Press Conference - Australian Parliament House, ACT

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06 Mar 2020
Prime Minister

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you for coming together this morning. Just have a brief announcement today, and that will be followed by the Minister for Health and Dr Kelly to update on a couple of other matters. Yesterday I said that we will be working closely together with states and territories to ensure that we had a fair set of arrangements to ensure we work together to meet the costs, particularly the public health costs in responding to the coronavirus. Last night, Treasurers linked up by phone hook-up, and today that was followed through by Health Ministers, as a result. Following those meetings, I've indicated to Premiers and Chief Ministers, just prior to this meeting, through a contact that we would be forwarding an offer for a standalone national partnership agreement on a joint COVID-19 public health response, where there would be 50/50 cost sharing between the Commonwealth and the states for those additional costs for public health, in relation to responding to the COVID-19 outbreak. The Commonwealth on upon executing those agreements, will immediately put $100 million down as an advance through the normal distribution mechanism to the states to ensure that they’re in a position to immediately meet those costs. This arrangement, I should stress, relates to expenditure incurred from the 21st of January 2020. So, we're obviously reaching back into costs that already would have been amounted up until this time. But of course we are anticipating that going forward that those costs would be greater. Now this is a standalone arrangement. It's not linked to any other hospital funding agreements. There are other matters we're pursuing with the states there. And there is no suggestion, I don't want there to be any connection between those issues. This is about dealing with the coronavirus, and making sure that the states can have confidence that they're leaning forward and responding, that we're leaning forward and responding with them. We are anticipating, although it's a demand-driven arrangement, the costs will be what the costs are. But we are estimating, based on the advice we have at the moment, that this could be as much as about a billion dollars, $500 million each, that we would at least have to be allowing for. I hope it's not that much. It could be more. But we, at least I think, have to enter into these arrangements having some sense of the scale of what we're dealing with here. I know that's a significant amount, but as we have said to you in numerous briefings over recent weeks, we have to be prepared. We've got ahead. We've got to stay ahead. And a funding arrangement like this I think enables and equips the states to be able to move forward confidently to deal with the challenges that exist, whether it be in the public hospital system, or the normal type of public health response that they provide in the event of an influenza outbreak. And so, just so you get an understanding of how this might be different to normal arrangements, the current hospital arrangement is a 55/45 split. The Commonwealth normally pays 45, we're upping that to 50 percent as part of that arrangement. And normally, if you've got a public health response in an aged care facility, or in a childcare facility or something like that, normally the states pay 100 percent of that public health response in those areas. And we'd be very happy to shop shoulder those costs 50/50 with the states, because of the serious nature and very specific nature of this virus. 

Now it will be administered in the normal way by the Independent Hospital Pricing Authority and by the administrator of the National Health Funding Body. I'll be formally writing to Premiers and Chief Ministers today, and I hope after discussing it over the course of the week, we'll be able to tie this up by the end of next week when COAG meets in Sydney next Friday. So I really do want to thank the state Treasurers and Health Ministers for the work they've done. I also want to thank, of course the Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, and the Health Minister Greg Hunt, for the work they've done, both last night and today, and all the cooperative input and participation of all of the Health Ministers and Treasurers around the country. Everybody's working together on this. We all understand the challenge that this presents. And I think it shows a great sense of assurance to Australians that governments at state and federal level are working together, dealing with the things we need to get to, so you can go about your business in your usual way and be confident about the preparations that are being made, and that the resources that are being made available to support this. And we're obviously in a position to do this, because having brought the Budget back to balance, this is why we do these things, so we can actually respond in this way, and give the states the assurance they need as they go about the important work in delivering the public health system. Greg.

THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH: Thanks very much, Prime Minister. Our first task as a Government is to keep Australians safe. And as part of that, working together with the states and territories, with the community, with the health sector, to ensure that there's a seamless approach. Today, we see that there are significant health roundtables, which the Chief Medical Officer is leading, in regard to primary care with our general practices, with our allied health workers, with representatives that Professor Kelly will take you through, and with the aged care sector. We're working right across those fronts. A critical part of that is to make sure that there is confidence and support for the funding of those arrangements, which is why we've offered and set out these unprecedented arrangements today. It's not just the fact that it's 50/50 funding for public health in hospital. We're now reaching outside of hospital for all of the coronavirus challenges. And we do this knowing that what we have done together since the 21st of January, includes the successful containment of all of those cases that came from China, the evacuation of three flights, two from China and one from Japan, and the successful quarantine and the great work of our AUSMAT teams in treating and protecting those people who were within the quarantine facilities. And then we have had the critical work of ensuring that we are contact tracing all of those that have been affected by the cases from Iran and others which have emerged in the course of the last week. So that's something that I think the nation should rightly feel comforted by, that through all of those stages, we've been able to cooperate and deliver these. What we're doing now, is to make sure that our fundamental task of supporting our primary care, our hospitals, our public emergency, our public health response is covered. Today, the work that Professor Kelly and Brendan Murphy is leading, includes looking in primary care and a variety of avenues. At telehealth, at in-home visits, at supporting our GPs, at specialised respiratory clinics and our emergency departments. And to be able to do that work, gives confidence to the Australian people that what we've done so far in having a plan, but the actions to support it is being backed. And this allows us to go forward seamlessly, delivering the services that will protect Australians.

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you, Greg. Professor Kelly.

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY, ACTING CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER: Thank you, Prime Minister and Minister. Yes, so today as the Minister has mentioned, there are two very important workshops with key stakeholders right around Australia. So the one this morning is primary care, there's over 50 people in a room in Woden right now talking with key officials within the Department of Health and looking at vulnerable populations, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations, at our people with disability, and the more general population. What is it that we can actually do to operationalise this next part of the plan? So we have our plan that's been announced before. We're working through that. We've been concentrating on the border and beyond, and on containing the cases that we know that have come from high risk areas around the world. There is a next phase, that's in the plan as to what might happen in the wider community. And so that's what we're preparing for today. And it's fantastic to see the cooperation and the willingness of people right around Australia from these peak groups being part of this, not only the planning, but more importantly, operationalising this plan over the coming weeks. I might leave it there, Prime Minister.

PRIME MINSTER: Thank you, Professor. John.

JOURNALIST: Much of the language on the looming fiscal stimulus response is focused on the supply side of the economy. That’s good, because that’s where the initial [inaudible] is. It does seem apparent though that this could quickly seep into the demand side of the economy. We’ve seen very weak retail sales figures come out...

PRIME MINSTER: Down 0.3 for January.

JOURNALIST:. So what proportion of your package will actually focus on the demand side of the economy, particularly given that could weaken as well?

PRIME MINSTER: Well John, you’re right to say that these events are moving quickly and there is more evidence coming forward about the economic impacts. And as you say, the retail figures for January, after we'd seen much stronger figures obviously over the December quarter. And that's in part played into the figures the Treasurer was able to announce earlier this week on the national accounts. Obviously, things have changed very significantly as we've moved into the March quarter. And at that stage, we were really only looking at the bushfire effect, which the Treasury Secretary outlined as an 0.2 percent hit on the March quarter figures, he believed. And then of course, there was the 0.5 figure that he'd cited as the estimated impact of coronavirus in the March quarter. So, that is why we have been very careful and very iterative in the way we've been pulling this plan together. We are moving swiftly, but I wouldn't say we're moving with undue haste. We've been careful to get this right. To make sure it's targeted, to make sure it's measured, proportionate and importantly, that it's scalable, John. Scalable is important because we will continue to see different types of disruptive impacts of this in the months ahead. And we want to leave ourselves in a position to be able to continue to respond to those in the months ahead. I've already made it clear that our initial response will be set out well before the budget. There will also be the budget, and whatever opportunities and whatever initiatives are required after that, then we will continue to respond in a proportionate way. But to date, we've been very decisive. To date, we've been very proportionate. We are seeking to really understand fully, the impacts. This morning, I met with the head of Tourism Australia and the head of Austrade, to be talking about what were some of the areas that were more significantly being impacted as a result of the Coronavirus, as well as to get an update on the progress of the measures we'd already put in place for the tourism industry, in response to the bushfires. And I'm pleased with the progress they've been making, particularly on the domestic tourism promotions. Mark.

