Prime Minister: Thank you, everyone. I'm joined by the Foreign Minister and the Minister for Health again today. We had another successful set of operations last night with four flights. I'll ask the Minister of Foreign Affairs to give you an update on that in a little time from now. Also today in the Parliament, we'll be moving a motion and speaking to it, recognising, of course, the service of Australian men and women who have sacrificed much to serve over the 20 years of our engagement in Afghanistan and also to recognise who continue to serve there right now in the midst of a very dangerous situation as we continue our operations to evacuate both Australians and Afghan nationals for visa holders in Australia and working with our our many partners around the region.
I want to make a number of comments first about our national plan to ensure that we can live with this virus. The national plan we have developed and agreed is our pathway to living with this virus. That is our goal, to live with this virus, not to live in fear of it. It is a plan based on the best possible scientific, medical and economic advice, I would argue, available to any government in the world. We have the best people working on these issues, and it's based on the best evidence that is available to our Government. It is a plan that has been developed very carefully. And I want to stress over many, many months. We began this process earlier this year. We've been through two iterations of the Doherty modelling to produce the national plan targets that were agreed a month or so ago. And indeed, as you will recall, the national plan was first agreed without those targets attached to it, understanding what the steps would need to be. And then with the science guiding our decisions about what those targets should be.
We've been cautious during the pandemic. And that has saved lives and it has saved livelihoods. There's no doubt about that. 30,000 lives saved, a million people back in work as we have combated this virus in all of its strains over this more than 18 months now. But once you get to 70 per cent of your country that is eligible for the vaccine and 80 per cent, the plan sets out that we have to move forward. We cannot hold back. Our task between that day and now is to ensure that we ready ourselves for that next phase. It means that we must continue to vaccinate at the record pace as we are now doing that. We must ensure that our public health systems are ready for the increase in the number of cases that will occur. We must be clear about the rules, the common sense rules that continue to apply post 70 per cent and post 80 per cent, which is factored in to the work that is being done. That has been the basis of our plan. Common sense rules. And we must adjust our mindset. Cases will not be the issue once we get above 70 per cent. Dealing with serious illness, hospitalisation, ICU capabilities, our ability to respond in those circumstances, that will be our goal. And we will live with this virus as we live with other infectious diseases. That's what the national plan is all about, was always about. That's how we designed it and that's how it needs to be implemented. Because the national plan is our deal with all Australians. It is the understanding that we have with Australians making their sacrifices now, and who have made them over such a long time, that that sacrifice will get them to the next step, because if not at 70 per cent and 80 per cent, then when? Then when? We must make that move and we must prepare to make that move and we must prepare the country to make that move. The lockdowns now being endured are taking an extremely heavy toll. Both on the mental and physical health of Australians and on the economic success of Australia. It is taking a heavy toll, and so they must only continue for as long as they are absolutely necessary and not a day more.
It is always darkest before the dawn, and I think these lockdowns are demonstration of that, but the dawn is not far away and we are working towards that dawn and we are hastening towards the dawn. We should not delay it. We should prepare for it. We should not fear it. We should embrace it. And we should move forward together. There will be those who will seek to undermine the national plan. There will be those who will seek to undermine confidence in it. I think their motives are clear. But there are also those who may fear it. And have concerns about what it means when you get to Phase B and what that means in terms of increases in cases. Our goal must be to help people overcome those fears and not give in to them. Because this cannot go on forever, this is not a sustainable way to live in this country, without those freedoms that we all cherish. We understand, all sensible Australians understand, that there has had to be restrictions. There has had to be a curtailment of what we can do during the course of a global pandemic. The virus doesn't respect ideologies. It doesn't respect any of these things. It's just a virus and we have to deal with it. Australians get that. But equally, they also know there has to be a plan out. There is a plan out, and we need to move forward with that plan.
