and others who are managing these most recent sets of events. So, we are all dealing with these things and I thank Australians for their forbearance and I think that has been one of the great qualities of Australians over the course of these last 12 months. To pick up on what Paul has just said, look at the alternative. Look at the alternative overseas. Look and see how others are spending this time in so many other countries around the world. And as frustrated as we might be from time to time, I think there is also an opportunity to count our blessings.

Journalist: There has obviously been a lot of support for the change today but there are many who say it doesn't go far enough and would like to see a complete rewrite. What do you say to them, was that considered, will it ever be considered?

Prime Minister: This is a simple change. I think it is a change that is very much in accordance with where Australians feel about these things. It is not pretending to be anything more than it is. I think it has been well received across the country. There will be those who say it's doesn't go far enough and those who think it goes too far. That is democracy. That is one of the things we celebrate in our National Anthem but I think it is a sensible change and I think it will be well received and I look forward to it being sung for the first time. Perhaps that will be at the SCG test in a few days’ time. I was texting back and forward with Justin Langer and Tim Paine, wishing them well for the test because normally they would be at Kirribilli today but no-one is going to be at Kirribilli today. But they assure me they are going to bounce back and I have every confidence they will.

Journalist: Any chance you want to be the first to sing the new national anthem? You are alongside Paul Kelly.

Prime Minister: I think singing by Prime Ministers is the same as public exercise by Prime Ministers, it is best done in private. I will leave the singing to Tina Arena and others who are far better at it than me.

Journalist: It is our National Anthem though?

Prime Minister: You will hear me sing it in a crowd, as always.

Journalist: Back in July, you said Australia couldn't afford to go stop go, stop go when it comes to these border restrictions. Isn't that what we are essentially facing now heading into 2021, that states are not going to be able to open up forever if they continue to see these small clusters?

Prime Minister: We are moving towards a vaccine into the New Year and I think that will obviously change the parameters for everybody but that will take some time as we move through its distribution across the community. And this is why when I see what some states have done and looking at Greater Sydney as a particular area of concern and managing that way, then that is welcome. I think we have to keep reminding ourselves that there is no simple easy way of this all being fixed. It is a global pandemic and that means that there will be frustrations from time to time. They are disruptive and they can put long-held plans at bay and it can be very disappointing. But we will continue to get through it and I think it is important that obviously when states are making these decisions, they must give thought to balancing the risk of COVID and its transmission against the disruption to people and that is what they are accountable for and that is what they have to explain to their citizens in their own states.

Journalist: On the, just following on from the question, obviously you're saying is going to take some months but once we start a vaccine rollout, will you want to reboot the roadmap to reopening timeline and process and would you expect the premiers to stick to it?

Prime Minister: The roadmap doesn't change. The roadmap always has as its goal to get all of these things lifted. I would hope that as quickly as the states have moved to put things in place, they would move as quickly once the risk subsides. We saw that in most cases after the Adelaide outbreak which was able to have been got on top of very quickly. We’ve seen borders on this occasion come up more promptly when there was the significant Victorian outbreak and New South Wales border was not closed for some time until after that was done. So this is why I hold out the Northern Territory as a very good model. They declare a hot spot and it goes on and then it comes off. And I think that is a very good model and it has been my consistent view over these many months of the pandemic.

Journalist: You mention the disruption, Prime Minister, does the latest round of this, we’ve seen queues at borders and quite a lot of confusion, does it create impetus to rethink the timeline to bring in an vaccine and the speed which that's rolled out?

