Press Conference Canberra, ACT

Transcript
26 Aug 2021
Prime Minister
E&OE

Prime Minister: Well, good morning everyone. I’m joined by the Foreign Minister and the Health Minister. Today has been another day of hope. Yesterday, 335,420 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine were administered here in Australia. Another record day. Records that give us the hope that the national plan can take us to where we want to be. That means bringing the country together. It means being able to join with other Australians as we go through the balance of this year. It means businesses having the confidence to be able to know that they can come through, and that their financiers and their investors can have that same confidence that people will be able to get those hours back and go back to work. That people can get on the bus again and on the tram again and go to work. That performers can get on the stage at live venues again. That people can gather in restaurants, and they can do it not just for a couple of days or a couple of weeks, but know that that can be their life again going forward, and we can have the certainty.

Our national plan is a safe plan. It’s the safe plan to ensure that Australia can open up again with confidence. Eighteen million people have now had, sorry, 18 million doses have now been administered in Australia, 1.9 million in the past week alone. Fifty-five per cent have had their first dose, and we will finish this week with more than a third of Australians having had both doses, and that has increased significantly in the last two months. We keep that pace up over the next two months and we’re really going to make a big dent in this.

I want to make clear very also, I want to make clear also - and I will do so after I’ve touched on the very important matters in Afghanistan - 12 to 15-year-olds in Australia will be vaccinated. And, later today the National Security Committee of Cabinet - which meets on COVID matters specifically - will be considering that plan, coming forward from General Frewen, which is consistent with the interim advice we have received from ATAGI. We’re expecting final advice from ATAGI very, very soon. And, that will enable us to move forward with the vaccination of 12 to 15-year-olds. There’s 1.2 million across Australia, and you can see that when we can get 1.8 million doses done in just a week, then the task of ensuring that we can also, in parallel, vaccinate 1.2 million 12 to15-year-olds and achieve the levels that we would need to achieve there, is a task that is certainly well within the capability of the vaccination program. So, it is a safe plan and we’re proceeding with it.

It’s also pleasing to know that the South Australian home quarantine pilot is now underway in South Australia, and I want to thank Premier Marshall for the great work he’s done there.

Turning to the very serious issues in Afghanistan, and particularly at Kabul. It remains a highly dangerous environment. That danger, those risks have been increasing each and every day, as we always knew they would, and that’s why we have been moving with the haste that we have. Overnight, around 1,200 people were evacuated from Kabul on six Australian flights and one New Zealand flight. They included Australians, Afghans and other nationals. That means, in total, around 4,000 people have been able to be evacuated as a result of this operation in some 29 flights over the last eight days. Now, that is probably more than three times what we would have anticipated when I was standing before you here with the Foreign Minister just over a week ago, and I want to thank all of those who have been putting themselves at great risk in Kabul, in particular the men and women of our ADF, those from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of Home Affairs. There are a large number who are now accommodated at AMAB, and we thank the United Arab Emirates for their great support in ensuring that we’ve been able to bring people safely there.

There are two further transfer flights that are scheduled to depart AMAB today, one arrived this morning. 639 people who have been evacuated from Afghanistan are already now here in Australia, including the 220 who arrived earlier today. Australian citizens, residents and pre-visaed Afghan nationals are the priority for those transfer flights back to Australia. And, the Department of Home Affairs will continue the additional processing that is required for those we’ve uplifted out of Afghanistan, with temporary visas, and we will do further processing at AMAB before their transfer to Australia.

I want to thank the states and territories for their support in making sure that we have the quarantine space available for them to be returned to Australia - that operation will now run for many days yet - and the quarantine arrangements and the reception facilities that we have here. There has been an almost zero level of COVID that we’ve seen in those tested who’ve returned to Australia out of Afghanistan. But, it isn't just COVID that we have to provide for. What we have to provide for, as you can imagine, the severe trauma that people have been going through over these many months, and particularly the circumstances prior to their departure. And, we’ve been closely with those who are expert in this area to ensure the psychological and other support that is needed for people who are being transferred back to Australia is there to help them adjust, in many cases, to their new life in Australia, and for those residents and citizens who are returning, to help them to adjust to what has been an incredibly harrowing experience.

So, those operations remain in place, they continue even now, but the situation is deteriorating. And, we will continue to operate safely, but paramount in our operations is ensuring the safety of those Australians who are directly involved in the evacuation effort. Marise?