These lockdowns, once we reach our goal, we know on the scientific, medical and economic advice, do more harm than good. And so it's important that we move as quickly as we can to that next phase. And there is strong progress towards that plan. The Health Minister will outline more of this in a moment. 1.8 million vaccines in just the last seven days on a per capita basis. That's on par with the best ever week in the United States and better than the best ever week in the United Kingdom. Australia is hitting those records. In particular, 17.15 million doses have now been administered around the country, and I want to stress that 75 per cent of over 50s have now had their first dose, 85 per cent of over 70s have now had their first dose. Now, this is very important because when we reach 70 per cent, and I had this conversation with the Chief Medical Officer this morning, when we reach 70 per cent, those most vulnerable in the older age groups will have an even higher level of vaccination. And so our concern, of course, in those phases is for the unvaccinated. And that's why we encourage everybody to get vaccinated, but we will know when we hit that 70 per cent and the 80 per cent mark, we will see an even higher level of vaccination rates amongst the most elderly who are the most vulnerable to fatality as a result of COVID-19. So we have the plan. We are making great progress to achieve the goals of that plan. And that's what I think gives Australians great hope to endure through what will still be a difficult time in the months ahead. We need to stay focused. We need to get ready and we need to move ahead.
Now, just briefly, before I pass over to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, last night there were four further flights. One is still in the air, returning to AMAB now. Over 450 people we've been able to evacuate overnight. That brings to over a thousand people together with the United Kingdom, we've been able to evacuate over the course of these operations. And I want to note that that includes not only Australians, but includes a large number of Afghan locally engaged employees and humanitarian visa holders that we've been able to get out of the country. In addition to that, there are many women and children that we've been able to get out of Afghanistan in what has been some of the most extreme conditions our people have ever operated on, operated in, if not worse. And I want to thank them for the work they're doing on the ground. Incredibly difficult work under extraordinary stress. Decisions they're having to make, the care they're having to provide has been truly extraordinary in the best Australian tradition. We have been able over the course of the last few days, and I can't go into too much detail about this, but working with other countries and continuing to do that to expand the ways we're being able to process people to get more people into the airport and onto planes, we will continue to do that in partnership with our with our allies who are working there and ensure that we can get greater uplift in the days we still have remaining as part of these operations. But with that, I'll pass you over to Minister for Foreign Affairs and then the Minister for Health and Aged Care.
Senator the Hon. Marise Payne, Minister for Foreign Affairs: Thanks, PM, and thanks for that acknowledgement of the teams on the ground from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, from Home Affairs, the Australian Border Force and the ADF. As indeed as we've seen from reporting, as we know from our people on the ground, this is a situation that remains extremely volatile and very dangerous. Our top priority continues to be ensuring that safe departure of Australian citizens and visa holders and also working with our friends and partners to support one another's evacuation operations. The most significant challenge continues to be access to Hamid Karzai International Airport. The north gate has been closed for many hours, although we have been able to continue to get people into the airport, our officials on the ground are literally in constant discussions with the US, with NATO representatives about the best ways to move people into the airport. And as the Prime Minister has said previously, the National Security Committee of Cabinet is meeting every day on these matters.
Our continued focus is on bringing out every Australian and Australian visa holder that we possibly can and supporting those vulnerable Afghanis as well to to move if we possibly can. There is, as you will have now seen from public reporting, a discussion going on about the prospect of the United States extending its withdrawal deadline. We are part of those discussions. And if they are to be extended, we are absolutely ready to support a continuing operation at Hamid Karzai International Airport. In the last 24 hours, we have evacuated over 450 people from Kabul on those four ADF flights, including Australian and New Zealand citizens, UK evacuees, Afghan locally engaged employees and visa holders. And since the 18th of August, that total is over 1,000 people again, including Australia and New Zealand nationals, those visa holders and foreign nationals.
The key to this is the cooperation we are strongly engaged in across every element of the activities, evacuating not just Australians and Afghan visa holders for Australia, but people on behalf of the United Kingdom, the United States and New Zealand. One of our ADF flights on the 21st of August carried 210 people uplifted on behalf of the United Kingdom. More flights are planned over the coming days, subject to operational conditions. A chartered plane transporting 175 evacuees made up of Australians, Australian visa holders and passengers evacuated on behalf of New Zealand arrived this morning in Melbourne. That takes our total number of passengers returned to Australia who have been through the Al Minhad process to 271. I want to acknowledge and thank the many colleagues, senators and members right across the Parliament who are advocating for and supporting so many vulnerable people who are attempting to get to the airport in Kabul and inside the airport. The Defence, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Home Affairs and Defence teams are all working to support this effort and to evacuate as many as possible. We have, significant information are being shared amongst parliamentarians, with the departments, with my office, and that is helpful to us and very helpful to the teams on the ground. It is certainly an absolutely punishing environment and complex environment for those trying to get to Hamid Karzai International Airport and to get into the airport. And for those helping them. I think it's fair to say, Prime Minister, that we are thinking of them all.
