Interview with Neil Mitchell

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Coronavirus crisis, Australians in Wuhan
27 January 2020

Neil Mitchell:

On the line is the Foreign Minister, Marise Payne. Good morning.

Marise Payne:

Good morning, Neil.

Neil Mitchell:

Will you consider closing the borders?

Marise Payne:

Well Neil, I think the management that we have in place through the work of the Chief Medical Officer and the state and territory health departments is effectively dealing with those challenges in particular. And of course in recent days, the Chinese authorities have placed very strict travel restrictions around Wuhan itself and the province so …

Neil Mitchell:

[Talks over] Okay. So it’s not necessary to close the borders?

Marise Payne:

In my view, that's correct. But of course these matters are always kept under review. But that would be a very significant thing.

Neil Mitchell:

What about bringing the children — the Australian children — back? I know the US has sent in planes to get out their consular people. Are we looking into evacuating anybody?

Marise Payne:

We are actually in consultations right now. The teleconference is under way, consular officials in discussions with our partners in China, internationally, Five Eyes groups and so on, and Chinese authorities to see what is possible. Any steps that have to be taken must be done with the agreement of the Chinese authorities. So whether that’s charter flights or other actions — we're not sure what yet is possible — but we have that discussion underway. I'd also say though …

Neil Mitchell:

[Interrupts] So sorry, is the — I'm not clear. Is the aim to get the children back?

Marise Payne:

Well, that depends what the Chinese authorities say is possible. If we are able to support Australians to travel if they wish to leave, then we would like to do that. But that is a matter under discussion. This is an incredibly fast-moving situation.

Neil Mitchell:

Of course. But if you did that, and these kids are a focus, of course, a hundred of them. If you did that, would you put them into quarantine for a couple of weeks?

Marise Payne:

Well, the health authorities would make decisions in relation to that. But that is part of the discussion that has to be determined. Then you have to work out where that would occur and under what supervisory processes and so on. And may I just say in relation to the numbers, we don't have a definitive number on the number of Australians in Wuhan or in Hubei province, because it will include a significant number of dual nationals, some of whom may not have travelled on Australian passports. They've travelled on Chinese passports, for example. Providing that figure is difficult. So one thing we are doing is strongly encouraging Australians who believe they have family in the affected area to contact our consular emergency line. And if you are- if we're able at the end of this discussion, perhaps I could provide that number on air.

Neil Mitchell:

Sure. Well, you can give it to me now and I'll make sure I mention it through the morning.

Marise Payne:

Thank you, I’d appreciate that. The DFAT consular emergency line is 1300 555 135 in Australia. And if you do need to call from overseas, the number is of course +61 2 6261 3305. And contact made to those numbers will help us in identifying the number of people that we are dealing with here.

Neil Mitchell:

If there’s going to be evacuations, it has to be quick, doesn’t it?

Marise Payne:

Well, we would not want to delay that process, if it is possible. Other countries have a similar view and that's why we are in close discussions with them as well.

Neil Mitchell:

Okay. The- you trust the information we're getting out of China?

Marise Payne:

Yes. I think there is a lot of work also being done by the World Health Organisation to ensure that appropriate and accurate information provided by the Chinese authorities is being shared — as it normally would be — around the world, including with Australian authorities. So yes, I do. And we are working closely with Chinese authorities in country. We don't have a consular presence in Wuhan itself, so we're doing that from our consulate in Shanghai and our embassy in Beijing.

Neil Mitchell:

Any imports from China affect- we do import a bit of food, anything affected?

Marise Payne:

That is not my understanding. No, no effect in that context.

Neil Mitchell:

I was talking earlier to a WHO adviser who said he finds it all a bit scary. Do you agree?

Marise Payne:

Well, I think any large epidemic of this nature is very concerning. And one of the reasons for that — and we've seen it even in our own region recently with the uptick in the number of measles cases, in Samoa for example — we travel so readily now across the world, at the drop of a hat every single day, not just Australians but the world's population is incredibly mobile. So movement of conditions such as this is facilitated in a way that was not the case even 10 years ago. So the arrangements that countries put in place and that organisations like the World Health Organisation are part of are very, very important. And that's why we absolutely encourage people to observe the travel advice, to subscribe in Australia to our Smart Traveller advice so that they do get updates. It's very important.

Neil Mitchell:

You said this is under constant review. By whom? I mean, have you got have a special committee of Cabinet or does it involve the Cabinet? Who does it?

Marise Payne:

It's very actively involving the Cabinet from the Prime Minister down, including the Health Minister and myself, of course. And then the Chief Medical Officer convenes a senior group across Australia. So health professional- health officials from the states and territories. The Minister for Health has also convened a meeting of state and territory health ministers on Saturday to do exactly the sorts of things that we're talking about today.

Neil Mitchell:

Sorry, next Saturday or last Saturday?

Marise Payne:

No, yesterday — the day before yesterday.

Neil Mitchell:

Okay, okay. Thank you. Look, is the information you're getting, is the advice you're getting that further infections are inevitable in Australia?

Marise Payne:

Well I think the Chief Medical Officer said that yesterday, that he believed there would be further infections. But our processes at the border and with the authorities — the biosecurity authorities in particular — are very focused on making sure that those arriving have the information that they need and that they present to health officials if any issue arises which resembles …

Neil Mitchell:

[Interrupts] But we have upgraded from the piece of paper they were being given, haven’t we? They’re now being- are they now being met by medical staff?

Marise Payne:

Yes, they are. So biosecurity staff are meeting with health officials, those passengers who are arriving from all flights from China.

Neil Mitchell:

Thank you very much for your time. I know you're very busy, thank you. Marise Payne, the Foreign Minister.

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