Press Conference - Canberra, ACT

Transcript
15 Aug 2021
Prime Minister
E&OE

PRIME MINISTER: Good morning, everyone. I'm joined by the Foreign Minister, the Health Minister and General Frewen, head of Operation COVID Shield. 

Before I come to the announcement today, I want to make a few remarks on Afghanistan. National Security Committee of Cabinet met yesterday to discuss a number of matters, this being the most serious of those matters. The situation in Afghanistan remains highly volatile and dangerous. We have been in close consultations with our allies and security partners, as we always have been, since operations in Afghanistan began in 2001. We are working closely with our partners to ensure a coordinated response, but we will not be discussing any operational plans at this point in order to maintain the security of those operations and of course, to protect those who are most vulnerable, who are the subject of those operations. I remind everyone that Australia removed its presence from, in the 28th of May. Some 400 locally engaged employees and their families have already been resettled in Australia since around April this year. This has been a program which we've been moving on very urgently, very quickly. It is a very complex exercise and we have been continuing to keep our pace on those processes, both of accrediting, assessing, issuing visas and bringing people to safety here in Australia. But our thoughts and prayers indeed are with the people of Afghanistan. There has been much sacrificed in the cause that we have laboured so long for. Many lives lost, 41 Australians. 

Over the last 20 years, Australia has been a steadfast contributor to the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan. Australia joined the United States, NATO and the international community in Afghanistan in 2001 to help find Osama bin Laden and those responsible for the attacks on September 11, 2001, which will soon have their 20th anniversary, and to eliminate al Qaeda's capacity to stage more attacks against the West from Afghanistan. And that was achieved. Since then, Australia's efforts, alongside those of the international community, have been designed to lift the capacity and welfare of the Afghan people. Freedom is always worth fighting for. 

I want to turn now to some good news. And the news today is that Australia's vaccination rollout is continuing to ramp up. Over 15 million vaccines have now been administered and one in four Australians are fully vaccinated. In just one day we saw more than 270,000 Australians get their jab, that being a record. And we are now achieving one and a half million doses each week, one and a half million doses every week, more than the population of the city of Adelaide as the Health Minister regularly reminds us. And that means we're on track next week to hit an important target. And that is that one in two eligible Australians would have had their first dose next week. 

And I want to thank Australians for turning up. I want to thank Australians for enduring. I want to thank Australians for pushing through. I want to thank those Australians who are complying with those public health orders and the restrictions that are put in place, not just right across New South Wales as was announced yesterday by the New South Wales government. And I want to note that the Commonwealth Government also considered that matter yesterday. The decision taken by the New South Wales Government is consistent with the advice that I have received and the Health Minister has received and indeed the National Security Committee of Cabinet has received about the need for a broader and stronger lockdown in New South Wales to get on top of the virus. And those discussions, of course, have been held with the New South Wales Government. 

But there is hope. Indeed there's more than a million doses of hope on its way. Earlier today, a plane left Dubai, having left Warsaw last night. We have been in discussions with the Polish government now for several weeks, and we have secured an additional just over one million doses of Pfizer and they'll start landing in Australia from tonight. These doses are on top of the 40 million Pfizer doses that Australia has already contracted to be delivered and of course will be ramping up again significantly in the fourth quarter of this year. These one million doses of hope, which will give people right across the country, particularly in New South Wales, where they are fighting this Delta strain in the most significant battle we have had in this country during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic up until now. These doses are all from the Pfizer plant in Belgium, where all of our other Pfizer doses are coming from. And I particularly want to thank Prime Minister Morawiecki, who I've had numerous discussions with over these last few weeks and been in regular contact. I want to thank him personally and his government for their support of Australia's COVID-19 response during this very challenging time. A key factor in being able to secure these doses from our Polish friends has been that we have had a significant outbreak in our largest city. That was the primary element of the discussion that I held with the Prime Minister some weeks ago. And that discussion followed, proving up the reality of us being able to potentially secure these doses and engage in that discussion with them. And I particularly want to thank the great work done by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, our embassy there in Poland in being able to identify this opportunity and enabling us to move very swiftly. The Health Minister and Foreign Minister will speak more to that, of course, and the Health Minister will speak more to the process with the TGA. These doses are TGA approved, but the Health Minister can take you through more of those details. I want to assure Australians that I will continue, and my government will continue to leave no stone unturned in ensuring that where there are opportunities such as these, we will secure them. I note that also being able to secure this transfer required us to engage directly, as I have with the head of Pfizer, to ensure that they are authorised to make this transfer. And I thank Pfizer and Albert Bourla for his support in enabling this to move through as promptly as possible. 

