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Scott Morrison provides Covid 19 update

  • Written by Scott Morrison

PRIME MINISTER: Good morning, everyone. It's great to be back and can I welcome Minister Hunt, Greg Hunt with us here today and the head of the Therapeutic Goods Administration, Professor John Skerritt, who also joins us today.

 

Australia faces many challenges. This has been a very hard year for so many Australians. The world's not getting any easier. The challenges aren't getting any lesser. But the way we deal with things in Australia is we always seek to do them very much in our own Australian way. And a key part of doing that is always working hard to get the right balance. There's no doubt the problems we face are complex, they're difficult. They have many dimensions. They can't be simplistically explained or dealt with. And I understand that Australians get that, too. They know there aren't easy fixes to the challenges that we face as a country, and they expect governments to wrestle with the pressures that are facing our country and seek to strike the right balance to get that balance right. 

 

And that's what we've been seeking to do on so many issues, but none more, none more greatly than our government's response and Australia's response more broadly to the global pandemic and the COVID-19 recession that has resulted from that pandemic. Whether that's getting the balance right when it comes to our economic response, which yesterday's National Accounts has demonstrated that Australia's response has been right, that it has been timely, that has been proportionate, that it has been well targeted and the results are there to see. But yet there is still a long way to go. And that's why our economic programmes stretch out across the forward estimates across the next few years in particular, a very strong portfolio of initiatives, particularly those announced in the recent Budget, which will continue to support our economic recovery in the years ahead. 

 

I think one of the great proof points of the success of that plan, of that strategy is the fact that some 450,000 businesses in Australia have graduated from JobKeeper. 2 million Australians, in fact, more than that, are no longer depending on taxpayers for their income support through JobKeeper, they've graduated from that also. At the same time with JobSeeker, we have not seen an overall increase in the number of people in JobSeeker. In fact, we've seen a moderation of that. And I think what this demonstrates is the economy is changing gears again and we are moving forward again. The figures themselves quite specifically show that the Australian economy is literally moving - transport, accommodation, hotels, restaurants, people in Australia are moving again. And that's good for the economy as we see the borders come tumbling down around the country as we hoped would achieve. But that's being done safely to safely open so that we can remain open safely. This is incredibly important for our recovery. 

 

Our economic recovery, though, is built on the platform of our health response. This is so critical, as we've seen around the world, that our health response creates the economic opportunities and the two work together hand in hand, whether that was the build up in the early phase of our ICUs, our PPE equipment, the testing reagents and other things which the Minister was so critical in securing for the safety of Australians, or working through the hotel quarantine challenges together with the states and territories or indeed the testing regimes as they've been rolled out on an industrial scale. And, of course, the arrangements for tracing that have been extraordinary. 

 

Now you'll be aware of the reports this morning in New South Wales. I've been in touch with the Premier this morning. She'll be speaking later today. But as always, I have great confidence in the New South Wales government's testing and tracing capabilities, their gold standard, not just in this country, but anywhere around the world. They've dealt with these issues in their stride before, while keeping their economy open, 6.8 per cent growth in New South Wales, along with Queensland. Both of them have strong tracing and testing regimes in those states, which enables us to remain open safely. But the other challenge, as we've worked past these last few months, has been to prepare Australia for a vaccine. The arrangements have been put in place to secure access to four vaccines, all of which, all of which are proving to be very promising but still have stages to pass in the months ahead. And that's why Professor Skerritt joins us here this morning. But as is the case with the vaccine and the many other challenges that we face, we've got to get that balance right and we will implement the vaccine here in Australia according to Australian needs and Australian conditions and the challenges and opportunities we have here. 

 

Our COVID-19 situation at the moment, I would describe as very stable. With the protections in place to ward against and to deal with any outbreaks as they arise, as we've seen in recent weeks and months, but that said, as we move into the vaccine period, our first priority is that it be safe, it must be safe for Australians, and that's what they would expect of us. So the vaccination policy has been established. It has been agreed by Cabinet and it has also been endorsed by the National Cabinet. The vaccine strategy is now in its advanced stage of preparation, and that will further be considered by the Cabinet, the federal Cabinet. And we are working closely with the states and territories and the roll out plans that stem from that strategy. And so I've asked the Health Minister to join me today with Professor Skerritt to take you through those next steps. 