The Hon. Greg Hunt MP, Minister for Health and Aged Care:Thank very much, Prime Minister and Marise. Every vaccination protects one Australian, but every vaccination protects all Australians. And what we have seen is that yesterday was a record Sunday vaccination day. It was a record weekend. As the Prime Minister said, it was a record week. And each one of those vaccinations protects an individual. But each one of those vaccinations is something that helps protect all Australians. Yesterday, 139,500 Australians were vaccinated, the first time that more than 100,000 people have been vaccinated on a Sunday. But by a long way, on the weekend, 335,500 vaccinations. Over the week, 1,800,011 Australians were vaccinated, which is more than the population of South Australia. And I want to thank everybody for coming forward. These numbers, as the Prime Minister has said, are comparable with some of the highest weekly numbers we've seen around the world. In particular, this was the first time our GPs have done more than a million doses in conjunction with pharmacists over a week. So our primary care outlets, more than a million doses. Our first doses are at 52.8 per cent, our second doses 30.3 per cent, and very significantly over 50s, more than 75 per cent over 60s, more than 80 per cent, over 70s more than 85 per cent. And all of those numbers are progressively increasing. Just to note that there's over 8,200 Commonwealth points of presence, including 5,288 GPs who are vaccinating, 137 Commonwealth Vax clinics, 182 Aboriginal community controlled health organisation sites, and now over 2,500 pharmacies that are out in the field and vaccinating. Each one of those is a Commonwealth AstraZeneca hub. And so just as we look forward this week, there's more than 2.2 million vaccines that have been distributed for use by Australians right now. And over the coming week, we'll be distributing over 2.4 million vaccines for the week beyond. So what that says is that the supply is strong, the distribution is strong, and the uptake is phenomenal. So thank you to every Australian. But please remember the basics. If you are in a lockdown area, stay at home. If you need to be tested, please be tested. And if you're eligible for vaccination, don't hesitate.
Journalist: [Inaudible] Andrew Barr said that he thought Josh Frydenberg was bluffing when he said the Commonwealth would pull assistance for states and territories that lockdown down when vaccination rates reached 70 to 80 per cent. He said that effectively said that your government would not have the political courage to do that in an election year. So can we hear from you, if states and territories do lock down when those thresholds are met, will they have to do it without Commonwealth financial support?
Prime Minister: Well, you’re putting to me a hypothetical situation, with respect. Why wouldn't people want to open up the country when we hit 70 and 80 per cent? That’s my, that’s my point. We’ve agreed a national plan at 70 and 80 per cent based on the best possible medical advice, best possible scientific advice, and best possible economic advice. We have been told very clearly that lockdowns, once you move past that level, come at more cost than gain. And so, it does puzzle me, it puzzles me why anyone would want to go against a plan that has been so carefully prepared based on that advice. So, I think the greater concern in that environment would be that lockdowns would be being applied. That is the greater risk to people in that scenario.
Journalist: Prime Minister, it’s a fair enough question. We’re already seeing Western Australia suggest that they’re prepared to continue with COVID zero. We’ve seen Queensland, as your Minister Karen
Andrews has said this morning, crab walking away from the deal. Are you prepared to show the fortitude and turn off the money tap if they don't open up the door, borders?
Prime Minister: We’re very committed to the national plan and I tell you what, I think Australians are too.
Journalist: Will you turn off the money tap?
Prime Minister: I think seven and to eight out of 10 Australians who’ve taken a decision to go forward, get vaccinated, endure these lockdowns, do what’s been asked of them, I tell you they’ll be expecting that plan to be put in place. And, I think the voices of Australians on this will be very critical. So, let's just see what happens.
Journalist: Prime Minister, you said last week you were shocked at the suggestion someone deployed to Afghanistan could be at all involved in the Brereton inquiry, but there are reports today that someone who was involved in that inquiry has been deployed to Afghanistan. What is your response to that? Is that.
Prime Minister: I won’t make any comment on that.