Senator the Hon. Marise Payne, Minister for Foreign Affairs: Thanks very much, Prime Minister, and let me start by reiterating our gratitude to those Australian officials who are working and continue working to evacuate Australians, as well as Afghans holding Australian visas.

As the Prime Minister said, we have now evacuated about 4,000 people from Kabul during the current operation. That includes Australian and New Zealand nationals and visa holders, and also citizens of other countries. And, our cooperation with other countries, including New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States, has been very important in achieving this outcome.

We changed our travel advice early this morning. Our clear travel advice is now, do not travel to Hamid Karzai International Airport, and if you’re in the area of the airport, move to a safe location and await further advice. Afghanistan remains highly volatile and dangerous. Be aware of the potential for violence and security threats with large crowds. There is an ongoing and very high threat of terrorist attack. That is the revised travel advice which we have issued. It is consistent with revised travel advices issued by both New Zealand and the United Kingdom in recent hours.

Throughout this process, the Prime Minister and I have consistently emphasised that this is a highly volatile and dangerous environment. All the way through this, our priority has been the safety of Australians, including our officials, our citizens, our local employees and families. But, we must listen to reports of credible threats. That is why we have issued a revised travel advice.

Can I, I can also confirm, as the Prime Minister said, that we have been able to bring 639 of those 4,000 evacuees back to Australia, including that flight into Brisbane this morning. So, we now have Afghan evacuees in Perth, in Melbourne, in Adelaide and in Brisbane. We thank those states for accommodating those evacuees and we welcome them to Australia.

We continue to coordinate closely with our allies and our partners, and we do understand that this is an extremely distressing situation for Australians, Australian family members still in Kabul, people with visas, and for family and friends who are here in Australia. We remain focused on the safe evacuation from Afghanistan for as many Australians and visa holders as possible, for as long as possible. Access to Hamid Karzai International Airport is extremely limited, it is extremely challenging in terms of checkpoints, difficulties in those processes, particularly through restrictions imposed by the Taliban on the movement of Afghan nationals, and this has been a difficult period for Australian officials. The fact that they have seen 4,000 take to the air to be evacuated from Kabul has been their motivation to keep going, and they are still doing that.

Prime Minister: Thank you Marise, and Greg on COVID.

The Hon. Greg Hunt MP, Minister for Health and Aged Care: Thanks very much, Prime Minister and Marise. A record day of vaccinations, as the Prime Minister said - 335,000 vaccinations and now over 18 million doses delivered. Very significantly, what we’ve seen is 6.7 million doses in 30 days - Melbourne, Adelaide, Wollongong in 30 days. And, so, these are real numbers that are bringing safety and protection and hope to all Australians everywhere. That, this message that each dose protects the individual, but every dose protects all of us, is a profoundly important message to Australians across the country. We’re closing on 10 million primary care doses - our GPs, our pharmacists, our Indigenous medical services, they’re doing an amazing job, and I want to thank them in particular. They have worked tirelessly.

In addition to that, our over 50s now - 76.7 per cent, over 60s - 81.6 per cent, and our over 70s - 86.2 per cent. And, in the epidemiology update I had this morning from the Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly, what that showed is that in the New South Wales outbreak, this is leading to very different outcomes from a year ago in Victoria. You know, challenges, of course, but the vaccinations are saving lives and protecting lives.

Prime Minister: Thank you.

Journalist: Prime Minister, by what date will 12 to 15-year-olds have the opportunity to be vaccinated, and given the transmissibility of Delta has cast doubt on Doherty’s advice that they don’t change the outcome of the modelling, why not include them in the national targets?

Prime Minister: Well, on the first point, as you said, the plan for the vaccination of 12 to 15-year-olds will be considered by the National Security Committee of Cabinet on COVID matters later today, and I’ll be advising the Government's decisions on that to the National Cabinet tomorrow for proceeding with that plan, so there’ll be more details following, you would expect, after that plan has been considered, decisions made, and then we can advise accordingly. So, there will be further advice following on that.

But, I want to be very clear, we understand, particularly for parents with 12 to 15-year-olds, they want to know, they want to know, firstly, that any vaccine that they would have would be backed in by the expert advice that those vaccines can be provided to 12 to 15-year-olds. Now, we have some interim advice, which is very favourable on that score, but we expect the final advice very soon to be consistent with that, and that enables us to move forward with the plans that are being prepared now for some weeks. And, as I said, we’ll confirm those later today, as a National Security Committee of Cabinet, and make further announcements about that at the appropriate time.

