Press Conference - Australian Parliament House, ACT

07 Apr 2021
Prime Minister

PRIME MINISTER: Good morning everyone. I’m joined by the Secretary of the Department of Health.  First of all, I want to express my condolences to the family of the elder gentleman who passed away as a result of COVID-related illness in Queensland. A dual national who contracted the virus in Papua New Guinea. It’s a further reminder of the very serious situation that is occurring in Papua New Guinea and the Government continues to make every effort we can to provide assistance to Papua New Guinea during this incredibly difficult time for them. Also, I’d just note in passing, condolences to the family of Tommy Raudonikis. A well-loved Australian and individual and all of those who love their rugby league will certainly know about Tommy Raudonikis. He was one of the game’s biggest characters and he’ll be sadly missed amongst the rugby league family and community and our sincere condolences to his family and to that rugby league family as well.

Overnight, there have been some statements made by the European Union in relation to vaccine supply. And so I’m joined with the Secretary of Health, here today, just to run through some facts about the nature of supply of vaccines from Europe. First of all, I want to stress that at no time yesterday did I make any comment about the actions of the European Union, nor did I indicate any of the background reasons for the lack of supply that we have received from those contracted doses. And so, any suggestion that I, in any way, made any criticism of the European Union yesterday, would be completely incorrect. I simply stated a fact - that 3.1 million of the contracted vaccines that we had been relying upon in early January, when we’d set out a series of targets, did not turn up in Australia. That is just a simple fact. Now, that fact has been the key reason for the early phases of the supply shortage in the rollout in the vaccine. It’s straightforward maths - 3.1 million out of 3.8 million doses did not come to Australia. That obviously had a very significant impact on the early rollout of the vaccination program, until we got into a position when the domestically produced AstraZeneca vaccine would be in place. Now, I do stress that the supply of Pfizer vaccines has proved, while at a slightly reduced amount, a reduced amount, has been quite reliable in these early phases and that is greatly assisted with the vaccination rollout. And so, it has been different for different vaccines. So let me just go through a simple timeline that I think sets out the facts of this issue. AstraZeneca contract for 3.8 million doses on 9 September to be delivered in January and February from the offshore manufactured product. That’s what we contracted back in September of 2020. In late January, the EC introduced strict export controls, which were further expanded on 24 March. In late January, mid to late January, AstraZeneca provided updated advice that only 1.2 of the 3.8 million offshore manufactured product could be delivered in February and in March. That was 500,000 in February and 700,000 in March. That was because of a range of issues, which included not just the vaccine shortage in Europe, AstraZeneca’s awareness of the increasing restrictions on export controls, and so applications were not made for those 3.8 million doses. In fact, an application was made for 500,000 doses to be released, and in February, that application was made. Those 500,000 doses were being manufactured in Italy. On 19 February, Minister Hunt called the EU Health Minister to advocate for release of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Australia. On 20 February, AstraZeneca was advised by the European Commission to withdraw their application and submit a revised application for 250,000 doses manufactured in Italy. On the same day, I had a discussion with Ursula von der Leyen from the European Union to discuss vaccine supply. In that discussion, this was the discussion, over 500,000 vaccines which I was advised would not be approved, that they needed more time, and to create some time for them to consider these issues further. I agreed to do that and to work with the Commission to ensure we could get to a position where we could gain access to some of these supplies. Subsequently, an application was made for 250,000 doses out of what was to be 500,000 doses, and on the 3rd of March, the European Union denied export of those 250,000 doses to Australia. On 15 March, Minister Hunt wrote to the EU Health Minister seeking the EC to review their decision to deny export of AstraZeneca vaccines to Australia. On 17 March, I wrote to the President of the EC requesting the export of one million doses from our original 3.8 million which were originally to be for Australia, to ensure that we could make them available to Papua New Guinea to deal with the humanitarian crisis that was emerging in that country. We have still not received any response to that request. Minister Hunt wrote to AstraZeneca Global to request them to resubmit their export application to the EC for further doses and we have been seeking further calls with the President of the EC to discuss these matters. Now, I am pleased to hear that the European Union overnight has indicated that they are not seeking to restrict these vaccines to Australia. So I’ll be very pleased, as will the Minister, to write again in parallel both to AstraZeneca, to seek the export licences for the full amount of the doses, the 3.8 million, to be provided to Australia. And I can assure you that the first million of those will be used to support the humanitarian effort that we’re putting in place for Papua New Guinea. So, if it is indeed the position of the European Union that they are happy for these export licences to be granted and their 3.8 million doses to come to Australia, then we would encourage them to do that in response to our request to ensure that we can do two things. Firstly, to provide support to our Pacific family in Papua New Guinea that are undergoing a humanitarian crisis and to support them with those one million doses, and to ensure that those contracted doses for Australia can be part of the vaccination rollout here in this country. So, with those remarks, I might ask Professor Murphy to make a couple of comments on these issues, and then happy to take questions.

