Press Conference - Australian Parliament House, ACT

22 Apr 2021
Prime Minister

PRIME MINISTER: Well, thank you for joining us this afternoon. It’s been another very positive meeting of the National Cabinet today. We've made a lot of progress over the course of this week in putting together the new recalibrated arrangements for the vaccination program, which I'll ask Professor Murphy to speak to. Professor Kelly is available to answer questions on any of these matters. But let me begin by telling you today, if I can have the first slide, these are today's numbers. Just under 1.8 million Australians have now been vaccinated and I can tell you one of them is my mum. She was vaccinated today. She went down to her GP on the regular Thursday clinic and she has had her vaccination today. Some 67,591 Australians were vaccinated in that previous 24-hour period. And we're pleased to see that those numbers have been staying in those mid sort of 60,000 each day and that's good to see. It's also important to note that over half now, over half of the vaccinations that have been done in Australia have now been done by our general practitioners. If I go to the next slide, you can see since the general practitioners came on board, we have seen the vaccination program reach the levels that it has now, just less than 1.8 million.

If I can have the next slide, what you can see now is Australia which is here, has been steadily moving up the board. We are now at 7 per 100, which puts us ahead of the European Union, ahead of countries like Belgium and France and Italy and of course, countries like New Zealand and Canada at the same time of their vaccination rollout. And I want to say a big thank you to Australians, particularly those aged over 70 including my mum who have been out there, heeding that call to importantly go and ensure that they are getting vaccinated because that population in particular aged over 70, is the most vulnerable when it comes to there being any potential outbreak.

Today, National Cabinet agreed the following and I'll ask Professor Murphy to go through this in more detail. Once again, we enforce that Pfizer would be prioritised, the doses available for those under 50 in those 1A and 1B groups. They will also be prioritised to those in residential aged care facilities and disability care, in remote and very remote locations, and for quarantine and those essential front-line workers who are working in those areas which are vaccinated by the states and territories. We also agreed to bring forward for over 50s, so outside 1A and 1B, over 50 Australians. This would be vaccination for AstraZeneca and that would be brought forward for the GP respiratory clinics and state and territories from the 3rd of May. And from 17th of May, for GPs, in the broader GP clinics that are available, just like the one my mother went to today. That will give them ample time for them to gear up for that and it’ll also give them more time for those GPs to focus continually on that over 70 population where they're working through very effectively this time and we thank them for that. State and territory Pfizer vaccine rollouts, which are currently being done, will also be available to workforce in residential aged care facilities, as well as disability care. Now, that's not for disability care residents with complex, highly complex needs. They will continue to be vaccinated through the in-reach services that are provided by the Commonwealth. And once again, National Cabinet affirmed the importance of GPs being the principal way in which we're seeking to vaccinate the country and the fact they've already done half that job and that it is only continuing to grow, I think underscores that.

We also considered today another emerging and important issue and that is dealing with returning Australian residents and citizens from high-risk countries. Now, as time goes on and the pandemic continues to rage, there are countries that are frankly of greater risk than others. And we've seen in particular most recently an increase in the rate of cases in our quarantine system at a state and territory level for arrivals from India. What we have agreed to do, and this particularly relates to the chartered services we're running into the Northern Territory, we will be reducing by some 30 per cent the numbers coming through our chartered services in the months ahead. We will also be limiting the departure exceptions for Australians travelling to high-risk countries and the one we're nominating at the moment and there will be others and we'll be working through that over the course of the next week to India. So those who may have been going for, sadly family events such as weddings or sadly funerals, these were things that were restricted in Australia for Australians in this country. So regrettably, there are some exemptions that are provided in these circumstances and we'll be instructing the Border Force to ensure that only in very urgent circumstances would an exemption be permitted for someone to travel to a high-risk country. To give you an idea about high-risk countries, the United Kingdom, who allows people to enter have got a list of red list countries that only residents, sorry, only citizens can return from. While we're not adopting that list, that gives you somewhat of an idea of the type of approach we'll be seeking to put in place from those high-risk countries and the Chief Medical Officer working with others and DFAT will be seeking to put a list of high-risk countries in place.

