Press Conference - Australian Parliament House, ACT

13 Feb 2020
Parliament House, Canberra
Prime Minister

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you. I’m joined of course, by the Minister for Health and the Chief Medical Officer Dr Brendan Murphy, I thank you again, Brendan and all the senior medical officers, chief medical officers, of our states and territories, who have also met today and are providing very important advice to the government in relation to the coronavirus. 

The advice that we received this afternoon at the National Security Committee from that panel of the chief medical officers is that Australia's arrangements to protect Australians from coronavirus here in Australia are working, they're effective, they're doing the job. And it's important that we ensure that that continues to be the case. And that's why this afternoon we've agreed to accept the recommendations that have been provided to us to maintain the ban and the entry restriction on foreign nationals who have recently been in mainland China for a further week to protect Australians from the risk of coronavirus. So this is something we will continue to review on a weekly basis and consider all the medical evidence that has come forth. There's an enormous amount of work that is taking place between Australia and many other nations who are working together to ensure we have the best information available to us to make the best possible decisions. 

This decision was made following the receipt of the expert medical advice and we did not take this decision lightly. We are very mindful also of the disruption and economic impacts of these arrangements. But I note Australia is one of 58 countries that has introduced some form of travel restrictions. And I just want to assure all Australians that we are doing everything we can to keep Australians safe at this time and to ensure that we are mitigating everything that is possible to address any of the threats. I'm going to ask the Chief Medical Officer and the Minister for Health to go through some other matters, but I want to make a couple of other points. 

I'm very grateful for the constructive approach that the Chinese authorities have been participating with Australia. I'm very appreciative of the role of their embassy here also in Canberra and I’d like to thank also the Chinese Australian community for the way they've been engaging, and respecting the quarantine arrangements and the self isolation. The Chinese Australian community has been absolutely fantastic. And I think it's very important that all Australians reach out and support them at this time in particular, as we go into the weekend, I’d encourage you to go and support businesses. Particularly those Chinese Australian businesses, and to provide that support because they really have been doing a tremendous job under what have been very stressful and trying circumstances for that community. They are such an integral part of Australian life and it's important at this difficult time, particularly for the Chinese Australian community, that all Australians are putting their arms around them and supporting them in every way they can. I also want to ensure that we keep our thoughts also on the people in China as well. This is a very devastating impact in China and particularly in Hubei province and in Wuhan where the impacts are very significant. Australia and China, we are bound by ties of family and commerce, and education and so many things. And this disruption happened at a very important time of the year in China around Lunar New Year. But we know the Chinese people are incredibly resilient, and we know they'll bounce back and we will bounce back together in our relationship with China as we get through this very difficult time and we make decisions consultatively and together and listening to each other and doing what we can to help each other as we manage our way through what has been a difficult period. But the key thing is, is that the decisions the government has taken, the way we’ve gone about that, how we’ve gathered the advice, made decisions, is keeping Australian safe when it comes to coronavirus. 

And I particularly thank the Minister for Health, as well as the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Home Affairs, the arrangements both up in Howard Springs in the Northern Territory as well as on Christmas Island, have been working very effectively. I thank particularly the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, who I just spoke to a few moments ago, to advise him of this decision as I’ve also sought to make contact with all the other Premiers and Chief Ministers, those arrangements are working very well and I leave it to the Minister for Health and the Chief Medical Officer to take you through a few more of those details.

THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH: Thanks very much Prime Minister and to Dr Murphy, as the Prime Minister says our approach to the coronavirus is keeping Australians safe. Two sets of figures underline this, firstly and sadly, overnight, we have seen some very significant growth in the figures, particularly out of Hubei Province. Now over 60,000 people are confirmed as having coronavirus. The vast majority are in Hubei and very sadly, the number of those who have passed away has increased to 1,357. Against that background, in Australia, we remain at a figure of only 15 people who have been confirmed with coronavirus. Now we have 5 that have formally cleared the virus and I understand there’s a number of others are increasingly [inaudible]. So that means that the measures that we have taken are protecting Australians. But the advice from the Chief Medical Officer and the chief health and medical officers around the country was to continue those measures for the time being. So we accept that advice. I will also note that the latest advice that I have out of Christmas Island and Howard Springs is that there are no confirmed cases in either of those facilities. In Howard Springs, where there is ongoing testing, a further four cases have been tested and cleared. And this remains good news and it says that the advice of the medical officers is keeping Australians safe and the decisions that we’re taking are assisting in that. Brendan?

