Press Conference - Australian Parliament House, ACT

27 May 2021
Australian Parliament House, ACT
Prime Minister

PRIME MINISTER: Good afternoon, everyone. I'm joined by the Health and Aged Care Minister and President of the AMA Dr Khorshid, who was here to be with the Health Minister and Aged Care Minister on another announcement today, and I appreciate you joining us today Dr, given the other matters that have been escalating over these last few days.

Once again we're faced with the challenge in our ongoing battle against COVID. A challenge and a battle that we've faced many, many times, and on each occasion, together we have overcome. There are no certainties, there are no guarantees in a global pandemic, and against a virus, an insidious virus such as this. Our defence has always been the steadfast resilience of the Australian people, working together, putting in place the best possible set of protections and systems that has seen Australia been able to come through and protect lives and livelihoods like few other countries in the world today. But that, of itself, provides no guarantee or certainty about the way that the virus will continue to seek to strike anywhere around the country, as it has again on this occasion.

The next seven days in Victoria will be very challenging, and of course we are very mindful of the distress and the difficulty that this will impose upon people right across Victoria as a result of what has been described, rightly I think, by the Acting Premier as a circuit breaking lockdown, a circuit breaking lockdown. And a lockdown for seven days that hopefully won't go as long as that, as the Acting Premier indicated to me today when we spoke earlier this morning. They'll be reviewing this regularly and the progress that they're making, and I thank him for that engagement we've had over these last few days as we've been working through these issues. This is important though not just for across Victoria but also important nationally, and we'll demonstrate, I believe again, how well Australia deals not only with the day to day issues, but when challenges come, how we respond to those challenges together, work through it together, get it done, and make sure that we can move to reopen Victoria as soon as possible.

Right now the AHPPC, the medical expert panel, is meeting, as you'd expect them to, and that's why Professor Kelly is not here with us today, and he will stand up later this afternoon, after that meeting, and can provide you with further updates. Right now every support is being provided to the Victorian Government that they have sought, and that has not only included the additional vaccines, which the Health Minister indicated yesterday. We have 218 ADF personnel who are in Victoria, Victoria, continuing to provide support under operation COVID Assist, and I've made it very clear to the Premier that any other additional support that he requires that he will receive, and he has indicated to me that he's seeking nothing further from the Commonwealth at this time.

I want to commend the Victorian Government and the Acting Premier for their efforts over recent days, in particular, and I especially want to thank the contact tracers in Victoria for the very difficult job that they are engaged in. With so many different points of contact that we have here, being able to work through that information and the many thousands of contacts that they're working through, I think they're doing a tremendous job and I commend them for the job that they are doing, remembering that there are many rings of containment to deal and protect Australia, deal with the virus and to protect Australians from the virus. There is of course our international borders, there is of course the work that is done enforcing those public health orders in the states through the quarantine system or otherwise at Howard Springs, and then there is of course the contact tracing regime that has been so effectively used, not just now in Victoria but in other states that have confronted these exact same challenges, and Australians have been able to come through.

So, once again, we will come through, and no matter what our success has been to date, that is no guarantee or certainty against a very challenging virus that continues to test not only here in Australia but all around the world. I particularly want to thank the 40,411 Victorians who yesterday got tested in a record day. I also want to thank the 30,426 Victorians who got vaccinated yesterday. As the Acting Premier said yesterday, and again today, there are ample vaccines for those who will come forward and receive those vaccines in Victoria, and our simple message to you, to them is, is to please come forward and do that. Their restrictions allow Victorians to go forward and get those vaccinations, whether it's through the GP networks that are present, or otherwise through the state facilities that have been established. What we need to do now is what we've done on every occasion, we just need to focus on working the problem, working the issue, and working together. That's how we've come through on every occasion. That's the way the Commonwealth Government, my Government is addressing this, together with the Health Minister and our officials and experts here, and that is the nature of my engagement with the Acting Premier James Merlino, working closely with him, cooperatively, productively, together to ensure we deal with this latest challenge and to work to ensure that we get Victoria opened up again as soon as possible. Greg.

THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: Thanks very much Prime Minister, and to Dr Omar Khorshid, the head of the AMA. Today is a difficult day for all Victorians and we recognise that these are highly regrettable but necessary restrictions under the current circumstances. We've been through this before, we'll get through this again. And our task is to support, as we do with each and every state, every time there is a challenge in one of the jurisdictions, to support Victorians now. And on that front, as the Prime Minister has said, the Commonwealth is chairing the AHPPC or the medical expert panel. We've provided the manifests for over 2,260 flights out of Victoria in recent days, asymptomatic testing has been triggered, 130,000 additional doses have been allocated for Victoria, with the first 20,000 of those being provided today, in addition to the 71,000 Pfizer doses that are due for delivery tomorrow. The Victorian Aged Care Response Centre has been stood up, and contact tracing through the National Incident Centre has also been offered.

As the Prime Minister mentioned, yesterday was a record day for vaccinations. It's simply a sign that Australians are coming forward and we thank them for that - 111,388 Australians came forward to be vaccinated yesterday, and all up that's 3.9 million Australians who've been vaccinated so far. So that rollout is accelerating, as supply has allowed. We have so far been able to provide 666,000 doses to Victoria. We note the comments of the Premier yesterday that there are significant supplies within Victoria, and that's just to the Victorian Government, and 853,000 vaccines to primary care sites. Yesterday, just over 30,000 Victorians were vaccinated. In coming days, there are more supplies which will be provided.

And then, lastly, I want to acknowledge two things, and this was actually why Omar was joining us today, we've already opened up additional doses - we acknowledge that we have tripled doses for small general practices, doubled doses for medium-size general practices, and earlier this week we added more doses again to those that have had high utilisation rates. Today we're announcing that we are opening up expressions of interest for up to 900 additional general practices to participate in the rollout around Australia, and I think that's a very important sign. As supply comes on board, we'll be opening up to the national immunisation practices which have not been within the current accredited group, and I think that that will give them more opportunity in more places for more Australians to be vaccinated. And we're also announcing $2.6 million for doctors' mental health and for health professionals' mental health. Our doctors and our nurses and our allied health professionals, Omar, have been the frontline. They've worked relentless hours, they've saved lives and they've protected lives, and on this difficult day it's worth recalling that around the world there've been 557,000 cases and an agonising 12,900 lives lost. But for our doctors and nurses, Australia could have been a very different place, but their stresses have been great, their pressures have been ongoing, and their needs have been silent in so many ways and it's our privilege to be able to support our medical professionals. Omar.

DR. OMAR KHORSHID, AUSTRALIAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION PRESIDENT: Thank you Minister and thank you Prime Minister. Firstly, I'd just like to say that the thoughts of the AMA and of course the whole medical profession in this country are with Victorians as they face this challenge. We know they've done it before and we're confident that Victoria will succeed again. I only have one thing really to add to what's been said by the Prime Minister and the Minister on COVID, and that is around vaccines. Now we know that Australians, many Australians are concerned about the vaccination programme. They've been waiting, they've been wondering, you know, is it right for me? Can I wait a little longer? Will there be a bit more data that tells me whether this is a good decision for me or not, and I think the events of the last few days have demonstrated that COVID is a real and present threat to all of us, all the time, despite our excellent arrangements at the borders, despite our great track record with COVID, this is a threat, particularly to vulnerable Australians, and it's pleasing that over half of the over 70s in the country have now had their first vaccination. That will improve their safety significantly. But for the rest of us, this is a wake-up call, it's a reminder that COVID is real, it is here now, and the best thing that you can do as an Australian, not just for your own health but the health of the people around you, is to go and get your vaccine as soon as it's available to you.