In relation to the other matter you raise, no, I don't share your view, and the Doherty Institute have also made their own comments on the assertions made in the question, so I’ll refer you to their comments about their own modelling. And, what they have been saying, what they have consistently said to the National Cabinet and to the Federal Government, in particular, that the rates of vaccination across the broader population over 16 give us the indication of the level of vaccination ready needed to be able to move to Phase B and Phase C. But, that does not by implication say there is no need to vaccinate children 12 to 15. And, that will be a very clear decision of my Government that we will need to go ahead and vaccinate children 12 to 15. And, so, these two objectives are not working against each other, I see them working completely together with each other. And, there are different rates of vaccination in the Doherty modelling, those who are very familiar with it will know that as you go across the age cohorts, as to understanding what their expectation is of what does 70 per cent overall look like, what does 80 per cent overall look like, there are different rates of vaccination by different age groups. And, obviously those who have the highest rates of vaccination in those scenarios are those who are in the older age groups, who are the most vulnerable to death. And, as the Health Minister has just observed, the fact that we have had in aged care facilities double dose vaccination rates now, of I think 84 per cent, and when you compare the terrible fatalities we saw last year in the Victorian outbreak compared to the Sydney outbreak this year, it is a factor of eight to one, thereabouts. And, so, the vaccines have clearly been doing their job in protecting people, particularly in residential aged care facilities with the- who are the primary, almost overwhelmingly exclusive casualties of that wave in Victoria last year. So, the vaccination and the vaccines are doing their job, and the fact that one in three Australians over the age of 16, by the end of this week, will be vaccinated, that, we are a long way, we have come forward a long way in these last few months as we’ve dealt with the challenges in the program and achieving what are now world rate performances when it comes to our vaccination as a share of our population. Lanai?

Journalist: Prime Minister, why are you building a quarantine facility in WA at Bullsbrook, three kilometres from a contaminated site, where groundwater won't be able to be used and you’ll have to ship the water in? Would you let your family stay there?

Prime Minister: Well, if we were flying into Perth, and we were quarantining in Perth, and that’s what we had to do, then of course I’d go there, if that’s what was required. The facility that we are now looking at has proven necessary because the one at Jandakot wasn’t able to be secured on the appropriate terms and conditions. And, so, we have moved with another facility that meets the national guidelines that we’d set out for getting that program moving forward. Mark.

Journalist: Prime Minister, Premier Pałaszczuk has just announced that she will fund the quarantine facility at Wellcamp because your Government won't, and that she will use it as a replacement for hotel quarantine, not as an addition to that. What’s your response?

Prime Minister: Well, she's been at liberty to do that for months. We've made it very clear that that facility did not seek to meet the national guidelines. And that's why we're going together, forward together at Pinkenba. But the Queensland Government was always in a position to go ahead with that facility, if that's what they wish to do and to have people quarantine there rather than in hotel facilities. That is entirely a matter for the Queensland Government. And they've made that decision. And they could have done that months ago if that's what they wished to do. But good for them. And I wish them every success.

Journalist: [inaudible] video that’s come out overnight of an Australian citizen being bashed by the Taliban and perhaps to you and to Marise Payne, what efforts are being made to contact that fellow, poor fellow, and ensure that his safety and possibly getting get him out, as difficult as that might be? 

Prime Minister: Well, I'll give you a general response, because it is our view that providing specific responses on individual cases is not helpful to individuals. So I'll give you a general response. And that is the efforts that we've put in place over the course of just over a week has ensured that around 4,000 people have been evacuated from Kabul. And that gives you an indication of how seriously the government has moved and taken great risk to achieve the evacuation of so many people in very similar circumstances to the ones that you've outlined. And so in so many cases, we have been able to evacuate people in these circumstances. It is a highly dangerous situation. We have been very honest about the nature of these challenges and the likelihood of being able to achieve everything we would hope to achieve. But we have to deal with the reality, the terrible, brutal and awful reality of the situation on the ground. 

Now, I have not sought to overstate expectations about this operation at any step. And I've been very clear and I've been very honest and I've been very candid about that. And that is difficult for the government to be daily making decisions. As I said, the National Security Committee has been meeting every single day and on many occasions more than once, to be looking at very specific circumstances and what can be done in various situations. And many actions have been taken, not ones that I can go into in a press conference like this. But I can assure you where anywhere we've been able to make to make it possible to get people out, we have been doing that. And there are 4,000 people who can testify to the actions of the government, the Defence Forces, Department of Home Affairs officials and DFAT officials that have been able to achieve a result that, compared to where we were last week, has so far exceeded our expectations about what we hoped we might be able to achieve. Marise?