DR. BRENDAN MURPHY, CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER: Thanks Prime Minister and Minister. So as the Prime Minister and Minister have said, we've recommended the continuation of the travel ban for an additional week at this time. As Minister Hunt said, there's been significant growth in Hubei, in other provinces of China there has been slower growth and perhaps not at the same rate that we saw earlier, but still growth. That is of concern because there are still evidence of community transmission in other provinces and that's the reason we would like to maintain the travel ban at the moment. Other countries in Asia have had some growth in cases, particularly Thailand, Japan, noting the particular case of the cruise ship in Japan, which is of course, [inaudible] there. But we believe that those larger numbers in some countries are also well controlled at this time. Our major focus is on what is happening in China. As we've said on many occasions, Hubei Province is well locked down despite the very significant growth in cases there. But our concern is to make sure that in those other provinces of China, the Chinese are getting on top of the outbreaks, which are much smaller, and hopefully they will be able to contain them and at that time hopefully we'll be able to review the travel bans. As the Minister and Prime Minister have also said, perhaps the best news is that we’ve had no further cases in Australia, all of the 15 cases that are here, have had some association with the Hubei Province or from someone who's come from that province. We haven't had anyone who's come from China, since the travel ban was introduced, develop the disease. And so we still have, obviously, our citizens and permanent residents coming here and they have behaved impeccably with self-isolation and I congratulate them on that. So I think we’ll leave it there thank you.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, given there’s sort of uncertainty about how long these bans may continue, have you discussed at a sort of leadership or Cabinet level or NSC level, the possibility of some sort of financial assistance that directly affected sectors like the universities, is that something that you can give [inaudible]?

PRIME MINISTER: We’re working very closely together with the university sector and also the secondary school sector. Because there was a small number of those who were affected by this. And the Education Minister has been in pretty much constant contact. On the universities issue it is still some four to six weeks before we’ll reach a period of time where that can really start to impact on the year and they’ve put in place a number of measures, online learning and these types of things that can address that now. But as I’m sure, as Dr. Murphy will tell you, that the challenge in managing this is you don't know what you don't know, and at the moment there is a lot that is still unknown about this virus, we have seen its transmission outside of Hubei, as Dr Murphy said, not accelerate as greatly as it was. And that's welcome. And that the level of severity outside of Hubei is certainly different to what you've seen inside of Hubei. And we have not had any cases in Australia that have come from mainland China. Now since the start of the travel ban there’d be in excess of 25,000 people who would have arrived over that period of time, Australian nationals and so on who are returning. And that is welcome news. So we we are taking a cautious approach, but a very mindful approach, mindful that these bans do have an impact on a number of sectors. And in some sectors like tourism it's a double blow because of the impact because of the bushfires. And as we know, that bushfires didn’t only impact the directly affected areas by those bushfires and the tourism sector. They did affect the country more broadly. So we're very mindful of that. This is why we are on a weekly rotation on the review of this. And we are looking at all options that are available to us to mitigate the impact where possible.

