PRIME MINISTER: Good afternoon. Keeping Australians safe - that is the priority of our Government as we deal with what has been an emerging situation with the coronavirus. Each and every day there are new developments in relation to the coronavirus and I want to thank Dr Kelly, I want to thank Dr Murphy, I want to thank all of those who have been involved in providing advice to the Government, also at the state and territory level with the medical offices there. Earlier today, the National Security Committee met for three hours to consider the next round of advice and the information we've been receiving in relation to the coronavirus. What has occurred, in particular, in the last 24 hours or so as the data has come in is that the rate of transmission of the virus outside of China is fundamentally changing the way we need to now look at how this issue is being managed here in Australia. Now, I want to reassure Australians that as we speak here and now we have had 15 cases that have come from Wuhan and all 15 of those cases have now been cleared and are now back in the community, having been able to move on from the virus. There are 8 other cases that were imported from those who came on the Diamond Princess. There are no other cases here in Australia and there has been no community transmission, as Dr Murphy would say, here in Australia.
So the actions that the Australian Government have taken and that included getting out well ahead of the World Health Organization at Dr Murphy's, I think, very insightful advice with the measures that we initially took at a time when the WHO had not even declared it in the context that it has now been declared by them. The advice that we've received today is very similar to that. And that is that based on the expert medical advice we've received, there is every indication that the world will soon enter a pandemic phase of the coronavirus and as a result, we have agreed today and initiated the implementation of the Coronavirus Emergency Response Plan. As you can see, it's a very comprehensive document and I want to commend the Department of Health and all of those have been involved in ensuring that this plan is in place and ready to go.
So while the WHO is yet to declare the nature of the coronavirus and it's moved towards a pandemic phase, we believe that the risk of a global pandemic is very much upon us and as a result, as a government, we need to take the steps necessary to prepare for such a pandemic. And so earlier today, I instructed through the NSC the Minister for Health to be engaging with the state and territory ministers to be bringing back the plan to identify any gaps in capabilities at the various stages or levels at which a pandemic may proceed to. I want to stress that these actions are being taken in an abundance of caution. We have always acted with an abundance of caution on this issue and that has put Australia in the strong position we are in to this time in being able to contain the impact of this virus. So the actions we're now taking in being prepared even further is to ensure that we can respond immediately when the virus moves to the next level.
We’ve also asked the Commissioner of Border Force to be reporting to us as quickly as possible on additional measures that would be required at our various ports of entry to ensure we're able to identify any persons coming from wherever in the world that may require additional information in terms of being self-quarantined or other forms of quarantine that may be necessary as this issue continues to roll on.
In relation to schools, I've tasked the Minister for Education to engage with the education ministers from the states and territories. I want to stress, and I'm sure Dr Kelly will reinforce this point, there is no evidence before us that children are in any greater risk as a result of what has occurred more recently, but we do believe to take care of our kids, that we need an even greater abundance of caution to ensure that should the coronavirus move to a very extreme level or there is any particular risk that is associated with children, particularly those attending school, that we have the preparedness and the arrangements in place with states and territories. And I want to thank all of the state and territories for their engagement, whether it's on this issue on schools or the many other issues, the health issues, that are associated.
I've tasked the Minister for Home Affairs to be working with his counterparts in the states and territories to ensure continuity of service, continuity of operations plans are in place and that we're aware of any gaps that would need to be filled at any and every level of what the virus may extend to. Again, I know the states are already working and are well advanced with their own plans on these issues and I commend each of the premiers and chief ministers for their leadership in ensuring that they're taking the same actions as we are to ensure continuity of service in more extreme cases.
There is no need for us to be moving towards not having mass gatherings of people. You can still go to the football, you can still go to the cricket, you can still go and play with your friends down the street, you can go off to the concert, and you can go out for a Chinese meal. You can do all of these things because Australia has acted quickly, Australia has got ahead of this at this point in time. But to stay ahead of it, we need to now elevate our response to this next phase. I said the other day, this is a health crisis, not a financial crisis. But it is a health crisis with very significant economic implications. The Treasury Secretary and of course the Treasurer who is a member of the National Security Committee was part of those discussions today and he and I made some comments on these matters several days ago. What the Treasurer is working on with the Treasury is the advice is that if we are to take any actions here and that is still subject to advice from Treasury, which has not confirmed their advice, that any such measures would only be effective if they were targeted, modest and scalable. And we are quite aware of where the virus is impacting in particular sectors more than others. Obviously, in the travel sector it's having a very big impact, in the education sector, but also as I mentioned the other day the impact of supply chain breakdowns, not just now between Australia and China, but in a more broader global pandemic stage those impacts would also be quite relevant. And so we're aware, particularly in the export industry, in the marine sector, there are particular issues there especially in North Queensland, but these problems are presenting in many other places and Treasury is doing that work now and the Treasurer will be leading a response to that.
