Press Conference - Sydney, NSW

  • Joint transcript, E&OE
  • The Hon. Scott Morrison MP, Prime Minister
  • Senator the Hon. Marise Payne, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Women

Prime Minister: Good afternoon. I’m joined by the Foreign Minister. Can I begin on behalf of Marise and I in extending our sincere condolences to the Baird family, Judy Baird who passed away earlier today and she will be missed, of course, by our dear friend Bruce Baird their family, Mike, Julia and Steven and their families. Judy was an absolute saint and an angel and she will be sadly missed. 

Today the National Security Committee met and we were considering a large number of matters, as is normal for the National Security Committee, but in particular we met today to address the situation in India and the terrible humanitarian crisis that is unfolding in India. We recognise that this has been a very significant outbreak in India and we know for Australians who have family in India at this time that they will be very distressed. From the scenes we are seeing from India, they are truly heartbreaking. India is a great friend of Australia and a comprehensive strategic partner. We share so much in common as peoples, as democratic nations, and we extend our deepest sympathies and condolences and our support to the nation of India and the people of India and the Prime Minister of India, Prime Minister Modi. They are dear friends of Australia and we will stand with them during this terrible crisis and for all Australians who are caught up in this terrible set of events. 

The number of cases continues to increase. 325,000 new COVID cases on April 25, on Anzac Day, and over 2,800 deaths. There are significant shortages of key personal protection equipment, medical equipment and oxygen supplies and a severe disruption of the production capabilities of India because of the impact of COVID on their population. Australia, by contrast, has obviously had a different experience and that places us in a unique position among many countries to lend our support to India at this time. India has also been determined to be a high-risk country under the process we have put in place for the purpose of travel arrangements. Not only do we need to reach out and support our friends and family and all of those across India but we also need to take appropriate steps to ensure that we, here in Australia, we have border protection arrangements upgraded, and put in place, to deal with the risks that clearly present from travel from India. 

Today we agreed, in addition to the measures that were announced after the last National Cabinet meeting, to pause direct passenger flights between India and Australia until the 15th of May. It will be reviewed prior to that time in terms of any further extension of that pause in those arrangements. This will impact directly on two passenger services from India into Sydney and two repatriation flights from India to Darwin, this impacting around 500 arrivals. The passengers on all future flights, when and if these flights are resumed going forward, will be required to have both a negative PCR test and a negative rapid antigen test prior to uplift. Further flights to India will be considered, as I said, prior to the 15th of May with a focus on supporting vulnerable Australians, in particular in relation to charter flights that have been put in place by the Australian Government. For indirect flights, that is another way that people who may have been in India would come to Australia, and already it has been announced and we are advised that indirect flights through Doha, Dubai, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, we are aware flights to and from these transit points and India have been paused by the respective governments. So that third country entry point into Australia has already been closed by those key embarkation points to Australia. That will obviously have impacts, in a positive way, in terms of restricting the inflow and in fact in most cases eliminating it and for places like Perth and South Australia and ports that do not have direct flights. 

In addition to the existing, this is all in addition to the existing arrangements that we put in place, including restrictions on outbound travel to India as a high risk destination last week. But we also have to reach out and support India. As many countries are doing, what Australia will do is we will provide an initial package, I stress this is an initial package, there will be more to follow, of support and to deliver this as soon as possible. 509 ventilators, 1 million surgical masks, 500,000 P2 and N95 masks, 100,000 surgical gowns, 100,000 goggles, 100,000 pairs of gloves, and 20,000 face shields. We will also agree to commence procurement of 100 oxygen concentrators, along with tanks and consumables. DFAT will manage the movement of this equipment over the course of the next week. I will ask the Foreign Minister to speak more to the support we’re providing to Australian residents who are in India. We are standing with those Australians in India and recognise the very serious difficulties that they face. A hardship program which has been in place for many, many months now continues to be available to provide support to Australians in those circumstances and consular support continues to be available. I particularly want to commend our High Commissioner, Barry O'Farrell, for the great work he and all his consular team are doing in India right now. As you can imagine, they have been getting considerable requests, and the work they have been doing to respond and support Australians in India is highly commendable. 

