Press conference - Parliament House

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25 Feb 2020
Parliament House, Canberra
Prime Minister

PRIME MINISTER: As each week passes, the impact of the coronavirus, COVID-19 is becoming more apparent to everyone, not only here in Australia but all around the world. But the assurance I can give Australians is this, we are not immune to the coronavirus and its impacts, but we are as best prepared as any country can be in the world today. And the evidence of that has been demonstrated in these many weeks now that have passed since the coronavirus has become an even more significant issue as each week has passed. We are learning more and more about the virus, and the government's decisions from the outset have been exercising an abundance of caution. And that abundance of caution, I think, has been rewarded in the outcomes that we have so far been able to achieve. But we're not complacent going forward. 

So far, our measures have proved to be effective. I can confirm that of the 15 cases that had previously been identified here in Australia that were sourced from Wuhan, all 15 of those patients have now been discharged and have overcome the virus. There are, as you know, 7 other, what the Chief Medical Officer advises me, are mild cases from those passengers on the Diamond Princess. And they are the only remaining cases that we have in Australia today. 

I'd note that there are some 30,000 Australians and more, and Australian residents, and close family members and others who have arrived under the existing travel ban since the 1st of February of this year. As you know, there were exemptions put in place for those Australians and those other groups. There has been no human-to-human transmission of the virus outside of the groups that I mentioned before from the Diamond Princess and those of the group that came from Wuhan. So outside of those groups, there has been no human-to-human transmission in Australia. Now, what that says is, is the self-isolation that we put in place for those more than 30,000 Australians to date has proved to be very effective. And I want to thank all of those Australians for their cooperation and for their diligence in following through and acting on the advice that we provided to them when they returned home to Australia. 

We have had three successful flights, including the Air New Zealand flight, and there's been the additional flight for the Diamond Princess, of those first three flights they have now all cleared quarantine and the arrangements we put in place in both Christmas Island and Howard Springs in the Northern Territory. And I want to thank all those who have been involved in the delivery of those quarantine services in both of those locations. And I want to thank those who had to go through the inconvenience of taking part in those quarantine arrangements and for the good spirit and good faith in which they did that. We understand the disruption to their routines and daily lives and particularly the concern that other family members would have had being separated from their family members. And that continues for those who are still subject to that quarantine in relation to the Diamond Princess, in the Northern Territory today. I want to thank particularly the Territory government in the Northern Territory for their great assistance in managing this issue as we've been pursuing those quarantine arrangements. 

So Australia has not been complacent. In fact, Australia has been proactive with the measures that we have put in place in relation to the coronavirus. And that has been to address the health risk. And the swift action means that we can report to you what I've just outlined to you today. Over this period of some weeks now we have also sought to be particularly, and I want to commend the Chief Medical Officer and the Health Minister, and all of the state and territory health officers for the very open and transparent way that we have all sought to address this issue with the Australian public. We understand very much the anxieties and the concerns and indeed the fears that people have in relation to the coronavirus. Australians are not alone in that. This is occurring all around the world. And I think the clear and very factual advice which the chief medical officer has been providing to the Australian people and other ministers of Commonwealth and state level, has hopefully greatly assisted Australians as they’ve sought to respond to these threats and go about their daily lives. Because the truth is in Australia, there is no great risk at this point in time when it comes to human to human transmission. Given the 15 cases that were identified have all been cleared. And the remaining 7 are mild cases and they're in isolation, receiving treatment and the quarantine measures have been effective. 

We have taken the best possible medical advice and we have relied upon and sought out I stress, the best possible information to make the decisions that we have been making on this issue. And we will continue to do that. 

I also want to note because I'm joined obviously by the Treasurer today who has just returned from the G20 Finance Ministers meeting in the Middle East, that the health impacts of the coronavirus are not the only impacts of this virus on the global economy and indeed on the Australian economy. We are very mindful of these impacts. These impacts are not limited to the education sector and the tourism sector, as you I'm sure be aware, this is affecting global supply chains. It's affecting the building industry. It's affecting the manufacturing industry. It's affecting our export industry. When planes aren't coming in, plans, planes aren’t going out, and the bellies of those planes aren't taking Australian produce into those markets. This is not like a global financial crisis. This is a global health crisis. And the world economy has become increasingly interconnected and interdependent over many, many years. And what this impact is, is putting up walls and blockages between those connections between all of these countries. Even without a travel ban, there would have been a significant reduction in the movement of people, as we're seeing all around the world. And that also means the movements of goods and services. That's why our focus is actually on addressing the cause of this issue, and that is the virus itself. And that is why our focus is first and foremost on containing that virus and addressing that health issue as the top priority. If we can overcome the virus, then in time we can also address the longer term and medium-term economic impacts. 

