Virtual Press Conference

28 Jun 2021
Prime Minister

Prime Minister: I'm joined by Professor Paul Kelly and Lieutenant General Frewen from Operation COVID Shield. They'll be available to take questions as well as myself after I've completed running down on tonight's meeting of National Cabinet. National Cabinet met at 5.30 this evening and we had the opportunity to assess the status and be updated on the status of the, what are currently outbreaks in five jurisdictions and the Chief Medical Officer can provide further detail on that if you wish. But I think they are issues that have been well canvassed over the course of the last few days. It was important to get feedback from all the states and territories on the measures that they're putting place and to essentially get everybody on the same page in terms of their understanding of the situation, the impact of particularly of the Delta variant. The Delta variant is proving to be a far more difficult element of this virus than we have seen to date. This is not just the case in Australia. It was certainly my experience when I was overseas. And the Delta variant is presenting very different challenges from those that we have faced in the past. And that was a topic of some discussion at our meeting this evening. We also had an update from Lieutenant General Frewen on Operation COVID Shield, and there's some 7.374 million doses of the vaccine that you would have seen included in today's report that have been administered. That takes again over to over a million doses in 10 days. It was also important to note that all residential aged care facilities have had their first visit for their first dose, and the second dose now, will be have had their second visit by the end of this week. We're currently at 99.5 per cent of those premises and Lieutenant General Frewen can update further on that. Of the over 70 population, that means that more than two thirds now, some 68.1 per cent of those aged over 70 have now received their first dose. More than half of over 50s have also been protected, with at least their first dose and more than a quarter of the eligible population for vaccination, that is those over 16, are now protected with the first dose, and that is at 28.6 per cent. And we also noted today that 236 additional GPs have now joined the, the team of GPs, which brings us to now 5,085 GPs, practices, GPs themselves who are engaged as points of presence for the administration of the vaccine around the country. We will be continuing to ramp that up in the weeks and months ahead and a decision which I'll come to shortly, will only add support to GPs further coming involved in the vaccination programme. Additional numbers of pharmacists are also becoming involved in the administration of the vaccine. They are playing an important role at this stage of the vaccination programme in filling gaps in regional and remote areas where they can provide that support, where there are insufficient GPs in those areas to cover the need. 

Some 221,000 doses of AstraZeneca, second doses were administered last week. Now, that's the week after the second advice from ATAGI. Now, that was welcome and encouraging news that Australians are coming back for their second dose of AstraZeneca. The medical advice supports that. And we would encourage Australians who have had that first dose of AstraZeneca to return for their second dose and the medical advice supports that decision. The other issue that was flagged with states and territories tonight by Lieutenant General Frewen was that he will be engaging in what I'd call a war gaming process for the delivery and the operations of the program in the second half of this year, particularly over the last four months of the year, where the supply of vaccines will significantly increase and to ensure that we can work together to coordinate the actions of states and territories together with the Commonwealth, looking at potential scenarios that could arise to ensure that we can move through the balance of the program over the course of this year to ensure that we will have the supply, the distribution and the dispensation administration of those vaccines by the end of the year. 