Can I just make one more comment, if I could, just about the very, the very generous announcement just then by the Minister on a significant investment to doctors' mental health. Around $1 million of that will enable the AMA through its DRS4DRS health service, to support those frontline doctors who have been at the frontline of our response to COVID, and of course, work in a very difficult circumstances, even without a pandemic present. It will allow us to bring the standard of mental health support to medical practitioners up to the same level around the country, and it's something for which the AMA is very grateful to the Government for that support. There's additional support for us to continue our psychology telehealth service, which has been funded so far by Government, and the continuation of that funding is also a very significant step and we are very thankful for that.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, is it your view that if the vaccine rollout had been implemented more swiftly Victoria wouldn't be in the situation it faces now and wouldn't have had to have gone into a lockdown?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it's hard to reconcile that with the international experience. When you look at countries around the world, which had far worse COVID experiences and of course entered into their vaccination programme in emergency measures, well before Australia, whether that's in Canada, whether it's in France, particularly now what we're seeing in Singapore, then it's hard to marry that with the international experience, but what is important is exactly what Dr Khorshid was just saying, and I have said and the Health Minister has said, and that this is another, a further reminder, I think, to Australians about the importance of getting vaccinated. I'm pleased that we are now over, well over 100,000 now who were vaccinated yesterday, and we want to see that continue. I am pleased that, particularly in Victoria, more than half of those aged over 70 have been vaccinated, but also right around the country. As I indicated we'd be able to achieve would be over, around about four million by the end of this week we expect, but there's still a long way to go. It's important though that we understand that there are many rings of containment here that need to operate. One of those rings of containment is in effect right now, with the work being done by contact tracers. And what we've all learnt through the course of COVID is there is no single one measure that provides any guarantee or certainty here, it requires all of these measures working together, but more importantly it requires governments to work together, patiently and cooperatively, and for Australians to work together to ensure we overcome this latest challenge, because in the COVID world the challenges will come. We've always been very upfront about that. No system is absolutely foolproof, and that means that when challenges like this come from time to time, you address them, you address them together, you address them calmly, patiently, understanding of the difficulties that this clearly is going to impose on Victorians over the course of the next seven days, and seek to minimise that disruption and that dislocation as much as possible. Phil.

JOURNALIST: On that, on that issue, notwithstanding what Minister Hunt's just announced, do, given vaccination now seems to be the only way out of this, the road out of this, is there a need to turbocharge the programme? And did you, were you premature in taking National Cabinet off that war footing that you put it on a couple of weeks ago?

PRIME MINISTER: No, because we put the measures in place which brought all of those things forward, which states were keen to do and we were keen to support them to do as well. And so, you know, bringing forward the over 50s, which we have done, bringing forward the greater state based vaccination clinics, which was particularly done in Victoria. When I was in Victoria last week they were opening a further one of those, and I commended the Victorian State Government for doing that as of other state governments move to do this. The challenges that the Health Minister in Victoria and indeed the Acting Premier noted about the programme to date related to the supply issues out of Europe, and the advisory groups, ATAGI's advice, regarding the AstraZeneca vaccine. They are the reasons that were identified by the Victorian Government, and they're right to identify those. So, you know, there are ample doses there in Victoria and indeed in parts right around the country for people to go and get their vaccination and we would encourage them to do just that.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, 29 nursing homes in Victoria are unvaccinated. Considering that nearly 700 aged care residents died in the state during Victoria's second wave, has your Government been as proactive as possible to try and protect this vulnerable population? And can you guarantee that there will be no COVID related deaths this time around?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I'll start and then pass you. Well, we will do everything we can to protect the lives and livelihoods of Australians, and we've lost 910 souls to COVID already during the course of this pandemic. Now, of course that is not anything near what we've seen in so many other countries. You've heard me mention it many times - had we had the same experience here, then we'd be talking about numbers in the thousands, in fact over 30,000. But we do everything we can to ensure that we protect the life of every Australian because every life here is important, and the Health Minister can update you actually on the matters that you've raised.

THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: So 97 per cent of residential aged care facilities, both around Australia and in Victoria, have been vaccinated so far, which is an extraordinary effort by all of those that have been doing it. 582 out of 598 facilities in Victoria have been vaccinated, so that's significantly advanced on yesterday again. Seven further today and the remaining nine tomorrow. And so what we are doing is making sure, as we have been, with a 97 per cent rate of facilities having been vaccinated around the country, we've rolled that out and we've provided those protections, and all 16 of the facilities within the city of Whittlesea, I am advised, have had both doses.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, you commended the Victorian Government earlier and you said then that the Victorian Government talked about the ATAGI advice and, you know, vaccine hesitancy and all the rest. But they also seemed to indicate the Federal Government could have gone faster on vaccines, James Merlino, and Brett Sutton said pointedly in that press conference that hotel quarantine, hotels in cities weren't the right place to quarantine people. How do you react to those comments?