So I'm going to hand over now to the Treasurer and the Health Minister and the Chief Medical Officer to update other matters. But I want to stress this again. Of course, Australia is not immune, but we are in the best position that any country could be in responding to the global impacts and the domestic impacts of this virus in Australia. And we are responding on the basis of a strong platform of a resilient economy, a very strong health system that has put Australia in this position to deal with what is a very serious challenge. Josh.

THE HON. JOSH FRYDENBERG MP, TREASURER: Well thank you very much Prime Minister The Australian economy has been facing a number of economic shocks that have been beyond our control. The trade tensions between the United States and China, the ongoing drought, the fires, the flood, and now the impact of the coronavirus. And at the G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors’ meeting in Riyadh, this issue about the impact of the coronavirus was the top priority. And there were concerns expressed about the shutters going up on the global economy. And it wasn't just those countries that were geographically proximate to China, namely Singapore, Japan and Korea, but it was also economies and countries further afield like Italy that were feeling the effects. 

The International Monetary Fund has stated that they see and of course, this is preliminary work, that the impact on the global economy will be about 0.1 of a percentage point in the year 2020. That would see the IMF’s forecast for global growth come down from 3.3 down to 3.2 per cent. Here in Australia, the economic impacts have been significant, as the Prime Minister referred to, not just the tourism and education sectors, which together contribute around $16 billion dollars to the Australian economy, but also agriculture and their disruption to end supply chains. And as the Prime Minister referred to, I've been talking to people in the building industry, who have expressed some concern about their ability to get product in the event that the Chinese factories remain closed for a period of time. 

But our message today is that the Australian economy is remarkably resilient. It's in its 29th consecutive year of economic growth. In fact, that was something that was marvelled upon by other nations at the G20 meeting in Riyadh. We've seen our labour market remain relatively strong in recent months and we've seen more than 1.5 million jobs being created. We've seen our housing market stabilised. We've seen strong export volumes and our commodity prices have held up as well, even in the event of the coronavirus So Australia, with its triple-A credit rating, with its, in its 29th consecutive year of economic growth, with our economic plan that we continue to implement, we'll continue to see Australia remain strong despite the economic challenges we face. 

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you, Josh. Greg why don’t you just, I’ll just step back here.

THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH: Thanks very much PM, Josh and Brendan Murphy. As the Prime Minister said, we're not immune, but we are as well prepared as any country in the world. And when you think of the domestic situation in Australia, it's very important to look at the latest news today. Of the 15 cases, as the Prime Minister has said, that had been diagnosed in the general population, all have now cleared the virus. We received that advice from the National Incident Centre just prior to coming to this briefing. That's very important for the individuals and their families. 

Similarly, what we have also done is to declare, as one of the first countries in the world, to declare this to be on the 21st of January, a disease of pandemic potential. And that meant that we triggered all of the actions which were prepared in contingency. The National Incident Centre stood up. The national medical stockpile was readied. We have the National Trauma Centre, which runs the extraordinary AUSMAT or Australian Medical Assistance Teams, was put on standby. And it has been mobilised now for each of the three flights, as well as overseeing the quarantine processes at Christmas Island and at Howard Springs. And we've put in place the contingency plans with regards to the overseas flights and then the quarantine. And already, as the Prime Minister has said, three rounds of supervised quarantine had been conducted and cleared and those people have returned to their homes. And so that's a very positive sign. 

In relation to the Diamond Princess. What's occurred is that exactly as we foreshadowed, the continuing infections onboard the ship translated to the risk of infection for those passengers who were discharged. That's why we brought them home. But it's also why we made sure that they are in supervised quarantine. That was a very hard decision for those people and their families. But it has been done to protect them, and done fearlessly to protect the broader Australian community. All of those 7 have mild cases, as Brendan has said, but nevertheless; isolation, supervision, med-evac to their home states. 

