Press Conference - Brisbane, QLD

22 Jan 2021
Prime Minister

Prime Minister: This meeting was convened two weeks ago when we were facing a very serious set of circumstances, particularly here in Queensland. And particularly in greater Brisbane. And we agreed that we would meet again in a fortnight's time and hopefully not be in a position where we were dealing with an escalation of the crisis that we saw two weeks ago and hopefully seeing a set of circumstances that we are now seeing today. This followed a month of combatting outbreaks in New South Wales and Victoria and successfully so. Australians have responded in these last few weeks and indeed over the last month and a half in response to the outbreaks that we've seen, in a way that we are very grateful for as Premiers and Chief Ministers and indeed as the Prime Minister. Queenslanders responded, greater Brisbane responded, in New South Wales they responded, in Victoria they responded. And as a result, right here, right now, so far, we have been successful in avoiding a third wave of the virus in Australia.

Now, there are no guarantees as Professor Kidd can tell you. But as I met earlier this week with European leaders and the Prime Minister of Israel, and we've seen the terrible situation that they're facing in so many other countries. The response of the Australian people, the response of Australian governments, the outstanding work done by our contact tracers, the Australians that are coming forward for testing and observing what were quite genuine restrictions on their mobility and other things that they could do, but those actions has once again put Australia in a very strong position. And I want to thank all Australians once again, for the response. We're not out of it yet. Virus still hasn't gone anywhere and we need to maintain that vigilance.

I was particularly pleased here in greater Brisbane where there had not been cases for some time, but the quickness of the response and the cooperativeness of the response in relation to that latest lockdown that we've had here in greater Brisbane, in Sydney and Melbourne in particular, where- much bigger cities in terms of inflow of people coming in, as we've seen, that has obviously put those cities under great stress and strain. And so there has been a greater sense of awareness of course in those cities. But here in Brisbane, it shows that even though that hadn't been the case, people did respond very quickly, just as they had in Sydney, just as they had in Victoria. So we are very grateful for that. So now five days of no community transmission, across Australia and I haven’t got the updated figures for today. Professor Kidd was just checking on those before we came out. But I'm sure the states will be confirming those over the course of the day.

And so two weeks on from where we were after the last meeting of National Cabinet, then once again, I think we can show that the systems have been tested. Australians literally have been tested in large numbers, but we have passed that test over these several weeks and indeed over the last month. But it wasn't the only thing that came through over this period. Yesterday, we learnt of the jobs figures in December, which showed 50,000 more Australians in jobs in December. What that says is the way that Australia together, the Commonwealth together with the states and territories have been fighting this virus continues, to save lives and it continues to save livelihoods.

Today's meeting of the National Cabinet really as a result, provided an update and an opportunity to discuss progress across a range of fronts. We have reviewed the status of the situation in preparation for that vaccine, and we reviewed the arrangements as they relate to passenger caps coming to airports, we’ve made no changes there, but those arrangements go back to their earlier settings on the 15th of February. But there is the opportunity for me to engage with individual states and territories on a bilateral basis if we believe we can create additional capacity. But that is not an indication that that will occur. But we are seeking to have a flexible arrangement with states and territories between now and the 15th of February to meet those demands.

Pleased to see that those Emirates flights have come back only after a week or so of saying they’d go, we’ve got the other 20 flights moving. And we've been able to be quite successful in continuing to get many Australians home despite those challenges. Just to note that specifically there have been 78,876 Australians that we’ve been able to get home since the 18th of September of last year, which is when the National Cabinet set that as an urgent priority. I note also that just under $20 million dollars has already been paid out of that fund of the special overseas hardship to support Australians both in getting home as well as supporting them in place where they may be and unable to be getting on a flight and coming back to Australia. So those arrangements, those additional 20 flights, they will continue as we work through these issues over the next month.

The only other point I'd make as a result of our discussions this morning, I mentioned when we were in Canberra two weeks ago that we tasked the AHPPC to look at the potential national position on mandatory requirements for particular occupations and people working with vulnerable people - in particular, specifically in aged care. The AHPPC has not recommended to require that at this point, obviously the vaccine programme hasn’t started yet, but that is an item they'll keep under review. That doesn't mean to say that a later point they may reconsider that. But at this stage, the rollout of the vaccine and the programme there is deemed to be sufficient to ensure that the issues that would be present there would be accommodated.