We will also be reducing by 30 per cent over the course of this week and we'll be advising that on a later date, just to flag, the reduction in volumes in direct flights from India into Australia. There are only direct flights into Sydney. So that would be a 30 per cent reduction and we will announce once we're in a position to do so, which shouldn't be before too long, to advise when that will take effect from. We will also be looking to put in place for high-risk countries and we'll work through that over the course of this week coming. An arrangement whereby if you have been in a high-risk country in the previous 14 days before getting on your last point of embarkation to Australia, then you would need to have had a PCR test 72 hours before leaving that last point of embarkation. So, if you had been, this would apply to India. If you had been in India when you had arrived in say, Kuala Lumpur or Doha or Singapore or some place like that, in those countries and we have to work through the arrangements with officials and others before we put this in place but in the interests of transparency, what we're saying in that last point of embarkation which would be Doha or Singapore or Kuala Lumpur, you would need to have had a PCR test 72 hours before getting on that plane. That deals with the problem, I should say the issue, that is being addressed in places like South Australia and Western Australia, to a lesser extent Victoria and Queensland, where they don't have direct flights. No what this will do is ensure that in those places, that those seats would then be taken up by other Australian residents and citizens seeking to return who won't be coming from high-risk countries. These are difficult decisions we've had to make but the increasing risk that we've seen from some countries, we believe necessitates managing that risk in the best way possible. But also maintaining the volumes of those who can come under the cap arrangements we currently have. With that, I'll pass you over to Professor Murphy.

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY, SECRETARY OF THE DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH: Thanks, Prime Minister. Could I have the next slide, please. So I’m just going to go over the recalibration of the vaccine program and first it's important to re-emphasise the principles upon which this recalibration has been undertaken by the states and territories and the Commonwealth officials, working very closely over the last week. So the major driver of this is clearly the ATAGI advice in relation to this rare but significant adverse effect, thrombosis, with thrombocytopenia, which occurs more commonly in younger people and for whom the risk benefit of vaccination is different at different ages. And ATAGI advice to recall, is that Pfizer is now the preferred vaccine for those under 50. So that means that we really have two vaccines divided by age with some exceptions. A bit like how we have two flu vaccines. One group for 65 and over, and one group for under 65. So that's made a big, significant impact on our program as we have previously outlined.

The other principle is we that must continue our course to protect the most vulnerable to severe COVID as soon as possible and our goal to protect them by the middle of the year is unchanged. People like the Prime Minister's mother. Age is the single biggest risk factor for severe COVID but we know there are others and that group is our priority at the moment. To get them vaccinated as soon as possible. In doing so, we have to maximise the vaccine doses we have available at this time. And obviously at this time we have more Pfizer, more AstraZeneca I should say, coming online from CSL, but still steady but hopefully increasing doses of Pfizer. So we have to plan the program to maximally use those vaccines we have available. Clearly we have to encourage Australians to get vaccinated. We have to make sure that we have a program that is credible. We have communication that gets out to the population, to make sure that people understand the importance of vaccination, to make sure that we understand that we are in still a very dangerous world. There are many countries in the world, the Prime Minister was talking about India, that are in very serious situations with COVID and the risk of COVID importation and outbreak in Australia is ever present. We cannot be complacent.

Clearly, the other principle is this huge logistic program must be collaborative and it's been so the whole way through. It has been very collaborative in the last week as we've sought to recalibrate the program. The next slide up. So what are the key principles or the key changes. So as I've said, Pfizer vaccine is the vaccine for those under 50, with a few agreed exceptions. We have to finish off residential aged care. It's nearly finished. Only a few more weeks to go and we have very, very efficient teams going in there giving Pfizer to our aged care residents. We will soon have them completely protected and they are the single most high-risk group in this country and all around the world from COVID. There are some other exceptions that the Prime Minister talked about disability care, where most people are under 50, in a small disability home. We wouldn't want to go in with two types of vaccine for only four or five people. There are some border and quarantine workers who need to be protected, to be able to go to work and that protection for two doses three weeks apart is much easier to achieve with Pfizer. But with a few exceptions, Pfizer is now restricted to those under 50. Until we get more Pfizer supplies later in the year, so for those people who may choose not to have AstraZeneca, as the Prime Minister has always said, it is a choice. We recommend that AstraZeneca, the risk benefit for over 50 is vastly in favour of being vaccinated. But people always have a choice and more Pfizer will be available later in the year. But at this stage we will not be making Pfizer available to those 50 and over.