So what we're doing is following this plan and we're doing it because globally now it's over 79,000 cases, 2,626 lives lost. It's seen in Japan, Korea, Iran and Italy, amongst others, increasing outbreaks. And what that says is no country has a guarantee. No country is immune. But by following a plan, by saying to the Australian people, there is a very clear plan and proposal for all stages of this disease. It's important for you to know that we are prepared. We are focussed on health security above all else. And the steps we have taken have been following a plan; long-established, long prepared for, but now being implemented. Thank you.

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you Greg, Dr. Murphy. 

DR. BRENDAN MURPHY, CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER: Thank you, Prime Minister and Ministers. So briefly, as discussed already, our concern at the moment does relate to those countries outside of China where there have been significant outbreaks in recent days. So particularly the Republic of Korea, Italy, Japan where there is an ongoing outbreak. And whilst the numbers aren't very high in Iran, the death rate would suggest that the numbers are probably higher than being reported. So all of those countries are doing everything they can to contain those outbreaks, including some quite dramatic measures in the Republic of Korea and in Italy. But obviously, those developments are of concern to us. As I've said on previous occasions, the situation in China is much the same. There is still ongoing significant issues in the Hubei province and the city of Wuhan with continued increase in numbers and deaths. But that province is locked down. And outside of that province, there has been a bit of a slowing in the growth in case numbers, suggesting some containment efforts are having effect outside of China. So the focus that we have at the moment is on those significant outbreaks outside of China. HPCC, the committee, the peak advisory committee to governments, all the state and territory chief health officers under my chair, we meet every day, get advice from our communicable disease experts and continually update our advice to government. But I do need to repeat what's already been said by the PM and the ministers -there is no community transmission in Australia at the moment, but we are not stopping our preparedness. Because if there is a global pandemic, then we will be prepared. Our health systems; we have plans, we have plans that existed for years. We've updated them. And every health part of the health system is now working on its plans so that we're ready if things develop further in the future. Thank you. 

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, with controlling the spread of Coronavirus in Australia, will the government look at travel bans from other countries outside of China?

PRIME MINISTER: We have no advice from the medical experts to suggest that that should be done at this point.

JOURNALIST: PM, a double-barrel here, you talk about the success of the self-isolation in Australia, does that give you cause maybe to lift the travel ban earlier than you may have anticipated? And secondly, Mr Frydenberg, you’ve given us the IMF estimate on growth, what is Treasury telling you on the domestic impact, what is their best guess at this stage?

PRIME MINISTER: On the travel ban, we are reviewing this, as you know, every week. And we will continue to do that and we will continue to act on the basis of the expert medical advice in looking at those issues. What I can say, and I think you're right to note this, Phil, when you think about the fact that more than 30,000 people have returned to Australia since the 1st of February and the self-isolation process has worked very effectively. I mean, that gives me a lot of encouragement about the commonsense of Australians and how seriously they're taking it and the community support for that as well. And I can't go past acknowledging, again, the wonderful efforts made by the Chinese-Australian community all around the country and again, I reach out to Australians to support them in their communities whenever you get that opportunity. And I would say to the Chinese-Australians living in those communities, I know that they receive a lot of information from mainland China, which suggests that they should stay at home. They have relayed that to me directly when I've met with them. They don't need to stay at home in Australia unless you've returned to Australia within the last 14 days after being in mainland China, well, then obviously you have to self-isolate, but everyone else should be out at Box Hill and enjoying a lunch like I did last week down there at a fantastic local restaurant. That's what helps the economy. That's what actually helps us get back to business as usual. Business as usual can be maintained here in Australia within our domestic economy. But the challenges, the interconnectedness of the Australian economy, we have always been an economy that's looked beyond our shores for our prosperity, and we've been very successful at doing that. And Chinese trade accounts for around about 7 percent of our economy, which is a significant number. Of course it is. But it's also shown the wisdom of the approach the government has been taking for many years now to diversify our trade base and to plug our economy into more and more economies around the world, particularly throughout the Indo-Pacific. We recently had the President of Indonesia just here. I'll be going to India again soon to take up the discussions that we were hoping to have in January. And I think that shows the wisdom of that approach. Josh?