Now to the further decisions that were taken tonight by the National Cabinet. The first I would note is that we have agreed to mandate vaccination to have at least one dose by September, mid-September 2021 of all residential aged care workforce against COVID-19 as a condition of working in a residential aged care facility. Now that will be implemented in a partnership between the Commonwealth and the states, preferably using the same system that is used for having mandatory vaccinations for the flu for aged care workers. That is traditionally done through state public health orders. But the Commonwealth will work together with the states to ensure compliance with those orders because we have those direct relationships and reporting relationships with the aged care providers. Now, this is the third time this has been back to the National Cabinet. On two occasions I've made it very clear and supported by the Premiers that this is something we wanted to see and so tonight we received the advice that would enable us to go forward with that measure. Now, we have asked though, that there be further risk and benefit assessment conducted and that be reported back to National Cabinet by early August. We need to make sure that there are no unintended consequences of this decision. We want to make sure that this won't have a negative impact on available workforce and to support that, the Commonwealth has decided today and I've signed off on implementation of an $11 million grant program to encourage residential aged care facilities to provide staff with leave to get vaccinated. Now that can also involve situations where a person may be experience some discomfort following a vaccination, and this would cover those circumstances. So the Commonwealth will be backing up that decision for mandatory vaccination, not just by supporting the states and territories with compliance as a joint effort, but ensuring we're also supporting residential aged care facility providers with that additional financial support to get that job done. Now for me, mid-September that's the latest we want to see it and we would like to see it progress more soonly than that, more sooner than that. But of course, we will work with the sector to ensure this is done as effectively and as safely as possible. 

We also agreed tonight for mandatory post quarantine testing for return travellers and close contacts, two to three days after travellers have finished their quarantine period. Now, the AHPPC will come back with further advice on the implementation of those arrangements. But it should be very clear. If you've left hotel quarantine or quarantine up at the Howard Springs facility, two to three days later, after having left that quarantine facility get a test. We will be requiring it by the arrangements we put in place. But I would be encouraging everybody who comes out of those facilities to make sure that you get tested. You may not be symptomatic. You may not think you need one, but you need to get one. And so we will seek your cooperation for those who are coming out of quarantine. And, of course I will be doing that when I come out of quarantine at the end of this week. 

Further, we will be, we agreed to ensure that we are accommodating international quarantine residents or other high infectious risk quarantine residents separately from other low risk residents. So the circumstance, for example, where you might have a domestic quarantine arrangement for someone because of a state border issue, then ensuring that they are not in any proximity to those who are international returns or indeed near any other high infectious risk quarantine residents. We agreed for mandatory vaccination and testing of all quarantine workers and all workers directly and indirectly involved in managed quarantine including workers involved in the transport of quarantined individuals. And the reasons for that regarding recent experience I think is fairly self-evident. And to allow travellers who have gone through 14 day quarantine in one jurisdiction, say in the Northern Territory, in Howard Springs to be able to enter other jurisdictions following that without having to quarantine for a further 14 days. But within two to three days after getting out of Howard Springs get tested as per the earlier instruction. 

Now, we will also be getting, sitting down with the air transport sector and the resource sector to be addressing the issue of of FIFOs in the resource sector and more generally air transport sector workers. The AHPPC has been tasked to come back with further advice on any requirements, mandatory requirements regarding vaccination in those sectors. But in the first instance, we believe by just sitting down with those sectors and looking at their controls, one of the issues that was reported to us tonight, that the COVIDSafe practises that were put in place at the mine, at the centre of this latest outbreak were very strong. And they've been highly cooperative and been able to provide much information and detail that has been enormously helpful to the contact tracers around the country. I've said it before the resources sector has responded incredibly well during the COVID-19 pandemic and the way they run their facilities and they're very used to health and safety procedures, the health and safety officers on site and I've seen that myself as I've gone through on some of the biggest mines in the country. So we will just sit down with them to ensure that we have those processes as strong as they possibly can be. And the AHPPC will come back and make any further recommendations they think are necessary. 

Now, a final thing noted tonight by the National Cabinet was the Federal Government to support also the mandatory vaccination not just those of aged care workers, but more broadly to support the vaccination of, of people across Australia, we will be implementing a new no fault indemnity scheme for general practitioners who administer COVID-19 vaccines. So this relates to encouraging Australians to go and chat to their GP about their vaccination and to have their vaccination administered. Now, the ATAGI advice talks about a preference for AstraZeneca to be available and made available to those as preferred for those over 60. But the advice does not preclude persons under 60 from getting the AstraZeneca vaccine. And so if you wish to get the AstraZeneca vaccine, then we would encourage you to a, go and have that discussion with your GP and we've already made announcements to support those additional consultations with the GPs so you can have that conversation. And secondly, we are also providing the indemnity scheme for those general practitioners so they can actively engage with you and you can make the best decision for your health. 