Senator the Hon. Marise Payne, Minister for Foreign Affairs: Thanks, Prime Minister. And Andrew, those scenes are obviously deeply distressing and they have unfortunately been replicated on a number of times in the last days and week in relation to a whole range of of individuals trying to seek evacuation. We have worked very closely with their advocates, with their families, using countless telephone calls, countless direct contacts to try to bring them to points where they have been able to to access Hamid Karzai International Airport in the days before we came to the point we're at today. I understand, as Prime Minister said and agree, that commenting on specific cases really only exacerbates the danger that those people face. And the exposure that that gives them is not helpful. But we have tried very, very hard, 24/7, literally, to make sure we are dealing with as many of those individual cases as possible. I have seen, heard reports of the attacks on women, attacks on children, threats at checkpoints, invasions of transports where children and families have been threatened in those transports as they've been trying to get to the airport. The complexity of this is is significant, but we are trying to contact, as many have tried to contact and continue to do so of those people as we can.

Journalist: Given the airport is the only way out of Kabul, how, should you be bracing Australians for the fact that we may not get any more people out now? Could 4,000 be as far as we go if that security situation doesn't improve? And what is your concern that the people in Afghanistan right now are far more scared of a life under the Taliban and might think that the risk of a terror attack at the airport is one worth taking? Are you concerned that even with this advice, people will not heed it? 

Prime Minister: Well, I think you've set out the situation very well, Clare. And for more than a week now, I believe I have been preparing Australians about the difficulty of this operation and the extreme moral hazard of the environment in which we're operating. I said we'll do everything we possibly can to get as many people out as safely as we can. And so far, that has seen around 4,000 safely evacuated from one of the most dangerous parts of the world. And that has been done by Australians who have been putting themselves at great risk, for whom I also have a very personal responsibility as Prime Minister to do everything I can to ensure that I am asking them to do things that are done on the basis of that balance of risk and putting putting their safety very high, extremely high in our assessments. And that is why we have been meeting together as a National Security Security Committee so regularly, because these assessments are having been done many, many times a day to ensure that we are not putting our people in positions of unacceptable risk in these circumstances, but equally taking the necessary risks to save lives. And that is what we've been doing. So I would say to Australians that when the time comes, when the operations are no longer able to be safely conducted, that we can say honestly to them that Australians have done all that we possibly could have done in these circumstances to get as many people out as safely as possible. And the result of that is more than, it will be more than 4,000 by that time. And so many Afghan nationals who have helped us being settled here and making their life in this country as very welcome Australians ultimately, which I'm sure they'll take up that opportunity when it's provided to them. Chris. 

Journalist: [inaudible], the Brits have said that they might go out a day before that. So that time is coming soon, isn't it? Do you have any time on when the Australians might go? Would you go sooner than the Americans go? 

Prime Minister: I won't be making any comments on that because of the nature of our operations and the security of those operations.

Journalist: [inaudible] have gone into this detail, which is why I'm asking you, what engagement has Australia or its departments had directly with the Taliban or their representatives and in particular to assure that Australians are able to be assured of safe passage out of the country? Because we're seeing the opposite now.

Senator the Hon. Marise Payne, Minister for Foreign Affairs: Australia has been working with our international partners, who particularly the United States and the United Kingdom, who are engaging directly with the Taliban. Let me be very clear in terms of what we expect. The Taliban has made a range of undertakings. And in relation to people seeking to leave Afghanistan, including Australians and Australian visa holders, we would expect those undertakings to be met and to allow those people, our citizens and our Australian visa holders to depart safely if they wish to do so. But our travel advice remains that you should not come to Hamid Karzai International Airport because it is not safe to do so, and that if you are in Kabul, you should shelter in place, move to a safe location and await further advice. For those Australians and for those visa holders who are in Afghanistan, can I also advise that through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, through the Department of Home Affairs, those individuals will continue to be contacted by those agencies as relevant in each case. And those who have been granted temporary safe haven sub-class 449 visas in recent days will be contacted with specific advice about what they should do when it is safe to do so. And we encourage people in Afghanistan who don't have a visa and would like to seek Australia's assistance to also apply under that humanitarian programme. We will work with the International Organisation for Migration, the IOM and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as we've discussed here earlier in the week, to provide humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan and in neighbouring countries. This will be a collaborative, cooperative international process and Australia will be called to that in terms of supporting Afghanis who wish to come to Australia and who qualify under the visas to do so. 