I also want to note, over these weeks ahead, the Australian Government will be reaching out through the Department of Home Affairs directly through the Minister and the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, to engage with the Australian community with Indian descent and reaching out to them, listening to them, engaging in roundtables with community leaders to keep them informed of the information we have available as well as listening to them about what they are hearing on what they are understanding of the experiences of family members and friends and other associates in India. It is very important we remain in close contact with them over the course of what will be a highly stressful period for those Australians who are caught up or have family members affected by this humanitarian crisis in India. And we are very keen to make sure they know that we are standing with them during what is an incredibly difficult time for them and their families and communities. 

So with that I will pass you onto the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Senator the Hon. Marise Payne, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Women: Thank you very, prime Minister, and like you I want to start by acknowledging Judy Baird and her family. Coincidently and completely serendipitously, I have known Judy Baird since I was a teenager, she was my careers counsellor at school, at high school. So I know this will be a very, very difficult time for the whole Baird family, who have been great friends of ours for many, many years and my warm sympathies and thoughts as well.

Prime Minister, I also want to send our thoughts to our friends in India. This is no doubt a very difficult time for many, many people. I have been in touch with my very good friend and colleague Foreign Secretary Jaishankar in relation to these issues and assured him of Australia's very best wishes and our strong support, which we are commencing with the announcements from today. I also want to reaffirm the great leadership and generosity that India has shown to the global community throughout this pandemic. They have, in fact, exported over 66 million WHO approved vaccines across the world. I know in our own region how important this has been, and in the Pacific, it includes gifting vaccine doses to Nauru and Fiji. It has also manufactured vaccine doses for Papua New Guinea, for the Solomon Islands, being delivered though the COVAX facility and we warmly acknowledge that generosity. As the Prime Minister did, we also know that for Australians in India and their loved ones, this is a very difficult time. For Indian Australians, many here in Australia will be very concerned about family as well. 

Prior to the current outbreak, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade had eight planned flights from India in May and because of decisions we have made today, of course, they will be paused. They are part of our continuing support to Australians to return safely. Those restrictions will be under regular review but since these efforts have begun, we have seen over 19,400 Australians return from India since March of last year. We currently have just over 9,000 Australians registered in India, 650 of those are registered as vulnerable. As you would expect in the circumstances, this number will certainly increase in the coming days and weeks as people's circumstances change. Since March last year we have facilitated 38 flights out of India, 28 flights with Qantas from Delhi, from Chennai, from Mumbai and from Calcutta, which have brought back 5,000 passengers and when circumstances do allow through this temporary pause we will resume those flights and if possible seek to increase the frequency if we are able to. I particularly want to acknowledge the efforts of those at our High Commission and our consular posts in India. I have spoken again today to High Commissioner O'Farrell and thank him and teams across those four posts for what has been a very significant task, not just in recent weeks but in fact since March of last year. I want to absolutely assure those Australians in India and Indian Australians here that our four Indian network posts remain staffed by Australian diplomats. They will continue to provide that consular assistance to Australians in distress, including through the DFAT’s financial assistance program, and that has of course been in place for many months now. Our posts will also be redoubling their efforts to maintain contact with Australian citizens in India to make sure they are informed about travel settings, any changes and about any changes and about assistance programs. That has been part of their work for many months now, but certainly in the current circumstances, those efforts will as I said be redoubled. 

I want to advise again our consular contact numbers for those who may need to make contact. From Australia the number is 1300 555 135 and from outside Australia, it is of course +61 62613305. We have seen some increase in registrations in India from Friday and across the weekend. As I said, I expect that to increase but we will stay in close contact with those Australians and provide the support we are able to.

Journalist: Prime Minister, what's the reason for this? Obviously you didn't go so far last Thursday, has the WA lockdown been influential? Is our hotel quarantine system unable to contain this many cases?

