Press conference, ABC News, ABC News at Noon

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: coronavirus, terrorist attack in London, Richard Di Natale’s resignation.

Marise Payne: Good afternoon. I just wanted to provide a brief update on matters surrounding the coronavirus. Let me start by confirming that we have been able to provide assisted departure of Australians from Wuhan this morning, and that has been successful and the aircraft is en route back to Australia. I particularly want to thank the Government of China and their authorities for a very cooperative approach to this assisted departure, and also to thank Qantas, of course, the staff who have put up their hands for the operation and also our diplomats and consular officials who frankly have been working around the clock to make this happen, including the team who especially travelled into Wuhan last week to organise the logistics on the ground. Our consular team were also able to help Australians to reach the airport by facilitating their movement through road blocks in Wuhan.

It’s obviously a very complex process. This has been a very orderly exercise and I want to thank all those involved for that. We’ve been able to assist 243 Australian citizens and permanent residents. As we foreshadowed, we have prioritised vulnerable and isolated Australians, which is reflected in the fact that 89 of the Australians on the flight are aged under 16 and that includes five infants under two. The Qantas flight has also successfully delivered a significant quantity of medical protection supplies to support China in battling this virus. That includes specialised face masks, protective suits, goggles, gloves, those sorts of things. We’ve done this very carefully, very responsibly, with an absolute focus on the health and safety of all Australians, both at home and abroad.

I also note, on another matter, and extend our sympathies to those in the UK who have endured yet another terrorist attack in London today. It is a reminder to us here and in our region that the threat posed by violent Islamist extremism, internationalised extremism and radicalised individuals remains very real. That is why Australia of course continues to work closely with our partners in the United Kingdom and elsewhere to combat violent extremism both overseas and at home.

And I would also note that during the morning today, we have seen an announcement by the leader of the Australian Greens, Richard Di Natale, that he intends to stand down and to leave the Senate. I've been working in the Senate with Richard Di Natale since 2011. I want to acknowledge his service and wish him and his family all the very best for the future.

I'm going to ask the Chief Medical Officer to also provide an update.

Brendan Murphy: Thank you, Minister. So, just a general update on the coronavirus situation: current numbers, there are 17,386 reported cases, 362 deaths – all but one of which is in China – 181 cases outside of China including the now 12 confirmed cases in Australia. There's no further confirmed cases in Australia and as you’ve heard, three of the cases in New South Wales have been discharged and are free of virus. The death rate is still around 2 per cent, the severity rate is still around 18 per cent, and most of the growth is in the Hubei province of China.

I would just like to provide clarity around the requirements for isolation for people coming out of other parts of China than Hubei province. As you know, we’ve had, for some time, a requirement that people who have come from Hubei province all should self-isolate for 14 days. The requirements for isolation for people from other provinces of China apply only to people who have left or transited through China from 1 February. So, on or after 1 February. So if somebody has come from China on 28 January, spent four or five days in another country and come to Australia, they will not be denied entry and they will not be required to self-isolate. The reason for that is that it was only on 1 February that our epidemiological data was such that the growth in numbers outside of Hubei province was such that we now believe that human-to-human transmission is occurring in those other provinces, but the numbers are still relatively low and the risk for people coming from those provinces is still very, very low but we are being absolutely cautious and extending our case definition to all of China and extending those quarantine arrangements. So it's only for people who left China on or after 1 February.

Thank you, Minister.

Marise Payne: Thank you very much, Brendan.

Ladies and gentlemen, any questions?

Journalist: Minister, there was a six-hour delay or so to the flight getting out of Wuhan. What was the reason for that?

Marise Payne: I understand it is a very intensive process to manage the immigration and boarding arrangements. Obviously, there were also requirements for Chinese medical examinations in terms of temperature and so on, which is very much part now, unfortunately, of everyday life in Wuhan. So, that process takes some time. Also checking, of course, boarding arrangements and the immigration details of over 200 people in what is a very sensitive process.

Journalist: Minister and also professor, could I ask what is the latest advice on how long the China travel ban might have to last? I think, at the moment, it's slated to go until 31 March. Is that right? And could it go much longer? What is the advice on that?

Marise Payne: The Government’s announcement was that we would put this in place for two weeks and that it would be reviewed. But I’ll ask Brendan ...

Brendan Murphy: [Talks over] Correct. That’s the Government position. But clearly, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee meets every day and updates the advice to Government, and Government has said that- and has adhered absolutely to the expert advice. But I can't believe that it would be reviewed before the two-week period that’s been announced by the Prime Minister.