 

You'll be aware of the decisions that have been taken in the United Kingdom no doubt, the UK will need to deal with their situation and their circumstances in their way. Of course they should. And it's been a consistent theme around the world, that each nation has had its own set of unique challenges. In Australia we are in a very strong position and that enables us to get this right, to get the balance right, to ensure first and foremost the safety, which enables us to then roll out the vaccine successfully across the country. Australia has one of the highest rates of vaccinations anywhere in the world, and the reason for that is standing to my right - the Therapeutic Goods Administration and the important processes that they put in place to protect the safety of Australians.

 

So with that, I'll hand you over to Minister Hunt. 

 

THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH: Thanks very much, Prime Minister. It's good to have him back, although, to be honest, he never left us. 

 

But to Australians, I want to say this: firstly, thank you. What you have done in terms of helping to fight the coronavirus pandemic this year has been extraordinary. The media have played a hugely important role. Our states, our territories, our health professionals, the Australian public and in particular, our regulators. And so we welcomed the news overnight of the next phase of the global development and support for the rollout of a safe, effective international vaccine globally. 

 

Australia is doing magnificently, but we will not be truly safe at home until the world is safe. And that's why vaccines at home and abroad are so important. Very significantly, what we've seen from the United Kingdom and I'll invite Professor Skerritt to provide more information on that, is that they’ve put in place an emergency authorisation. And John is in fact, the Vice Chair of the International Coalition of Medicines Regulatory Authority. So he is one of the people in all of the world who is at the heart of the global assessment, approval, and roll out process for vaccines. And so we're very fortunate to have not just a regulatory agency, but a chief regulator of such standing.

 

In particular, we know that around the world there's a seven day moving average of over 580,000 cases and agonisingly over 10,000 lives lost. In the United Kingdom alone, a seven day moving average of over 14,500 cases. And in one country, on any one day, they're seeing an average of 460 lives lost. So in those circumstances, what they have done is something which we recognise as being absolutely critical. Equally for Australia, we have one of the strongest regulatory processes in the world. As the Prime Minister said, we’ve put in place actions with regards to testing, securing of PPE, of ventilators, all of which has been according to a plan. The next part of that plan is the vaccine roll out. And there are 5 stages to this. The first was the selection of vaccines. And we're very fortunate that we've been able to select and then acquire, which is the second stage - four vaccines, 134.8 million units, the AstraZeneca vaccine for 33.8 million units, the Pfizer vaccine for 10 million units, the Novavax vaccine, 40 million units, and Australia's own CSL - University of Queensland vaccine for 51 million units, as well as 25.5 million units of access through what's known as the COVAX International Facility. Then there is the regulatory approvals process, that's currently underway. John will give you an update on that, but that's at an advanced stage. We're moving quickly but safely, and we're making sure there are no compromises because the safety of Australians is the number one priority. 

 

But frankly, the work that's being done in the UK will give Australia and the world very important data, very important lessons both on the rollout and the efficacy of this particular vaccine. But vaccines more generally, and it's an extremely positive and important development for the world. Then we move to the actual roll out itself, the priorities of ATAGI, The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, have been published by the National Cabinet. The Australian government retains the lead, but we've been working in a very productive way with the states and territories and we thank them. I also think the opposition, who have been very constructive in supporting, just this morning the Australian Immunisation Register bill, which reaffirms that vaccination is, in Australia is voluntary, but that reporting of that vaccination will be required, which will give us important public health data and each individual will have that data that they can access as they need in regard to their own vaccination history, which is a really important thing for families around Australia and every individual. 

 

And then I would note that finally there is the post vaccination regime where we are doing the work on that stage. So the final stage of selection, acquisition, approvals, distribution, and then post vaccination and that's the final stage of the vaccination journey. That's being considered now. All of which, though, is ahead of schedule. We are on track for decisions on the early vaccines by the end of January. We are on track for first vaccinations, beginning with our health workers and our aged care residents subject to approvals, in March. 

 

Lastly, I'd like to comment on New South Wales. I was briefed early this morning by the New South Wales Health Minister, Brad Hazzard. I want to thank Brad for his advice. They have, as the Prime Minister says, not just the gold standard of testing and tracing in Australia, but a globally leading contact tracing programme and that has swung into action. It's being given great priority by the Premier, the Health Minister, the New South Wales Chief Health Officer. And we are confident that just as they've done in the past, as Victoria did only yesterday with the waste water case out of Colac and I conveyed my thanks and congratulations to the Victorian minister, Martin Foley, as South Australia did recently, and as Queensland did when they had the cases that came from Victoria. The contact tracing systems are swinging into action. They are ready. They've been reviewed. Professor Alan Finkel, the chief scientist, has reviewed them. And there will be cases that Australia faces inevitably whilst we are in contact with the outside world. But we've got this, we've got this as a nation and that's the work of Australians. 

