Press Conference - Canberra, ACT

Transcript
31 Aug 2021
Canberra, ACT
Prime Minister, Minister for Health and Aged Care, Minister for Foreign Affairs
E&OE

PRIME MINISTER: Good afternoon everyone. I’m joined by the Health Minister, the Health and Aged Care Minister, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Women.

Our vaccination program is central to our national plan. Our national plan enables us to live with the virus, not fear it. That is our future. That's what we're moving towards, with each and every dose that is administered all around this country. All states and territories are on this journey of the national plan, but they're starting from different places. There isn't a common COVID position across the country. The situation in Tasmania and Western Australia is, of course, very different to what we're experiencing here in the ACT and New South Wales and Victoria, and different again in Queensland and South Australia, and of course the Northern Territory. But, the place we're heading to is the same - we may all be starting from a different point - and that place is bringing us all together again, connect us again as Australians, and to connect Australia to the world. That is the objective of the national plan. So, for wherever we're starting, the destination is what we share.

And, in addition to our vaccination program, there are many other elements that support it. Of course, there is the ‘test, trace, isolate and quarantine’ methods and measures, and they will look very different in Phase B and Phase C of the plan, as we discussed last week in National Cabinet, and further work is being done there. There's the public health social measures. They will continue. There is not a time that we are contemplating where we move into Phase B and Phase C that they are not part of our management of our COVID response. They are low level measures, sure, but they are necessary. They will continue. Other countries have chosen not to do that, but Australia has chosen to do that - to combine our successful measures, to keep them at a low level so as not to inconvenience Australians unnecessarily, and to combine that with test, trace, isolate, quarantine and, of course, our vaccination program. And, then there is the keen focus that we have long held on ensuring that our public health system can cope with the pressures that undoubtedly do emerge. And, that has been our focus for many, many months. That has been, in particular, a standing item, not only on the National Cabinet agenda but, of course, our own National Security Committee of Cabinet here at a federal level, led by the Minister for Health and Aged Care, in ensuring that we are providing the support necessary - and indeed some $6 billion or thereabouts has been provided specifically support the public health response of the states and territory on our 50-50 sharing, cost-sharing arrangement that has been in place since the beginning of our cooperation under this pandemic.

But, of course, most significantly, to drive the national plan forward, is the vaccination program, and it's important that we acknowledge that Australians have been responding at record levels. Our vaccination rates each week now exceed those on a per capita basis on the best of weeks in the United States and the United Kingdom, and Tasmania is leading the charge with the highest double dose vaccination rate in the country. And, New South Wales is running first when it comes to first dose vaccinations around the country, and others are close behind. Across the country, 58.7 per cent of Australians have had their first dose and 35 per cent have had their second dose. Now, that compares to some 40.5 per cent just a month ago - up now to 58.7 [per cent]. And, 18.7 per cent just a month ago - now at almost double that at 35 per cent.

I said when I announced the additional Polish doses that we were able to get for Pfizer that I would leave no stone unturned in bringing forward and accessing more doses of mRNA vaccines, and that's exactly what we've done. We've continued on, and I'm pleased to announce today that we'll be boosting our September effort with a new dose swap deal with Singapore which will see 500,000 doses arrive this week for distribution next week - 500,000 more doses of hope. That comes on top of the some 4.5 million that we already have planned for September, and the one million Moderna doses, and the many other millions of doses that are available from our AstraZeneca production, to ensure that we can continue on in September with the strong surge that we had over August.

It's a dose swap deal, which simply means we're taking the 500,000 they have now, so we can put that into our distribution this month coming, in September, and we will provide them with 500,000 in December. That means there are 500,000 doses extra that will happen in September that otherwise would have had to wait for several months from now, accelerating our vaccination program at this critical time as we work towards those 70 per cent and 80 per cent targets.

This will greatly assist the national vaccination program as it brings in two important age groups into the program. The 16 to 29s, which are, have already, which begin, have already begun this week and, of course, the 12 to 15-year-olds. Remember, there's 1.2 million children aged 12 to 15, and they start with bookings from the 13th of September, and so this will greatly assist with both of those efforts as those new age groups come in.

The doses will be distributed across our GP and state hub network and across the states and territories - in total between both of those. It will be done on a per capita basis. We need to vaccinate the whole country and we need for those doses to go from one end of the country to the other and for them to be taken up.

