Press Conference - Sydney, NSW

01 Feb 2020
Sydney, NSW
Prime Minister

PRIME MINISTER: Good afternoon, thank you for coming together. Of course I’m joined by the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Our Government is taking every step necessary to keep Australians safe. And we're taking further action in relation to coronavirus today which I’m going to run through with you and the Foreign Minister will make further comments on the actions that we're taking. 

I want to assure Australians that we're doing everything that we can and through these actions to protect Australia, for what is an escalating threat and a constantly changing situation. Earlier today, the Australian Health Protection Principals Committee, which is the chief medical officers of all the states and territories and the Commonwealth, met. They met on the advice of the Communicable Diseases Network Australia, and they considered the changes in the epidemiology of coronavirus in China. They noted the increasing, but still relatively small number of cases in provinces outside Hubei Province and the now resulting risk posed from travellers from all of mainland China. They agreed to the following: to expand the case definition for the novel coronavirus infection from today, the 1st of February 2020 to apply to people from all of mainland China. It's essentially addressing the issue of human to human transmission of the coronavirus outside Hubei Province across the rest of mainland China. They recommended that DFAT now increase travel advice to level four, which is do not travel to all of mainland China. And the Australian government is putting that in place now. As of today, all travellers arriving out of mainland China, not just Hubei province, as has been the case up until now, being asked and required to self isolate for a period of 14 days from the time they leave mainland China, and that finally to substantially reduce the volume of travellers coming from mainland China they recommend additional border measures be implemented to deny entry to Australia for people who have left or transited through mainland China from the 1st of February today, with the exception of Australian citizens, permanent residents and their immediate family, and aircrews who have been using appropriate personal protective equipment. And this applies to also to passengers transiting in Australia unless they are Australian citizens, permanent residents or their immediate families. I convened a meeting of the National Security Committee this afternoon to receive that advice and that recommendation. And the National Security Committee has adopted all of those recommendations. What that means is the travel advice is changing. What that means is that if you come from mainland China at any time after the 1st of February. Then you will be required to isolate for a period of 14 days. And for anyone other than Australians- citizens, Australian residents, dependents, legal guardians or spouses, then you will not be permitted entry into Australia. And the arrangements have been put in place through our border authorities to ensure that that can be actioned. In addition to that, there will be advanced screening and reception arrangements put into place at the major airports to facilitate, identifying and providing this information and ensuring the appropriate precautions are being put in place. There’s a half a million masks that will be provided to those airports to support those who are coming off these flights, as well as those who are interacting with those coming from those flights, there will also be thermometers which are being provided to those airports and we’re working with those airport authorities now to ensure that we can put those arrangements in place. That means there will be flights who will be arriving in the morning, the National Security Committee, with the support of the chief medical officer, has given discretion to the Border Force commissioner to deal with those flights in the morning. As they- it was his advice that they consider that that immediate threat is low. But we need to get these arrangements in place as soon as possible. So from the 1st of February, that's the effective date that we’ll be seeking to determine whether someone has been in mainland China as opposed to more broadly in the Hubei province. 

So these are further steps that we are taking, up until today it has not been the advice of the Chief Medical Officer, and our medical experts that this has been necessary. This is a matter that was even considered yesterday at the National Security Committee. And the advice yesterday was that these measures did not need to be put in place. Their advice today is that it should. And our action today is to put them in place. And we moved quickly today to ensure that they are able to meet, the recommendations could be made, and the National Security Committee convened this afternoon to make these important decisions and then task the various agencies to implement those decisions. I had the opportunity to speak to all the Premiers and Chief Ministers on this matter. I've also been in quite regular contact with the Prime Minister of New Zealand as we operate- often operate quite common border arrangements and and we're seeking to ensure that they’re aligned and I’ll leave it to the New Zealand Prime Minister Ardern to make any further announcements about what they will be doing. I'm going to hand over to the Foreign Minister who's been working closely on this issue and particularly in relation to the operation for assisted departures out of Wuhan.

SENATOR THE HON. MARISE PAYNE, MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Thank you very much, Prime Minister. On advice, as the Prime Minister has said, from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, we are raising our travel advice to Australians for the whole of mainland China to level four, which is do not travel. Other countries, including like-minded partners of Australia, are taking similar steps, as those which have been outlined by the Prime Minister on the recommendation of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee. We are, of course, advising the nature of these decisions to our neighbours in the Pacific and to China themselves. 

Australians in China should continue to follow the advice of local authorities. For those who wish to make inquiries concerning these matters, our consular and crisis centre is operating fully. The DFAT consular emergency line is 1300 555 135, for Australians who are concerned about family overseas, that is a number to call from Australia. For people calling from abroad, the number is +61 2 6261 3305. 

We are continuing the planning and the arrangements for the assisted departure of Australians from Wuhan. We expect that process to be finalized and finally agreed soon and we are proceeding on that basis. We've approached this assisted departure operation very carefully with an absolute priority on the health and the safety of all Australians, here at home and overseas. And again, I would like to register my thanks to the Chinese authorities for their cooperation on this operation in exceedingly difficult circumstances. Also, our diplomatic and our consular teams have been working around the clock in response to this health crisis, and I acknowledge and thank them for their work. Prime Minister, thank you very much.