Now, the one million doses, I've discussed this with the New South Wales Premier yesterday, will be targeted to Australians aged 20 to 39 years of age who are identified in the Doherty modelling as the peak transmitters for COVID-19. 530,000 of these doses will be prioritised for express delivery to the 12 Sydney Local Government Areas where the COVID-19 outbreak continues to grow. This allocation of the doses is based directly on the advice that I have received from the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Kelly. His advice is based on that Doherty modelling and other work that they have done about how the transmissibility of the virus in those most affected areas can be addressed through these additional doses. This will give everyone aged 20 to 39 in the 12 LGAs the opportunity to be vaccinated. The doses will be administered through the New South Wales Government system and as I said, they're arriving late tonight. They'll go through that process of delivery over the course of the next week. Further doses will turn up over the course of this week and the balance of the doses will be provided to the remaining states and territories on a per capita basis, not including New South Wales, of course, because they will have received those first 530,000 doses. The first touch down, as I said, is in Australia tonight. And in just days we will start going, these jabs will start going into the arms of Australians over the course of this week. And this will greatly assist particularly the effort in New South Wales to assist them as they go into this harder lockdown. And those lockdown measures must be adhered to. 

I have a simple plea to the people right across New South Wales. And I know particularly in rural areas where people are wondering, well, there haven't been any cases in the area, so why do they have to lock down in rural and regional New South Wales. We're seeing that already, where the virus has been able to spread, particularly to some of our most sensitive communities, Indigeonous Australian communities, places like Walgett and so on. And we have to prevent that. We have to try and prevent that as much as possible. And so my plea to my fellow Australians, particularly my fellow Sydneysiders, stay at home. Stay at home. Only leave when you absolutely have to. There's no need to be out for hours and hours and hours a day. I know the rules provide for it, but please don't do it. Stay home. The more we do that, the more likely we're going to get through this. We've been seeing those case numbers rise in Sydney, in New South Wales each day, and that is terribly concerning. So together we've got to get those numbers coming down. And there are two things we can do. I need you to stay at home and you needed more vaccines from us. The more vaccines are on their way. They'll be there this week. And so I need Sydneysiders to stay home so we can beat this thing. That's the only way we're going to get on top of it. Those two things combined, working together, suppress and vaccinate. But to Minister Payne, thank you for your great efforts in assisting with securing this and all the great work done by our DFAT officials. They do a tremendous job, as you and I know, because we see them at it every single day. And I'll ask you to make a few comments. And then, of course, Minister Hunt and General Frewen. 

SENATOR THE HON. MARISE PAYNE, MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Thanks very much, Prime Minister. And I want to join the Prime Minister in welcoming Poland's decision to provide a million Pfizer vaccines to Australia and add my personal thanks to Foreign Minister Rau and to the Polish people for their support. To Poland's Ambassador here in Australia, Michał Kołodziejski, and of course, to Australia's Ambassador in Warsaw, Lloyd Brodrick. This is an arrangement which demonstrates, as the Prime Minister said, how our diplomatic capability is able to deliver in ways that continue to protect Australians. And it has been the efforts of Australia's Ambassador in Warsaw and his team, they've been tenacious in identifying and pursuing this opportunity and seeing it through to its successful outcome, including the Ambassador himself, seeing the delivery off at Warsaw Airport last night on its way to Australia. It is another element of the central role that DFAT plays in supporting Australia's response to and recovery from COVID-19, in addition to our repatriation of Australians overseas, the delivery of essential consular services and information and advice to Australians overseas.

Just as Poland has supported Australia in this context, we are also continuing to help our regional partners. And as you know, Australia will share 20 million doses with our neighbouring countries across the Pacific and in Timor Leste and South East Asia. We have already delivered over 1.6 million doses to the Pacific and Timor Leste, including 860,000 to Fiji and 577,000 to Timor-Leste. And to Papua New Guinea, to the Solomon Islands, to Samoa, to Tonga, to Tuvalu and to Vanuatu. We will also provide 2.5 million vaccines to Indonesia, 1.5 million to Vietnam. And in terms of Indonesia's most recent challenges, we've recently seen the delivery of 1,000 ventilators and 700 oxygen concentrators in assistance to our partners in Indonesia in their COVID-19 response. So, Prime Minister, we celebrate 50 years of diplomatic relations with Poland next year. This is a mark of the warmth of the relationship between Australia and Poland. And again, let me thank all of the officials and particularly Foreign Minister Rau, my counterpart, for his assistance in ensuring that this could take place. 

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you. Greg. 

THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: Thanks very much to the Prime Minister, Marise, General Frewen. These additional doses are points of light and points of hope, as the Prime Minister has said. They come on top of 1.4 million doses which were made available around the country last week. And during the course of the current week, two million doses have been distributed for availability. So these are in addition to the two million doses which will be available to Australians over the course of the coming week in the ordinary course of events. And so thank you General Frewen for working on that process. I particularly want to acknowledge the Health Department, both Brendan Murphy and Professor John Skerritt have invested enormous resources in this process. The ordinary TGA processes have been followed. We're in a fortunate position, same doses, same source, same origin, coming from the Pfizer plant in Belgium. The preliminary work has already been done by the TGA. Final batch testing will be done on arrival in the ordinary course of events. So these are very familiar processes and doses are being treated in the same way. But we're very thankful that the TGA has already been able to do all of the preliminary work. 

In terms of the allocations, the advice of the Chief Medical Officer has been followed in full. And so Professor Kelly has looked at the possibility of this and indicated, as the Prime Minister said, that the highest priority and indeed the basis on which we were able to secure these doses was to address the outbreak in our largest city, with the focus on young people in the 12 affected LGAs. And this will allow for rapid upscaling in that area to a population which will benefit significantly from the doses. 

The final two things I want to mention, we are announcing today a rapid antigen testing process, a significant trial with up to 50 aged care facilities in Sydney that will prove the concept and allow for further expansion. And then just to follow up from the Prime Minister's points about what's occurring with the vaccination program – Australians are doing an amazing job. 15 million doses have been administered now. And what we've seen is 1.5 million, as the PM says, in the last seven days. That's actually now Adelaide and Darwin together. And in the last 10 days, 2.2 million doses or the equivalent of Perth and Ballarat together. What's really occurring here? Much of the burden of the fourth quarter is being brought forward to the third quarter. We are vaccinating more people than we had planned and anticipated was possible at this time. And that's just a tribute to both the supply, the logistics, but above all else the Australian people, those that are coming forward and those that are doing the vaccinations. So to every Australian, thank you for coming forward, but please keep coming forward. And as the PM said, stay at home. If you're in a lockdown area, be tested if you have symptoms and keep coming forward to be vaccinated because every vaccination can save your life and protect the life of somebody else.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks Greg. General. 

LIEUTENANT GENERAL JJ FREWEN, COORDINATOR GENERAL OF OPERATION COVID SHIELD: Thank you, Prime Minister, and thank you, ministers. This additional million doses is very welcome news and will be an important fillip to the national vaccine rollout. These doses will be important in two ways. Firstly, they will help provide an immediate effect to the health situation in New South Wales. And secondly, they will help accelerate the programme more broadly across the nation. We've been working with authorities in New South Wales. They are ready to receive these doses and they will be surging through mass vaccination clinics and other hubs in south west Sydney in order to help bring the situation under control there. I'll also be working with authorities across the other states and territories as to precisely when they will receive their doses and how we will bring those into action in those jurisdictions. 

PRIME MINISTER: OK, I'm happy to take questions 

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, did the Taliban win the war in Afghanistan? 

PRIME MINISTER: My concerns are for the people of Afghanistan. Australians have spilt blood and treasure in seeking to protect the lives of Afghanis, and this is a very troubling time. The world is a complex place and there is no more complex place than Afghanistan. Australia and our partners and our allies have done so much to seek to secure their peace, but this remains a very troubled part of the world, not just recently, but over generations and generations. We went there with our primary purpose, as I indicated before, and that was to hunt down Osama bin Laden and to prevent Al-Qaeda being able to use it as a base and mount their attacks. And that was achieved. But the challenge of the peace and freedom of the people of Afghanistan sadly remain an unresolved issue. And we hope for the best for them. But the situation is very, very dire. And our focus now is to ensure that we can continue to support those who have aided us. We are ensuring, as I said already, that over 400 people have already been brought to Australia as we've been working on this quite rapidly in recent months, as the situation has continued to deteriorate and we will continue to redouble our efforts in that regard, working with our partners. 

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, is it accurate, is it accurate that you urged the New South Wales Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, to lock down the entire state earlier last week, that this was discussed by national security cabinet, the security cabinet, and that this was in some way the advice of Paul Kelly? And why didn't she take your advice? And were you disappointed that when she did lock down that yesterday she didn't even front publicly to tell voters that that's what she was doing? 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I can confirm the decision of the New South Wales Government to have a state wide lockdown is consistent with the advice that I had received from the Chief Medical Officer that the government has considered and and had been discussed with the New South Wales government. 

JOURNALIST: But why didn't she act on that earlier? I mean, the suggestion is that what ... 