I want to particularly thank Prime Minister Lee, whom I directly discussed and pursued this matter with, and I want to thank the Government of Singapore more broadly, and the Health Minister who’s worked closely with Greg to ensure we've been able to bring this agreement to a conclusion. We have a tremendous partnership with Singapore and I've worked with Prime Minister Lee now over these last three years, and was there most recently just a few months ago as we stood together in Singapore and swapped notes on our respective responses to COVID-19 and many other issues.

I also want to thank Minister Hunt and Minister Payne and all of their teams for the great job that they have done in bringing yet another of these agreements together, after our successful Polish dose arrangement, which has already found its way into people's arms all around the country.

I want to give a special shoutout to our High Commissioner Will Hodgman, who I sent up there and he’s doing a fantastic job, and to all of your team, Will, thank you very, very much for the great work you've done.

And, of course, Professor Murphy and the great team down there at the Department of Health and Aged Care, who continue to steward these arrangements, and now it's over to General Frewen to get them out, and for the GPs and our state hubs to be getting those doses into arms.

Now, there are more irons in the fire, but there's more work to do on these, and I'll announce further arrangements once we're in a position to do so. As I said, I'd leave no stone unturned on this, and this is further demonstration that that has been the focus of the Government. Greg.

THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: Thanks very much, Prime Minister. These are 500,000 doses of hope and 500,000 doses of protection for Australians. The big journey that we are on is, when we take into account the three million Pfizer we were able to bring forward from October, November and December to the current quarter, the Polish doses, now Singapore, and any other options, as the Prime Minister has indicated, what we will see is that we will have brought forward the balance and burden of our vaccination program from October and November to August and September. And, at this point in time, that means, as the PM says, that we've now passed 19.36 million doses that have been delivered - 276,000 in the last 24 hours, and I understand Victoria has a significant number of additional doses that they will be able to add to that, which, once they've been uploaded to the immunisation register. Very significantly, this now is a rolling average of over 1.9 million doses a week. That was a figure we'd hoped to reach in late September and early October, but has been achieved in August. And, that's protection but it's also hope, and hastens forward the pathway through to people regaining as much of their lives as early as possible, which is so absolutely critical.

Just to add to this, there’s a very important figure - we’ve now passed 12 million first doses. That’s 12.1 million first doses. What that means is that to get to the 70 per cent mark of 14.5 million, there are 2.4 million people we need to come forward. To get to the 80 per cent first dose mark of 16.5 million, there are now 4.4 million people we need to come forward. These are not huge numbers. These are numbers, when you look at what we’re doing - 1.9 million a week - are easily within reach. But, we do need everybody to keep coming forward. Australians have been magnificent, and I want to thank them and encourage them to continue to do so, wherever they are in Australia. Every dose matters, and every dose protects an individual, as well as helping to protect everyone else.

I’d just, in particular, add to the Prime Minister’s thanks. I want to extend my personal thanks to the Singaporean Health Minister, Minister Ong Ye Kung. He’s been a fantastic partner, as have all of our equivalents. I also want to acknowledge the High Commission and Will Hodgman, but within the Department of Health, Brendan Murphy and our chief negotiator Lisa Schofield, who have spent countless hours on this. They do this as public servants in the true meaning of the word. Throughout the pandemic, our public servants have worked around the clock and on behalf of the Australian community. So, it’s an important day, an additional day, a further day of hope for Australians.

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you. Marise.

SENATOR THE HON. MARISE PAYNE, MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Thanks Prime Minister, and and thanks Greg. I want to acknowledge Singapore, our trusted partner and friend, and to personally also thank Prime Minister Lee, and my good friend and colleague Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, and the people of Singapore.

This is a constructive and flexible way for governments to work together in all of our interests to manage COVID-19. It does demonstrate our, that our diplomatic capability can work to deliver to protect all Australians, and certainly to strengthen our security and frankly our prosperity. Others have acknowledged the High Commissioner and his team, and I would reiterate that as well.