PRIME MINISTER: Before I go to questions. Again, I want to ensure Australians we are taking the necessary precautions, we are in fact, operating with an abundance of caution in these circumstances. So Australians can go about their daily lives with confidence. We are acting here in advance of many countries in terms of when similar type of arrangements are being put in place. We are doing this so you can get about your daily lives in a normal way. The facilities, the support that is available in Australia to contain what we are seeing is the best in the world, and that will continue to be in place for the protection of Australians. So these actions have been taken with an abundance of caution. So Australians can remain calm and be able to get on with their daily lives and their daily business and we will encourage them to do just that. Happy to take your questions.

JOURNALIST: Would you consider suspending all incoming flights, like, not just for nationals- but in general, will you be able to stop- Will you consider stopping all flights from mainland China arriving? 

PRIME MINISTER: That that is not the advice to us at the moment from medical professionals. This enables Australians to be able to return and go through that process of self isolation. Many Australians would be in mainland China at any one point in time and this provides them with the opportunity to return to Australia. So no it has not been the advice for us to move to that level of action. But what I should stress is that the National Security Committee, we have met four times this week, to consider this very matter and we are reviewing this regularly and taking the advice that is coming through, whether it’s from the World Health Organization, like minded countries. What we're learning out of China and our engagements for the Chinese authorities and and from our own medical professionals here in Australia. And we'll continue to do that. We will monitor it extremely closely and take all the actions that are necessary. 

JOURNALIST: Sorry so Prime Minister did you say that only Australian citizens are allowed to fly back from China? 

PRIME MINISTER: That's right. Australian citizens, Australian residents, dependents, legal guardians and spouses. 

JOURNALIST: Is this a new announcement? Is this new from now?


JOURNALIST: What impact do you- expecting on tourism? Obviously, we've been hit by the fires. What economic impact are you seeing from this? 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, our first priority is the health and well-being and welfare of Australians. And so when it comes to their health and welfare then that comes first, obviously, as we are going to see and as other countries will see, as we saw with viruses of this nature in the past, we could expect that to have an impact, obviously, on tourist arrivals for obvious reasons. And the broader economic impacts of that, that is not our first concern at the moment, but we are very mindful of it. We have also tasked the Education Minister particularly to work with the tertiary sector to identify additional measures and precautions that will see the least disruption possible to this year for international students. And that can mean the delaying the commencement of courses, the providing of courses online in the initial phases, the delaying of orientation weeks, many universities already putting those arrangements in place now and the Education Minister Dan Tehan is going to be working with them. I should stress this arrangement we're putting in place, we’re putting in place for the next two weeks that will be constantly reviewed. And obviously if a- the decision and an announcement will be made about what happens post that period.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, can you tell us what will happen to those people who were already in the air prior to this announcement being made? Non-citizens of Australia?

PRIME MINISTER: Well in a few hours they will- many will board a plane. And that’s why with the support of the Chief Medical Officer, we have provided the discretion to the Border Force commissioner to be able to deal with those cases as they present, there will be enhanced screening facilities for those flights tomorrow. The risk at this point, starting from the 1st of February, is  low as they've described it, but their expectation is that it will rise in the days and weeks ahead. And so for that reason, tomorrow, the Chief Medical Officer in his discussion with us was comfortable with those arrangements being at the discretion of the Border Force commissioner in the morning and their officers. And and but within 24 hours, our advice is that they'll be able to step up those processes throughout the international channels far more effectively. 

PRIME MINISTER: Has China agreed to allow Qantas to carry out the evacuation of Australian citizens from Wuhan yet?

PRIME MINISTER: Well in relation to the assisted departure I’ll refer that to Marise.

MINISTER PAYNE: As I said, we expect the process, the agreement and the process to be finalized very soon and we are proceeding on that basis. 

JOURNALIST: It's been a controversial decision to put Australian citizens on Christmas Island, how confident are both of you that this is the right decision? 

PRIME MINISTER: Absolutely confident. And I don't agree it's a controversial decision. I agree it's the right decision. We have those facilities in place to support people over that two week period, which can, I think, give Australians the greatest level of confidence about the quarantine that we've been able to establish, we're taking, and there's been a high level of interest and registration of interest in the assisted departure. And I think Australians would support that. But they also want to be assured that the quarantine arrangements where we’re taking people from the most affected part of China, which where this virus began and where the human to human contact has been the most prolific, that we are taking the most serious precautions, in putting the quarantine arrangements in place. And we are able to stand up those facilities to do that. We are able to separate and provide the assurances that I believe are necessary for the community on Christmas Island and that will in turn enable for their safe return to Australia after the appropriate quarantine period.

JOURNALIST: And there are other measures that Professor Murphy suggested, new measures to contain the spread of the virus?

PRIME MINISTER: We have implemented everything they’ve recommended.

JOURNALIST: Can you tell us roughly how many- this might be a question for the for the Foreign Minister? How many Australians are in Wuhan and will they be brought to Darwin first and then Christmas Island, or is there any rough plans you can share with us? 

