Press Conference, Australian Parliament House, ACT

29 Jan 2020
Australian Parliament House, ACT
Prime Minister

PRIME MINISTER: Good morning everyone. I’m of course joined by Dr Brendan Murphy the Chief Medical Officer, the Minister for Health, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs. 

Before I begin on the serious matters we are addressing today regarding the coronavirus and further actions the Government has taken today after the National Security Committee met again earlier today, of course, we met on Monday, we'll be meeting again on Friday as this is a serious and evolving situation, the fires overnight here in Canberra are a reminder again that we're a long way from the end of this bushfire season and while we are presented with many challenges at the moment as a country, whether it's the fires which were on the outskirts of this city last night, whether it was the drought where I was yesterday out in western New South Wales and addressing the very pressing issues there, or even still as we're dealing with the issues up in North Queensland and the recovery from the floods, and of course dealing with these serious matters of the coronavirus, there are many issues that we're very focused on at the moment and the National Security Committee has had a long agenda of matters to address. Also I might just say that there'll be an opportunity to take questions obviously on these matters about the announcements today. If you have questions on other matters I'd ask that you leave them to the National Press Club address, we can obviously deal with those other matters then. 

The steps we're announcing today are a number- let me just run through them. As I said this is a serious and evolving situation. I want to start by thanking Dr Murphy and all of our medical advice team working through the Minister for Health and all of our team at DFAT for the constant and consistent advice they're providing to us on this very serious situation. I want to thank all the state health authorities and state health Ministers as well who have been working closely with Greg Hunt and of course the CMO to ensure that all of our response to this and particularly our clinical response on the ground continues to be proving highly effective in containing the impacts of this coronavirus. The steps we're taking today are being taken on the basis of the medical advice that we are receiving. That is, firstly, and Dr Murphy will go into more detail on this, we're releasing 1 million masks from the stockpile through the PHN network and also that would include going to pharmacists, bushfire responses have depleted some of those stocks in various places around the country and that process is being undertaken today. 

The travel advice has been upgraded to reconsider all travel to China, the entire nation. There is a package of information following the decision we took on Monday which is going out to all tourist accommodation and tourist industry-related operators to ensure that there is advice in language for those where they're staying in commercial accommodation, but also where else they might be as they're moving around the country so they can have access to the information they need. A key part of our armoury in dealing with this coronavirus issue is information and having the right information and ensuring people are going to the right source of information and making decisions based on that accurate information. And I would encourage all Australians to focus on getting that information from the trusted sources which are directly from public health authorities. 

On Monday evening, there was a information session held in Beijing for diplomatic missions where a range of issues were discussed. I want to thank the Chinese Government for the very transparent way they have been dealing with not just the Australian Government, but with all of those missions and we greatly appreciate it, the opportunity to attend that session on Monday evening. Following that session, we have taken a decision this morning to prepare a plan for an operation to provide some assisted departures for isolated and vulnerable Australians in Wuhan and the Hubei province. This will be done subject obviously to working closely and with the authority and approval of the Chinese Government and we thank them again for the way they have been working with other nations and we're working in the same arrangements that is being - also been extended to those countries but I stress there is rather a limited window here and we are moving very, very swiftly to ensure we can put this plan together and put the operation together. I stress that this will be done on a last in, first out basis. What that means is we're working with the community that has been identified there and the Foreign Minister can go into more detail about this. For those who have been there who do not have an established support infrastructure in where they're living, they would have been shorter term travellers to that area, they would not have been living there for many years and we're particularly focused on the more vulnerable components of that population. That's young people, particularly infants, and those who are elderly and that would be our priority in any operation we're able to put in place. 

Those assisted with their departure, and those arrangements will be done on the normal commercial terms that are done for assisted departures in these circumstances, we will be standing up Christmas Island as a quarantine area. They will be transported to Christmas Island where they'll - where we will also be putting in place the AUSMAT team who will be travelling there to support the medical support and that will be supplemented as is necessary by other defence support which can assist and other support that is provided through the medical system to ensure proper treatment facilities are there. I also want to stress that for Christmas Island, we will be ensuring there will be support provided directly to the Christmas Island community completely separate and quarantined from the support that is being provided in the quarantine zone. The quarantine declaration will be made by the Government to give effect to those arrangements. The Defence Force have been tasked to identify overflow facilities where that may be necessary and also to provide whatever logistical and other support is necessary to support the operations on Christmas Island. Anyone who under this plan are transported to Christmas Island would be there, we envisage, for up to 14 days which is the advised period of quarantine for the patient of this virus. But that will be subject to the medical advice we receive, and that will obviously be a condition of those who are - who would seek to take part in this arrangement. 