 

With that, I'd be delighted to invite Professor Skerritt to update on the vaccine approval process.

 

ADJUNCT PROFESSOR JOHN SKERRITT, DEPUTY SECRETARY HEALTH PRODUCTS REGULATION: Good morning and thank you, Prime Minister, and thank you, Minister. So, Australia, we've provided three vaccines with what's known as provisional designation. Two of them are vaccines are amongst the four vaccines that the government has procured, the AstraZeneca vaccine, the Pfizer vaccine, but also a vaccine, that could also be made available, and remember, there's a private market for those who wish to invest in vaccines, from Johnson and Johnson or Janssen. In each case, the companies have given us a reasonable amount of data. We have not got complete data on any of them because globally these companies are still assessing their final data. And that's why in the UK, the decision is what's termed an authorised- an emergency authorisation. It's not a full regulatory approval. We will when the final data is in for safety and efficacy, and I'm hoping that will be in the coming weeks. But we are at the mercy of the companies, work through the summer period unfortunately, my staff have been told to put away their swimsuits and towels and to work as quickly as we can, but also in significant depth with parallel teams of doctors, scientists, toxicologists, engineers, facility inspectors, pharmaceutical industry experts looking at the data which runs into the tens of thousands of pages if you were to print it out. We are still hopeful, but if we receive a full submission in the next week or two, that late January, beginning of February, well ahead of the March date the government has mentioned that we will be in a position to approve one or more. I've been asked which of the three horses is leading the race, well, it changes by the day and it often depends on the progress and completion of clinical trials run globally. 

 

The other thing that's important to know is that globally there are many hundreds of vaccines under development and about a dozen, that are in reasonably late stages. 

 

And we also, confidentially, have been talking to many of those companies. Because this Government, as did many other governments globally, did the sensible thing of investing in a range of technologies. While the early results from several technologies are very promising, it'll give us and will give, more importantly, health care professionals a range of options. Let's say, for example, one vaccine is better tolerated in pregnant women, we will have that option because we've invested in a range of vaccines. And so I want to reassure the Australian public that safety, as well as performance, efficacy and the quality of these vaccines is front of mind. I also want to assure the Government and the people that while we are a country of 25 million, that's a small number globally and by integrating, as Minister Hunt said, with global groups of regulators, if, for example, there is some unusual result in one person in the whole of the United States of America, we will get that information overnight. We'll get that information in real time and so we'll be able to see how these vaccines work, not just in 25 million, but in tens or hundreds of millions of people in the coming months. Thank you. 

 

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you. I’ll start with Samantha.

 

JOURNALIST: This vaccine is being rolled out in the United Kingdom according to a hierarchy, so obviously older people first and people with underlying conditions. I’m wondering where children fit into that in Australia? And while it's not compulsory, we will the vaccination be linked to Australia's no jab, no pay and no play rules?

 

PRIME MINISTER: I'll ask the Health Minister to address that.

 

THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH: Sure. So thanks, Sam, a couple of things there. Firstly is that we've already set out at through ATAGI andthe medical expert panel that's led by Professor Murphy, a provisional guideline of health workers and elderly first. So it is a very sensible approach that the UK's taken. There's a next layer of that which is being considered by ATAGI and they’ll respond. So that’s the Australian medical expert panel for vaccinations, but it's unlikely to be different in any significant way from the United Kingdom. The second thing is that they will consider the position with regards to children and vaccinations. But at this stage, it's been indicated that it's unlikely that children should be at the front of the process, that there have not been many global tests in relation to children and safety becomes the paramount concern. And then finally, we've said previously that it's going to be voluntary and that at this stage, there are no plans to impose or to draw upon other programmes, such as the no jab, no pay.

 

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, how do you want the central register to work? There are companies like Qantas which wants people to prove they're vaccinated before they can board a flight. Is this going to be a central records system where companies can gain access to do a check on somebody? Or is it going to be a system where we all have to carry cards to prove that we've been vaccinated before we can board a flight and so forth?