We need to ensure, because of this new age split that a range of people under 50 who are eligible at the moment, such as aged care workers, disability care workers, those people with underlying chronic medical conditions, emergency service workers and broader healthcare workers from all settings, can have access to Pfizer at the state Pfizer clinic. So they will now, the first Ministers have agreed, they will open up all of their state Pfizer clinics equally to every single Australian currently eligible, it's only in those groups in 1A and 1B at the moment to access Pfizer in those Pfizer clinics. That increased demand on the Pfizer clinics to cover that whole population essentially under 50 will require an expansion in those Pfizer clinics in the states. That will need to expand both in geography and size, depending on the available Pfizer doses which are coming in and which we hope to increase in coming weeks. We will also down the track consider further expansion of other state Pfizer points of presence and potentially when we get more supplies of a Commonwealth Pfizer points of presence. The AstraZeneca vaccine is the vaccine for people 50 years and over. Because the states and territories will be no longer providing AstraZeneca to under 50s in their clinics, that will free up more AstraZeneca to go to primary care sites. And they will be able to increase many of the GP sites who as the Prime Minister said, have been vaccinating very efficiently, many of our over 70s say they can do more. We'll be able to increase their dose supply in coming weeks and we'll be able to also make sure that the states and territory clinics focus on their core over 50 groups in their AstraZeneca clinics but they may well pivot from AstraZeneca clinics in the states and territory to doing more Pfizer because that's been their primary role.

As the Prime Minister said, we also now have the capacity, because we're not giving under 50s AstraZeneca in the GP clinics and in some of the state clinics, we have the capacity now to bring forward some of the other people in phase 2A who would have access to AstraZeneca, those between 50 and 70, for people 50 and over can get access to AstraZeneca in coming weeks. As the Prime Minister said, that will globally take place from the 17th of May but earlier from the 3rd of May in state and territory clinics and the GP respiratory clinics.

So that's essentially the program recalibration and I just say again, it has been a significant reset. It's been very collaboratively worked through and we hope that Australians heed the call to come out and get vaccinated.

PRIME MINISTER: So we'll meet again next Friday. There isn't a need to meet earlier than that. If an issue another emerges then of course, we will. But the progress we’ve made this week, and I want to thank all the Premiers and Chief Ministers but also the health ministers in each of the states and territories, the officials. A lot has got done over the course of this week and has put us in this place and we'll review progress and implementation against all of that next Friday. Questions. Rosie.

JOURNALIST: Changes to high-risk countries. When will they actually take effect? So if you're in India now, what's the message to returning Australians there? How quickly do they need to try and get home? Can we also get your response to two pretty shocking cases of domestic violence in recent days? Kelly Wilkinson, who was burnt to death by her estranged husband, and now it looks as though a young baby who has been taken to her death by her father. What's your response to those incidents and you've got a Women's Safety Summit in the middle of the year. Would you commit the Commonwealth working with the states to look at how states are responding to AVOs and showing some sort of national leadership on that issue?

PRIME MINISTER: Of course. Of course. My response is one of profound sorrow, like it would be for all Australians. These are horrific and sadly they're not the first of these sorts of terrible and awful events that have taken place. And already, up until this point particularly for protecting women against violence, the national plan that was put in train by Prime Minister Gillard a decade ago continues on, a billion dollars of investment made into that program and there will be more. You'll see more investment in the Budget and you will see more initiatives coming from that Summit that is occurring in July and that work continues. There has been tremendous work done across all levels of government but these events once again tell us shockingly that whatever efforts we have been making, they can only be further increased. And that's what I believe would be the response of all governments in this country. It is truly awful. And my heart is just profoundly sad at this terrible event and of the impact on the families that are involved, the friends. The trauma of this will be unspeakable. And we must continue to just further increase our efforts to do all we can in these circumstances. The events that lead to this is hard to understand and how people can take these such violent and appalling acts, but it is something our society has been sadly living with for too long. So we’ll continue to do all we can to try and prevent it and I think the work that's done in the community is so important to that end. There are people who work in this area, whether they're on the end of phone lines with 1800RESPECT or they are working in the community, these services are incredibly important. And there are so many contributing factors. They are incredibly complex issues and we must continue to commit ourselves to the actions that are necessary there.

In relation to the, I wouldn't be suggesting anyone from a high-risk country be rushing back to Australia. And we will be looking to put this in place very soon. But we do need to work particularly on the PCR tests that would be required within three days in those transit countries. We just need to work through some details through our officials to put that in place. We wanted to announce it today to be very transparent about the actions we are taking, but the reductions in relation to those charter flights, those actions were already put in place because they're obviously directly within the remit of the Commonwealth because we're arranging those flights. But you can expect a decision in the very near future in relation to those direct flights into New South Wales and I would expect that will occur in 24 hours.

JOURNALIST: What do you say to Australians who are stranded in India right now and going through this crisis who might look upon this decision as one that their own country has abandoned them? And does this decision today reflect a lack of confidence in the hotel quarantine system which is built on the presumption that people with COVID might be returning?