But the advice is also very clear that as Australia goes into dealing with this issue, the financial stability that is present is a big plus for Australia. Of all the countries that are prepared and are in a position to be prepared, I'm glad we're in Australia and I'm glad we're in Australia where we're able to have these types of responses. We have the financial stability to address this and we have one of, if not the best health system in the world to deal with the great challenge that can come with a global pandemic. So as the Health Minister is known to say, we are not immune to this but we are well prepared and we are going to be even more prepared as a result of the actions which I've initiated today as part of the National Security Committee process. And that means getting on with the plan. We’ve got a plan, we're going to get on with the plan, because at the end of the day, it's about people's safety and that is our top priority and we will continue to work with those around the world, particularly like-minded countries of similar economies. We're working with our Pacific community and we're working with our Indo-Pacific partners to understand the challenges that are there. But there are some challenging months ahead and the Government will continue to work closely based on the best possible medical advice to keep Australians safe. Greg?
THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH: Thanks, Prime Minister and to Dr Kelly. What's happened this week, of course, is that we have seen outbreaks in South Korea and Japan, in Iran and in northern Italy and indeed from Iran and in northern Italy, there's significant evidence that cases associated with each of those countries have led to cases in neighbouring countries. Whether it’s been in Croatia or Switzerland, whether it's been in Kuwait or other countries within the Middle East. As I mentioned earlier, in the last 24 hours we've seen four continents have first in-country cases confirmed and when that involves Africa and West Asia, Europe and South America, that's a very significant moment. On the 21st of January, Professor Brendon Murphy as Chief Medical Officer got well ahead of the world and declared that this was a disease of pandemic potential. That triggered a series of actions for which we had prepared in terms of the National Incident Center, the National Trauma Centre, the work of the Australian Health Protection Principles Committee. It's led to cooperation with the states. It also involved the development of the pandemic preparedness plan for coronavirus. Given the events of this week, as the Prime Minister said, the National Security Committee today heard of the high likelihood, the high probability, that the world was going soon, formally, into a pandemic stage which has led to the invocation and the implementation and the activation of the coronavirus pandemic preparedness plan. That means we're now at the first stage of that plan and tomorrow I'll be meeting with the state health ministers, territory health ministers. I want to thank them, as the Prime Minister said. In particular, we're looking at the elements in this part of the plan. We're taking advantage of a meeting which I think is important to acknowledge what was already on the agenda. Coronavirus was already on the agenda but as a consequence of this we have sent out inquiries to all of them to fill the items which we want to look at - supply chain management, to make sure that there's surge capacity if required further down in relation to our hospitals and our medical facilities, the preparedness of state health systems, preparedness of critical medicines - they're all the things that we now move towards. The preparation of potential fever clinics if case this were to evolve still further.
Having said that, we have achieved containment so far in Australia. I think that's very important. We have achieved containment so far but when we say we're not immune, we say that for a reason. Because now that it's spread to 42 countries, the high likelihood is that somewhere, sometime, there is a further round of cases that may make it to Australia and if this becomes a truly global event, a truly global pandemic, then it is overwhelmingly likely to have some effect. But we say that to say to Australians we've sought to anticipate, to plan and then to activate. Today we are activating something which we had anticipated for which we planned and that ultimately is about saying to Australians we'll get through this, we will keep you safe, we'll do all that we can and as a country, we are well prepared.
PRIME MINISTER: Thank you, Greg, and I should have mentioned earlier that - it sort of went without saying - obviously, the travel ban for China will continue a further week and that continues to be monitored on a weekly basis. Dr Kelly?
DR PAUL KELLY, DEPUTY CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER: Thank you Prime Minister, Minister. I think the main issues that were discussed at the National Security Committee of Cabinet have been talked about by the Prime Minister and the Minister. We are prepared. This plan that was activated today builds on many years of planning for similar events in relation to Pandemic influenza. So all of the elements that are in that plan are very similar to our pandemic influenza plan. We learned from the pandemic ten years ago when we had our swine flu epidemic, we looked at that plan at that time, we modified it on the basis of what we learned, and now that we know more about this virus over the last few weeks, how it spreads how infectious it is, how likely it is to cause severe illness and in which type of people it may cause severe illness. And I would stress that for 80 per cent of people, it's a mild illness and so we're preparing for all eventualities in terms of when it may or may not come to Australia, how many people might get infected, and particularly and very importantly in this early part of the plan activation is to really concentrate on what we can do to decrease the number of cases coming and spreading through our community. That's the best way to relieve the pressure on our health system and all of the other systems that the Prime Minister has already pointed out and also the Minister of Health. I might leave it there, Prime Minister.