PRIME MINISTER: There is a significant number of Australians in Wuhan and their families and dependents, particularly with regard to the Lunar New Year travels and also those who live there over longer periods of time. We are working closely with all those who have registered through the emergency consular line to identify those in particular who wish to seek to be part of the assisted departure. That is an ongoing process because it involves contacting people individually and then determining their status effectively around being Australian citizens and so on. That is something that my consular team have literally been working on day and night, and that continues. The arrangements for the flight continue to be made I'm not going to go into any further details in relation to those, they are matters that we are working through with Qantas.

JOURNALIST: If foreign nationals arrives, say on the flights in the next couple of hours, or say tomorrow morning, will they be kept in quarantine and then sent back, because Qantas has announced that they won't- they’ll be suspending their direct flights to mainland China-


JOURNALIST: Yeah, so what will the arrangements be, say, after that if this is in place for two weeks? How will it practically work in terms of returning?

PRIME MINISTER: Well for those who have come to Australia as a foreign national, they would have already been asked prior to departure, let's say they're coming through a third port- through a third country. They would be asked on check in whether they had been in mainland China, since the 1st of February. If they do not honestly answer that question, but subsequently it is revealed on the on the journey to Australia or when they present at the airport, then they would be placed in an alternative place of detention for a quarantine period.

JOURNALIST: Have there been any discussions about-

PRIME MINISTER: But as I said, in the morning, given the low level of risk as advised by the Chief Medical Officer, the Border Force commissioner will have discretion as to handle the arrangements in the morning.

JOURNALIST: Have there been any discussions about how this news will go down in China? Is there any sort of diplomatic issues that the Government has to consider here, or is it just simply a case of controlling [inaudible]?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, our first responsibility is Australians and in Australia's national interest. And that means the health of the Australians and their well-being. That's what's driving our decisions. But I'll ask the Foreign Minister to add to this answer. Obviously, we appreciate the challenges that the Chinese government are facing at the moment. It has been a serious issue. And we thank them for the engagement that we've had. 

MINISTER PAYNE: Indeed, Prime Minister, we've been working very constructively with China right throughout this entire crisis in terms of the decisions that they have had to make in managing their own internal arrangements. And we've seen, as you know, significant travel restrictions are placed in China internally. They have also made announcements in the last few days around international travel advice for their own citizens in their own country. So that work goes on both here in Australia, between between my department and between the embassy here and also in China, led by our ambassador, Graham Fletcher, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other authorities there, particularly the health authorities. We also have a significant priority to to look after, as well as our Australian citizens, our Australian citizen staff who are on the ground in a number of posts throughout China. Beijing, just for starters. So that is, of course, also something of which we are very conscious. But I am very grateful for the constructive approach that the Chinese authorities and the embassy here in Canberra has taken to our engagement on these issues. It is a very difficult time. There is absolutely no question of that. A very difficult time for China, for its citizens, for Australians who are currently in China or have family in China, and indeed, for the international community, a significant period of disruption. We are very conscious of that and endeavouring to work as constructively as we can. 

JOURNALIST: Many Australians will probably be asking because flights have been coming in from China over the past few days. Hundreds of people have been arriving. Where are those people now? Are you monitoring them? Is there any message that has gone out to those people?

PRIME MINISTER: I’m glad you asked that question because the advice of all the chief medical officers, that people who have been in mainland China prior to today, are not presenting that risk. That's their advice. That the risk is beginning to escalate from now. And so the issue of someone being- you’ve got to remember the size of the Chinese population and the number of cases outside of Hubei as a proportion of that population is very, very low. And for many places the concentration, even often the places they may have been in mainland China- and the clear advice from all of the medical officers has been that prior to now, in January, because we have asked every day about that risk and the spread from outside of Hubei into mainland China. They have said that has not presented a risk. And that's why they have not recommended the action that they have recommended today. 

JOURNALIST: The World Health Organization has said that people shouldn’t be closing borders to China, why has- why has Australia done so? 

PRIME MINISTER: Because our medical advice is it’s in the interest of Australians to do so. 

JOURNALIST: There's also reports over the last few days about racism towards members of the Asian community because of this outbreak. What's your response to that? And do you think that these communities need to be better supported? 

PRIME MINISTER: I think all communities should be supported and I think- that's why I sought to say to Australians that it is important to remain calm about this. We have the best medical facilities and the best preparations and best way of managing and containing this of arguably anywhere in the world. And that's what we’re seeing. We have a handful of cases in Australia and in fact, we have two cases that we confirmed where people have now been discharged. We have had no fatalities in relation to this virus in Australia. And we're a big country. And we have many ways of being able to contain the effect of this so I think it's important that people just exercise common sense, that people go about their business in the normal way, and that they listen to the appropriate health advice. And that, as always, we respect each other. We support each other. And we do the right thing by each other. That's certainly what the government is doing to ensure that we keep Australians safe and to keep Australians safe we've also got to keep each other calm. Thanks very much.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister have you heard from- about Bridget McKenzie- report?