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY, SECRETARY OF THE DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH: Thanks, Prime Minister. So the point I want to make again is that our vaccine rollout is going well. The only thing that is limiting the rollout is vaccine supply. And obviously, the initial issue with vaccine supply related to that 3.1 million doses of AstraZeneca which really put us back in those first weeks because we didn’t have those doses. Now that we do have the CSL doses, which are starting to increase progressively, that is the limiting step is the international supply of Pfizer and the amount that we’re getting out of CSL, which was progressively increasing. But it is a complex process to get vaccines batch tested, quality released, then pre-positioned to delivery centres, and then finally delivered to well over 2,000 general practice sites and a number of state and territory clinics. So we are doing very well with our vaccine program at the moment. It’s ramping up rapidly. The primary care program is working well. The GPs are putting vaccines in arms. Some of them, you know, would like to have more. They’d like to have more than 50 doses a week. But that’s all we have the supplies to do. We are not holding back any vaccines anywhere, other than the second dose contingencies, which clearly you have to hold back. Pfizer has to be given a second dose three weeks later, so we have to hold that back. But we are pre-deploying and pre-positioning all the doses we need. It’s not possible to stand up a large number of additional mass vaccination clinics. We don’t have the vaccine to do that. We have a program that is finely tuned to the available vaccine supply and is delivering exactly as we have planned according to our vaccine supply. Just finally, I just want to mention the issue in relation to vaccine safety. There has been some attention related to this issue with clots potentially associated with the AstraZeneca vaccine, and clearly there’s been the reports of a possible case in Australia. One case is not a strong signal, but we are working very closely with our counterparts in UK who have now done well over 18 million doses of this vaccine, and in Europe that have done many million, to look at the data that they’re getting from their signals and their regulatory bodies and their vaccine advisory committees, and that’s what’s going to give us the true picture of whether this is a real problem and whether it has any significance. So our expert advisory panels, the TGA, ATAGI, are meeting regularly this week. We’re having joint meetings with the Europeans and with the UK regulators and we are taking this matter very seriously at the moment. Our regulator and our ATAGI are advising we continue with our program, that the benefit of vaccination outweighs any potential risk. But we are continually reviewing the situation. Thanks, PM.

PRIME MINISTER: So at the end of the day, this is about supply. It’s about supply and as we continue to get greater confidence in the supply of, the production of the vaccine in Australia, then that only improves the performance of the vaccine rollout as those supplies become available. The other point I’d make is this - there are still risks to that supply. Those risks occur in one of two ways. Obviously, what we’ve seen in terms of import restrictions and those that we’re bringing in. But even domestic production, there can be impacts on domestic production. There is always the conditioning factor right across the vaccination rollout of the medical advice and the development of medical evidence that can in any way affect any of the vaccines. And so, there are no absolute guarantees when it comes to this. We will follow the medical advice. We will continue to ramp up production here in Australia. And we will continue to move through the distribution channels that can deliver the supply of vaccines that we have.

JOURNALIST: How many doses does Australia have in reserve right now?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY, SECRETARY OF THE DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH: There are no doses that are in reserve, as you put it. We have a second dose contingency of Pfizer vaccines that we’ve kept in the warehouse waiting to be rolled out three weeks later. Every dose of AstraZeneca, we’re keeping some of those building a second dose contingency, every other dose is in the process of being pre-deployed or deployed. You can’t, it has to be in a GP’s surgery the week before it’s given and it takes a week to get there. So there, there are probably over a million doses in transit being put into position, but there is nothing that is not being allocated to be put in an arm. That’s to be absolutely clear. There is nothing sitting in a cupboard other than something that we’re planning to give three weeks later as a second dose.