With that I’ll ask Professor Kidd to make some comments.

Professor Michael Kidd, Deputy Chief Medical Officer: Thank you, Prime Minister. So as the Prime Minister has said, good news across the country and we've had 28,750 cases of COVID-19 reported in Australia to date. But as of 12 o'clock yesterday, that was our fifth day with no reports of community transmission. This, of course, in a world where the most recent figures show we've had over 96-million people reported as being diagnosed with COVID-19. And very sadly, over the last week passed that milestone of over 2 million people being reported to have lost their lives from COVID-19 right around the world. So good news in Australia, but we, of course, still need to be on our guard and we still need to have all the precautions in place, which we've had operate so successfully and demonstrated to operate so successfully over the last few weeks.

We had 92 new cases of COVID-19 reported in Australia over the last 7 days. 91 per cent of those cases were overseas acquired, those people all in quarantine arrangements across the country. The number of active cases of COVID-19 has also fallen to 186, down from 296 this time last week. So, again, a reflection of the reduction in the number of cases that we're seeing. We still are seeing at least 1 per cent of all international arrivals coming into Australia being diagnosed with COVID-19, which reinforces the importance of our quarantine arrangements.

One of the areas which is causing the AHPPC concern is the new variants appearing around the world, the B-117 variant initially identified in the United Kingdom has now been identified in 48 countries around the world. And we've had 48 cases of that variant in people arriving in Australia since that was first identified. The B-1351 variant, which was first identified in South Africa, now has been identified in 13 countries. And again, we've had 12 cases of that variant in people who have come into Australia in hotel quarantine. There's a third variant which is causing concern globally, the B-11281 variant, first identified in Brazil has already been identified in Brazil and Japan to date. One of the concerns with these variants as you’d be aware is the concern about whether they lead to increased transmissibility of COVID-19. Fortunately, they don't seem to be causing more severe disease, but more at risk of being transmitted from person to person. And as a consequence, the AHPPC has increased the isolation requirement for people who are diagnosed with these new variants from 10 days to 14 days before they are considered for potential release from isolation. Prime Minister, I might stop there.

Prime Minister: Happy to take questions on the National Cabinet, then I’m sure there may be other issues you wish to raise.

Journalist: Mr. Prime Minister, in regards to the Premier’s, Queensland Premier’s plan for quarantining people in regional Australia, did she present a case to you in National Cabinet today or give you any further update or indication about what the plans for that?

Prime Minister: It was briefly referred to, but as a matter for us to discuss later today when we meet.

Journalist: What do you personally think of the idea? You’ve made some comments about some concerns raised up in Gladstone? What do you think of the idea?

Prime Minister: Well I haven’t seen a proposal. So it's very hard for me to respond to a proposal I haven’t seen. And so I look forward to getting further details of that today. I mean, I keep an open mind. Obviously, as the government keeps open mind on things, all I’ve simply done is reflect the views of those I spoke with when I was up in Gladstone, and they were views that were candidly expressed to me and there are a lot of questions that have been raised in particular by the Labor mayor up there in Gladstone and they're issues that obviously would have to be addressed in any proposal. This is a proposal which I anticipate getting more detail on today. It's been brought by the Queensland government. So it's a matter for the Queensland government to work through those issues in their proposals, I think, with those local communities, as other Chief Ministers and Premiers have done on these types of issues.

Journalist: So it will be discussed when you meet with Ms Palaszczuk later today?

Prime Minister: Yes. I look forward to getting the proposal.

Journalist: [Inaudible] has indicated,

Prime Minister: Sorry I missed the start of that?

Journalist: Countries overseas have indicated there are issues, supply issues with the Pfizer vaccine. Will that affect Australia's rollout?

Prime Minister: Well the Health Minister and others will make further comment on this. I mean, there's no doubt in the discussions I held with the European Prime Ministers and others earlier in the week, that there are some difficulties that they're encountering. And so we're watching that very closely. We were able to provide as much as possible today to the Premiers and Chief Ministers. So they know what we know. And there are some things that are within our control and some things that are not. One of the reasons that we saw- and paid a premium for ensuring that we could produce the AstraZeneca vaccine here in Australia, was to ensure that particularly over the course of the year, we would not be as exposed to the vulnerabilities of those supply chains and producers in other countries. And so that is a very significant capability that we've invested in, which will prove up our situation particularly over the course of the year. But in the early phases of this, we're obviously reliant on the delivery of the vaccines from those producing countries, in that early stage. But I think we've been very careful to, I think, be clear about expectations here. And we know that we'd be starting at a small scale before moving to a much greater scale. And we’ve set out indicative timeframes where we would hope to commence in mid to late February. But that will obviously change and be subject to any impacts on production schedules, overseas. I know that Pfizer is retooling, upgrading their capacity in Europe to produce and increase the output of what they're doing there. There are huge demands across Europe from other clients. So we'll just continue to work through that and we'll update the Australian people as we have information available to us, but Michael do you want to add to that?