JOURNALIST: On the operation of this partnership agreement, the billion dollar fund, will it just be that somebody who presents at a hospital as a patient who has coronavirus will be funded through this program? And how do you prevent the states from just absorbing some of this money for recurrent costs of running hospitals?

MINISTER HUNT: I’m happy to deal with that. Normally, if somebody presented at a hospital without something such as this, we would pay 45 percent of the costs, and they would pay 55 percent of the costs. We'll have what are called the Independent Hospitals Pricing Authority and the National Health Funding Body administrator review the materials. They seemed generally comfortable with that approach, because that's what we do at present, to ensure that these items for coronavirus activities are accounted for separately. So they come out of the hospitals. It's a very, very good outcome for the states. I think they recognise that. And in addition, whereas a hospital agreement literally covers what happens in hospitals, we will deal with all of the public health items outside of hospitals. An example, in talking with the West Australian Government today, was that say they had to, say there was a remote community which they would normally have to evacuate for health reasons if there was an outbreak in that community, they would pick that up 100 percent. Now we would pick up 50 per cent of that, not just the, if it's health-related and coronavirus-related, we would do that. And that's in my experience, unprecedented.

PRIME MINISTER: We're all entering this Mark in good faith, and I think that's what the Australian public expects. This isn’t an arrangement to gain. This is an arrangement to engage with, and to do so in good faith. And I have no doubt, we all understand the challenge here, we all understand the need to put aside what whatever other funding discussions that are had between the states and territories and the Commonwealth. And you know, we have them all the time. We all understand that. There's a bit of a business as usual about those discussions. But this is why I've separated this agreement out from all of those other discussions. We're not seeking to tie anything else in this, to this agreement. This is about COVID-19. This is about doing what we need to do, doing it swiftly, so everyone can just get on with the job. 

JOURNALIST: Just in the context of working with the states you're looking at at the moment, tax measures to improve cash flow for business and so forth. Would you like to see other states follow the example of Queensland and even local government to provide what tax relief they can in the form of rates and payroll tax and things is it..?

PRIME MINISTER: Well we’ve all got to do our bit, as I said yesterday, every Australian has a responsibility in how Australia gets through the Coronavirus outbreak, and that's as true for how we manage the health issues and support each other as it is with how we manage the economic issues. I'm pleased to hear that as a result, particularly in relation to the bushfires that we are seeing more people going back into those areas that are affected. And good on you for doing that. People taking up their own action to support those communities. States, likewise, their economies will be directly impacted by this. And of course, I would expect states and territories to be looking at what measures they would put in place. That's not conditional on anything the Commonwealth is doing. We're working on our own package of measures. I would certainly be expecting them to be considering those issues in their own state contexts as well. And in that case, you know, I commend the Queensland government for what they've done on the affirmative payroll tax. That is a good initiative. And I'm sure to be I'm sure it will be welcomed. We'll be looking at a series of measures. I'm not confirming one way or another what those measures are today, because as in my response to John, we're looking at the evidence carefully and we're making sure that we get this right because let's understand what's needed here. This is something that is needed for a fixed period of time, that can be delivered with maximum effect. That also, at the same time, does not undermine the structural balance of the Budget over the medium term. So when the economy bounces back, which it will, when businesses bounce back, which they will. The Budget will bounce back in the same way.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister the number of cases in Italy has surged again overnight, by about 40 percent, and close to 4,000. Did the Melbourne Formula One Grand Prix make any representations to you or your office over the travel restrictions on Italy in discussions yesterday? 