PRIME MINISTER: No, it doesn't reflect any lack of confidence in that at all. It reflects the fact that we're in the middle of a global pandemic that is raging. And Australia has been successful throughout this pandemic, working together with the states and territories, to have very effective border arrangements. Countries that didn't follow that practice have found themselves in the situation they're in. Australians are living like few others anywhere else in the world and we take those border arrangements very seriously. So this is a way of managing that risk. We have seen the proportion of total cases from that one particular cohort rise from about 10 per cent to 40 per cent of cases. That's not something we could ignore and so we have to take actions to mitigate that risk on behalf of all Australians. We have been working hard to get Australians home, particularly since last September, and we've seen hundreds of thousands of Australians return home. Through assisted flights, through tens of millions of dollars the Commonwealth has put in place to support the most vulnerable. So we will continue to do that and there will continue to be the opportunity for those to return from places like India but in very controlled circumstances.

JOURNALIST: PM, can I ask about your message to the Summit in the US. What will be the core of your message to that gathering and will it include any commitment to up short-term or medium-term targets?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, my key message is that Australia is committed and Australia is performing. I mean, we've had a 19 per cent reduction in our emissions since 2005, and that betters many of the countries that are appearing tonight. We set commitments and we meet them and we beat them. Many countries make commitments but none of them I think, can claim the same record of achievement that Australia consistently has, whether it's across Kyoto and where we're tracking in terms of our commitments to Paris. And already we've seen, when you exclude exports, Australia have a reduction in our domestic emissions of some 36 per cent. Our targets for Paris are a 70 per cent reduction in emissions when measured in respect to our size of our economy, so that intensity measure. So Australia has serious commitments and we're meeting them and will beat them. We're keen to ensure that there's a transparency. Australia is one of the few countries in the world where we actually report our emissions every single year. We update it every year. The reason I can only tell you that we're doing better than Canada, New Zealand, Japan and the United States from 2018 is because other countries don't update their figures like Australia does. And so we're very transparent about our performance and performance matters. But the most important message is this, when is not the question anymore. How is the question. Our commitment to ensure that we develop the technologies, for example, that can see hydrogen produced at $2 a kilo Australian, that is what gets you to a net zero economy. Unless you're committed and committed to working together with whether developing or developed countries, to put in place the commercial technology that achieves net zero, then these are just media statements. And Australia is backing up our commitments with the serious investment. You've seen just in this last 48 hours, over a billion dollars worth of investments going into building the hydrogen valleys of the future, the hydrogen hubs, the carbon capture and storage. Over half a billion that's been put into the technology partnerships with many of those who I'll be joining tonight. The $18 billion we have committed over the next 10 years which will leverage some $70 billion to $80 billion of investment. It's exciting to see our biggest industrialists putting in place the technology and the research and the science that's needed to transform their sectors. And I think that is going to send a big message around the world over the next decade that Australia, through particularly our resources industries and our manufacturing industries, demonstrating to the world how you do this. And so I think Australia's got a very strong story to tell and what we have achieved so far sets us well ahead of so many others. I mean, and in addition to that, the ambitions that we have, our ambitions we know we'll achieve and beat.

JOURNALIST: Do you agree that by not extending the low and middle income tax offset that you'll be leaving millions of Australians worse off, particularly at a time when they're already doing it tough?

PRIME MINISTER: I believe that the Liberals and Nationals are the party of lower taxes and the Budget is in May.

JOURNALIST: Mark McGowan was talking about a pause on travel from India, a complete pause. We’re talking about a scaling back.

PRIME MINISTER: Mark McGowan was fully supportive of the arrangements we put in place today and welcomed our suggestion in particular, that the Commonwealth brought today about having these transit country PCR test arrangements put in place because that's what actually is needed to address the situation in Western Australia. There are no direct flights to Western Australia. So it needed an innovative way of dealing with that and the Premier was very appreciative of us addressing that issue. Yes, Kath?

JOURNALIST: Ahead of tonight, a Biden administration official has described Australia's abatement trajectory, sorry, I can't speak, I have become frozen, as insufficient. That's a direct quote. So I'll repeat Phil's question to you which you didn't answer.

PRIME MINISTER: No, I did answer it.

JOURNALIST: No, no, you didn't answer the direct question.

PRIME MINISTER: Sorry, I did. I was asked what my main messages were and I told you what they were.

JOURNALIST: He also asked you whether Australia would update its targets for 2030 either tonight, and I’ll add a couple, either tonight, at the G7 or at COP?