Prime Minister: Public health is our number one priority on the vaccine. There will be no short cuts. The standards must be maintained and upheld and that is what Australians expect. For the vaccine to be successful, Australians have to have confidence in it and I believe they will have confidence in it. I was discussing this with Professor Skerritt this morning on our regular briefing call, together with Paul and he may wish to make a point about this as well. There's been in no other advanced jurisdiction an approval given for the AZ vaccine, there have been emergency authorisations given. But this is in countries like the UK, where there's hundreds of people dying a day. Australia is not in that situation. So, we're being careful to ensure that we dot all the Is and we cross all the Ts to ensure this vaccine is safe and able to be distributed across the Australian population. We're moving promptly to do that, we're moving swiftly to do that, but we're not cutting corners. If there's no tick, there's no jab. That's got to be right for every single Australian. And so, our authorities are doing a tremendous job on this. But you need to get all the right data, and that needs to be validated, there's the batches that also need to be tested as well, it's not just about the initial vaccine itself, it's actually what is distributed around the country. It's important that process is followed. We're being meticulous about this, because that's what Australians deserve, and it's important from a public health point of view in ensuring public confidence in the way the vaccine is distributed. But Paul?

Professor Paul Kelly, Chief Medical Officer: Thanks, PM. So we now have three vaccines that have published in the public domain their interim results of their phase three trials. So the third one was Moderna, it came out a day before yesterday in the New England Journal. So we can be confident all of those three, two are mRNA vaccines, the Pfizer BioNTech, and the Moderna, and the AZ vaccine, which we're making here in Melbourne, and we'll have plenty of doses of that through 2021. So, those three have shown good safety profiles and good efficacy. But that's not the only data that's looked at by regulators. So, as the PM has said, there's not a single major regulator in the world that has given full approval for any vaccine at the moment. There have been particular emergency use authorisations in several countries, in Europe, in the UK, and the US in particular, but they're in an extremely difficult and different situation in relation to this pandemic compared to Australia. They've now been 82 million cases in the world. Here in Australia, just over 28,000. There's been 1.8 million deaths in the world, here in Australia, 909. They're very different situations. We need to go by the regulators. They have always been cautious and it's kept us in good stead. The TGA will look at all the data, the tens of thousands of pages of data that will come from the companies and will make a decision.

Prime Minister: On the vaccine, you don't rush to failure. That's very dangerous for Australians. Those who suggest that, I think it's a naive suggestion.

Journalist: To the Anthem, has Cabinet considered the options for the voice to Parliament and when can we expect to hear about that? And just separately, you're the convener of National Cabinet, how come National Cabinet hasn't met, isn't meeting again until February 5?

Prime Minister: That's the next scheduled date and there's no need for it to meet at the present time. The agencies are working closely together, the AHPPC is meeting every still single day, I'm in regular contact, particularly most recently, with the New South Wales Premier, the Victorian Premier is currently on leave, I understand. But if there was a need to bring forward a meeting, we always could. But at this stage, there hasn't been something for the premiers in particular to action as a result of advice has come forward from the AHPPC when it comes to handling this most recent pandemic. Their views on borders will be the same if they met this afternoon as they were a month ago. What we need to focus on right now is ensuring that the outbreak is contained, the support that is necessary to be provided to those jurisdictions that are dealing with outbreak is in place, and that's been delivered through the ADF and other agencies. And the communications I'm having with those states and particularly through Greg Hunt as well, who is speaking to Minister Foley also quite regularly, those systems are working well. The National Cabinet is not an operational committee. There are people like Paul and others who do that work. And they're doing it very well.

Journalist: Prime Minister, earlier this week...

Prime Minister: Sorry, Cabinet has considered that matter and the Minister for Indigenous Australians will be making announcements at an appropriate time.

Journalist: Prime Minister, earlier this week, Professor Kelly said he wouldn't be sending this family to the SCG for the Test, should this event be going ahead with spectators, and would you be sending your family if you could get back to Sydney?

Prime Minister: I have great confidence in decisions the New South Wales government are making in relation to these matters and I know they'll be following the medical advice. That's how you manage those issues and whatever level of crowd they ultimately decide is appropriate for the public event, I am sure will be based on the health advice and so, on that basis, I'm comfortable with those decisions and if they say it can go, if I happen to be in Sydney, I think that would be unlikely, given I suspect where the ACT's position will be over the course of the next week. If I was in Sydney, I would love to go there and sing the National Anthem in it’s new form.