Prime Minister: What is concerning is the increase in the percentage of cases in hotel quarantine which have their origins in India. While up until last week, the total number of cases that have occurred in quarantine from Australians returning from overseas has not left above levels which we have been experiencing over the course of this year, it has only actually been in the past week, on the week commencing on the 16th of April, that we started to see a jump. It went from 90 the previous week to 143 the following week, from the most recent week. Now, we have seen numbers of 90 and above, 95, 98, before this in the course of this year. So within the total number of positive cases, while the proportion of Indian arrivals had increased, the overall number of cases in quarantine had not markedly changed. In this past week we saw that rise and that was particularly in areas such as the Northern Territory and in New South Wales, where we have direct flights coming in to both of those areas. Proportionally, we saw higher numbers in Western Australia and South Australia, but in terms of the total number of cases originating in India, then the overwhelming majority of those were in New South Wales and in the Northern Territory and as a proportion of the cases in the Northern Territory, which is where we have the national quarantine facility, that had got to the point of almost 95 per cent of cases. So it's important to take this pause to enable those quarantine facilities, particularly in the Northern Territory, to be able to work through the system and return to lower levels, so we will be able to resume supporting getting Australians home in those direct flights that we have been using to repatriate Australians. But equally, in New South Wales, which has been carrying the lion's share, not just of arrivals right across the country, but also because they have a direct flight from India, we thought it was necessary to put in place just over a  two week pause. I spoke to the Premier about that on the weekend and  she supports that, thinks that’s wise, as we just allow the system to rebalance. But one of the challenges is going forward is the testing regime for those embarking on flights, and so having the rapid antigen testing in place will support that, but that will give us several weeks to put those arrangements in place with commercial operators. Qantas has already indicated they are able to do that, but working with other operators, we want to make sure those mitigations were in place. So this is a rapidly escalating situation. We took a series of decisions last week and we believed to date we needed to go further with the pause and I welcome the fact the third country entry points to Australia, embarkation points I should say, into Australia, have also closed off. Which is I think what was driving the concern, particularly in South Australia and Western Australia. There weren’t direct flights going to those states and so those flights coming from Malaysia and other places were carrying Australians back from other parts of the world, where the risk is not as great as in India, so that means Australians will still be able to come home through those flights under the cap arrangements we have. Western Australia has reduced their cap. Queensland is now only starting to return to where they were and Victoria, we are pleased to have them back in the system but they obviously have further ability to increase the number they are taking.

Journalist: During this two week pause, there are vulnerable Australian citizens who are in India who may catch COVID-19 and may pass away. How do you feel about it and what are you going to do for them?

Prime Minister: It is a humanitarian crisis and it is one that is gripping the world. This has been the case around the world over the course of the last year, that is the nature of a global pandemic. That is why we have been repatriating Australians from India, some 20,000 or thereabouts, over recent months, indirectly contracted flights as well as facilitated flights the Australian taxpayer has supported to get as many people home safely as we can. But the need and the risk continues to grow in a place like India and that is very sad for the people of India. But I don't see this as a problem that we’re trying to solve, I see this as a group of people we are trying to help. I don't see those Australians of Indian heritage as a problem we had to solve, not at all, and I am concerned that is how some may have been seeing this. No, these are Australians and Australian residents who need our help and we intend to make sure we are able to restore, particularly the repatriation flights, and those repatriation flights focus on the most vulnerable and that's what the High Commissioner and their team is working through to ensure that when these flights resume and the Northern Territory facility can take them again, as well as direct flights into Sydney, then we will be able to do that in the appropriate way. But, Marise, did you want to add anything?

Senator the Hon. Marise Payne, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Women: No, Prime Minister. I spoke, when I spoke to the High Commissioner this morning we touched on this challenge. Absolutely, there are the people that I’ve referred to today, those registered, those registered as vulnerable. They are also all over India, literally in every single corner of the country. There is not a significant concentration in one place or another other than New Delhi, and that does make the process challenging, but we will stay in touch with them as I said, redouble our efforts to do that and provide any support we are able to.