Professor Kidd: I think that's very fair and reasonable. Obviously, the priority groups which have been identified for all of the, for the vaccine are moving ahead. And it's important that we get the vaccine out to those priority groups, the residents in aged care, the people who are working in quarantine and on the borders. And, of course, our front line healthcare workers.

Prime Minister: It was always our plan to start small and build up. And when that can ultimately start is going to be conditional upon those delivery arrangements and the capabilities of those producers.

Journalist: Do you have assurances from Pfizer that you'll get it on time?

Prime Minister: Well, these are part of our contractual arrangements with them and we are in a similar situation to many other countries.

Journalist: Prime Minister, just on- you referred to Emirates before,

Prime Minister: We have contractual arrangements with Pfizer for the supply of vaccines, let me be very clear about that.

Journalist: You referred to Emirates resuming their flights earlier, but given that they had pulled out, have their spots that they've been allocated been allocated to other airlines? Can they just snap back?

Prime Minister: They'll be able to resume their flights. They have those air rights and can resume those flights. In the meantime, what we were seeing, passengers on their flights being able to move on to capacity on other services that were coming through and of course, the additional charter services that we were putting in place. So we've been able to maintain the capacity. And so, but Emirates coming back in is welcomes. It's great because remember, it's not just those who are coming on these flights. I mean, these flights also carry important supplies, there’s freight that are involved in these air services. And they're going into our major capital cities. And that is important for supply chains on a whole range of different goods and services.

Journalist: And just on the 20 repatriation flights from the U.K. the first two sold out within minutes. Are there any plans for additional flights at this stage?

Prime Minister: We’ve facilitated so far 70, and now we put on an additional 20. As I said we've provided some almost $20 million dollars in hardship support to people overseas. Our first priority as premiers and chief ministers and I reaffirmed today, is the health and safety within Australia and then to seek to bring and support as many Australians seeking to come home as possible, and we've been able to maintain that, as I said, we've had some almost 79,000 people that have been able to do that since the middle of September. And at that time, at that time, there were only around about 26,000 odd who had registered to come home at that point. So we've significantly exceeded the amount of people we thought we'd be able to get home over that period. But of course, there are more given the deterioration of the situation around the world since that time that are seeking to do that. And that's why we are supporting them through the hardship fund, the additional charter flights and seeking to maintain as much capacity as we can. But ultimately, that's also going to be conditional on the quarantine requirements, we have to put the public health and safety within our borders first.

Journalist: If there's no mandatory requirement for aged care workers to receive the vaccine, does that leave aged care residents at risk if they may be being treated or dealt with by people who don't have that additional level of protection?

Prime Minister: Well, I'll ask Professor Kidd to comment on this, but let me be clear about what Professor Kidd and the AHPPC have said, at this point, they are not recommending that be the case. But that doesn't mean that that mightn’t be a position in the future. And so we will take this step by step. And I have no doubt if there were concerns about the well-being of vulnerable Australians, particularly elderly Australians, that they would make such a recommendation. Michael?

Professor Kidd: So let me be very, very clear. We are actively encouraging the residents of aged care and people who are working in aged care, both the staff of the facilities, but also the people coming into the facilities around the country to receive the COVID-19 vaccine when it starts to roll out into their areas. And we are anticipating a very high uptake amongst both residents and staff in order to protect the residents from COVID-19. At this point, we're not looking at a recommendation of mandatory vaccination. And the rationale behind this is because firstly, we haven't yet rolled the vaccine out across the country. So we don't want to be excluding people from aged care because they haven't been vaccinated, because they don't fall into one of the priority groups that has been, we want our residents in aged care to be able to see their loved ones regularly, of course. And we also are still learning a lot about the vaccines and about how effective the vaccines are at preventing the transmission of COVID-19. We know the vaccines from the clinical trials are very effective at preventing severe disease and preventing death amongst people who may be at risk from COVID-19. We're still learning about transmissibility and we're still learning about the duration of the immunity which is provided by the vaccines.