PRIME MINISTER: Well what we do later in the year we'll address those at that point. We won't be doing as you've said, this evening. That was not our plan to do that this evening. We're making a range of commitments that we have already announced in terms of our investments in critical technologies and partnerships which we’ve been discussing in particular with the United States. The last discussion I had with former Secretary Kerry the Special Envoy, was about the partnerships we were putting together with the United States on energy technology. That’s what they’d been seeking to put in place with Australia, and we’re very keen to pursue that. But I'd make this one comment on the anonymous report, and that is the trajectory to any net zero outcome is not linear, and anyone who thinks it is I think doesn't get it. The way technology works is there is a long lead time into its development and commercialisation and once the technology is in place you can see a massive transformation. And so your achievement of net zero over time has more of that type of a curve, not that type of a curve. And if you think it's linear, then that just doesn't, that isn't supported I think by the science or the research.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, today New South Wales reported 80 per cent of their appointments for vaccines have been cancelled in the last couple of weeks for Phase 1B. For Australians that are 51, 52, 53 years old, that are in that priority cohort, what is your message to reassure them that a few years either side of 50 makes AstraZeneca safe for them? And if I can Professor Murphy, do we have any idea on what the numbers of Pfizer and AstraZeneca are going, doses coming in each week for the next few weeks is going to look like?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the best people to assure people about these things are our medical experts who advise me. So I'll leave it to Professor Kelly and Professor Murphy.

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY, SECRETARY OF THE DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH: So, I’ll just start. Look, I think those cancellations have not been seen to the same extent in primary care, where I think the state clinics were doing a lot of health care workers and a lot of younger people. And we’re seeing pretty stable uptake in primary care. The, I think our over 70s are getting the message that the risk of COVID is far, far, far, far greater than this very rare condition. But I think the message I would give is that we have a very good expert panel, ATAGI, who are constantly evaluating the risk. And they have currently said that the risk benefit is such that over 50, or 50 and over, the risk benefit, or the benefit risk ratio I should say, is vastly in favour of getting vaccinated. All the three suspected or confirmed cases likely, or confirmed cases in Australia, have been under 50. But, as I said before, people who for one reason or another don't feel like having AstraZeneca and I think they should, I've had it and I feel quite comfortable about having it. But people will have access to Pfizer later in the year. But those who are absolutely at the front-line, the border and quarantine people, the people in the COVID wards, they are still getting access to Pfizer to protect them.

JOURNALIST: The numbers?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY, SECRETARY OF THE DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH: The numbers, sorry, the numbers, those numbers are reviewed on a weekly basis. We have to be very careful about these forward projections. But what I can say is we're very confident that the Pfizer doses will continue to increase month by month in future months. But I'm not going to give you an exact prediction because they are confirmed almost every week by the company.

JOURNALIST: Your Government has torn up Victoria’s Belt and Road deal, why did you think it's an important thing to do and why do it now?

PRIME MINISTER: Australia under our Government, will always protect Australia's national interests. It is our job as a Commonwealth Government to ensure we protect those national interests. And that there is one foreign policy of this country. And the Foreign Relations Act that our Government put in place was designed to protect our national interests by ensuring that there were no other agreements entered in to by any other level of government that would conflict with Australia's national interest. So what we have done is we have followed through. And there have been four agreements that the Foreign Minister has terminated in line with that Foreign Relations Act, that power that we were able to attract from the Parliament. And so we will always act in Australia's national interest to protect Australia, but to also ensure that we can advance our national interests of a free and open Indo-Pacific and a world that seeks a balance in favour of freedom. And that's what our national interest policies are about and that’s what today's decision has ensured that we have done because we ensure that our national interest foreign policies are consistent across the country and it is the Commonwealth Government and my Government that has ensured that we have protected that arrangement.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, just on the vaccinations for remote communities, we have been told that in the Torres Strait, vaccinations will be on hold until at least June. They're very concerned that is going to increase hesitancy in that population, especially given the community's vulnerabilities and their proximity to PNG. What is the Federal Government doing to assist them in the vaccinations?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I'll ask Professor Murphy and Professor Kelly to address this. But the Queensland Government has been vaccinating, has been vaccinating, people in the Torres Strait and this in fact is one of our key priorities very recently because of the ring of containment we're seeking to put around the Torres Strait, especially because of the challenges that we're currently facing in Papua New Guinea. But I'll ask Professor Murphy and Professor Kelly to add.

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY, CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER: Thanks for the question. So there has been extensive vaccination in the Torres Strait using AstraZeneca. So obviously the announcement on 8th of April has caused us to recalibrate that but I don't have any up to date information on that. I’ll take that up with the Queensland Government.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks very much.