JOURNALIST:  Prime Minister how long can the Australian economy really sustain this travel ban. Given that Chinese tourists alone, you've just referenced the tourism industry, bring in, there’s about 120,000 that come every month and spend, they’re the highest spending tourists that come to Australia. So how long is it realistic that this lasts and will you get on the phone to President Xi Jinping to express you know, Australia’s regret for this crisis occurring in China right now? 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, two points. The first one is, our first responsibility, my first responsibility is the health and wellbeing of the Australian people, particularly here and where Australians have found themselves isolated, vulnerable and impacted we have undertaken measures that would assist them. Now, I don't just mean the assisted departures of what were effectively 3 flights with Australians also on the Air New Zealand flight, but also support for those currently on cruise ships and the additional assistance we're putting in, we’re looking to get a medical officer up to there. But also we have a mental health hotline, and providing what support we can through consular support to those Australians who find themselves in this situation. But let’s make no mistake, my job is to protect the health of Australians right now. That is the government's top priority. And we are very mindful of the economic impacts of this. But the threat that could otherwise present to the health of Australians is of a level that has led us to take these decisions on the best expert medical advice. So we will constantly continue to monitor this very, very closely. And as I said to Phil, mitigate the impact on the economy where we can with sensible measures that don't put the health of Australians at risk. We've just been in contact with the Chinese embassy just now to convey this latest decision, and as I said in my opening comments, we're seeking to support China in any and every way we can as they deal with this crisis. This is a terrible crisis for them to manage. And I know that with so many Australians who have Chinese heritage, they will be concerned about family members back in China. And so our message, the only message I have for China is one of empathy, and one of support. 

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, you said you’re considering sensible measures to mitigate the impact. Could that include financial assistance to the university, tourism, or hospitality sectors?

PRIME MINISTER: No, they’re not measures currently before us and nor are they measures that are currently being sought. But we are approaching this the same way we have the entire time. And you deal with the information that's in front of you. You deal with it in a very measured way. And you take the steps that you believe are necessary based on the best advice and you keep consulting, you keep listening, you keep understanding what the impacts are on the ground and you take your best measures to be able to address those. 

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister are you considering expanding this travel ban beyond China, the Philippines we understand has now banned people coming from Taiwan and Hong Kong. Would Australia look at a similar measure? Given that’s [inaudible]?

PRIME MINISTER: We haven’t made that decision.

JOURNALIST: Professor Murphy, can I ask you, the Diamond Princess, each morning we wake and it seems to be more people being carted off that ship with coronavirus, from a microbiological point of view, is there a possibility that thing is acting now as an incubator that people may be better off that ship than on it? 

DR. MURPHY: So it's a good question, I think at the moment it, ships are known as incredible places where infectious diseases can be transmitted. At the moment the period of time the quarantine has been in place is still consistent with everyone having been infected before the quarantine was put in place. But if further cases continue to come you'd have to wonder about the quarantining. So we're sending a public health expert hopefully in the next few days to go there to look at the issues and to provide advice to us in terms of the Australians there.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister on another matter?

PRIME MINISTER: I just, I just want to make sure that while we  have the Chief Medical Officer here you address any questions you’d like to him.

JOURNALIST: Just to follow up on my question sorry Prime Minister, you said haven't made a decision about extending the travel ban to other countries. Are you considering that though, is that actively under consideration?

PRIME MINISTER: Well there's no recommendation, of course, to that.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, what was the reaction of the Chinese embassy with regards to the news that the ban was being extended, they expressed some unhappiness last week with regards to that?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I wasn't on that call personally, that that has been done through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade so, but my understanding is that they would understand these decisions. And again, that's why I stress my appreciation for the way that China and Australia are working together on this. China is dealing with countries all around the world. I can only imagine that task, that while they’re dealing with what is a very real and serious domestic crisis of their own. So we simply want to support as as best we can, but I'm sure they understand that the Australian Government, like all others, will be taking decisions in their best interests and their top priority is the health and well-being of their own citizens. 

JOURNALIST: Indonesia still hasn't confirmed any cases, and there was a man who passed through Bali and was diagnosed with the virus back in China. Indonesia insists that he didn't contract it while in the country. Are you satisfied with the way that that's being handled?

DR. MURPHY: So the Indonesians are conducting tests, and they're expanding the testing at the moment. My reading of that person who went through Bali was it's consistent with that infection being being picked up in China. So that, obviously we're watching the situation in Indonesia, but they are doing a lot of a lot of testing and they're expanding it at the moment.