PRIME MINISTER: Thank you, Dr Kelly. Phil?
JOURNALIST: Can you clarify what this means in practical terms? The Minister rattled off a couple of things but does it mean we actually set up these fever clinics now and does it involve the granting of special powers to quarantine people and things like that? Could just be a bit specific?
THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH: Sure. So the position in relation to quarantine powers actually came with the activation of the Biosecurity Act and the Chief Medical Officer’s declaration on the 21st of January. What this does is it now moves to a full preparation phase for all of the supply chains, the medicines, we're working on the national inventories, the national medical stockpile. Tomorrow as I say, we'll meet with COAG. What the Prime Minister has also done is authorize other ministers such as the Education Minister, Home Affairs, to work with their parties. So at this stage whilst we're actually in containment. We're also in another role and that is preparation for the possibility of a much more significant event. So primarily now it moves to a formal engagement with the states where we are doing all of that work across medical stockpile, personal protective equipment, supply chain, in particular personnel. One of the things we're most focused on is to make sure that we have the personnel capacity if there is a surge within our hospitals and medical system.
PRIME MINISTER: In the event of a pandemic, in the event of a pandemic the challenge... the goal is to slow it's spread if it gets to Australia, but with the number of countries that are now affected, we have to be realistic about the likelihood of containment strategies into the weeks ahead. Now, our effort at the moment is focused on ensuring that it doesn't but we need to ensure that we know what the gaps are if indeed we move to that phase and so what we're in at this phase is understanding what they are and moving quickly to close them. Of course, COAG will be meeting in just over two weeks from now and all of these responses that I've initiated today, they're tasked to come back in time to address that at COAG within just over a fortnight's time. Yeah, John?
JOURNALIST: [inaudible] possibility of any fiscal action you say it will be a targeted modest and scalable.
PRIME MINISTER: Correct.
JOURNALIST: Who or what would it be targeted at, how modest are we talking? Less than one per cent of GDP as a benchmark and what do you mean by scalable?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, you need to be able to build on plans. That's what's scalable means and the Treasury and the Treasurer are working on those presently. So those responses, those recommendations are not yet before the government but they've been tasked, and that's an important part of our preparedness in looking ahead over the next few months. And you do this against a range of possible scenarios. The Treasurer indicated just a few days ago and confirmed that again today that Treasury has not yet finalised what their initial assessment of what they think, believe, the potential impact could be, whether that's over this first March quarter of the year. But you would obviously expect it to have a very real impact with the level of decline that we've seen obviously in travel to Australia, this is not unique to Australia, it's obviously happening everywhere and of course the number of students that haven't been able to arrive in Australia at this point for the beginning of the year. And that's not just the fact that they're not in a university, it means they're not in the country which means they're not participating in the economy and the second-round effects of these issues is what can be impacted. So that is what is being addressed now, John, and that's the work that is being tasked. Michelle, you've been very patient.
JOURNALIST: On those issues, are there any more carve-outs for them from the extension of the travel ban or is that travel ban going ahead with no carve-outs?
PRIME MINISTER: No carve-outs. Yes?
JOURNALIST: In regards to the pandemic, once it is formally declared will that trigger a reconsideration of the travel ban, given it will be harder to contain the virus once that occurs?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, we're effectively operating now on the basis that there is one, a pandemic. Now that is not precisely the case now, but it is likely on the basis of the medical advice that was provided by Dr Murphy this morning and he was right last time. And I'm prepared to back him in and the advice that he's given on this, because he is proven to be very right, as has Dr Kelly and that's why their advice has been so important. But we will continue to monitor the travel arrangements on a weekly basis, but the advice we received today was that on the balance of risks further travel bans were not recommended. Yes, Ellen?
JOURNALIST: With regards to Border Force’s involvement in this, I think you said you want to be able to identify people coming from anywhere in the world. Will you be screening everyone off every flight that looks sick?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, this is what we've tasked the Commissioner of Border Force to come back to the government with a plan as to how he proposes that this risk be managed through our ports.