I want to stress that there is - we cannot give a guarantee that this operation is able to succeed and I also want to stress very clearly that we may not be in a position if we're able to do this on one occasion, to do it on another occasion. We have already, as I announced yesterday, moved our consular officials out of Shanghai. They are en route now and on their way to Wuhan to provide us with a presence on the ground to coordinate what we're doing here. There are many complications and many issues that we're going to have to overcome. I note that the United States has been able to provide assisted departures already, but I stress that has only been for their consular staff and families. A broader assisted departure for the United States citizens in that area at this stage has not been undertaken. So what we're proposing here is something different, as you know we do not have a consulate presence in Wuhan. We do not have large numbers of Australian staff who are present in Wuhan. So that is not an issue we're dealing with. But we are dealing with a number of Australians who have been there and we have to go through the process of identifying those who are most vulnerable and who are most isolated and where it is possible, I want to thank Qantas because they have offered their assistance in being the commercial operator that we can use to undertake this operation and I want to thank everyone at Qantas as always for stepping up when Australia needs you and we thank them very much for that process. 

I'm going to hand over now to the Chief Medical Officer. He's going to give a more general overview of what's occurring today. I'll then ask Greg Hunt to speak on what he's been doing domestically to work with the state and territory Ministers- governments and the practises they have in place and then, of course, Marise Payne, as Foreign Minister, can update you on our plans and our operations. I should also stress - this operation we’ll be doing in partnership with the New Zealand Government. I spoke again to Prime Minister Ardern today. I spoke to her last night so this is very much an ANZ operation and we'll be working closely with them and also we will seek to work with other - of the Pacific family in our region where possible, to provide what support we can, but my first priority right now is the safety of Australians, the safety of Australians here in Australia to ensure that we are doing everything consistent with the advice and acting with an abundance of caution to protect their wellbeing, but also for those Australians who have found themselves isolated and vulnerable as a result of this crisis that we're also extending some support to them. Brendan.

DR. BRENDAN MURPHY, CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER: Thank you, Prime Minister. So just recently we received data from China suggesting there are now over 6,000 confirmed cases and 132 deaths. Nearly all of those deaths remain in that Hubei province which is the epicentre of this outbreak, but as we have said before, there are increasing but still small numbers of cases in other provinces of China and on that basis, we recommended to the Department of Foreign Affairs last night that they upgrade their travel advisory for the whole of China to reconsider your need to travel. 

There have been 84 exported cases to other countries. In Australia, the official numbers of cases remains at 5, but we do expect a very small number of additional cases to be reported in the near future. But I stress that we have tested a large number of Australians with a relevant travel history and relevant symptoms and the great majority of those have been negative. All of the 5 cases in Australia are in a stable condition. The World Health Organization has now estimated that only about 20% of people with this condition have a severe disease. So we do want to emphasise that the majority of people have a mild disease and still most of the deaths are in people who are older and have - and the Chinese are reporting them to have comorbidity. So there's a significant group of people with mild disease and we still believe that there are people in China with mild disease who remain underreported. 

So we think the Australian community needs to be reassured that we are well prepared. Our efforts are based around trying to identify any people who are in this country, they're [inaudible] to be already here because the Chinese authorities have stopped transport or any exit from the Hubei province which remains by far the major centre of this condition. The Prime Minister mentioned masks. The masks are for patients who with the relevant travel history and symptoms and their doctors who are assessing them, we're not recommending that the general Australian public wear masks or take protection. We have only 5 confirmed cases in Australia. There is no evidence of human-to-human transmission in Australia. The Australian public should go about their business, reassured that the risk to them is extremely low. We are well prepared, if more cases come, we're well prepared in our state and territory health services to isolate people as necessary and manage them. 

I do want to- just finally before I hand over to Minister Hunt mention media reports overnight of two cases in Japan, in Germany, where there is a suggestion that contrary to all of the previous expert advice that some people may have transmitted the virus just before they became symptomatic, whereas normally the advice has been with these viruses that you need to be symptomatic to be infectious. We're convening an urgent meeting of all of our expert groups this afternoon to reconsider whether our medical advice should be changed and look at the veracity of those cases. So that's an active issue that we're exploring. So I'll hand over to Minister Hunt.

THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH: Thanks very much to Dr Murphy. The Government has been following the medical advice and in particular once Dr Murphy triggered the human coronavirus with pandemic potential decision under the Biosecurity Act, those actions which had been in preparation were extended and expanded and expedited. In particular action has been taken within our airport system and our port system to ensure that there are warnings, protections, advice and that if any symptoms are identified, that action is taken to assess the individuals. We are assessing on a daily basis the expert advice. Dr Murphy has been leading those discussions with states and territories and equally he will be convening today the communicable disease network of Australia which is the expert advisory panel in addition to the state chief health officers who work closely with them and their advice has been consistent and has been acted upon. For example, yesterday they advised that the travel advisory should be updated and that was done by the Government immediately. 