PRIME MINISTER: We’ve got a lot of cooperation between Indonesia and Australia on these issues. It was it was one of the many issues that I discussed with the President earlier this week. OK. I’m going to let, give Brendan a leave pass, I’m sure the other matter you wish to ask me about are not ones he can assist you with.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, on the issue, are you concerned about the development recently that Anthony Albanese was being called to be a witness in the criminal prosecution case against, several former New South Wales Labor powerbrokers?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, all I can really given the nature of this matter, and that is before the courts, is that it's obviously a very serious matter that Mr Albanese has been called before, to appear as a witness on this case. And witnesses will go before this court process and they'll have to answer questions about what, what information they have about these very serious cases that have been considered, involving these matters.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister can I just go back to Lanai’s question about the impact on the tourism sector, the Australian Tourism Council wrote to you earlier this week seeking some financial support, are you open to considering that request?

PRIME MINISTER: Well it's early on in terms of understanding of the longer term impact. Our first response is really to put the energy in behind the campaigns that we're running, particularly domestically. And that is the first line of defence in terms of addressing the demand deficit that will come from the fall in the number of visitors that will be coming from China. So that's the first line of response. And given we'd already moved in that area in relation to the bushfires, we can add additional effort to that. And so the Tourism Minister is pursuing that with Tourism Australia and working closely with the states and the territories. There have been a number of issues that have been raised also by colleagues, this week as over the course of the parliamentary sitting weeks, particularly those members like Warren Entsch up there in northern Queensland and others who are seeing the impact in their own communities. And it's not just the tourism industry up there, is the seafood industry as well. There’ll be those impacts in other parts of the country. So when I say that we're looking at ways to mitigate the impacts of these on the ground, well, we're open to all the options that are there to do that effectively and to do that responsibly and that there is nothing more I can do that at this point.

JOURNALIST: But no direct financial support to the states?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I just said there's nothing further for me to add to that at this point.

JOURNALIST:  Does the Government have modelling on the economic impacts, including on those specific industries like tourism and education if this crisis continues in the weeks and months ahead?

PRIME MINISTER: The Treasury has been doing a lot of work. Obviously, with the Treasurer and the Treasurer has written to all the state and territory Treasurers about that work, I think to the Premier’s directly about that work that’s being done. I think we have to understand that it's still very early in this virus and a lot of the impacts are still unknown and so while you would have any number of scenarios that could potentially play out, it's important at this stage, I think, not to get ahead of ourselves, to be taking the steps that we need to take, firstly to deal with the health and wellbeing of Australians, and then look at what the broader economic impacts are and the things we can do to mitigate some of those things, sensibly, and consistent with the health advice. But beyond that, looking to, on the other side, how you can rebuild. 

Now, as I think I told you in this room on, one of the previous press conferences, I think we had an 11 per cent fall in the national visitor arrivals during the previous SARS and MERS cases, and that was followed up in one quarter with a 16 per cent increase afterwards. And so it is different in that there is the ability for this to ramp up on the other side. And over the course of a year, then you can have potentially some spreading out of those impacts. But I don't for a second discount or underestimate what the real pain and impact of that is right now, and in Australia, this is why I say particularly to our Chinese Australian community, this weekend, get out and about there. And there's a domestic economic response that all Australians can make in where they go and what they do, and I want to encourage them in doing that. And I think that’ll be a good thing.

JOURNALIST: As you did allude to Prime Minister, the Treasurer has asked his department to put together modelling on the economic impact of coronavirus, have you seen that yet? Has that been put before you in NSC or Cabinet? Has that been presented, has it been finalised?

PRIME MINISTER: Not in the final stage.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, the Audit office has just given evidence to the audit committee suggesting that because the grant, the sports grant process took so long, that 43 per cent of the projects that received funding were ineligible. You've defended the administration of the program by saying that all projects that received funding were eligible.

PRIME MINISTER: I was quoting the Auditor-General. 

JOURNALIST: So the Audit Office has just said that that is, that 43 per cent of projects were in fact ineligible. 

PRIME MINISTER: I haven't seen evidence, I haven't seen that statement. So I will review that. Thank you very much.