The dose swap that we’re announcing today is another example of Australia working with our friends and partners in the region, in terms of addressing the global pandemic. We are securing vaccines for the Australian community from a range of sources, and at the same time, providing access to effective vaccines for our region, to underpin that shared recovery. The delivery of 403,000 vaccine doses to Vietnam last week on the 26th of August was the first of many in in that case. Singapore has also delivered vaccines to Brunei, supporting Indonesia's COVID response, as is Australia. We’ve delivered over 2.1 million vaccines in our region now, particularly focused on the Pacific and on Timor-Leste, assisting our Pacific family where they need our support - overwhelmingly in Fiji in recent times, in Papua New Guinea and, as I said, in Timor-Leste. It is a task that we are approaching together, and it’s a task which we will continue in the coming weeks and months.

PRIME MINISTER: Happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, is there a, is there a plan for the distribution of the 500,000 doses to the states and territories per capita, or would it be based on need? Would it go to western Sydney as a priority, for instance?

PRIME MINISTER: No, as I said before, it's being done on a per capita basis across the GP and state hub network, across the states and territories. Phil.

JOURNALIST: I know you’re doing more work on this, but an original reading of the Doherty modelling suggests it might be a problem if you’re having more than a thousand cases, community cases a day. Is it your view at the moment we can still move into Phases B and C as planned, with with New South Wales, for example, recording well over 1,000 cases a day, or do they need to get that into the hundreds? And, if not, do we have to amend the plan?

PRIME MINISTER: No, the sensitivity analysis that was conducted and shared with National Cabinet on Friday reinforced the the thresholds around 70 and 80 per cent. The issue is then what you do between 70 and 80 per cent. And, they suggested caution, and I agree with that. That's why under the plan we left open the, being very specific about what happened between 70 and 80 per cent. But, I go back to the point I was making earlier. Every state is coming at this from a different perspective. In many states, where there are very few restrictions, they will, they will see less. But, in states like New South Wales and Victoria and the ACT, well, they will see more because of the situation they're in, because everybody's got a different starting point. But, the Doherty modelling reinforced the thresholds. But, it also said, as we're, you know, going through the short strokes of the actual measures in the 70 to 80 per cent mark - which in some states and territories could be a matter of weeks, not months - but once you get into the 80 per cent zone, no, of course you want the case numbers to be always, you know, necessarily lower when you're going to those phases. But, no, it doesn't affect what those actual thresholds are. You just exercising appropriate caution in that 70 to 80 per cent mark.

JOURNALIST: Is it consistent with the national plan for for states to impose hard borders with the principles, is it consistent with the principles of the national plan for states to impose hard domestic borders when vaccination rates reach 70 per cent?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it all depends where their vaccination levels have risen to. So, if you have New South Wales or Tasmania, you know, well above 70 per cent, and you have other states that are below 70 per cent, well, the national plan doesn't provide for them to move into Phase B. So, you know, it's all a matter of where they're at at any given time, and and that's what the national plan sets out. And, that the measures you put in place in one state, where there are no restrictions currently, well, you wouldn't be expecting too much change in those states because they don't have many restrictions at this point. I mean, the real changes I think we'll see are what is occurring in states like New South Wales and Victoria, which have much more serious restrictions in place, and the ACT. And, so, that's why the vaccination rates, I think, are so important, especially in those places. But, you know, why I give a big shout out to Tasmania - I think Tasmania is a great example. Tasmania has very low COVID rates - zero COVID rates - and they know they're just as vulnerable as anyone else to a Delta strain. And, they have, despite the fact that they have very low and little COVID, they've got the highest double dose vaccination rate in the country. So, they're getting on with it down there. They've had the same dose distribution that everyone else has had, and they're getting on with it. Well done, Tassie. And, again, a special shout out to Peter Gutwein, been in contact over the last 24 hours and I hope he's well and recovering. Andrew.

JOURNALIST: Just a couple of questions. First on, the AMA is saying that it wants states and territories to mandate vaccination for health care workers. Seems like an imminent exercise in common sense to me. Do you support that? I know it's a state and territory issue. And, secondly, can I ask about the review of the Liberal Party in WA. Sorry, I'm going to have to use FaceTime. It's a scathing report that's come out about the WA Libs. See, it talks about a new conservative force coming out in WA because of what's been going on there, says there's been unethical behaviour, and it says ‘What has been revealed is shocking and disturbing. It represents a party in decline and headed for the door.’ Can you respond to that report in WA?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I take the report very seriously, and I expect the Western Australian division of the Liberal Party to deal with it.

