Joint press conference

  • Joint transcript, E&OE
  • The Hon. Scott Morrison MP, Prime Minister
  • Senator the Hon. Marise Payne, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Minister for Women
Subjects: Novel coronavirus, travel restrictions from China, travel advice for China.
01 February 2020

PRIME MINISTER: We're taking further action in relation to the coronavirus today which I want 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 from what is an escalating threat and a constantly changing situation. Earlier today, the Australian Health Protection Principal 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 novel coronavirus infection from today, 1 February 2020, to apply to people from all of mainland China.

I mean, this is essentially addressing the issue of human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus outside the Hubei province across the rest of mainland China. They recommended DFAT increase travel advice to level 4 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, are 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 1 February, today.

With the exception of Australian citizens, permanent residents and their immediate family and air crews who have been using appropriate personal protective equipment – and this applies 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 has changed. What that means is if you've come from mainland China at any time after 1 February then you'll 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'll not be permitted entry into Australia and the arrangements are being put in place through our border authorities to ensure that that can be actioned.

In addition to that, there'll 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'll also be thermometers which are provided to those airports and we're working with those airport authorities now to ensure we can put those arrangements in place.

That means there'll be flights 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 immediate threat is low but we need to get these arrangements in place as soon as possible. So from 1 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 was 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 were able to meet, the recommendations could be made and the National Security Committee this afternoon to make these important decisions and then task the various agencies to implement those decisions, and I have had the opportunity to speak to all the Premiers and Chief Ministers on this matter.

I have also been in quite regular contact with the Prime Minister of New Zealand as we often operate common border arrangements and we're seeking to ensure they're aligned and I'll leave it to New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to make any further announcements about what they'll be doing. I'm going to hand over to the Foreign Minister who has been working closely on this issue and particularly in relation to the operation of assisted departures out of Wuhan.

FOREIGN MINISTER: 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 4, which is ‘Do not travel.’ Other countries, including likeminded 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 and 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 finalised and finally agreed soon and we are proceeding on that basis. We have 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 assure Australians we're taking the necessary precautions. We're in fact operating with an abundance of caution in these circumstances. So Australians can go about their daily lives with confidence. We're acting here in advance of many countries in terms of when similar type of arrangements are being put in place.

We're 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 are being taken with an abundance of caution, so Australians can remain calm and be able to get on with their daily lives and daily business and we want to encourage them to do just that. Happy to take questions.

REPORTER: Would you consider suspending all incoming flights not just foreign nationals but in general will you be able to stop - will you consider stopping all flights from mainland China (SPEAKS INDISTINCTLY).

PRIME MINISTER: That is not the advice to us at the moment from the medical professionals. This enables Australians to be able to return and go through that process of self-isolation. There are many Australians who have been 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 has 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 with Chinese authorities. 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.

REPORTER: Do you say that only Australians living there are allowed to fly back from China?

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

REPORTER: Is this a new announcement?

PRIME MINISTER: Yes.

REPORTER: New from now?

PRIME MINISTER: Yes, yes.

REPORTER: (INDISTINCT) are you seeing this are from this?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, our first priority is the health and wellbeing and welfare of Australians. When it comes to the 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 of the commencement of courses, the providing of courses online in the initial phases, the delaying of orientation weeks. Many universities are 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 a further decision and announcement will be made what happens post that period.

REPORTER: Can you tell us what will happen to the people already in the air prior to the announcement be made, non-citizens?

PRIME MINISTER: In a few hours they'll board planes and that's why with the Chief Medical Officer we have provided the discretion to the Border Force commissioner to deal with the cases as they present. There'll be enhanced screening facilities for the flights tomorrow. This risk from this point starting from 1 February is low as they've described it but their expectation is it will raise in the days and weeks ahead.

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 - but within 24 hours our advice is that they'll be able to step up those processes throughout the international channels far more effectively.

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

PRIME MINISTER: I'll leave that to the minister.

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

REPORTER: It has been a controversial decision to put Australian citizens on Christmas Island. How confident are you that it was the right decision?