Prime Minister: So we will be looking to restore flights safely with even stronger protocols to ensure that we’re protecting arrangements around our borders. We don't think the answer is to forsake those Australians in India and just shut them off, as some seem to suggest. That’s not what my Government is going to do. We will stand with the Indian community here and our friends in India, as one of our closest and most strategic partners.

Journalist: Prime Minister, it’s disingenuous to say that you’re not forsaking them and that you’re standing with them, when in fact if you’re saying it’s this massive crisis and you’re suspending these flights for three weeks. How do you say that that’s not forsaking them and standing with them?

Prime Minister: Well, this is the difficult challenge in a pandemic. You don't get the perfect of all situations. And what you have to do is you have to ensure you have the integrity of your quarantine arrangements, which have withstood any number of challenges, and we need to ensure that the load in those quarantine facilities is manageable so we can take more people in down the track, which is what we definitely intend to do. We will resume the repatriation flights from India. That's exactly what we will do, and we will work through our consular offices in India to ensure that we're focusing those repatriation flights on the most vulnerable who need our help.

Journalist: Prime Minister, Mike Pezzullo's comments on Anzac Day about.

Prime Minister: Why don't we just stay with India for a minute.

Journalist: Prime Minister, I was going to ask you if, we’ve had the states calling for Commonwealth quarantine facilities. Is the Government considering any further ones like Howard Springs at RAAF air bases? And also Greg Hunt has kind of suggested the appropriateness of Queensland's Wellcamp proposal, he’s questioned that a bit, and wondering are you going to be looking at that further or not [inaudible]?

Prime Minister: Well if I had told you a year ago, just over a year ago, when the National Cabinet agreed unanimously to put in place a system of hotel quarantine, and that would be done to enforce the state administered and imposed public health orders that require that quarantine, and if I was to tell you that that would achieve a 99.99 percent success rate, you wouldn't have believed me. No one in this country would have believed me. I would have found that hard to believe. That is what the hotel quarantine system has achieved. If we look only, particularly in recent times, from the end of October to the 22 April, we have had some 140,355 people go through hotel quarantine. Thirteen, only on 13 occasions have there been incursions, and only on around two occasions, such as in the Northern Beaches, has there been a broader impact in terms of the spread of that virus, and on that occasion it had to do with a superspreader event that was at a major entertainment venue. See, hotel quarantine is the first ring of containment. While 99.99 percent success rate I think is pretty good. I think there's not a country in the world who wouldn't want a quarantine system that has been working as effective as that. But it is not 100 percent foolproof, and in 0.01 percent, in fact less of cases, you will see occasional breaches. So I make no criticism of any state and territory government that on occasions we will see breaches. The challenge is as we've seen Western Australia respond to particularly on this occasion, but other states respond on other occasions, particularly here in New South Wales, is the ring of containment that comes into place with their contact tracing system. And that's what’s been achieved again. This is how the system works. I mean, a system that is achieving 99.99 percent effectiveness is a very strong system and is serving Australia very well. Now, when the Commission in Victoria looked at quarantine facilities, they made a number of recommendations, and that meant that quarantine facilities need to be near major hospitals, tertiary hospitals. And so, that is a key requirement. There is also need to have these facilities that are near appropriate workforces, both health workforces and the other workforces that are provided, both through the Defence Forces, local police and others, and to ensure that support is in place as well. They need to be close to our major airports because that's where the planes come. And that's why these arrangements worked so successfully, and they can always be improved. When Jane Halton did her review some time ago, she made a number of recommendations which have been taken up by the states and territories. One of those was to establish a national resilience facility, which we have done. And that is in Howard Springs and that's been done in partnership with the Northern Territory Government, and towards the end of next month that will have a capacity of 2,000 people to be able, and that is there to take the charter flights that we're using to repatriate Australians and for that not to have to be accommodated within the hotel quarantine arrangements with the states and territories and the other major [inaudible].

Journalist: Should WA have not locked down?

Prime Minister: That's entirely a decision for the WA Government.

Journalist: But you must have a view, as Prime Minister.

Prime Minister: No, I back the decisions of the states. See, I’m working with the states and territories, Andrew.

Journalist: But one case is enough to lockdown?