PRIME MINISTER: Not to me. And I couldn't tell you if they had to my office and certainly none were relayed to me if that were the case, and that didn't bear into our thinking. As I explained yesterday, the decision on the travel bans that we announced yesterday were based on our ability to deliver enhanced screening capabilities at the airports. And the advice we had is we could do that for Italy. And that was our preferred response for Korea as well. And if we were in a position to immediately put those enhanced screening arrangements in place for the Republic of Korea, given that they had five times the level of arrivals that we had from potentially people coming from Italy, then the Italy response was one that could be done. The Republic of Korea response through the airports was not something that could be immediately implemented. Now, it may well be the case that over the course of the next week or two, that the Border Force Commissioner will be able to advise the National Security Committee that he would be in a position to put those arrangements in place. And this is what we've communicated to the Korean government as well. It is our preference to have done that as through enhanced screening at the airports. But where that's not possible, I'm not taking the risk and that's why the travel ban was placed on Korea. Katherine? Katherine and then Michelle.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister just on sports grants.

PRIME MINISTER: I’m dealing with coronavirus. Michelle?

JOURNALIST: Dr. Kelly, you've got discussions with the aged care sector today. Obviously, at some point this virus won't be able to be contained from spreading in the general community. But what’s your level of confidence that you will be able to contain it from spreading through the aged care facilities generally and also through indigenous communities?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY, DEPUTY CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER: It's a very good question and we're very focussed on those most vulnerable populations that we have. And those two that you mentioned are definitely front of mind. In terms of aged care facilities, what we know from around the world with almost 100,000 cases now and over 3,000 deaths, is that people that are elderly and people with other diseases, chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, lung disease and cancer, are more vulnerable to this virus. They are the ones that get the more severe end of the spectrum. For most people, 80 per percent of people, it's a mild illness. And I need to keep stressing that, there is a lot of discussion about this in the community. But for most people that get this infection, it will be like a cold or a mild flu. For older people, it's a particular issue. There are other issues, of course, in aged care around dementia and the ability to use personal protective equipment, both for the staff and also for people that might be affected in those communities. So that is a particular challenge. And that's why we're having the meeting today on that. In Aboriginal communities, again, for those people that are living in remote areas of Australia, very difficult challenges about what you set up for diagnosis, for treatment, for screening and so on. And they’re things that we're working through today with the primary care group that I've mentioned, but more, in more detail in other fora with Aboriginal communities, with the Aboriginal controlled health sector and others. In fact, I was sitting next to the representative from the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association, and he kept whispering in my ear about not, don't forget the Aboriginal sector and we're definitely not.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, the billion dollars that you’re setting aside...

PRIME MINISTER: That’s just an estimate. It’s a demand driven programme.

JOURNALIST: Yeah, so is that based off, can you just talk a bit about what scenario that’s based on in terms of spread, how many people would contract the virus under that scenario? And also, the British Chief Medical Officer said that they are expecting 50 percent of cases within that three week period, 95 percent over a 9 week period, is that the same?

PRIME MINISTER: Yeah I saw that. I’ll ask the Health Minister to respond.

THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH: I’ll deal with the general, and on the epidemiology that's Professor Kelly’s actual discipline so we’re well equipped there. Now, in terms of the general, what we're looking at is the most likely scenario, I apologise but we're not at this stage in a position to put out particular figures because the modelling is evolving all of the time. But our estimate of the most likely range of costs for the states and territories is in the order of a billion dollars. With us picking up half a billion of that, and that is, as we say, completely separate from the hospitals agreement, then of course, there are all of our ordinary responsibilities for which we have 100 percent responsibility, whether it's been the evacuations, the border protection, all of the Medicare work and the potential for more Medicare items which are being discussed today, such as an expansion of telehealth, the focus on additional pathology services. The focus on telephone lines. The focus on additional information for the public. All of those extra responsibilities where we carry 100 percent, that's not part of that billion that's over and above.