PRIME MINISTER: With the vaccine stores as, there’s what’s produced at the plant and then it goes through the process I was explaining yesterday about batch testing and authorisation, and in AstraZeneca’s case, also through the AstraZeneca organisation. And then you’ve got vaccines that are then in distribution. Then you have vaccines that are pre-deployed into surgeries and other places ready for administration in the following week. And then you have the vaccines that I’d describe as being on the shelf, ready for administration to those that have come to receive the vaccine. So there are many stages in the delivery of the vaccine process, and I think one of the issues that we need to be even clearer about in the future is that when we’re talking about vaccines that are available for distribution, that’s the vaccines that are on the shelf in that week in the places where they’re being administered. Now, these are the issues, these are the metrics, these are the figures that I’ll be discussing with Professor Murphy, with premiers and chief ministers this Friday, so we can give an even clearer picture about the status of the vaccination programme. So we’re talking about things that are on the shelf. We’re talking about things that are ready to go on the shelf. So it’s a bit like being in the storeroom out the back. Then you’ve got those that are actually in the physical process of distribution, and then you’ve got those that are in the process of batch testing and clearance, and then you’ve got those that are going through the fill and finish process within the factory. Now, that process can take several weeks to get from fill and finish to being on the shelf, and once it’s in the shelf, on the shelf, and that means it can go in the arm. And those rates we are now achieving. As I said, just before Easter, we got to just shy of 80,000 a day. Now, that puts us on track with countries like Germany and many others who have been doing it at their stage of the vaccination program, and in advance of many other countries like Japan and South Korea and New Zealand and others. So that's where we're sitting now.

Yes, David?

JOURNALIST: What’s the capacity of the CSL factory this week? What's the forecast in terms of how many CSL doses we'll get this week? Why hasn't it got to a million a week already? What's the hold up there, technical or otherwise, and can the Government spend more money to ramp up CSL's local production faster?

PRIME MINISTER: I'll ask Brendan to comment on this because he's been dealing with CSL. I mentioned yesterday that we already achieved more than 800,000. That's something that we already achieved. The numbers do vary from week-to-week in these early periods and we've just gone through the Easter period, so that influences the numbers at this precise point in time. But they've already been able to demonstrate the capacity to get over 800,000 produced in a week and that's what I believe at least is achievable going forward and we would like to achieve more than that. But the idea of just throwing more money at it, that doesn't increase the volume. This is a manufacturing process and the rate of production is very much in the hands of the manufacturing company themselves, CSL. But everyone is doing everything that they possibly can to get that to the best number possible. Brendan?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY, SECRETARY OF THE DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH: So CSL are releasing batches, sometimes more than twice a week. So it's very hard to give an exact number and the batch release process takes time and it has to go at the moment through approvals both from AstraZeneca and CSL. But as the Prime Minister has said, we had 830,00 in the first week and we are working around that sort of range at the moment. We cannot be accurate until they actually complete the batch release on each particular batch. However, they are absolutely clear that in coming weeks, they are committed to regularly achieve over a million doses a week. That is their strong commitment to Government and the way that they want to achieve that is A) improve the time taken for the batch release process to get that streamlined so it doesn't have to go to several international clearance processes and B) they are working extremely hard on optimising their fill and finish line, the process that fills up the vials. They still believe that there is significant improvement that they can do with that and they are actively working on that now. So we can't give you an exact date when they will hit the million doses a week but they're strongly committed to achieving that in the coming weeks.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, trust in the Government is critical for Australians to actually take up the vaccine. In recent weeks, we've seen blame-shifting with the states. We're now bickering with the EC about supply issues and along with the issues with blood clotting, which still remains unclear to a lot of people. Are you concerned that the Government's handling of this may contribute to vaccine hesitancy among the population? And what are you going to do about that?