Journalist: Prime Minister, there seems to be some speculation this morning about whether the Tokyo Olympics are going ahead. Have you heard anything about that? And are you confident they are still going ahead?

Prime Minister: Well, there has been some rumours floating around today, and I've seen no official confirmation of those, and the situation in Japan right now in terms of the spread that’s occurred there more recently, is quite different to even when I was there in November. And so I can understand that that's putting some real pressure and Prime Minister Suga, like I here or any Prime Minister anywhere has to put, I think, the health and safety of their populations first and what could be managed. So we'll watch that. I think it would be very disappointing for the Japanese people and of course, Prime Minister Suga and former Prime Minister Abe if that were the case. But if that were the case, then I could understand those circumstances. And only feel for them. I imagine that would be quite, quite disappointing for them. And I would certainly be in touch with the Prime Minister to extend that, our thoughts to them at that time.

Journalist: Prime Minister, Google has this morning threatened to disable its search engine in Australia if the media bargaining becomes law. Is this an acceptable threat against Australians?

Prime Minister: Let me be clear. Australia makes our rules for things you can do in Australia. That's done in our Parliament. It's done by our government and that's how things work here in Australia and people who want to work with that in Australia, you're very welcome. But we don't respond to threats.

Journalist: Prime Minister, Margaret Court, former tennis player has been recognised in the Australia Day honours. It’s apparently been leaked earlier than Tuesday. What do you think of her being recognised?

Prime Minister: Well, I can't comment on an award that is done through an independent process that hasn't been announced, or I have no official knowledge of those things. This is a completely independent separate process and those announcements will be made on the appropriate day. And it's a system that recognises Australians from right across the full spectrum of achievement in this country. And it's, so I can't really offer comment on something that is speculative.

Journalist: Prime Minister mental health initiative to assist our emergency services, is it needed and should there be more?

Prime Minister: Mental health has been one, I think, of the signature elements of the Australian response, not just to the pandemic, but as you know, over the course of these past few days, I've been out in regional Queensland, outback Queensland, and the lessons that we learned from the floods in north Queensland, as I shared with the communities there, were what we applied during the COVID pandemic. And with the terrible losses in those floods, one of the things that didn't occur to the best of our knowledge is it didn’t result in death by suicide specifically, relating to those issues, and I think in part that is been because of the enormous resilience of those communities supporting each other, but the actions that we took together with the state governments to provide those mental health services and reaching out to those states, and to those properties and to those communities. Now the same has been true in our response to the outbreaks that we've seen of COVID over the course of the last year in response to the drought. So mental health, particularly on COVID, has been a signature part of the Australian response and recognised so when I was attending the G20 summit, and the East Asia Summit recently, as each country talked about the response we had, I was able to make reference to how mental health is a key part of our response. And it was actually the Sultan of Brunei who was the other leader who was particularly focussed on that issue and I commend him for doing so. Our emergency service workers, our police officers, the paramedics, they see things and deal with things, that thankfully the rest of us don't. I’m the son of a police officer and my brother's a paramedic. My brother-in-law was a firey. So I've got some understanding of what they go through each and every day. And things have changed a lot when it comes to mental health support for our emergency service workers since when my dad was a beat police officer working at Kings Cross in Sydney. And so I think that's a good thing. But, you know, for people who put themselves in harm's way for us, it really is an issue of just making sure we do what we possibly can.

Journalist: With the issues being faced by the Pfizer vaccine, are you confident we can still see January approval, end of January approval and mid-February roll out?