Prime Minister: I have sought to do that all the way through this pandemic. They have their responsibilities and they have to make their calls and their decisions. And it has not been my practice to give a running commentary on the decisions and the responsibilities that they have. Australians expect me to work together with the states and territories, to work together to ensure Australia is best protected through this pandemic. So you won’t find me squabbling about this. You will find me supporting the states and territories. And so what we've seen in Western Australia is a quick response, their contact tracing system kick in, and I'm sure there’ll be lessons that they will pick up from how they look back at the issue that occurred and I'm sure there’ll be improvements.

Journalist: When the repatriation flights do resume, Prime Minister will there be any, when the repatriation flights with India resume, will there be any prioritisation for Australian cricketers who are currently playing in the IPL, or will it be basic, just done on vulnerability?

Prime Minister: No, it's done on vulnerability. And they’ve travelled there privately under those arrangements. This wasn't part of an Australian tour, and they're there under their own resources and they'll be using those resources to, I'm sure, to see them return to Australia in accordance with their own arrangements.

Journalist: Do you agree with Michael Pezzullo when he says the drums of war are beating?

Prime Minister: My goal as Prime Minister, and I know the Foreign Minister feels the same way and the entire Cabinet, is that our objective is to pursue peace. That's what we're doing. We're pursuing peace for a free and open Indo-Pacific. And all of the agency that we have as a country and as a Government is designed to achieve that. But it's also at the same time designed to ensure that Australia's national interests are always advanced. And of course that's why we have invested considerably to ensure the capability of our Defence Forces. Two percent of the, our economy each year, the size of our economy, is spent each year now ensuring that we have a capable Defence Force in this country. That's a significant increase from where we were when we came to Government, when the size of our investments in our Defence Forces fell to below the levels before the Second World War. We have restored that and we have done that to ensure that Australia's national interest can always be protected. But our goal is to pursue peace and our region, it’s to pursue peace and stability and as I’ve said before, a world order that favours freedom.

Journalist: What do you make of his comments then?

Prime Minister: You're the commentator Andrew, not me.

Journalist: Given Mr Pezzullo’s comments, would you consider increasing that two percent to say three percent or?

Prime Minister: Well we're already above two percent. What we've got is a platform and a program of defence investment that stands this Government out against its predecessors and ensures that Australia can meet the needs that we have. And I refer you to the strategic update that I gave last year, which highlighted the new areas of focus that we have as part of our defence plan and that in particular related to strike capabilities at that time, and I’ve made subsequent announcements about that as well. But the purpose here, Australians want us to pursue a peaceful outcome because that's what’s in their interests, ultimately, and that's what the Government is doing, working with our partners in the region, working with ASEAN, working with our Quad partners, working with our comprehensive strategic partners, which includes China, and working together to ensure that we can have an open, trading, peaceful community in the Indo-Pacific, because that's what is in the interests, I believe, of all countries in the region.

Journalist: When will the list of high risk countries be finalised and when will the new testing regime be introduced, the 72 hour test?

Prime Minister: The 72 hour testing regime, that's for third country arrangements for high risk countries, which at this stage has only, has only listed India. The Chief Medical Officer has worked through all the countries and while, when you go to a red list like they have in the United Kingdom, remember in the United Kingdom this is about where they restrict entry into the country just for citizens. So they currently allow travel into the United Kingdom for non-citizens. And so the red list, as I understand it, applies to where they restrict to citizens. Now, Australia already has that in place for every country in the world. You can't come to Australia, you can't do that unless there's a specific exemption which is granted by the Border Force Commissioner for any number of quite specific purposes. And so India is the only country of major point of embarkation into Australia that has been identified as a risk, at this point, at that level. They’ve looked across a range of other countries. It wasn't that long ago that we were having serious concerns about Papua New Guinea, and what we've seen as a result of the pause we put in place for arrivals out of Papua New Guinea into Queensland is we've seen the proportion of cases of Papua New Guinea originated infections drop significantly. And that has meant that the system in Queensland has had the stress come off it from the Papua New Guinean arrivals and that's proved to be very effective. So, what we've done all throughout this pandemic, is you’re just learning every day. You know, you make decisions, you monitor them carefully and you seek to repeat the successes and to improve them, and this type of a pause arrangement will give, particularly the facilities up in the Northern Territory and New South Wales, the opportunity to ensure that they can deal with the infection cases that currently exist in hotel quarantine and then enable us to step off from a stronger position in a few weeks’ time.