PRIME MINISTER: No, I'm not, and I think much of the conflation of the issues you've raised, I think, is more in appearance than in fact. I mean, all I've simply done today is set out very clearly that 3.1 million vaccines didn't arrive in Australia. That's just a simple fact. It's not a dispute. It's not a conflict. It's not an argument. It's not a clash. It's just a simple fact. And I'm simply explaining to the Australian public that supply issues is what's constraining and has constrained, particularly over the recent months, the overall rollout of the vaccine. Look, it happens before every single National Cabinet. You all write stories about how everybody is disagreeing with each other and we come together at National Cabinet, as always, and then I'll stand before you on Friday and I’ll talk about the things that are agreed. So I would just counsel people to see these things sometimes as maybe a lot more dust being kicked up than actual substance. People are working together to deliver these vaccines. Australia has a proud history when it comes to the vaccination of our people, particularly for child immunisation. We lead the world in these areas. We have the best regulator, I believe, in the world, and I think Australians can have great confidence about that. I think we just need to focus on getting more clear and transparent numbers out there and so that leaves less to speculation and commentary and more to fact. 

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, Christine Holgate accuses you of throwing her under a bus over the Cartier watches scandal. She says the Chairman of Australia Post lied to Parliament. Have you got a response to these concerns? Do you believe that the head of a Government-owned corporation has misled Parliament?

PRIME MINISTER: I'm aware of those comments and those submissions and I understand that they'll be addressed through the Parliamentary hearing. This is a matter now that's substantively between Ms Holgate and Australia Post and that's where I note the predominance of her comments have been directed. Ms Holgate decided to leave Australia Post. That's just a matter of record. There was a review that was undertaken into the matters that were brought up by the Senate at Estimates, and before that was concluded, Ms Holgate decided to leave Australia Post. Now, that's just a matter of record and these issues now, as I understand it, are between Ms Holgate and Australia Post and I'll leave that matter there for the time being.

JOURNALIST: Professor Murphy, your tone is rather different on the blood clot issue than it was or health officialdom's was a few weeks ago. Could you explain that? And also, one of your predecessors, Stephen Duckett, has pointed to a number of flaws that he sees in the rollout program, one of them is transportation logistics. Are you sure that the delivery system is in best shape?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY, SECRETARY OF THE DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH: Sure. So I think that we are very confident with the delivery system. It is a very, very complex delivery because we have chosen to go, where possible, particularly for the over 70s and 80s, to people's own GPs. So we're choosing to go to over 4,000 GPs. That is a hugely complex logistic process and we have two logistic companies that are working seven days a week. Obviously, there will be occasions where things don't get delivered. Floods were a factor. Sometimes practices weren't there. But 99 percent of the time, it's working well. I know Professor Duckett has lots of advice for his successors in the Health Department on a regular basis. Yes, indeed he has. With the safety issue, look, all I'm saying is that there is a lot of action at the moment analysing the information in Europe and in the UK and we are taking a very close interest in it. Because Government and the Department have taken the view that safety is absolutely paramount. We will look at the data that's come out of the, England has had, the UK has had so much more experience than we have. They've got the better data. Europe has better data and that's why we're looking at their data to see whether this is a real problem and whether we need to do anything about it. At the moment, we don't have those answers. All I'm saying is that this is a very active, ongoing review.

JOURNALIST: You said that the supply issues were a matter of simple mathematics. But on the 5th of March, your Health Minister said when Italy's 250,000 doses were blocked, “We are very clear that this does not affect the pace of the rollout." How can that have been true?

PRIME MINISTER: We'd already adjusted the rollout. We'd already adjusted the rollout to not include the 3.1 million.

JOURNALIST: With what you're saying now, is it the fact that the Government has been overly rosy about the state of the rollout?