So it's been a busy evening in the midst of what is a very serious situation that we're confronting. But as always, we're doing it together. We're doing it by ensuring as much consistency as possible, sharing as much information as possible, and to align our actions and to, to ensure that measures are introduced to support all the actions taken by the states and territories and the Commonwealth. We will be meeting again on Friday. Our next scheduled meeting was on Friday week, but my clear view, supported by the Premiers and Chief Ministers that while we're in this current situation, we will keep up that tempo of meeting. We met last Monday as well and so it was timely to meet again today and will do so again on Friday, morning most likely and, and take a further stocktake of the situation at that time. Now, it's been a busy meeting. It's later in the evening. I'm happy to take questions. I'm going to focus on questions that relate to the National Cabinet meeting. I think that's all we'll have time for. But I can see your hand move quickest David and then I've got Michelle. 

Journalist: PM, was there any discussion in the meeting about ways to increase vaccine supply? And what's your comment on whether there are any concrete ways to do that, such as bringing forward the Moderna vaccine so that we get more vaccine in Australia sooner? 

Prime Minister: Well, we will be seeking to get earlier supplies wherever possible and are doing so even as we speak. Of course, we would do that. We have additional supplies available of the AstraZeneca vaccine. All the available Pfizer vaccines are being distributed to all the states and territories. There are 290,000 AstraZeneca doses that are available right now. They were made available again to the states and territories tonight. States and territories, regardless of what might have been said during the day, at our meeting tonight were very clear about the fact that all the available doses are being distributed and where more doses can be brought into the country then obviously we will ensure that they make their way properly into the vaccination program. And so that's what the government will be doing. I don’t know JJ if you want to add to that. JJ, did you want to add anything to that? 

Lieutenant General JJ Frewen, Coordinator General of Operation COVID Shield: Thanks, PM. I just wanted to add that this week we will be bringing on an additional 236 GP practices that can administer AstraZeneca. That will bring us to more than 5,000 GPs now across the country and a total of over 6,000 places where people can access vaccines. But AstraZeneca it remains a very effective and very appropriate vaccine, the ATAGI advice was always that this was not a suitable vaccine, it was you should make a risk based decision. And for those people who want to get access to a vaccine now who can't get access to Pfizer they can make an informed decision to get AstraZeneca through GPs and the announcement the PM has made tonight will give GPs even greater confidence in their ability to provide that advice.

Prime Minister: So let's remember who the most vulnerable population is here. It's those particularly aged over 60, but certainly those 70, but particularly also those aged over 60. AstraZeneca is for that group in particular. And we are making it clear that others may access that if they wish by having that discussion with their GPs. But there were no requests for additional vaccines made tonight at the meeting. There was an understanding that the available vaccines are all being distributed and that if those, if there is a request for more AstraZeneca vaccines then they'll be made available. The other point to bear in mind is this. The significant majority of vaccines are being delivered by GPs, not state and territory clinics. About 60 per cent and above of the vaccinations are being done by GPs. And so we're not about to go and take vaccines out of GP clinics just to put them in state clinics. The job is being done by both, but the heavy lifting is being done through the Commonwealth programme, through the GPs. Michelle? 

Journalist: Has the health committee changed its mind about the compulsory vaccination of aged care workers, or has National Cabinet decided to go ahead regardless of that committee's view? 

Prime Minister: No, no, we accepted the recommendations of the AHPPC today, which supported mandatory vaccination.

Journalist: So they changed their mind?

Prime Minister: You'll have to put that to them. But that's perhaps a question to Paul.