PRIME MINISTER: Absolutely confident, and I don't agree that it is a controversial decision. I agree that it is the right decision. We have those facilities in place to support people over that two-week period, which I think will give Australians the greatest level confidence about the quarantine that we have been able to establish. There has 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, when we are taking people from the most affected part of China, which is 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 and 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.

REPORTER: (INAUDIBLE QUESTION).

PRIME MINISTER: We have implemented everything they have recommended.

REPORTER: This might be a question for the Foreign Minister, but how many Australians are in Wuhan, and will they be going to Darwin first and then Christmas Island?

FOREIGN MINISTER: There is a significant number of Australians in Wuhan, families and dependents, and 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. But it is something that my consular team have literally been working on day and night and that continues. The arrangements for the flights, they continue to be made. I'm not going to go into any further detail in relation to those, they are matters we are working through with Qantas.

REPORTER: If foreign nationals arrive on flights in the next couple of hours, will they be kept in quarantine and then sent back, because Qantas has announced they are suspending the direct flights to mainland China...

PRIME MINISTER: From the ninth, I think.

REPORTER: Yes. But after that, is...(INAUDIBLE).

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 are coming through a third port, a third country. They would be asked on check-in whether they had been in mainland China since the 1 February. If they do not honestly answer that question, but subsequently it is revealed on the journey to Australia or when they present at the airport, then they would be placed in an alternative place in detention in the quarantine period. 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 how to handle the arrangements in the morning.

REPORTER: Has there been a discussion about how this news will go down in China? Are there any diplomatic issues the government is considering? (INAUDIBLE).

PRIME MINISTER: Our first responsibility is Australians and Australia's national interests, and that means the health of Australians and their well-being and that is what is driving our decisions. But I will ask the Foreign Minister to add to this answer. Obviously we appreciate the challenges that the Chinese government are facing at the moment with this very serious issue, and we do thank them for the engagement that we have had.

FOREIGN MINISTER: Indeed, we have worked constructively with China throughout this crisis in terms of the decisions they have had to make in managing their own internal arrangements, and we have seen, as you know, significant travel restrictions in place in China internally. They have also made announcements in the last few days around international travel advice for their own citizens and their own country. So that work goes on both here in Australia 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, particularly the health authorities.

We also have a significant priority 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 we are very conscious of.

I am very grateful for the constructive approach that the Chinese authorities, and the Embassy here in Canberra, have taken to our engagement on these issues. It is a very difficult time. There is absolutely no question about that - a very difficult time for China, for its citizens, for Australians who are currently in China, who have family in China, and indeed for the international community. It is a significant period of disruption and we are very conscious of that and are endeavouring to work as constructively as we can.

REPORTER: Flights have been coming in from China for the last few days. Hundreds of people have been arriving. Where are those people now? Are we monitoring them?

PRIME MINISTER: I am glad you asked that question, because the advice of all the chief medical officers, that people who had been in mainland China prior to today are not presenting that risk. That is their advice. But 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 province as a proportion of the population, is very low. And from many places, the concentration is even lower from places they may have been within 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 province into mainland China, they have said that has not resented a risk, and that is why they have not recommended the action they have recommended today.

REPORTER: (INAUDIBLE QUESTION). Why has Australia gone beyond such advice?

PRIME MINISTER: Our medical advice was it was in the interests of Australians to do so.

REPORTER: There has been reports in the last few days about reports of racism towards members of the Asian community in response to the outbreak. What is your response to that? Should they be supported?

PRIME MINISTER: I think all communities should be supported and that is why I have sought to say to Australians that it is important to remain calm about this. I mean, we have the best medical facilities in the best preparations in the best way of managing and maintaining things anywhere in the world. That is what we have seen. We have a handful of cases in Australia. In fact we have two cases that have been confirmed, where people have now been discharged. We have had no fatalities in relation to this in Australia. We are a big country. We have many ways to contain this. It is important people 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 is certainly what the government is doing to ensure that we keep Australians safe and to keep Australians safe, we have also got to keep each other calm. Thanks very much.

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