PRIME MINISTER: That would mischaracterise what the Minister was saying and fail to appreciate the context of what he said. We had already taken into account, and we'd already shared with this very gallery, in this very place in late January, the concerns that we had about the European distribution, at that point, and I've gone through the timeline again with you. I mean, I think what I'd urge the media to do is, circumstances change. There are a lot of variables in this process. Supply chains get disrupted. Medical evidence comes forward which requires us to address it and may cause us to make changes to the program in the interests of public health. There is an expectation, I think, of certainty and of guarantees here that the environment does not provide for and it would be very unwise, I think, to suggest that level of certainty exists around this. It simply doesn't. That has been true of our management of the entire COVID pandemic. If we go back to this time last year, there was much we did not know. We know a lot more now. And when it comes to the rollout of the vaccine, there is still much we do not know, as Professor Murphy has said in terms of evidence that's coming forward out of rollout of the program in other countries. We will take that on board. So I would urge, I have said, even when we released numbers in early January, we flagged that this is contingent on events and events will have a way of impacting on the distribution and rollout of the vaccination program. But I assure Australians that we're all working together to get this delivered. It will take as long as it takes. We have our clear targets and that is to get through 1A and 1B by midyear and to have offered to Australians that first dose for adult Australians by the end of October. That's what we're working to. It is obviously subject to supply issues, medical evidence and medical advice and we will continue working on both of those principles. I have a Cabinet meeting to get to this morning. So I'll go Chris, one and two here.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, the Chinese ambassador is holding a press conference at 2:00pm this afternoon. I expect that we'll hear what we have heard before, that there is no problem with the Uighurs and we shouldn't interfere in Hong Kong and the Australian people or the Australian Government has been largely responsible for our relationship with China. How would you characterise our relationship with China at the moment? Do you have any optimism that they might start returning your calls at a ministerial level? And what are we to make of the strategic struggle that we see between China and the United States?

PRIME MINISTER: I'd make a couple of points, Chris. The first is the world is a lot more uncertain at the moment than it has been for a long time. I said in July last year, you may recall, that I said that we're living in a time not unlike the 1930s but I don't believe that it will end in the same way. I think we've learnt a lot since then, but we are dealing with a lot of global instability at present and there are many relationships which are strained, including the ones that you've referred to. But as the Defence Minister said, the new Defence Minister said on the weekend, and I share that view - we want a positive relationship. But we will have a positive relationship that is consistent with Australia acting in accordance with its values and its national character. And that will never be, that will never be something that we would yield for the sake of a relationship and I think that that is very important. And I think that Australians support that view very strongly. And so, we will continue to act consistent with our national character. We will continue to work with others around the world for a free and open Indo-Pacific. That is our goal, because we believe that is good for Australia and we believe that that is good for all of the countries of the region. We want to see a positive relationship between the larger countries that are impacting on our region. But again, those relationships can’t be achieved at the product of a less free and a less open Indo-Pacific. So our objectives here are very clear and we would be keen to work with China to those ends, as we’ve consistently said and so we’ll continue to work positively to that end and we would welcome discussions that are about those objectives. Last one over here.

JOURNALIST: Sorry, just on PNG, if you can’t get the requested assistance from the European Union, will Australia commit to provide a significant proportion of the domestically made vaccine to PNG? How much are you prepared to provide of the what’s being made on shore in Australia? Is it a million doses as you’re requesting from overseas?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we obviously want those million doses and that’s why I started today’s media conference by saying given the statements that have been made overnight that apparently there is no obstruction to that, then I would hope that could be readily addressed. If that doesn’t occur, then we have been working with a number of other partners around the world to see how we can address that and we’re also considering what it might mean for Australia’s provision of doses directly. But those issues haven’t been finalised yet. We are still getting reports from our teams up in Papua New Guinea and we are working closely with other partners in the region to see how we can best address that challenge. But it is a very serious one, it is causing real concern and I have been in contact by text and other measures with Prime Minister Marape over this period of time and I know how distressing it is for them. Again, the death of a dual citizen here in Australia who contracted the virus in Papua New Guinea is just another terrible reminder of the fact that this pandemic isn't over. We can't be complacent about this. Yes, Australia is living in a way that most of the world is not right now. Let's just remember that for a second. Australia is living right now in this pandemic in a way that most of the world is not. I'm grateful that over the Easter weekend you could meet with friends. If you wanted to, you could go to a sporting match. You could gather together in a park together. You could go out to a restaurant. You could even stand up in the pub and have a beer if you wanted to. In Australia, all of that is happening. In Australia, we have a domestically produced vaccine, which we're one of only about 20 countries that can say that, to have that sovereign capability to dealing with the problems that we have right now. I can tell you, most of the world would want to be right here at the moment and I'm certainly thankful…

JOURNALIST: [Inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER: I’ve already said that we're considering those matters right now. OK, thank you very much.