Journalist: You said that there were people who would seek to undermine the national plan. Are you referring to states like Queensland and WA which have been stepping around, and will you expect them to open up the borders to New South Wales once we hit those 70 and 80 per cent vaccination rates?
Prime Minister: Well, I wasn't specifically referring to anybody. I’m just saying, you know, I’ve been around this place for a long time and when governments put forward plans to get things done there are always those who will seek to undermine it for their own purposes. That happens in this place every day. I suspect it will happen later on in Question Time today. But, my point is simply this, there are a number of things we have to overcome as we go forward with the plan. Of course, there will be those who will undermine it for political purposes, and there’s no great surprise about that and Australians will judge them accordingly. But, I think there are, I mentioned one particularly, and that there are those who might fear what would happen after 70 per cent, and I understand that. I understand people will be concerned that cases may rise, and what will that mean. And, that leads to the next issue, and that is there’ll be those, well, will our public health systems be able to deal with that. Again, a very legitimate issue. So, that's my point. To realise the plan at 70 per cent and 80 per cent, the task is not to walk away, the task is not to delay, the task is not to fear, the task is to embrace, prepare, plan, ensure that we are in a position to do that. Now, we’ve got time to achieve that and already we’re seeing our public health system stand up very strongly, and I would envisage that in the time we have between now and when we reach those targets that there will be the opportunity to reinforce those plans, for states and territories to know that they will be able to deal with this, because we have to deal with it. Otherwise, we stay in the cave forever. And, that's not a sustainable solution. And, so, at some point, and we have nominated what that point is, we must go to the next level. Chris.
Journalist: [Inaudible] hospital system. Last year when we were locking down the whole point was to fortify the hospital system, to make sure we had the ICU beds, the ventilators, the consumables. So, perhaps through you to the Health Minister as well, is all that in place? Do we have, cause you’ve noted that case numbers will increase, obviously the pressure will increase, is the hospital system ready?
Prime Minister: Yeah, we review this almost on a daily basis, and we certainly review it as part of the formal process through the National Cabinet every Friday, and the Secretary of the Department of Health goes through that exercise and looks at all the various capacities, right across the states and territories, their current levels of utilisation. There is a document called the ‘Common operating picture’ which looks at many of the pressures that go into this system, and that is regularly reviewed, and that has been happening for a very long time. Because, you’re right, they were the first issues that were identified 18 months ago and we have never taken our gaze off that because, at the end of the day, that is what most supports Australians and provides that backstop. So, you know, workforce issues, plans of supporting in the contingency, circumstances of cases, I don't mean COVID cases, I mean situations where states may need further help or assistance or whatever, that needs to be worked through, in the same way that we work national disasters and things like that nature, and the states work together to bring the resources to where they need to go. That’s the work. That work enables us to live with the virus. Avoiding the day when we hit those rates and I want to stress, I’ve put no faith in a calendar. There’s no freedom day here. That’s not what my plan is. I mean, a day is not going to change it. Seventy per cent’s going to change it. Eighty per cent’s going to change it. That’s the day you get to. That’s what actually drives the decision about when you can go to the next step. Now, I’m all for freedom, and the passage to that is based on clearing those gates of 70 per cent and 80 per cent. What day we will hit that? As soon as we possibly can. But, Greg, did you want to add to that?
The Hon. Greg Hunt MP, Minister for Health and Aged Care: Yeah, so just in terms of the hospital system, last year the states and territories, in conjunction with the Commonwealth, I think did an extraordinary job in building that surge capacity for 7,500 ventilated beds. At the moment, on the advice that I have before me, it’s 36 people in ventilation. That figure will be updated during the morning as the state figures come in. But, what we have done is create both a sustainable base and a surge capacity, and that surge capacity which was put in place last year, these were some of the earliest discussions we had around the NSC in February of 2020 and building that, acquiring the ventilation, working with ResMed, working with international partners means that we have a strong, robust system.
Prime Minister: Clare.
Journalist: Prime Minister, 13 of 17 special forces soldiers have been quietly told that their show-cause notice has been withdrawn. Why wasn't this, in relation to the Brereton inquiry, why wasn't this publicly announced by Government or the Department of Defence given how high-profile the approach was when they were initially accused?