PRIME MINISTER: Well firstly, we're working closely with the Victorian Government, so my sole purpose is to work with them to address the challenges that Victorians are facing right now, and in the private conversations I've had with the Acting Premier that I know is his intention in working with me, and indeed the excellent relationship between the Health Minister in Victoria and Greg Hunt here federally. So I want to assure Victorians that the Victorian and Federal Government are just working hand in glove here to get this job done to focus. The only thing that matters to us is their health, their safety, their jobs and protecting them and getting them through over these next few days ahead. We are working with the Victorian Government. They have put forward, as I've said, a few weeks ago I think a very useful proposal. I discussed this yesterday with James Merlino. We are highly favourable towards this. We think it can be done actually quicker, that's one of the things we're working through with them now. I think one of the really useful elements of this proposal is that it adds to the capacity - it's not in place of hotel quarantine, that's not what the Victorian Government is proposing, they're proposing this to be there in addition. And I also want to commend the Victorian Government for keeping the repatriation flights going and not reducing their caps to ensure the flights can also keep coming as we're seeking to bring Australians home, even in the midst of the challenges they're facing over the next seven days. So I would describe it as a highly cooperative arrangement focusing on the problems ahead of us and working together to address them.

JOURNALIST: What's your response to the border closures of WA and South Australia? Do you still think that contact tracing are not … What's your response to the border closures being enforced by WA and South Australia against Victorian travellers? Do you still think that contract tracing rather than those border closures are the way to go, or what's your response?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, they're matters for state premiers to make in accordance with their own public health orders, and that has always been the case and there's no change there. Straight after speaking to Acting Premier Merlino this morning I spoke to Premier Berejiklian and I spoke to Premier Marshall as well as the, as the border states. And, as you know, where there is essential work that's being done by Victorians who need to go into another state, they're allowed to do that and return and they're not impacted by that. And my understanding, well certainly from Premier Berejiklian, is that that will be enabled also from the NSW border side, and so there will be no need for those border bubble arrangements because people would, where they have to be able to move, and they're moving in accordance with those lockdown arrangements that have been - I haven't finished my answer - where they're acting in accordance with those arrangements that have been put in place by Victoria, that won't create any impediment on the New South Wales border side, and Premier Marshall has given me similar assurances, but they already have arrangements that enable people for those types of essential employments to be able to move across those borders so, for those purposes. But, you know, at the end of the day, this is a federation, the states have their authorities and their powers and they will make decisions as they see them in the best interest and the health interest of their state and territory.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, for several weeks now Pfizer have delivered 350,000 doses, AstraZeneca more than a million. Even if you took half of those aside for second doses, the rollout has not hit those kinds of levels, even with 111,000 a day on average that is not the equivalent of half those doses. What is the hold up, who, is it hesitancy, is it the ability of GPs to rollout, and can you commit to being more open with the forward planning of when those doses are going to arrive so that communities and businesses can understand when they might expect enough supply in the system to be able to plan for things like a lockdown?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, just before Greg answers, I mean I can only quote to you back the Victorian Health Minister today: 'We've got very good certainty for the next foreseeable period when it comes to those doses,' and they are getting very, very accurate and very regular information on the supply of those doses to the state governments, which is very important because obviously they are a partner in the vaccination programme. But, Greg.

THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: Sure. So, thanks very much to Clare. Firstly, just to give you the facts in terms of the inventories. In Victoria as we speak we have delivered 666,000 doses to the Victorian Government. I understand the administered figure as of last night was 398,000. And this is why the Premier yesterday made his point that they had significant supplies. Equally, we've provided over 853,000 doses to primary care in Victoria. Then in terms of the weekly arrivals, weekly arrivals, we've now, we're now receiving approximately a million doses of AstraZeneca. I've previously indicated in what will be week 17 of the rollout they'll be doing line maintenance which has an impact on the weeks 17 and 18, so we've provisioned for contingency. This week, in terms of the supply, approximately one million, almost one million doses will be in transit, for the course of this week for next week. And that means that we have 2.7 million in contingency, which allows for both second doses but also the fact that there'll be a rundown in contingency in coming weeks. Forward plan for Pfizer, approximately 350,000 doses a week are arriving at the moment. They boosted it up for this month, next month is approximately 300,000 doses, and then over the July, August September quarter we will have the equivalent of 600,000 a week. Those specific weekly amounts have not yet been confirmed, so it's a quarterly figure. Then that again is replicated in the last quarter of the year with an additional 20 million on top of that.