But, on the other matter, I would ask Greg to respond, particularly on the issue of health care workers. We've always been, I think, very forward leaning on the necessity of vaccinations for those working directly in health care, and for this additional reason that once we particularly move into these new phases, if you're vaccinated, you shouldn't have to be furloughed - if you're a close contact or something of that nature - because that's one of the real difficulties in managing the public health system. If you're furloughing your health workforce, well, that's only going to put further strains on the health system. And, I think when, that's one of the great advantages of the national plan, as it envisages being able to have greater capacity for the public health system to deal with this, which you wouldn't have had. I remember that, you know, the terrible difficulties we had last year in Victoria, where you were having to furlough significant numbers of health care workers and nurses and others in aged care, which was putting more strain. Well, in a vaccinated workforce in, particularly in that area, you are significantly strengthened.

THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: So, a couple of things. Firstly, it, whilst it's a matter for the states and territories, it has been raised through the medical expert panel, the AHPPC, precisely for the reason the PM's been talking about. One is to protect patients. Two is not only to protect each individual worker, but to protect the workforce from being furloughed. So, this is now, I think, very high on the agenda of the state and territory chief health officers. It's, whilst it's a matter for them, we've made our decision at a Commonwealth level, in conjunction with all the states and territories. We've published the rates of our aged care workers - 78.8 per cent have had a first dose. That's increasing at about 20,000 a week. And, frankly, the honest answer is the difficult decision to mandate has led to a skyrocketing of rates amongst that group. And, so, it'll be up to each state and territory to indicate whether they want to publish their own rates of of vaccination. But, it's an understandable direction. It's what we've done at the Commonwealth level.

PRIME MINISTER: Clare.

JOURNALIST: Overnight Australia acknowledged assurances from the Taliban that they would, Australia acknowledged assurances from the Taliban that they would allow foreign nationals or people with foreign visas to leave after the US have withdrawn. Given there's a sense of urgency on the ground that the Taliban's word is probably going to be, mean less and less as time goes on, is Australia going to continue processing those humanitarian visas at the fast pace we saw during the flight evacuation? Do you acknowledge that there is now an extended window where there's potentially some good faith with the Taliban to get people to get out of the country, if we get those visas processed?

PRIME MINISTER: Yeah, well, I don't take any window for granted, I should stress, in Afghanistan. The Foreign Minister may wish to comment on this, also. Those commitments at face value, you have to be very careful about, but it doesn't change what you do and, which is to press on. We are very keen to meet at least the 3,000 that we would like to see taken into Australia under our humanitarian program this year, and more. I would like to see more. That's roughly, it was about that number, it was exactly that number actually that we were able to bring out under the Syrian program - it was 3,000 in the first year. So, we’re, that's the same. And, I, you know, I think, I hope we can achieve more than that. And, where the circumstances provide for it, we’ll seek to make the most of those circumstances.

But, that won't end this year. This will go on for many years, that we will bring people out from Afghanistan for many years to come. And, it's a key issue amongst the Five Eyes partners and coalition partners more broadly, who are all seeking to do the same thing. And, we'll work together, we'll work with the international agencies to that end. But, when it comes to the guarantees you refer to, I'm cautious about how substantial they will be and for how long they will be in place. Afghanistan is a place where the situation is deteriorating. As you know, the United States has now completed their mission there. And, so, they move into the same phase as Australia does, as does the United Kingdom and many other countries. So, we'll work together to continue to provide as many people, who we've worked with closely, the opportunity for a new life in Australia under those official arrangements. But, Marise.

SENATOR THE HON. MARISE PAYNE, MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: So, Prime Minister, the undertaking by the Taliban is one which is being closely watched by the international community. And, I've been in contact with a number of counterparts in relation to that. And, it is an expectation in terms of the ability for safe travel and safe transit that we are very focused on. We know that for those who remain in Afghanistan, it's a question of of very significant concern. In terms of those who have been granted 449 visas who are still in Afghanistan, those temporary safe haven visas, they will be contacted through the processes of the Department of Home Affairs about what to do when it is safe, and the processing of those visas continues to be a priority.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, the national plan is not explicit about state border closures. In your view, should they be ended at 70 per cent vaccination, 80 per cent, or are you saying this is a state matter?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, ultimately, everything is a state matter. But, I know that there was agreement to the national plan, which wants to see Australians come together, and we want to do that safely. This is a safe plan. This is a plan that has been based on the best possible scientific evidence to ensure that we can open safely and connect together again safely. And, that is exactly what I would be expecting all of us to be doing. Sarah.