Professor Paul Kelly, Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer: I can follow up on that. Thanks for the question. So, no, they haven't changed their mind. We’ve met regularly, the AHPPC, that I chair. We’ve had robust discussions about the issue of mandatory vaccination and there were a number of issues that the chief health officers, particularly, wanted addressed. So, they’ve now, subsequently, been addressed. One was about, do we know how many have taken up their vaccine voluntarily? We have that now. It’s a requirement of the aged care sector to provide that information. They are providing that every week. There’s 33 per cent have taken up that dose. We need more. The second one was the issue that the PM has announced tonight, about the $11 million to support people to get vaccination and if they are, for example, a casual worker and needs a day off, that will be provided through the grants. And a whole range of other matters related to these have been or are being addressed. And, so, today, the chief health officers were unanimous to say that they agree that there should be a target, middle of September, to have that mandated. But of course we all agreed, and have always agreed, that we should have that extra level of protection for our most vulnerable people, who are our people in aged care.

Journalist: You were worried about the workforce last time, though?

Professor Paul Kelly, Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer: Yes, so these matters have been addressed by, including that grant that was mentioned today.

Journalist: Prime Minister, the, Singapore is starting to, well, countries such as Singapore are starting to lower restrictions and have a pathway back to normal, living with COVID. Lieutenant General Frewen said today that we can expect outbreaks to be activated and deactivated over, sorry, restrictions to be activated and deactivated over many years. Does the Government have a plan to, is the Government going to prepare a plan for us to live with the virus, to live as normally as possible, or can Australians expect this idea of lockdowns and restrictions as going to be the new normal for years to come?

Prime Minister: Well, the Government is preparing a plan. I mean, the key part of that plan presently is to ensure that we maximise the vaccination of the Australian population as soon as we can. There is a keen sense of urgency about that and that’s where we’re focusing our attention right now. Now, at no stage of that plan, under any scenarios that were considered last year, late November when we agreed the national vaccination plan, was there a situation contemplated this time of the year that the vaccination would have reached anywhere near the level of herd immunity that you would expect to enable the sorts of things that you’re talking about. 

So, we were always going to be having to deal with what we're dealing with now at this time of the year. I mean, I only have to refer you to the number of cases that they’re seeing in the United Kingdom, I think 18,000 was their most recent daily cases with a population that’s 81 per cent vaccinated on their first dose. And we’re also seeing reports coming out of Israel, which also has a very high level of vaccination, under this new Delta variant, where we’re seeing potentially 50 per cent of new cases being people who have been vaccinated. So, there are many uncertainties, Greg, and those uncertainties aren't dispensed with simply by making announcements. What you need to do is continue to gather the information that enables you to build that path back. Now, that path back has many steps. Of course, what we're doing with vaccination right now. Secondly, it’s ensuring that you keep your domestic economy as open as possible because that’s what supports jobs and that’s what keeps people's incomes continuing to be supported, and we’ve seen that happen over the course of this past year. 

Once we get into next year, I think we’re in a position where we’ll be able to be considering changes to how potentially quarantine arrangements work, with much higher levels of vaccination, and the arrangements that are available for people who have been vaccinated, because they present a lower risk to the public health of the community. Over the balance of this year, you will start seeing other groups of people coming into the country, particularly those who are needed for workforce needs in particular sectors of the economy, as well as students. It was never going to be the case where Australia was closed one day and opened the next. That’s a completely naive position. This is a matter, this is a process that will evolve in stages, and the Government has been doing an enormous amount of work. You may recall some months ago I indicated to you that the Chief- sorry the Secretary of my Department was working with all the Directors-General on exactly these scenarios, and that work is continuing, and we will review that work again on Friday week at National Cabinet. 