JOURNALIST: You mentioned again today the need to work together closely with the premiers, which you mentioned on April 12 when you put National Cabinet on that operational footing or war footing, as Phil said, to meet twice a week. Since then it met one week, twice, and has met four times, not 12, in the past six weeks. What's happened to National Cabinet?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, at the last meeting we all agreed that there was not the need to continue that sort of tempo. We met first twice a week, then we went to once a week, and they believe we agreed that we could then return to our usual schedule, and we'll meet again at the end of, on Friday week, and if we need to meet sooner than that then we will. We talk to each other quite regularly, particularly here this is a matter that requires the Victorian Government and the Commonwealth Government to be working closely together. But we got through so much in that first week, Mark, we were able to bring that plan together so quickly and then focus on implementing it in the weekly meetings afterwards, that that was doing the job. I mean, we don't hold meetings for the sake of it. We hold meetings to get things done. We were getting things done and we continue to get things done together.

JOURNALIST: Would it be useful though having premiers talking together about the border closures and what's happening in Victoria and whether it's necessary to close borders?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, what occurs is the AHPPC, the medical expert panel, they are meeting now, and they're the chief health officers of all the states and territories, and they're working through that medical advice, and that is what is being relayed back to the premiers. But the premiers have long had a position which is, come as no surprise to anyone here, that they retain full autonomy about what they do in terms of border closures. They are solely decisions for those state premiers and chief ministers. There is no authority at a Commonwealth level to take them down any different path, and so we work together, we work off the same information base through the medical expert panel, and then they all make decisions that they believe are in the best health interests and economic interests of their state or territory.

JOURNALIST: Will this outbreak shock people, Australians out of a sense of complacency with COVID-19, and is the Government planning to speed up, to ramp up an ad campaign because of what seems like a real palpable sense of hesitancy in Victoria, around the country?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I am pleased that the numbers each week have been growing and growing and growing. It wasn't that long ago we were talking about weekly vaccinations of around 350,000, now we're talking about well over 500,000, and that will continue to build, and in the weeks and months ahead, and particularly when that's supported by the additional supplies that are coming through from Pfizer, which is, you know, the next big jump that we will be able to see in seeing those vaccination rates elevate in the weeks and months ahead as we move towards the end of this year. There is no doubt though, as I've moved around the country, that while it is wonderful and enviable around the world that Australians can live like we are living here in this country, notwithstanding the very significant difficulties Victorians will face over the course of the next seven days, that that way of living can of course lead to some hesitancy when it comes to coming forward on those vaccines. These events, I think, will set out, I think, very clearly that this is an insidious virus, it hasn't gone anywhere, it's not giving up, it continues to attack wherever it can and wherever it will, and it continues to be as dangerous and I would argue even more dangerous today than it was a year ago, because what we are seeing now is as the virus has ravaged the developed world, it is now ravaging the developing world. And with that and the multitude of cases that we can continue to expect to see in places, as we already see in India, and as you know we took some very strong decisions on India to protect Australians, and we will continue to see this occurring in the developing world. This week I've spoken with the Prime Minister of Vietnam. We had this very conversation in supporting them with additional vaccines over the course of the second half of this year. I was speaking to the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands yesterday and the support we're giving them, to them on vaccines, as well as the Prime Minister, once again, of Papua New Guinea. This virus will continue to see different strains emerge, and it means that we will continue to combat this. So our urge, urgings to all Australians - it doesn't, whether you're in Victoria, Western Australia, up in far north Queensland, I'm sure Dr Khorshid would agree, our simple message to you is: the vaccines are there, make a booking, talk to your doctor, please get vaccinated. Thanks very much, everyone.