In terms of additional actions going forward, as the Prime Minister said, we'll be supporting the public and GPs through the allocation of up to 1 million masks for general practices, for those patients and health workers where there is a case that somebody is coming forward and identifying that they may have been in contact or they may have symptoms. And following again the advice of Dr Murphy and the experts, they'll be distributed through the primary health networks to general practices that seek or need them and if more are required, more will be provided. We have now a supply of 21.5 million masks, 12.5 million P2 masks and 9 million surgical masks which are on the advice, the appropriate masks for this particular type of action and that's in response to the medical advice and our work with the medical providers themselves - the RACGP and the AMA and the ACRRM.

Further to that we're also ensuring that there will be an AUSMAT, Australian medical assistance team, that will support the bringing of people to Christmas Island subject to all of the work that the Foreign Minister is doing in relation to that process of assisted departure and that is a second domestic mobilisation of this extraordinary resource that Australia has previously that has been deployed overseas and was deployed during the bushfire emergencies and has already been mobilised. We prepared them on a contingency basis and we notified them this morning following the decisions of the national security committee. 

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you very much Greg, and I’ll ask Marise to [inaudible].

SENATOR THE HON. MARISE PAYNE, MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Thank you very much, PM, Dr Murphy and Minister Hunt. Can I start by reminding Australians that we have upgraded our travel advice, our travel advice in relation to China is to reconsider your need to travel to China and in relation to Hubei province, it is do not travel to Hubei province. 

As the Prime Minister has said, our embassy in Beijing will now be seeking formal approval from the Chinese Government to assist the departure of Australians in accordance with the requirements that were provided to diplomatic missions in the briefing in Beijing on Monday. We are positioning a consular team from Shanghai to be able to support any action that we take, that will include setting up a temporary consular office in Wuhan to work with local authorities to help give effect to our plans to bring about an assisted departure. 

We understand from calls to the DFAT consular emergency line that we have now just over 600 Australians currently registered in Hubei province for either advice or assistance. We will be talking further with each of them as the Prime Minister has said, our focus in this proposed assisted departure is on supporting isolated and vulnerable Australian citizens. We are endeavouring to make further contact with people who have given us their details. We do note that it is sometimes difficult given the phone circumstances in China to make that follow-up contact and so if those Australians or their families have not spoken with our consular officials in the past 24 hours, then I would encourage them to make contact again on the DFAT emergency number which is, in Australia 1300 555 135, and internationally +61 2 6261 3305. 

I do want to indicate that we absolutely understand what a stressful time this is for those families that are impacted by the circumstances in Wuhan and Hubei province. We are encouraging people to make contact with family and friends to stay in touch with travel providers and, of course, to contact their insurers where appropriate. And also to continue to follow the health precautions which are available on our Smart Traveller website. In China, as I indicated on Monday, Australians should avoid major gatherings. They should stay away from crowded areas and they should follow strict hygiene precautions. As the Prime Minister and the Health Minister have indicated, there is still significant work to do to bring about this process, most particularly our consultations with Chinese authorities but we are doing all that we can and having extensive discussions to ensure that we can help Australians in Wuhan as soon as possible.

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you Marise, and I’ll ask Brendan to join me again. We have time for a few questions?

JOURNALIST: Can you give us a sense of the numbers involved here? How many people do you think you might be able to evacuate, how many of our New Zealand and Pacific neighbours might we be able to help and what are the circumstances for dual citizens?

PRIME MINISTER: Well I would take a number of those points. The Foreign Minister indicated we have 600 people who are registered in that area but there are many other issues that have to be worked through, and you have highlighted quite a few of those. At this stage we are in the planning phase. When we have further information on what the capability of that operation is, then we will obviously advise people. At this stage, we are simply saying that we are putting plans in place, we’re working with the Chinese government to put this in place, we’re working with the New Zealand government, and as you know I have spoken to the Prime Minister Ardern just today about how they would be participating in this obviously with consular support and working with our consular teams as part of that process. They obviously have a much smaller number of people that are impacted than Australia, so I welcome the fact that they want to combine their resources with ours to address this, and similarly we understand the work that we can do to help our Pacific family as well. But my primary focus is on the welfare of Australians and those Australians here in Australia and ensuring we are protecting them and their health and safety and well-being, but also those Australians who are in Hubei province in Wuhan, who are isolated and vulnerable. It is a process of identifying those who are isolated and vulnerable. There are some people who will be in Hubei province, who have been there for some time and effectively have been living there for some period of time. We are talking about people who are there not in those circumstances, those who don't have support structures in that place, those who are particularly vulnerable because they might have young children or they may be elderly. There are also issues around passports that people have travelled on, which is a matter that is noted by the Chinese government as well and we will have to work in with the rules and arrangements that have been put in place not just for Australia but other countries as well.