Prime Minister: Well, I'm not going to speculate on that today, when we're in a position to make decisions and announcements about these things, then we will. I think it's very important that we don't speculate on those matters. There are some uncertainties which we've already discussed today. But what I can tell you is this, that the Therapeutic Goods Administration, Professor Skerritt and the whole team they will be making sure it's safe, in terms of that- those vaccines. And when they say it's safe, when they give it the tick, then I'll take the jab. And I think all Australians can, too. And, but our process is world leading. It's world class. It's a process that I believe Australians can have a lot of confidence in. We're not rushing this, nor are we delaying it. We are getting it right. That's what matters. We're getting it right. And by getting it right I think Australians can have a lot of confidence. We're learning a lot from what's happening overseas. And you've got to get all your ducks in a row on this because remember, there's two, there's two shots in the vaccine. You don’t go and give the first one, if you haven’t got the confidence about the second one, and that can put a lot of pressure on your system. So the refrigerated storage, the logistics, the transportation, the training of the workers, the clinics where they'll be, all of that is being worked through in precise detail. But the first step in all of that, of course, is for the TGA to give it the tick. And they are dotting every ‘i’ and they are crossing every ‘t’.

Journalist: Those logistics that you speak of, so you think that they're more challenging for a place like Queensland where our population is spread over such a vast area?

Prime Minister: Well, I think WA would probably claim some special challenges with the remoteness of populations, too, as with the Northern Territory and in all states and territories. I mean, Australia has a different challenge to a very small country like Israel for example, and many of the European nations. So we have a different set of challenges to others, and especially I would say, whether it's here in Queensland or elsewhere, remote indigenous populations, which has always been a very keen focus for us on COVID-19. And that's why the planning is so important, to get it all right. It's tough, but we're good at this. Australians are very good at this. And I think in the way that we've managed COVID up to date, I think that will only be demonstrated further in how we manage the next stage of the process. But you're right, it's not without challenges. Of course it is. It's going to be a very big logistical challenge. And that's why we're spending the time to get it right. Professor?

Professor Kidd: Oh just saying, as you know initially the vaccine will be rolling out through the hubs, for the Pfizer vaccine but then there'll be up to a thousand sites, including general practises right across the country, which will be involved in distributing the vaccine to people right across Australia.

Prime Minister: I think we have time for one or two more?

Journalist: Just on the remote work camps again Prime Minister, acknowledging that you said you haven't seen a proposal yet, but what additional solutions is the Commonwealth working on to take the pressure off hotel quarantine and to get more Australians home?

Prime Minister: Well I just talked about the 20 flights bringing Australians home and we’ve expanded the capacity of Howard Springs to do that as well. And we are looking at what provides additional capacity and the additional capacity could come through raising the caps again, when that's safe to do so. And that's what we'll discuss specifically with Premiers and Chief Ministers over the next, over the next week or so. The hotel quarantine system and the volume, I mean, you look at in New South Wales in particular, that has taken three times, three times what has happened here in Brisbane and the way they've been able to successfully manage, I think, that flow over a long period of time. And so the hotel quarantine system remains incredibly important to getting Australians home and but where there are other facilities we've been able to put in place, particularly in the Northern Territory, that's proved to be quite effective. We will work with states and territories on their quarantine arrangements. We'll look at this proposal. But I just note the issues that have been raised up in Gladstone by the mayor, the legitimate issues that need to be considered as I said yesterday, and one of those factors is that there is an enormous amount of maintenance work done on all the industrial plants up in Gladstone over the course of this year. One of the reasons Australia has done well economically over the course of COVID is we've been able to keep our heavy industry going. And the prospect of that being impacted by something in a community like that needs to be carefully considered. So, you know, the Commonwealth is not- keeps an open mind on all of these proposals, but equally where proposals have been put forward they need to be rigorous they need to address the concerns of local communities. I think that’s only fair.

Journalist: You caused a bit of a stir yesterday when you said that the convicts arriving on the First Fleet didn't have a particularly flash day either, some people suggesting it was creating a false equivalence with what Australia's indigenous population endured during European settlement. Do you have any regrets about the way you phrased that or what you said?

Prime Minister: I think it was false to take that implication. I was drawing no equivalence between any of these things. I was simply saying this: you know, Australia is more than 25 million stories, more than 25 million. And each of us here can trace our own stories back into our experience in Australia, Indigenous Australians, First Nations people also, all the stories are important. All the stories should be respected. And on Australia Day, that's an opportunity to do that, understanding the loss, the gains, the successes, the failures, the hardships that were encountered. I mean, Australian stories are unique in this country. And, but the thing that I celebrate most about Australians, despite the hardship whether that be that of dispossession, and the terrible disease and destruction that was faced by First Nations peoples, or whether it's the convicts who came or the settlers that followed, the immigrant waves that come over the course of our nation's history, all of those stories are important. They're not competing with each other. They're just part of who we are. Thanks very much.