Prime Minister: It's a very important point. We will be moving to a post evacuation resettlement phase and we are already working through those plans with other partners about how that can be achieved. It won't be easy, but these are situations that have been faced on many other occasions where people have been seeking our humanitarian support through our formal programme. And so already plans are underway to how we will then move into the next phase. Right now, we're seeking to get people out of Kabul and then we will move post that mission to the next phase, which would see us resettle additional people not just this year, but in the many years ahead. We've got time for one more. 

Journalist: We know the vaccine, just back to vaccine rollout, we know that the rollout has been lagging for some of our most vulnerable communities, for NDIS participants, for indigenous communities. Do you think we need to rethink the national plan so that we don't just move to the next phases at 70 per cent and 80 per cent of population wide coverage, but rather when we also have much higher rates for those incredibly vulnerable cohorts? 

Prime Minister:  I understand the question and I understand the concern that many Australians will have that at 70 per cent and 80 per cent, even at those general average levels, that means 20 and 30 per cent of the population over 16 will still be unvaccinated. And you were right to note that there will be other cohort sections of the population which will have differing rates of vaccination as well. The Doherty analysis takes that into account in the recommendations that it has made. And that is why I have noted on many, many occasions that measures will remain available to protect particularly vulnerable populations with stronger restrictions that may be necessary to protect those particular populations in those cases. So highly targeted actions and things of that nature - that is contemplated in the national plan. The national plan contemplates and understands the need to continue to address the most vulnerable in the community, and it is a dynamic plan to that extent that it understands that there is just not one homogenous population in Australia. What the overall levels of vaccination targets indicate, though, is that when you reach that level of vaccination, like you do with any immunisation, you know, the immunisation against serious infectious diseases doesn't just protect the vaccinated, it actually protects the unvaccinated as well. And that's why you have to lift your vaccination levels to those scales, 70 and 80 per cent. Let's not forget that even at 70 per cent, which is an easing in, to the full 80 per cent measures, that is still a mark higher than most of the other countries, if not all, that have gone into their next phase,  be it in the UK or other places. We have actually set the mark generally higher and higher again for the 80 per cent and also acknowledging that in our most vulnerable populations, which is the elderly population, we'll be seeing vaccination rates double doses well in excess of 80 and even 90 per cent. But where there are particular groups such as indigenous communities and groups like that, then the plan absolutely and totally is designed to ensure that specific protections are provided in and around those communities where those challenges present. So the plan actually accommodates exactly the thing that you're raising, and I'm very pleased it does, because that has been a consistent concern of my Government and the National Cabinet more broadly. But Greg, did you want to add?

Journalist: [inaudible] provide one or two examples of what these highly targeted precautions might be? What are we talking about in practical terms? 

The Hon. Greg Hunt MP, Minister for Health and Aged Care: If I may. Two things in particular. The most vulnerable population, as we've seen around the world is those in residential aged care. The residential aged care first dose outcomes at this stage are 88.4 per cent and 84 per cent for second dose. Those are extraordinary levels of protection. And so we'll continue to maintain an absolute focus on those elderly. And that's now backed up with an 86 per cent plus first dose for the over 70 population. That is the single most vulnerable set of people, those in residential aged care and those who are over 70. In terms of indigenous Australia, what we've seen is an extraordinary acceleration. We stood here with Ken Wyatt only a week and a half ago and he pointed out that there had been very significant hesitancy, but what we are seeing now is is a complete change of mindset across Indigenous Australia and Ken and so many others have worked to to change that. That's being backed up with the uptake of vaccination. And so what I am confident of is that we are seeing and will continue to see a very significant acceleration of vaccination. In New South Wales, for example, 44 ACCHS, 574 primary care sites in, across Australia, what we see is 159 Aboriginal medical services and over 2,000 primary care sites, all of which are working to support the indigenous population. They're coming forward. And then another example is, which has been put forward by the West Australian Government, is the mining companies who will vaccinate both their own workers on site, but also provide additional support for indigenous communities who may not have taken up opportunities so far. So this is a very comprehensive plan. Important question, but the most vulnerable are protected at the highest level, Indigenous Australia. I'm really pleased to say that the uptake is accelerating. 

Prime Minister: I'll just finish on this. I want to say thank you to the 335,000 Australians who turned up yesterday as we continue on this march of hope to 70 per cent and 80 per cent of our population over the age of 16 vaccinated. And I want to convey a very special thank you on behalf of all Australians for those brave souls who are there in Kabul right now evacuating people who need us more than at any other time in their lives. Thank you for your service. Thank you.