Prime Minister: Well, the points that you make I think are very relevant, and it just goes to show that there are people making assumptions about these issues and shouldn't be making those assumptions, and there is a proper process we've set up to deal with these matters and that will be, that will be followed. What I do know is there are brave Australians in Kabul right now bringing people to freedom. That's what they're doing, and they have my total respect and I'm not going to put up with aspersions being cast against their character, and I don't think other Australians will too. I think they’ll take a very dim view of that approach.
Journalist: Can I clarify something, sorry, just in relation to Afghanistan. We have reports now from a family that say their family member actually was killed working for Australia as an interpreter. They were taken out by the US, they couldn't get on an Australian plane. They’re now in Berlin and they’ve actually been told they may be resettled in Uganda. Is that acceptable to you, and what options would a family like that have for resettlement, and how many other families may be in a similar situation?
Prime Minister: Well, Marise, the Foreign Minister, might want to comment on this as well. We’re evacuating Brits, we’re evacuating New Zealanders, we’ve offered to evacuate nationals and including Afghan visa holders from other countries as well, to get them out. And, so, we’re all working together to get people out. That’s the priority right now, to get people out of Afghanistan. Now, where an individual may have a claim to enter into under Australia's humanitarian program or a locally-engaged employee program, they will be much better able to do that from another place. Now, where they could advance that nomination, they could advance that application. And so, we’ll deal with that on a case-by-case basis. But the key thing is, for any refugee and any person who is seeking to flee persecution, is you get them out of the place of persecution. That's what the, that's what the UNHCR Convention actually provides for, to get people out of a place where they may face persecution. And, that's what's happening right now, not just by Australians who are there serving the interests of, of those who need to get out. But, that's what the British are doing. That's what the Americans are doing. That's what the Germans are doing. That's what the French are doing. That's what so many countries are doing, and we're doing it together. And, so, we will continue to work on where people may ultimately be resettled. And, that is a discussion that I had with Prime Minister Johnson last week, that there will be those who are known and a settlement path can be, can be identified, and there'll be many, particularly as we're noting how we're being very careful about who gets on our planes and we're going through as many proper checks as we possibly can in that environment, but Five Eyes community will need to be, you know, involved in this. One of the issues we discussed last week is not repeating, I think, some of the mistakes of what occurred many years ago after the the surge, irregular movement and indeed illegal movement of people across Europe. And, of course, we've faced that here in Australia. So, we're all conscious of that and doing with that as humanely and as effectively as we can. Marise, did you want to add anything to that?
Senator the Hon. Marise Payne, Minister for Foreign Affairs: Prime Minister, every single country which is operating in Afghanistan right now is trying to remove as many people as they possibly can to the safest place they possibly can. The networks that we have through Home Affairs, through the normal immigration networks, whether it's Five Eyes or into the European Union and other partners, are networks that we will use, following the processes of evacuation, to ensure that we're able to support those who are seeking to come into, seeking to come to Australia.
Journalist: At 80 per cent, there'll still be millions of Australians who aren't vaccinated. Is your message to those who choose not to be vaccinated that they're on their own? But, what about the children who haven't had the opportunity to be vaccinated. Aren't they then being exposed to the risk of catching COVID? What are the long-term health effects on them? And, what about the other people who have medical reasons not to be vaccinated? How do you protect those people?
Prime Minister: Well, let me start with the latter group. They are in the same category as many Australians who can't be vaccinated against many infectious diseases. And, Greg may want to add to that. So, achieving a high level of vaccination across the population is their best protection. That's what actually protects them, and that's why that's important that we, as Greg says, it's not just you you're protecting by getting vaccinated, but it’s certainly others in your own family, in your own community, but particularly the most vulnerable, who, as you rightly say, for medical reasons, may not be able to have vaccinations. And, that's true for every single vaccination. In relation to children, youth, the, we will expect to see a more detailed plan by the end of this week, between General Frewen and the states, about mobilising that vaccination of 12 to 15-year-olds. Now, we'll have plenty of vaccines to do that job, and and we will get about that task, and that is very important to do, along with the broader task of vaccinating to 70 and 80 per cent of the population aged over 16. So, that will be done, and that will be done swiftly. Last week we discussed it. Everybody of the same view, start it as soon as you can and certainly get it done as soon as you can as well. And, so, whether that means school based vaccination programs, family based vaccinations, all of these things are being worked through right now so we can roll that out. And, I see that happening concurrently with the, with the surge towards 70 and 80 per cent.