THE HON. JOSH FRYDENBERG MP, TREASURER: Thanks, PM. Phil, Treasury have told me they haven't finalised their advice on the economic impact of the virus. They say there's considerable uncertainty around what exactly that impact will be, but they are continuing their discussions with the key players in the economy who are impacted. But the message is very clear - the impact will be more significant than the bushfires and it plays out more broadly across the Australian economy. 

JOURNALIST: Are you in a position to be able to guarantee a surplus in the Budget, given this situation?

THE HON. JOSH FRYDENBERG MP, TREASURER: As I said in its standing in this spot just a few weeks ago, Dennis, the numbers will be updated in the budget in May. They're updated twice a year, MYEFO which, as you know, had a surplus in the 19-20 year. But the fires have occurred since then. The virus has obviously taken hold since then. But our focus has always been on getting the support to those communities in need. That's why we announced the $2 billion National Bushfire Recovery Fund without increasing taxes. The money's going out the door right now. And that is why in relation to the Coronavirus, it will continue. It will have an impact on the economy. But our focus is, of course, ensuring that the broader fundamentals of the Australian economy remain strong.

PRIME MINISTER: As we work through this crisis, what we've been seeking to do and I'd encourage others to do the same - speculation doesn't help anybody. Information and facts do. And when we stand here before you and we talk about these matters, what we relay is the information and the facts that we have. And we're not going to speculate on these matters. We've got a process that we're working through to consider the economic impacts, but also to continue to look at those ways that we can seek to alleviate some of those impacts where we can. But that is not a simple exercise because the impacts are economy wide. Mark?

JOURNALIST: I was going to ask Dennis’ question but on the basis of that, there was certainty in your utterances earlier about a surplus and the balance of the Budget, we've now withdrawn from that. I can hear from the Treasurer's language you’re not talking with any level of certainty. So we need to prepare ourselves for the budget not being in surplus and the realities of this virus and the other impacts on the budget, is that the message?

PRIME MINISTER: I'm not drawing any conclusions at this point, Mark. I mean, what we've noted about the impact of this global virus is that the information changes almost every day, both on the clinical side as well as what we're learning about the the economic impacts and the duration of what the impact of this virus will be and its impact around the global economy is also not known at this point. So, again, we can respond to questions where the answer is known. In relation to that matter, well, obviously at this point, those variables can't be fully considered and by the time we get to - I haven’t finished my response yet, settle down - what I'm saying is we will deal with that at the time of the budget. Now, when we framed the budget a year ago, I mean, hands up those who thought there was going be a coronavirus epidemic when the budget was released last May? Of course, no one did. These are unknown global shocks. And so we're dealing with those shocks and we're processing that through how we look at the budget as we go into May and beyond.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, you spoke of some the options to alleviate the budget impact? What are some of those options? 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, they're very limited, I've got to say. But in the domestic economy, the work that is being done, particularly in supporting the domestic tourism campaigns, 75 percent of the tourism industry is domestic. And even the response we've already seen as I've moved around the country, particularly last week and speaking of those affected by the bushfires, a lot of those domestic campaign activities have been quite effective. I saw that in the Adelaide Hills when I was meeting the tourism operators down there. They're the things that we can continue to do and that can address some of the demand impacts. The truth is that when you go through a global virus such as this, remembering this is a health crisis, not a financial one, that Australians will travel less overseas, obviously, and the rest of the world is doing exactly the same. So the Australian economy will depend a lot more on its domestic elements and it won't have the same impact from the external components because of the disruption of supply chains and trade impacts and the movement of people. That's to be expected. But for how long that occurs, Tom, that is not clear. But I can assure taxpayers, who really that question is being addressed to at the end of the day, that we're not a government that engages in extreme fiscal responses. 

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, the Australian Olympic team doctor has raised concerns about preparations for the Olympics. How concerned are you that as that as a potential vehicle for the further spread of the virus? 


DR. BRENDAN MURPHY, CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER: So I think it's too early to make any judgement about that. Clearly, Japan has a significant outbreak and we still haven't seen the full impact of the Diamond Princess cruise ship outbreak. The Japan health system is strong. They're working very hard to try and contain their outbreak at the moment and we'll be watching that situation closely. I think it's too early to predict. 