JOURNALIST: Just in response to Trudy’s question, can you give us an indication as when, as to when you expect that state lockouts will no longer be happening in this country? And, if I could just ask, the Aboriginal Health Service Maari Ma warned the Federal Government 18 months ago of a potential catastrophe in Wilcannia. They wrote again to you last week urging Federal Government intervention to address the unfolding humanitarian crisis in that community. What more can the Federal Government do to address that, and why weren’t those warnings from 18 months ago heeded?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I'll let the Health Minister comment on that issue, in particular. There is a federal intervention. There is federal support and direct federal measures that are being undertaken in those communities, in partnership with the New South Wales Government, to address the situation which is there. And, the Minister for Indigenous Australians, speaking from that very platform, has made reference to the efforts that were being undertaken on these issues for some time, when he joined me for a press conference here.

On the other matter, the measures, specific measures between 70 and 80 per cent, are the ones that we are working on right now. But, what I do know is when you've got more than 80 per cent of the country vaccinated, and especially when every state has passed that 80 per cent threshold, then what I do know is that the medical and the economic advice is that lockdowns do more harm than good. Greg.

THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: So, just in terms of Maari Ma, we want to thank them. We responded last year and one of the things we did was establish last year, on the 5th of March, the- 2020, the Indigenous Working Group, and then on the 26th of March last year, the National Indigenous Protection Plan. That also included the biosecurity orders - which were made in my name - with regards to Indigenous bubbles, which were maintained until the communities and the states and territories sought for them to be removed. We also put in place this year, as of the 9th of March, the Indigenous vaccination plan.

Specifically in relation to Wilcannia, the vaccines have been available there since the 22nd of March, and they've been doing a great job. We've recently upped the number of vaccines available. We also have AUSMAT, which has been in place, the RFDS, which has been in place. And, what we see in the Wilcannia region is a 58 per cent vaccination rate. So, when I step back for a moment, one of the great fears and challenges we had, PM, we know, you know, through February and March of last year, we focused on Indigenous Australia. We have put in place specific protections. We actually listen precisely to groups such as Maari Ma. They are one of the many, many Indigenous groups - of course, Pat Turner and NACCHO. They've been wonderful leaders, and that's one of the reasons why across Australia we've had an Indigenous rate of cases vastly lower than the national average. And, in terms of, sadly, lives lost, there has been the first life lost in Dubbo, a community with a 56.9 per cent vaccination rate. And, we, at this point, have an Indigenous loss of life of one thirtieth the national average. We’ll continue to fight in every community, and the RFDS, AUSMAT, the ADF, as well as Commonwealth vaccination clinics, state vaccination clinics, GPs and pharmacies are out there doing that vaccination work in Indigenous communities, and supporting Indigenous Australians wherever they are.

PRIME MINISTER: So, just on the lockouts, because there was the other question about lockouts, let's just acknowledge what lockouts do. Once we get to the point, and that's certainly the case once we get past 80 per cent, and assuming, and this is an important development that needs to take place between now and then, is home quarantine needs to be a viable and widespread option for people who are travelling overseas and returning - indeed, people who are overseas and have been vaccinated with the vaccines that are recognised in Australia. For that to occur, then we need to get these home quarantine models up and running in states and territories across the country.

Now, that means that people will be able to, in states that aren't locking others out, those states who have moved into those thresholds, there will be the opportunity for people to go and travel and return to Australia and quarantine at home, that people in those states who are overseas can come back to Australia. The caps that are on flights coming into those places that have got into that zone, that aren't locking others out, they will be able to receive more and more, and that will be a big change. And, you know, in many states, when I think of states like South Australia, for example, and I discussed this with Premier Marshall yesterday, and he's a strong supporter of the national plan because he knows South Australia will need the students to come back. South Australia will need the skilled migrants to come back. South Australia will need to be connecting up with all of those things that enable their economy to be successful. And, it's important - whether it's the tourists, the students, the skilled workers, the connection with the rest of the world, the trade that comes from that - all of that is essential to Australia's future prosperity, in whatever state you live in in this country. And, that's why the national plan is so important. The national plan connects us together again as Australians and connects us to the world again and enables Australia to secure our future in the COVID world. Thank you very much.