But right now, the task is to ensure that we continue with the urgency of the vaccination rollout, and that provides the opportunities for different arrangements next year. And, that’s what we look forward to achieving. But, I can't stress enough that the major frustration here is the virus. That is the major thing working against Australia. The reason we’ve got a lockdown is because of a pandemic and a virus. We have a lockdown because we have a new Delta variant which is proving to be highly contagious in a way that previous variants were not. The question will be, well, what will be the next variant, and what will that mean for future plans? I would like to tell you there’s a higher degree of certainty that exists, but I wouldn't be levelling with the Australian people. So, we will continue to gather the evidence and continue to prepare our plans for how we can have Australia living with this virus in the future in a way that minimises the restrictions upon them.

Journalist: Prime Minister, just with the changes to the indemnity for AstraZeneca, does that mean that people under 40 will be able to talk to their GPs and get the jab immediately, and if not, what would it take, if the older cohort don't want the jab, for those people under 40 to get access to AstraZeneca if they’re willing to take on that risk?

Prime Minister: Well, if they wish to go and speak to their doctor and have access to the AstraZeneca vaccine, they can do so.

Journalist: Any age group?

Prime Minister: So, the answer is yes, they can go and do that.

Journalist: Prime Minister, you said that there’s $11 million for leave for people if they need it for vaccines, but what else are you doing to try to encourage these aged care workers to get vaccinated? Are you going to open up Pfizer to all age groups in aged care workers? Are you going to have an education campaign? What else are you going to do there?

Prime Minister: We’re going to work directly with the providers themselves, and aged care workers will be eligible to go and get vaccinated at state clinics, which, as you know, provides access to the Pfizer vaccine. And, this is the case for anyone who has a mandatory requirement to be vaccinated. They’re a targeted population, and, as a result, that’s only reasonable that we provide that. Providing $11 million of support to work with the sector to ensure that we’re encouraging people to take those vaccines, I think is very important. As I said, we’ve already made the changes to enable people to go and talk to their GPs and to get that advice so they can make the right decision for themselves. But, we’ll work with the sector to get the job done. This has been a difficult cohort to, a difficult group to get vaccinated, and this is why I have been fairly constant and determined to ensure we got to where we are tonight, and I'm pleased that we’ve finally got here tonight. I would have preferred to have been here a little while ago, but nevertheless, our determination has paid off.

Journalist: Prime Minister, you’ve gone into significant detail about the mandatory vaccinations for aged care workers and wanting to achieve that by September, but you’ve also said that National Cabinet agreed to mandatory vaccination and testing of all quarantine workers, including those involved in transport. A couple of questions on that issue. How quickly are you looking to get that done? Who’s responsible for that - is that also a federal and state shared responsibility? And that support, that $11 million that you’ve offered for the aged care sector, will there also be money offered to the quarantine sector for casual cleaners and the like who have to go out and take time off of there, from work to get vaccinated?

Prime Minister: No, that will be a state responsibility, and the state will address any issues that they need to address to support their vaccination program of those mandated workers.

Journalist: [Inaudible].

Prime Minister: Sorry?

Journalist: When do you want to have mandatory vaccination of quarantine workers achieved by?

Prime Minister: As soon as possible. I mean, this was a matter that we had regularly discussed at National Cabinet, and there is still, I would say, a small distance to cover in this area. But, still a distance, nonetheless, and recent events have highlighted where some of those gaps may be, and the states will move quickly to close those gaps.

Journalist: [Inaudible] need to try to get it done as quickly as possible, such as, like putting a target of September in the same way you have for aged care?

Prime Minister: Well, I’ll leave that to the states and territories because they’re the ones who are principally, who will be undertaking that work, but you can put that to each of the states and territories about when you believe they, when they believe they’ll be able to achieve that by.

Journalist: Just very quickly, disability care workers - will they also, will the mandatory vaccination requirement also apply to them?

Prime Minister: Not tonight, we didn’t make that decision tonight, but there is further advice that will be coming back, we expect to receive that on Friday. The priority there is for those disability care workers who work in residential facilities, that’s our first priority. But, as it may apply to others, well, we will wait and consider the advice from the AHPPC.