JOURNALIST: Would interstate travel looked at being limited if there be a rise in cases on, say, the west or the eastern seaboard at all, would you look at limiting interstate travel?
PRIME MINISTER: There is currently no plan for that, but the thing about this plan, and as Dr Murphy reminded us this morning, the key to plans such as this is they need to be flexible, they need to be able to respond to events and data as it presents and so you can be assured that the constant management of that plan, the constant communication is a key part of the plan itself. So you can consider scenarios as they present but at present, there is no suggestion of that, there is no specific planning associated around that type of event and we would deal with those events as they presented. But we would know as part of this process how you would go about that if it was necessary. David, David and then I'll go to Dennis.
JOURNALIST: ...and Mr. Hunt also, given the meeting with the states tomorrow, the federal government doesn't run hospitals, do you want, or will you be asking the states whether they can suspend leave for staff, for instance, recall people, set up dedicated clinics in every hospital so that they're ready for this?
THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH: I think that's very important question. What we've been doing is meeting with the states every day through the meeting of the chief health officers, it's called the AHPPC. In addition to that, the Commonwealth and State health ministers have now had three rounds of preparedness meetings, all by teleconference including on Sunday, and so David what you asked for was what we primarily went through then. Tomorrow, we now go to the next phase. So what we want to know - and I have to say they've done a great job and I particularly want to thank the Northern Territory and Minister Natasha Fyles who has helped establish the Howard Springs temporary quarantine facility - but what we’ll be looking at tomorrow is that they have the surge capacity and how they manage that is up to them. They have been preparing really well and I think that's very important. Right from the outset, I remember speaking with them very early on in the earliest part of February when we had the first of our preparedness meetings, they were already onto it, but at each stage we've gone further and then tomorrow we’ll make sure that we have most importantly in terms of the hospitals, the surge capacity. They've already identified all of the isolation wards, I think Paul's played a huge role in that.
PRIME MINISTER: Paul, did you want to add to that?
DR PAUL KELLY, DEPUTY CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER: I’ll just point to the remark I made earlier about this being based on planning that we’ve had for a long time and indeed it's in a sense exercised every flu season. So every flu season, we expect a surge in flu cases during the winter months and those things like where do we get extra staff, how do we rearrange wards in our hospitals, do we need to consider some ways of diverting people away from emergency departments, how does primary care play a role, what do we do in aged care facilities, all of these things are in this plan but they're really an extension of what we do every year. And so hospitals and health departments are very familiar with this type of arrangement and they'll be built upon as we go through the next few months and will be scaled and flexible as the Prime Minister has said.
PRIME MINISTER: Dennis?
JOURNALIST: Mr Albanese suggested that you're acting politically and without decency by not briefing the Opposition before you made this announcement. How do you react to that?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, I react in a very disappointed way. I'll allow the Health Minister to go through the briefings that we provided the Opposition quite regularly. But I've got to say today I was very disappointed. The National Security Committee met this morning. It became apparent fairly early in the sitting day that the Opposition was keen to be very disruptive in the Parliament today. I understand that, that's politics. We asked the Opposition whether pairs could be provided for myself, the Health Minister, other House members of the National Security Committee, which meant that we'd be able to undertake that meeting uninterrupted. Sadly, that request was declined by the Opposition and they proceeded to go about their business which resulted in seven interruptions to that meeting today. At a time we were trying to plan for the impact of a global pandemic on the coronavirus, well, they chose politics. Greg?
THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH: Just in terms of briefings with Labor, on the third of February, we briefed the Opposition and these would generally involved either the Chief Medical Officer or the Deputy Chief Medical Officer and members from my staff. On the 3rd of the February, Senator Keneally, Senator Wong, Joel Fitzgibbon, Jim Chalmers. On the 4th of February, the Opposition partyroom. On the 12th of February, the Leader of the Opposition. Between the 12th and the 23rd of February, regular briefings with, in particular, the Shadow Health Minister's office. On the 24th of February, Shadow Health Minister Chris Bowen and last night, a briefing for the Leader of the Opposition and Chris Bowen. I understand that at the last minute, the Leader of the Opposition was unable to attend last night's briefing. At approximately 7:30pm, his office was present. Chris Bowen was there. I'll leave it to the Leader of the Opposition, I believe approximately 7:30 last night, and we will continue to provide those briefings and it is appropriate for the National Security Committee to meet. Today it would have been, ideally, if it had been able to meet uninterrupted because they were notified that we were meeting for this very purpose but we'll continue to provide those briefings and they will have to explain their actions.