Journalist: Just knowing what you know about the virus, do you think this is the sort of thing that is going to be all over in two weeks or, you know, are we looking at potentially much longer travel bans on visitors from China?

Brendan Murphy: I think it's really hard to tell at the moment. It all depends on how well the Chinese government can control the outbreak particularly in Hubei and particularly in the rest of China. The reality is though that the Chinese authorities have already started to reduce travel from China and if the outbreak spreads further in other provinces, they are likely to restrict anyway, so the travel ban perhaps is less important, when the Chinese are restricting exit anyway.

Journalist: Just to be clear on the restrictions in terms of people returning from China, a lot of them are international students for example, if they were to travel now to a third country that would accept them, would that count as part of their 14-day period?

Brendan Murphy: Fourteen days since they left China. So that is- so if they went to another country for 14 days, they would be fine to come to Australia if they were well.

Journalist: Is that something you might advise international students who are looking to get here as quickly as possible?

Brendan Murphy: No, I think international students are obviously, being advised by the universities, they’re looking at all sorts of options such as online study in the short term, so I'm not providing specific advice to international students.

Journalist: Minister, there’s been commentary around I guess sort of a racist- racism element to the thing sort of around, you know, travel bans and treatment of sort of Chinese people, people of Chinese heritage in Australia and other countries and things like that - suggestions that if something like this had happened in a European country, we wouldn't be taking these sorts of steps on travel bans. And so do you have sort of, a response to those sorts of issues being circulated?

Marise Payne: Well I would indicate, first of all, that every single step that the government has taken in recent weeks has been absolutely at the advice of the medical professionals and is founded only in the advice of medical professionals to deal with the spread of the novel coronavirus that we are now facing. Absolutely only founded in medical advice and any suggestion otherwise I absolutely reject.

I would also say to Australians, and in fact this would apply more broadly, that this is a very difficult time for many people. We know that there are families who are separated, there are families who are isolated, there are, as a previous questioner has suggested, there are many, many international students who want to be part of continuing their education here in Australia. So whilst it is a difficult time, I think we would seek support and understanding from all Australians across communities to those that are having to deal with these challenges.

We have taken the utmost precautions based on the health advice that Dr Murphy and his colleagues from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee have provided to Commonwealth and to State and Territory governments. We have ensured that Australians are as well-protected as we possibly can be. And so any extreme behaviour or negative behaviour, such as that you have referred to, is something which we would actively discourage. It's not necessary, we are working very hard to protect Australians and, in fact, what we need at this point in time as well as the best possible protections, is a little bit of understanding and a little bit of support for communities who are dealing with some significant challenges.

Journalist: Can you talk us through what the process will be like when people going to Christmas Island make it through to the 14 days? Will they have to book their own return flights to Australia? Will they get help or will they have to pay for it themselves?

Marise Payne: They’ll be supported to the return to the mainland. They will then fly from there to their ports- their home ports.

Journalist: Will that happen on individual cases or will they be the same group of people that will return in one flight to the other?

Marise Payne: Well, not everybody lives in the same place. So obviously, they’ll be going to different locations and that will be determined when we come to the end of the 14 days.

Journalist: Minister, on another topic. Earlier in January …

Marise Payne: [Interrupts] Can we just see if there's any more questions in relation to ...

Journalist: [Interrupts] Has there been anymore feedback from the Chinese government on the travel ban?

Marise Payne: Feedback? Well, we’re obviously speaking regularly to Chinese authorities, both in Beijing and here in Canberra. I think there is understanding that this is a significant international challenge and that Australia has taken steps very similar to many of our counterparts - Singapore, New Zealand, the United States and so on and that our steps and our decision-making is absolutely predicated in the advice that we have received from senior health professionals who support Government in these considerations. That includes the raising of our travel advice to level four. Do not travel at this point in time. We will be guided through this process in every step of the way by Dr Murphy and the Health Principal Protection team.

Journalist: Minister, have you had any request to use Australian facilities on Christmas Island to quarantine Pacific travellers to and from Pacific countries from China? I mean, is there any possibility that it could be- we could offer Christmas Island as a quarantine place for other nations?

Marise Payne: We are having discussions with countries that have nationals who are stuck in- who are in Wuhan and subject to travel restrictions. If they came to the Australian mainland then the ex- to Australia I’m sorry as part of a removal, the expectation would be that they would quarantine also for 14 days, and the expectation would be that would occur at Christmas Island.