Journalist: Prime Minister, you talked about, you know, that the biggest enemy we've got in this is the virus, not the restrictions. Other countries are preparing to live with the reality of COVID deaths and are preparing their populations for that. Is it something  - we’ve had no COVID deaths in this country this year - is it something that in the future Australians will have to come to terms with, that we will live in a society where, as we open up, there are going to be a small proportion of people that die from COVID?

Prime Minister: Well, the objective here, ultimately, is to get to a situation where, particularly through vaccination, you are preventing serious illness and indeed fatality from COVID-19, and, so you're in a position where largely you're seeking to suppress it in the same way you try and prevent people getting the flu each year. But I want to stress, we're nowhere near that point at this stage. And even as the UK is finding with a 80 per cent vaccinated population, they're not there either, because they've got more than 20 people, over 100 people dying every week. And, so, that's not a situation that I'm prepared to countenance. And, one of the reasons why Australia is in such a unique position compared to the rest of the world, is COVID is riddled through all of those countries. Their opportunity to ensure that the absolute calamitous impact of this virus and the new strains doesn't impact on them is much more limited than us here in Australia, because of the success we've had to date. And so it would be, I think, unwise to surrender up that advantage at this point, and preferably at no point. But, that is a decision that would have to be made, you know, in next year I would think. The focus now is to continue to encourage people to come forward and get vaccinated. AstraZeneca is there for people to get vaccinated, and there are many points of presence - over 5,000 GPs alone where you can get that done. And so, if people are concerned, as I'm sure they are, as I am, then I'd be encouraging them to go out and get that vaccination.

Journalist: Do you accept, for the many people that are sitting here watching this press conference tonight, some of them are going to be in lockdown areas of Sydney or the Northern Territory, and we are still 18 months into the pandemic, only just dealing with a situation where mandatory vaccinations are being ordered for aged care workers, where mandatory vaccinations are being ordered for quarantine workers - 18 months into the pandemic, and these are key issues only just being sorted out by National Cabinet. How do you explain to them why it's taken this long to sort that out, and do you understand their frustration?

Prime Minister: I certainly understand their frustration when it comes to dealing with this pandemic. The issues of holidays having to be deferred, people having been seriously ill, loved ones having been lost, the disruption to people's businesses and their workplaces, missed birthday parties, funerals, all of these things. We are very conscious of those great frustrations, and the pandemic is still upon us. And I know that when you're maybe midway, maybe further through the course of this pandemic, we can grow tired and we can grow frustrated and we can grow anxious. I understand that. That is a perfectly normal response. 

But, how should we go forward? Do we give in to that, or do we continue to show the same determination that we have showed, particularly over that first year of the pandemic, and more? We were able to come through and Australia was able to achieve a result in saving lives and livelihoods like virtually no other country in the world. I'd be encouraging Australians to hang in there. We’ve got to hang in there. We don't have a choice. The pandemic is still upon us. It's the pandemic, that's the reason why these things are happening, and happening not just in Australia but in all places around the world. When it comes to the issues of mandatory vaccines, this is not something that any government should do lightly, imposing on a person the requirement to have a vaccine or not be able to work in a particular sector is something that no government would do lightly. And, as a result, you know, we have been considering this matter for some time now, based on the best possible medical advice. And it was only at this point this evening, after some determined questioning of the AHPPC by the National Cabinet, and myself in particular, that we have arrived at the position tonight that supports that decision. So we will continue to listen to the medical advice on these issues, but we'll also continue to make decisions and set out the way forward. We will continue to set out that way forward., and I'm very confident that Australians won't give into the frustration, that they will continue to show the great application and effort and patience that we know is required of all of us. Whether you're the Prime Minister or you're driving a cab or you're working in a hospital or you're on a bus or a tram or anywhere else, we’ve got to keep going, Australia. That's my point. We've got to keep going, and I know we will keep going and I know we will get there together, as always. Thank you very much for your attention tonight.