PRIME MINISTER: And can I just thank Zali Steggall and Rebekha Sharkie who have agreed to support the government on any procedural motions that they may have been engaging this afternoon to enable the Minister for Health and me to take this press conference. Yeah.
PRIME MINISTER: Sorry, I missed it from the noise.
JOURNALIST: On the economic front, in terms of what you’re preparing for and the housing industry implications of this supply chain issue, is there a potential for a commercial housing industry slowdown here and really significant flow-on effects to the economy from that?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, obviously the impact of a breakdown in supply chains or travel or right across the many sectors, there will be an impact on the economy and I anticipate it will have a very real effect. The scale of that we are already living through right now within this quarter and the challenges that we face - and I think this is different to SARS - we have been dealing with this issue and looking at it from an economic point of view as a SARS-like event, but what we are seeing with the coronavirus is a very different type of virus. Its transmission rate is much higher. Its mortality rate may be a lot lower but when you have so many more people who are contracting the virus and it spreads very quickly, obviously the absolute number of fatalities are actually much greater. Already, coronavirus has taken more lives than SARS and MERS put together but the mortality rate on both of those previous conditions were much higher, but there were fewer people who contracted them. And so the advice from Treasury is that we need to be looking at this event quite differently to those others and that advice is very recent. Only as recently as just a few days ago, there was a very different view about how this was likely to play out economically, which is no surprise then that Treasury are taking further time to finalise their advice to government about the potential economic impacts. So as I said, it's a health crisis, not a financial crisis, but it's a health crisis with very real economic impacts and the government is extremely mindful of that and we want to be able to get our responses right. I can say, though, in terms of broader larger fiscal stimulus-type responses, that is not the advice we're receiving from Treasury. In fact, quite the opposite.
JOURNALIST: Minister Hunt, with regards to the national stockpile…
PRIME MINISTER: Sorry, I’ll come here and then we’ll go there. Katharine, we’ll go to Katharine.
JOURNALIST: Just with some stockpiling and supply chain issues, are we confident that given the disruptions to supply chains in China and other locations where manufacturing occurs, that we have sufficient quantities of panadol, ibuprofen, basic drugs to control temperatures. Because obviously we don't have a vaccine or another form of medicine so do we have sufficient quantities of those basic drugs to get us through a very high infection?
THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH: So firstly, we have a national medical stockpile which is very well stocked. Secondly, the work of the TGA - and actually Dr Kelly is the person in the country who oversees this - is to look forward to seeing whether there are any risks for particular medicines. So we're doing a survey of that. At this stage, we have no reports. We are intensely aware, though, of any supply chain risks. Paul?
DR PAUL KELLY, DEPUTY CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER: So that's part of that planning phase that we've been talking about and indeed we didn't start for today, we've been thinking about that for quite some time. It's no secret that we get a lot of things from China, including medicine and medical devices, masks, all sorts of things that we do need to continue our normal business in health, but also particularly to deal with this new phase of coronavirus. So certainly that's part of the work that we're embarking on now to look at all of that.
JOURNALIST: With regards to the stockpile, apart from masks, what do we actually have that is of use specifically dealing with coronavirus, given there's very little that can be done to treat it? What do we have that will work?
THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH: True, we don't have a cure and we don't have a vaccine at this stage. That's a global challenge. On the medical items, Paul, I think this is directly in your domain?
DR PAUL KELLY, DEPUTY CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER: Yes, so mainly it's masks. The medical stockpile has other things that are there for other reasons and other purposes. But it's the masks that are the most useful for this particular issue.
THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH: But also the way the hospitals are set up, why is that the 15 people have been able to clear the virus? One was the degree in severity in relative terms of what they had as opposed to some other cases, but secondly, our hospital systems are our principal treating network and what they are they are as well-equipped as anyone in the world in terms of managing people through fevers, in terms of making sure that they have the hydration, that they have the protection against other forms of infection. And so key to this is what's called the primary healthcare network and then the hospitals network and our hospitals have been prepared for pandemics, as well as the seasonal influence around outbreaks, but now they've gone to the next level and I've got to say, you know, all of the states and territories that have delivered patients home have given us hope and an example and a pathway to the way through.
PRIME MINISTER: Well, I want to thank everybody. The key message that I really want to get across to Australians today is because of the actions we've taken on the coronavirus, we've got ahead. We intend to stay ahead and together we will get through this. Thank you very much.