Journalist: Prime Minister, yesterday marked the one year anniversary of the WHO being…

Prime Minister: I don't think the girls want to go to the cricket though, somehow. If they want to come, they can come with me. I know Jenny doesn’t want to come.

Journalist: Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of the WHO first being informed by China of the new virus. Are you frustrated, is Australia frustrated, at the progress in the investigation of the origins and do you have any regrets about the way Australia led the calls for that investigation given the ramifications?

Prime Minister: No. We're patient and we continue to monitor the progress of that inquiry closely and support its swift conclusion.

Journalist: Just one for the Chief Medical Officer, sorry, Professor Kelly, we're seeing some reports coming out of Victoria now they have suspended testing in some parts because of a concern about the number of people coming back from New South Wales. Are you aware of anything to that effect, and would it be concerning given what we saw in Victoria just a few months ago, that they would suspend testing at a time like this?

Professor Paul Kelly, Chief Medical Officer: So, I had extensive conversations in AHPPC about testing yesterday, including in Victoria. And I've had since then two conversations with the acting chief health officer, Professor Allan Cheng, just urging them. I know that Minister Hunt has been in contact with Minister Foley on that basis. So I definitely urge greater testing in the coming days, particularly in those geographic areas of concern. I will follow that up but I haven't heard of any particular halt. Certainly from our perspective, our GP respiratory clinics, we have expanded the testing in the ones run through the Commonwealth.

Journalist: Prime Minister, is there a view within government about what percentage of the population will need a COVID vaccine in order to kind of live in a COVID safe way and have no real restrictions?

Prime Minister: That's a medical question, I will defer to the CMO.

Professor Paul Kelly, Chief Medical Officer: The vaccine would have an effect on that. But I think people need to realise it's not a magic bullet immediately. When the vaccines are found to be safe and effective, they will be rolled out in Australia, starting with those priority groups that we have talked through in many times, and based on the expert advice from the Australian immunisation committee, ATAGI. So that will happen as soon as it's ready to go and it is safe to do so, we'll be using it. It won't change everything else we're doing in relation to the pandemic immediately. We need to roll it out as we’re planning to do through the whole community next year, and I really encourage people to come forward when it's available to get that vaccine.

Journalist: Is there a ball park though? 95 percent, 90 percent, because there is a concern that possibly people are not wanting to take it?

Professor Paul Kelly, Chief Medical Officer: As many people as possible, every person who takes it will be helpful. That's one way of improving the immunity within the community and decreasing the chance of transmission of the virus. So we're aiming for as many people as possible that can get it, starting with those high priority groups, our healthcare workers, our aged care workers, our aged people who we know are the most vulnerable.

Prime Minister: Australia has a very good record on vaccinations. We have one of the highest vaccination rates in the world. One of the reasons for that is the system of regulations and approvals we put around vaccines themselves. That's why the government is being meticulous about following that process. I think it's good for public confidence. It's something I have discussed with the premiers and chief ministers and they are very supportive of that because of the nature of the take-up that we would hope for, and I think following that meticulous process is a strong national position. OK. Probably got time for one more.

Journalist: Are you hoping the New Year will see a bit of an improvement in the Australia-China relationship? The Foreign Minister of China has reported this week as saying he wants things back on track as early as possible. Are you hoping this New Year will see a better relationship between Australia and China?

Prime Minister: Well, I'm always optimistic, I'm always hopeful, I'm always positive. I would certainly welcome that. That would begin with leader level and ministerial level discussions which we're ready and open for, and we’re happy to do those. And as soon as those occur, then I think you would see that being fulfilled. That's not an obstacle at the Australian end. Thank you all very much. I wish everyone a very happy New Year, stay safe, and stronger safer together is how we got through 2020, and it's certainly how we'll emerge even more strongly in 2021. Happy New Year, Australia.