PRIME MINISTER: I've confirmed what our position was and how we've relayed it and I'm pleased that the decision has been taken. And I think it's really important now that we just focus on making it work. Sorry, can you not talk over each other, OK? 

JOURNALIST: [inaudible] having such a significant announcement being made by Facebook and Twitter that I can't imagine a lot of people sitting around waiting to follow John Barilaro or someone?

PRIME MINISTER: I'm pleased the decision has been taken. I'll leave the manner in which it's communicated to others. 

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, just back on Afghanistan. Can you at least confirm that Australia will be despatching planes this week, given that Kabul might fall within days? And I'd love to ask Marise Payne, what of those who criticise the retreat for being a moral blunder now that we have sought to protect women and young children, young girls in particular, and they now under Taliban rule, might now be treated no better than cattle?

PRIME MINISTER: Let me deal with the first question. No, I don't think it is advisable for me to go into operational arrangements that are being put in place for the security of those we're seeking to help. And me openly discussing those arrangements wouldn't help them. And so I don't propose to do that. What I can assure you is, is this task has the utmost urgency and priority of the government and, of course, has been considered at the highest levels of the government yesterday. And we're in very constant engagement with our allies and partners as part of that broader effort. 

SENATOR THE HON. MARISE PAYNE, MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Thanks, Prime Minister, and as the Prime Minister has said, our concerns are very deep for the people of Afghanistan. This is a deeply disturbing situation. The security situation is clearly worsening. And Australia, like many of our security partners and allies, has invested an enormous amount in Afghanistan in support of the people of Afghanistan over many, many years now. And that includes a strong investment in the position of women and girls across that country. An investment, which has seen greater participation in schools, which has seen more women able to teach, which has seen other changes in lives, which we here, frankly, would simply take for granted. So it is very concerning to contemplate the circumstances which face those women and girls now. We have strongly urged consistently, clearly and emphatically that the Taliban should participate constructively in the peace talks. The peace talks are ongoing, that there should be a ceasefire and supported the Afghan Government and its efforts to pursue those matters. So while we acknowledge the challenges that the Prime Minister has set out, that has been our clear and consistent position. And we continue to reiterate that.

JOURNALIST: They've ignored these entreaties for peace. They have taken vast tracts of the of Afghanistan. You're facing a total humanitarian catastrophe. Is Australia, the US and its allies obliged to go back in and protect those women and young children?

SENATOR THE HON. MARISE PAYNE, MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: These are matters which obviously in terms of the humanitarian challenge that the current events in Afghanistan present will continue to be discussed amongst Australia and all of our partners. I know the Afghan Government has called for the Taliban's actions to be subject to the attention of the United Nations. And we would, we would support that. Obviously, it is a very, very difficult situation, and between Australia and our international partners, humanitarian organisations and non-government organisations, these are matters which we are dealing with every day. 

JOURNALIST: You've been adamant that not vaccines, but a lockdown working is the way out of lockdown. Yet, just before you said that, we need these two things, vaccines and a lockdown. I understand the two interact, but is there now, are you conceding the point where it's more likely that New South Wales will get out of lockdown via vaccination than via the lockdown working?

PRIME MINISTER: No, I think you're drawing a false dichotomy there. I have always been very clear that for the lockdown to work, the lockdown must work, and I've always been very clear that that is assisted by vaccines. So to suggest that it's a choice between the two is not the case. Nor have I, nor the New South Wales Premier indicated that. We know both are important, but most importantly is that the lockdown has to work. It must work. That's why I implore people across Sydney, stay at home, don't go down the beach for hours, don't meet up with others walking in twos apart and catching up anyway, we all know what we're talking about, OK? Don't do it. Please don't do it. Because you know, too much is having to be endured through these lockdowns for them not to work. And the more we work together and work with each other to ensure the lockdown works, the more hope we have. And so it's up to all of us, I think, to make this lockdown work. And so this next difficult step is now in place and it needs to be in place to protect people, particularly the most vulnerable people in our country. And so that's why I would urge. So it has always been a case of the two working together, but principally it has always been our very strong view that in a suppression phase, the suppression has to work. And in addition, vaccines can help that task. And that's why we have not ceased in our efforts to try and get additional vaccines. And now they're here that will support that effort. And so we have an opportunity over these next few weeks to really make this work and to get those vaccine numbers up, particularly amongst those 20 to 39 year olds in those most affected areas who are the transmitters. And many of them have to go to work because they are essential workers in occupations that keep the country moving. And so that's essential. So I think this will greatly assist this. Let's not forget that in addition to these 530,000 additional vaccines now going into New South Wales and over a million across the country, but in New South Wales, around 400,000 additional Pfizer vaccines have already been brought forward. So almost 900,000 vaccines, Pfizer vaccines, on top of a million AstraZeneca vaccines being available in New South Wales has been there to support, to assist, to supplement the success of a lockdown. But we've got to make the lockdown work. It's not, vaccines are not an alternative path to this lockdown. The lockdown and its success is the path to the lockdown working. 

THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: I'll just add, I might just add one thing to that, if that's okay. There's a strong, clear, unequivocal support for the hard 14 day statewide lockdown. (sic 7 day Commonwealth hotspot). It's a difficult decision. It affects a lot of people, but it's the right decision. And that's then backed by the very significant increase in vaccinations which were occurring, but which will now be aided by these additional doses.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, what do you say to the families of soldiers who died in Afghanistan who are now questioning the point of the war and if I may, just one more, the one million doses from Poland, what did we offer them in exchange? And has there been any other conversations with any other countries on surplus doses, particularly the US, that would provide a lot of hope to Australians now.

PRIME MINISTER: To the families of those 41 Australians, I say what I've always said. Thank you. Thank you for the sacrifice of your sons. They have fallen under our flag, under our name, wearing our uniform, serving. And we are forever in their debt. They don't get to decide where they go or what mission they're asked to perform. They know that. And yet they sign up and they go anyway. And they knew what they had to do and they went out there and did it. The world more broadly is a more complex environment. And so we can only offer our humble thanks of a grateful nation to them, and that I don't believe any Australian who falls in that service dies in vain, because what we always seek to fight for, which is freedom, is always important in whatever cause, regardless of the outcome. The fact that we as a nation stand for freedom and have been prepared to put Australians on the line for that cause is never in vain. Because if you stop fighting for freedom in that way, as we continue to pursue it all around the world in whatever field we can, diplomatically and otherwise, it is always important. And they have given more than anyone could ever expect of them in that great cause. And that's why they are great national heroes. The other issue, this is a straightforward transaction, a straightforward transaction. We've purchased the additional vaccines and I can't go into the commercial arrangements, I'm sure you understand, but it was a straight transaction and Prime Minister Morawiecki and I had a very positive discussion. A lot of that engagement, I've got to say, between the Polish Prime Minister and I was formed during the course of the OECD discussions I was having with European leaders. It has been an important priority of our government as the Minister for Foreign Affairs knows in particular for us to increase our engagement with European leaders. And that provided a very good opportunity to do that, regardless of the successful outcome of that campaign. It actually put me in contact very regularly with a large number of European leaders. And on the platform of that relationship, this was a much an expedited process because we knew each other and we could get on and we could get it done. And I'm very grateful to him for that. There were many other countries that I know they were talking to and some other countries have they've been able to help. And we're very grateful that they understood our need here in our biggest city to to address that need. And we appreciate it. I'm going here and then I'm coming over. 

JOURNALIST: On vaccine passport, can you guarantee that there'll be a nationally consistent approach or is it possible that there would be different approaches, different rules in various states or even [inaudible]?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the government doesn't have a policy of vaccine passports. We don't have one. There isn't a policy of vaccine passports. And so to suggest there is would be false. What the Government simply does is provide a digital certificate of vaccination. That's what we're providing. There are discussions that are being had to try and seek to have some uniformity about how exemptions might apply to vaccinated persons at a state and territory, because that's the only place those exemptions can be provided. States and territories put in place public health restrictions. And if they're to afford exemptions to those restrictions, then they are the ones who have to do that. And what we are doing is ensuring that there is a, a credible and effective and easily usable digital vaccination certificate which can be provided to Australians. Chris.

JOURNALIST: Do you honestly believe the Taliban is going to listen to any of the entreaties of the world? Isn't the best predictor of the future of women and girls in Afghanistan what happened to them in the past? 

PRIME MINISTER: What's happening in Afghanistan is heartbreaking, not just for, of course, all those Australians who have served there. And I can only imagine how they're feeling today as they're seeing these events unfold. But I think for all peace loving people around the world, and particularly those who understand and know of the terrible oppression that women and girls face in Afghanistan, and it is a heartbreaking moment and it's a heartbreaking time. And I think we're in no doubt about the character of the Taliban. We're in no doubt about it. And that's why today is such a difficult day. But my efforts and the efforts of my government must now focus on our most immediate challenges, and we must continue to provide the support to those who have supported Australia. And we will continue to do that. That is our priority. We are receiving regular updates on our operations and we'll continue to do that. And where I am in a position to provide any further updates securely, then I will. But until that time, I would ask that people respect the fact that what we're doing is there to protect the safety of people. And if we're unable to provide any further details on that, it's for their safety that we're doing that. Thank you very much, everyone.