JOURNALIST: Yeah, just to the Chief Medical Officer, given it's now an outbreak in a number of countries and it appears to be highly contagious and as you say, in Iran, the number of deaths suggests that perhaps there are more cases than they’re saying. How does this not become a global pandemic now?

DR. BRENDAN MURPHY, CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER: The technical definition of a global pandemic is sustained community transmission in a number of countries. The question will evolve over the next few days to see whether the transmission in those countries can be contained or it's sustained. If it is sustained in those countries, as it has been in China, I suspect the WHO would make such a call. But at the moment, they're not making that call because those countries are trying to contain.

JOURNALIST: Days rather weeks? 

DR. BRENDAN MURPHY, CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER: I think we're just... one of the things I've learned about this virus is it's very hard to predict anything other than we're making a daily evaluation of the facts.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, yesterday Dr Murphy was going through some of the drastic measures that can be taken in the instance of a pandemic, closing down workplaces and forcing people who haven't even been overseas to remain isolated. Would you hesitate in using any of these powers, which I understand have never been used before?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, thank you, Andrew. Look, the government doesn't speculate on these types of responses, and I don't think it's helpful to go down that path and to speculate about those sorts of things. What the government has to do is to be aware of the various risks and that would include, at a global level, if this moved to a pandemic phase. And there are many different ways to manage pandemics. Pandemics, particularly if the condition is a mild one and with flu pandemics, for example. I mean, we deal with those from time to time. And that's not done by shutting the borders or sending people home from work. That is done by ensuring there is treatment in place and people can get access to that. And one of the things, and I'm sure Dr. Murphy will correct me, is that what we're seeing with the coronavirus is that it has a very high rate of human-to-human transmission compared to other things like SARS and MERS. Its mortality rate is obviously a lot, lot, lot lower. But that said, it is obviously higher than what a flu is. And so they are the issues that I'm sure our medical officers would be weighing up and providing advice if it ever got to that stage. Now, the government obviously has to be mindful of its potential to do that. And as Minister Hunt said, it was back in January that we understood that it could have that potential and that's why we moved so quickly to ensure that we pursued a containment strategy, which to date has been very effective. Globally, if the transmission achieves much higher rates and moves to pandemic phases in other places, then as we have done all along, we would just have to act on the best medical advice at the time. Katharine? 

JOURNALIST: Just on the economic impacts, my recollection is you told your state counterparts at the end of January or thereabouts that there was no need to come together to discuss the economic impact until April. That obviously feels about three years ago now, is there a need to bring up that discussion? 

THE HON. JOSH FRYDENBERG MP, TREASURER: Well, we have regular meetings of treasurers. That's the CFFR meeting. That's in April, it's in Perth. That will go ahead as planned. And I have to say, Katharine, I'm also talking bilaterally with my state counterparts. I actually met with Dom Perrottet on Friday. We talked about the overall health of the New South Wales and Australian economies and issues such as these. So I'm continuing to talk to all my colleagues at a state level and the next meeting will be at CFFR in April. 

PRIME MINISTER: I'll go to Andrew because I think he's going to burst if he doesn't get this question out. 

JOURNALIST: Do you believe Australians will forgive you on this occasion if you don't deliver the surplus, given the situation with the coronavirus? 

PRIME MINISTER: Andrew, it's not my job to speculate on that, as I've said. I don't think that's helpful. What the Australian people are looking for as we deal with this crisis, as we've dealt with many others in recent times, is just the calm, measured information, fact-based approach. Being upfront and honest with the Australian people about where we see things each and every day. The Chief Medical Officer has been doing that on a daily basis with his counterparts now for many weeks. I think Australians are better placed, I'd argue, than most of anyone in the world today in understanding what is happening in their own country when it comes to how these issues are being managed. So we're just going to calmly, maturely, soberly continue to deal with these issues as they arise each and every day. The budget will be brought down in May. That will include the full assessment of the information as we know it at that time. But I can tell you this - Australia would not have been as well-prepared for dealing with these series of crises that we have been dealing with now for months, were it not for the calm, sober and methodical financial discipline that we've put in place over the last six years. We didn't rush to any panicked solutions or panicked options. I remember last year, people last year in October, in August, in September, telling us to splash money around on goodness knows what. We kept our heads at that point and we've kept our heads as we're continuing to move through these crises now and we will continue to keep our heads because that's what the Australian people elected us to do. Thank you very much.