JOURNALIST: How long ‘til you expect Beijing to grant permission for these assisted departures? When could we see that first Qantas jet arrived in Hubei?

MINISTER PAYNE: I think we must be prepared to be patient as this process is undertaken. Australia is not the only country seeking diplomatic support and clearances for these activities-

JOURNALIST: So we haven’t got permission yet?

MINISTER PAYNE: We are seeking permission from the Chinese authorities as I indicated-

JOURNALIST: But they haven’t given us permission yet?

MINISTER PAYNE: -in my opening remarks. We will do that through our post in Beijing and also working with the local authorities in Wuhan through the consular team that will arrive there imminently from Shanghai.

PRIME MINISTER: Just to address Greg's point, we made a decision this morning to put this plan in place and to seek those authorities. We are respectfully now going through that process. It has been my intention to come here today with Ministers to let the Australian people know the decisions we have taken and what we are doing. There is quite a process to work through, and the relationship and working support we have had with the Chinese government to date on this matter has been very strong, and so-

JOURNALIST: But given other countries have received permission haven’t we been slow off the mark?


JOURNALIST: How long would people be quarantined on Christmas Island for? 14 days? Or how long?

PRIME MINISTER: Yes, our expectation is 14 days.

JOURNALIST: [inaudible] quarantine measures like attending schools is completely at odds with what some states are saying. Who are parents supposed to trust and listen to when it comes to those measures?

PRIME MINISTER: Well let me say a couple of things. My kids went back to school this week as many other kids have and I understand the issues and concerns that parents would have being one of them myself. And that is why it is important to take the advice, and I think the Chief Medical Officer today has set out the situation very soundly and that is why it is important to seek out the information directly from the source-

JOURNALIST: Whose advice? The states or the government?

PRIME MINISTER: What I don't agree with in the question as it was presented is- what the New South Wales has done has been consistent with the advice, it has gone beyond that advice and as a parent in New South Wales, I don't have any issue with that and an abundance of caution. We have also been undertaking our actions with an abundance of caution. And we will continue to do that. And what other measures are necessary, then we will take them. That is why we are reviewing this on a daily basis and states within their own province and own school systems will make their decisions. And I support them doing that. They are seeking the advice from the Chief Medical Officer, working with the medical professionals and they are making decisions and I support them in those decisions and the decisions that were taken in New South Wales were not inconsistent with the advice that is out there. It went beyond the advice, and for that, that is a judgement they are entitled to make.

JOURNALIST: The White House is considering suspending flights to and from China, will Australia look at doing the same?

PRIME MINISTER: At this stage we are acting on the medical advice to us that is not suggesting that as an action for Australia. We should stress that all countries will find themselves in different situations in terms of how this virus and how this outbreak may impact on them, as the Chief Medical Officer has said. We have five confirmed cases. Obviously we expect that there can be more as there is more testing, but the response from our state health authorities and the treatment capability that is there is strong, and so we will continue to make decisions. I mean, the Chinese government themselves have now put restrictions in saying to reconsider the need for travel outside of China. We have upgraded our travel advice for people to reconsider their need to travel to China, and that would equally apply to people in China who are Australian, and the reasons for them being there. And so I think that advice is all very clear. But what I want to stress to all Australians is this is an issue we are dealing with constantly on the basis of the best advice that we have available, that we are making decisions every single day, and we will continue to take decisions to protect Australians, their safety, their well-being, whether here or where they may be in a position of vulnerability overseas. We’ve got time for one more?

JOURNALIST: What is your latest advice from your economic advisers on the potential economic impact on Australia such as tourism, exports to China as well?

PRIME MINISTER: Well John, of course we share a concern, particularly in the wake of the bushfire crisis, an emergency that will have an impact on our tourism industry and related things, and that is obviously of concern to us. But to be honest, right now, my focus is on people's health and their well-being. And these issues will be addressed in time when a clearer picture emerges. These are not things that are confined obviously to Australia, and their broader impact, and they will be assessed as we particularly lead in to the next budget and that is the appropriate time I think for that reconciliation to take place. But right now, our focus, my focus, is on Australian’s health and well-being, and protecting their safety. Thank you very much.