Journalist: Do you have plans for another flight? For several other flights? Or what [indistinct]-

Marise Payne: We will consider what might be necessary. We are very pleased we have been able to uplift 243 passengers on this flight and thank, as I said, all those involved in making that possible, including the authorities in China. But we’ll consider what might be necessary and I’ll brief the Prime Minister.

Journalist: There are some people making their way to Wuhan at the moment in expectation of a second flight. Are you saying that they might not have a second flight?

Marise Payne: I’m saying that the government will consider what might be necessary.

Journalist: Doctor, if someone gets diagnosed with the virus on Christmas Island sort of thing because of quarantine windows and things like that, does that mean the 14 days would start again for everyone else?

Brendan Murphy: Yeah, that's a good question. So the plan is to cohort people in small family groups so that they, they’re not- there won't be a full mingling so that the whole group doesn't have to stay. If someone does get unwell their family might have to start again for 14 days but we wouldn't want to expose the whole group to get to that. The team on Christmas Island, the advanced medical team from AUSMAT are planning all of those eventualities to make it easier for people. Obviously you can't separate families but we will try and keep people in as small possible groups as possible and avoid close contact with others so that if anyone does get sick, we limit any necessary further quarantine.

Journalist: So the 240 people, they’re being kept separate now when they get to Christmas Island? They won't be able to sort of sit together in a rec room or anything like that?

Brendan Murphy: If they are contacting each other they would need to wear protective things like a mask. The risk – as we’ve said on many, many occasions – the risk for well people transmitting this virus, we think, is very low. The major risk is people who are unwell. So the critical thing for the Christmas Island people is to avoid close contact with others, but if anyone becomes unwell to immediately properly isolate them and all the facilities are set up to do that.

Journalist: Minister this flight seemed to take longer to be organised for Australia than for some other countries – and I think even Turkey got its people, or its arrangements in place before us. Was there any problems that arose because of the state of our bilateral relationship?

Marise Payne: None, whatsoever. In fact our engagement with the Chinese authorities and the Chinese government has been cooperative and constructive. We have been making arrangements in terms of the period of time for which those Australians would be quarantined on Christmas Island. We needed to plan that very carefully to ensure we’re keeping all Australians safe. I'm very pleased we've been able to assist 243 Australians, and in fact some very small children as I said, and a large number of young people to return to Australia.

Journalist: You gained some extra concessions in that residents were allowed to return. Talk us through that process. Is that over and above what other countries have been able to achieve?

Marise Payne: Well, we have been discussing with authorities in China, those who fitted into the category that Australia identified as being prepared and able to return. The Chinese authorities have been very helpful in that regard. So it is, I think, a total of 200 Australian citizens and 43 permanent residents.

Journalist: Minister, earlier in January, Greg Hunt wrote to the Victorian government and revealed he’s lobbied Michael Sukkar to include new questions in the census on gender and sexuality. Do you have a personal position on that? Whether LGBTI Australian’s should be counted in the census?

Marise Payne: I'm not familiar with the correspondence. I might talk to Minister Hunt and Minister Sukkar about that.

Journalist: The general issue about whether or not gender and sexuality should be included in the census?

Marise Payne: That's not something I have turned my mind to and I might talk to Mr Hunt about that.

Journalist: What about the Chief Medical Officer? Do you have a view about whether that would improve health outcome?

Brendan Murphy: [Interrupts] I don't think that's something I should be commenting on at the moment, no.

Journalist: Just quickly, on the next steps from here will the- will they be taken from the RAAF base by military planes to Christmas Island?

Marise Payne: Yes.

Journalist: Or will it be a Qantas flight?

Marise Payne: Yes. Military flights.

Journalist: Just on- sorry, Professor, just on the sort of threat posed by the coronavirus. Two per cent mortality rate, how does that compare to just the influenza that we get every year? I mean is, does this represent a more significant threat than influenza?

Brendan Murphy: I'm being very careful to say that we really don't know at the moment. We’re relying on information that is evolving rapidly. Certainly 2 per cent mortality is much lower than SARs and MERS and the other coronaviruses, but they didn't seem to spread so quickly from human to human. The other thing we don't quite know is whether the mortality is largely in elderly people or people with other diseases. The Chinese have indicated that that’s usually the case and that’s what we usually see in influenza pandemic- seasonal influenza outbreaks. So it is- the mortality and the severe illness rate could be similar to a fairly significant influenza outbreak but we really have to be very careful about making clear statements about the severity of this condition until we get more and better data.

Marise Payne: Thanks everyone.

Brendan Murphy: Thank you.

Marise Payne: Thanks Brendan.

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