The last point I'd make, though, is that there is no country in the world, the Chief Medical Officer advised me this morning, who right now is vaccinating children under the age of 12. No one's doing that. And, there are a range of issues that are being worked through, there are a range of trials that we understand that are being undertaken. There is no vaccine that is, has been approved for administering to those under that age group. And, so, I'm sure that Australian parents, me included, I have a 12 year old daughter, who would be wanting to know that all of those boxes are ticked and carefully assessed before we move, and if we move into that phase. But, that will be driven completely by the medical advice on those issues. But, I want to assure all parents, I can assure you that as well as getting 70 and 80 per cent of the population vaccinated for those aged over 16, we are equally, equally ensuring that we address those aged 12 to 15. But, I remind you again of the advice of the Chief Medical Officer the best protection for your children is for you to get vaccinated, your household to get vaccinated, the people that your children come in contact with to get vaccinated. So, I would encourage Australians to do that. Greg, did you want to add anything to that?
The Hon. Greg Hunt MP, Minister for Health and Aged Care: Yeah, so look, just briefly in terms of youth, the bookings open next Monday, so a week from today for the 16 to 39 year olds. Secondly, in terms of 12 to 15 year olds, we already have those who are immunocompromised or with underlying medical conditions. I can announce today, after consultation with General Frewen and in particular Brendan Murphy and and Linda Reynolds this morning, Minister Reynolds, that we will be opening up as of Wednesday for children 12 to 15 with, who are on the NDIS, who have not been qualified as an otherwise underlying medical condition. I think that's an important protection. Linda Reynolds was passionate about this and we're moving to do that. That covers 40,000 children. And, then finally, in terms of the balance of children, 12 to 15, that is with ATAGI. We're expecting advice by the end of the week. We are quietly hopeful that that will be a double green light after the TGA, and then we're ready to, to move on on that advice in the timeframe they recommend.
Journalist: If you choose not to be vaccinated, they’re on their own, right?
Prime Minister: Well, this is why with any vaccination you achieve as high levels as you possibly can, because even those who don't choose to get the vaccine are protected to a degree by the fact that the broader population is, is more generally vaccinated. But, my my plea to them is to protect yourself, protect your family, protect your fellow Australians and please get vaccinated. It’s not a mandatory vaccination policy in this country, except for in very specific circumstances. But, for those who choose not to do that, well, they are putting themselves, based on our medical advice, at personal health risk. And, and so we're providing that opportunity for every Australian to be able to get that vaccine. Whether they choose to do that and thereby take on the greater risks of not being vaccinated, then that is also a choice they're making. Kath.
Journalist: Can I just clarify, in terms of the 70 per cent, are you still happy reopening at 70 per cent if if, if cases at that point are significant enough to make contact tracing less effective? Because the Doherty Report says that if cases are high enough to make contact tracing ineffective, that at 70 per cent prolonged lockdowns may still be necessary. So, what's your position on that?
Prime Minister: Well, the plan talks about are highly targeted and unlikely for lockdowns post 70 per cent, and 80 per cent it goes further than that. And, the advice that we've had from Professor McVernon over the course of the weekend that the starting point does not influence the overall conclusions of the model. There is further sensitivity work that's being done around that. But, the point that we've also been making is that's why we're seeking to constrain as much as possible the number of cases while we're still in a phase where we are now. Phase A is still a suppression phase. There is no conflict between me saying to you that lockdowns, you know, once we hit 70 and 80 per cent, do more harm than good. And, the point right now when we're at our current level, where they remain, are regrettably necessary part of how we're seeking to manage our COVID response. There's no conflict between those two things. That is based on what is occurring and the health situation at those two different points in time. But, the advice that we have to this point is that, of course, we can go ahead with that, because if not at that point, was it at 70.16? Obviously, the issue once you reach those marks is how you manage it beyond that point, and you build your capacity to live with the virus. And, the clear point I'm making to Australians today is that is where we're going. That is where we all want to go. There will be risk attached to it. But, there is also risk by remaining stuck where we are. We have to break this cycle. The national plan is the way to cut through and for us to emerge from that. This groundhog day has to end, and it will end when we start getting to 70 per cent and 80 per cent. Thank you all very much.
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