Journalist: Prime Minister, just on the Brisbane Olympic Games, can you explain to us the deal between the Queensland Government and the Federal Government, why there’s an oversight body that is needed?

Prime Minister: Well what the, what we're doing in Queensland with the Olympics, and let's note this, we're standing in Sydney today and I don't think there's a Sydneysider or an Australian who won't recognise that, what the Sydney Olympics did for Australia as a country. It was a massive success and it really did elevate Australia's standing all around the world, and as it did many years ago for Melbourne, and now Brisbane we hope will join that list of Olympic cities, and that will be good for Australia. When the Sydney Olympics were on well, the Federal Government's involvement with that was quite modest and was quite limited. What we've done in relation to the Brisbane Olympics is we've agreed to enter into a 50-50 arrangement. Now, that means a 50-50 on everything. This is not just 50-50 on funding. This is 50-50 on decisions, 50-50 decisions on appointments to organising committees. What we want is for this to be a people's games in the national interest. That means we have to take it out of the relationship of state and federal governments and any federation tensions, we've got to take it out of politics. This is an Olympic infrastructure authority that we anticipate would need to be established probably by statute at both state and federal levels, with equal representation in governments from the federal and state governments, and that means there would be a joint decision on what projects, where, what the scoping is, the costings, the contracting, the delivery. And this would be a highly competent agency, a lot like what we saw here with the Olympic coordination authority in New South Wales. The difference then, that was run by the State Government because the State Government was paying for it. In this case, if it’s a 50-50 arrangement on funding, there’s a 50-50 agreement on governance of how that infrastructure and how that agency will operate, as well as an equality when it comes to the appointments of persons to the organising committee between the state and federal governments. So a genuine 50-50 partnership is exactly what we proposed to the Queensland State Government and that's what I understand has been accepted by the Premier's comments over the last 24 hours.

Journalist: Back to India, you rightly pointed out that 99.99 percent of arrivals are fine and there's been a miniscule number of incursions. Isn't this a massive overreaction to entirely ban citizens from coming back, given the risk is so low. Why are we so risk averse? And also I understand the Northern Territory facility hasn't had any incursions, to my knowledge. I think that's correct.

Prime Minister: That's correct. It's been a very successful facility. But 95 per cent.

Journalist: And so why can't they go there?

Prime Minister: Ninety five percent of the cases currently of what has arrived into that facility have originated in India. And so working closely with the Northern Territory Government, as well as our medical advisers up around that facility, their advice is we need to slow that pace significantly over the next few weeks to ensure that we can maintain the health of people in that facility. So we're acting on medical advice, as we always have, when it comes especially to that facility. This will also give some breathing space to the New South Wales arrangements and allow in New South Wales people from other countries to come back and go through that quarantine system. So you’ll see just as many people coming through the New South Wales system. There will be less in Western Australia because they’ve asked to halve their capacity. There are increases in Queensland on the way and I hope also in Victoria. So we'll see more Australians coming back. But those over the next couple of weeks coming directly from India we will have a pause I think for very sensible health reasons, and that is also based on the advice of our Chief Medical Officer. So I think this, we have always taken a cautious approach. Australia can speak of a performance during the global pandemic on COVID-19 that few countries can. And one of the reasons for that is we’ve always listened to the medical advice. We take our own decisions, whether it is I as Prime Minister and the National Security Committee, Foreign Minister, the Health Minister and others, or that we do that as a National Cabinet. And that has I think, put Australia, I think, in a very strong position of so many nations when it comes to our handling of the pandemic. In Australia, we are living like few countries in the world can and do at the moment. I'm very determined that it remains that way. Thanks very much, everyone.

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