PRIME MINISTER: Professor Kelly did you want to?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY, DEPUTY CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER: Just quickly, so I’m not going to speculate on numbers either. I was speaking to my counterpart in Public Health England this morning and we're always comparing notes at least a couple of times a week. England is in the middle of a flu epidemic in the middle of their winter. We're in a very different situation and we'll just have to see how that develops over time. We're getting the best modellers in Australia who are linked in again with that international community to look at a variety of scenarios. But as Minister Hunt has said, the most important thing at the moment is finding cases, finding their contacts and isolating. That is the way we slow down the epidemic and decrease the number of cases in our community. And that's what we're committed to. And this funding announced today will obviously support that.

JOURNALIST: As this virus continues to spread around the world, we see the number of cases multiply, here and in countries across Europe. The Olympics is looking pretty shaky isn’t it?

PRIME MINISTER: Well that's not a decision for the Australian government. I’ll tell you what we're focussed on. We're focussed on Australians, protecting Australians, their health and their wellbeing. Protecting Australian’s livelihoods and their jobs, their incomes, and most importantly, giving Australians the confidence and assurance so they can look to the other side of this virus, knowing that we will get through this, and we'll get through this for a range of reasons. One is we're going into this, we've come into this with a balanced Budget, which means we're able to deploy the sort of resources that we are doing right now. That's why you do that work. We're able to do it because we have an advanced health system, one of the best in the world, which means we've been able to get ahead and stay ahead of this. And particularly the advice that we've received from our experts means that we were calling this a week ahead, two weeks ahead of countries in many other parts of the world. And that's put us in a strong position for now. But we are not complacent about that. And what we are now seeing with the additional cases we're seeing in Australia is what we anticipated when we stood in my courtyard just the other week and we talked about having to be ready for a much higher level of spread of this virus, including in Australia. We're starting to see that now. And that's why I keep saying to Australians, we've been able to get ahead of this and anticipate the impacts it’s having both on a health and on an economic level. And we're going to continue to respond and keep ahead of it. And when we come to announcing the package of stimulus measures that will be applied in this area, that will also be done to get ahead of that curve as well. And so at that time, I think people will see that it will be targeted, it will be measured, it will be proportionate, it will be scalable, and we'll be able to move more into the future. So other countries, they'll have some difficult calls to make, like the ones you're talking about. And I wish them well with those decisions. They'll be very difficult decisions. We've got our own, and we're focussing on those and we're focussing on the Australian national interest. And that is first and foremost in my mind. Time for one more. 

JOURNALIST: Just on the travel ban. You said just before that, you would have preferred to have put the enhanced screening measures in place for Korea as well, the Korean Government has said that it regrets that Australia has put a travel ban on people coming from there, do you, what impact is this having on our international relationships?

PRIME MINISTER: I don’t believe any. I think we all understand that these are not usual times and we regret having to be able to do that as well. We'd prefer not to be having any of the travel bans. We would prefer not to have coronavirus spreading around the world. We would prefer not to have any of these happening. And I think there is an understanding that each country has to make its own decisions in its own national interest. I mean, Australia has been very clear in our communication with our partners and our friends as we were yesterday. We've been very clear that, about the circumstances of this decision and if we're able to make a change to that decision in the next week or two, well, I think that would be good. I think that'd be great because there are, you know, there are Australians who are in Korea and and likewise, there are Koreans who are in Australia looking to return. And that has an impact on the availability of flights and all those sorts of practical issues. But the Coronavirus has had this disrupting effect on people's movement all around the world. And, but we’re going to stay on top of it. We're going to stay working together. That's the most important thing. And we, again, really appreciate the co-operative relationship that is on display with the states and territories. I mean, they will increasingly share a lot more of the direct responsibility of deploying through their health systems, the doctors, and the nurses, and the treatments, and the responses on the ground. They run the health system. But what they should know from what we've offered today is we'll be there with them shoulder to shoulder, 50/50 with an even stronger set of funding arrangements than we would normally have, because this is not business as usual. This is something very different. And, but we will get through it. And because we have the right partnerships in place, we have the resources ready to go. And we are spending all of our time focusing on what the next step needs to be and ensure we can take that next step in the national interest. Thank you very much everyone.