 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I'll ask Greg to speak that in just a second. But the legislation that has been introduced and it forms part of the plan to addressing these very issues. I'm very keen also more broadly, globally, and I raised this in my discussion with the European Union Commissioner and President last week from isolation at our annual Virtual Summit, well this year, hopefully next year it won't be virtual. But there is, I think, a great need for working together globally to ensure that there is a common set of recognitions around vaccines. That's going to be very important because obviously in countries around the world, there's going to be different vaccines in Indonesia, in Malaysia, in the United States, potentially across Europe, China and so on. And so it's important that there is a common understanding globally about vaccines, their efficacy and what will satisfy standards. Because that would otherwise mean John and all of his equivalents all around the world will have an even more difficult task than they need to have. Now, we've indicated that we are very happy to engage in such a global effort and I think we have a lot to contribute in that area because we are quite well advanced in this area, being one of the world's leading immunisation nations and we've one of the strongest regulatory systems of anywhere in the world. But Greg?

 

THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH: Thanks, PM, and thanks David. So the immunisation register already exists. Think of it as a digital yellow book. Many of you would have had the World Health Organisation yellow books growing up and, like me, you've probably lost it over the years. And so this is an online version that actually exists already. And the change here is simply that whilst we maintain as an absolute article of faith voluntary but strongly encouraged vaccination, we have mandatory reporting of vaccinations for flu, for the National Immunisation Programme, for diseases such as mumps, rubella, pertussis and for COVID-19 vaccines. That's very important, whole of nation public health information. But it's also critically important information for individuals.

 

JOURNALIST: Can companies get access to it?

 

THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH: No, no, it's private. It's your- it's your medical record and it's nobody else's. 

 

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, how confident are you as to the absolute safety of the vaccine, given how quickly they've taken to be developed? And when could we see the international borders thrown open or won't be that speedy process, we’ll still have a lot of restrictions in place for a long time?

 

PRIME MINISTER: In Australia, we put our confidence in the Therapeutic Goods Administration and we put our confidence in the incredible professionalism and expertise, the medical and scientific expertise of Professor Skerritt and his colleagues. As we do not just on this vaccine, but on every vaccine. When you take your child or indeed yourself to be vaccinated now, that's where we put our trust and that's why we have built these institutions in this country to ensure that Australians can have that confidence and that confidence is borne out by the incredibly high immunisation rates we have in this country. And so the question is one of confidence in the institutions and systems that we have. Whatever vaccine comes forward, I have great confidence in the Therapeutic Goods Administration to be able to critically assess those and to advise the minister and I and the premiers and chief ministers about the safety of those vaccines. So it is about getting the balance right on the timing and there's an understandable urgency about that. But at the same time, on the health requirements, which are sacrosanct, and we don't cut any corners on that, but we also have to deal with the circumstances in our own country. 

 

It would be an error for there to be an analysis that because something is being done in one country in a particular way, that it should be done in another country. In the UK, they are dealing with their set of circumstances according to their rules and their laws, which are actually different to ours and Professor Skerritt can take you through the differences in those two regimes. But here I have confidence in the very fine public servants that we have to be able to make these assessments and this isn't a prospective confidence. It's a standing confidence because I've trusted them with the vaccination of my own children to date.

 

JOURNALIST: International borders sorry?

 

PRIME MINISTER: On international borders, I still think we're some time away from that. I mean, my priority at the moment is getting Australians home. And some time ago, back in September, there was 26,700 Australians who were registered and I said we needed to get that many people home. We've actually got 40,000 people home since that time. We have set up additional quarantine facilities both in the Northern Territory as well as in Tasmania. We've raised caps, we've run additional flights, we've put some $60 million of support to Australians in need all around the world and that has been a great team effort and I want to thank both the consular staff who've supported that initiative, the airlines in particular, and the cooperation of our state premiers and chief ministers and their health ministers as well, and police ministers who have been important for how we operate all of these arrangements. And particularly states like Tasmania and Northern Territory who've had to do this from scratch and set these things up. So that's the focus now. But as the world becomes vaccinated and as Australia becomes vaccinated, then those opportunities arise. We already have travel from New Zealand. We already are looking at the ways that we can assess potentially safe countries for green lane travel. We have not activated any of those. But what we've been doing the work on is making sure that we know and have a very good process for determining what countries could be green lane countries. And I had, you know, we had discussions with Japan about that, but we're still some time away from that and I wouldn't want to raise expectations. Health first, because that's what is underpinning our economic success. I'm just going to work around.

 

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, your Foreign Relations Bill…

 

PRIME MINISTER: I’m going to just stay on health for a second. I am happy to come back to other issues, I know there are many, because then I will excuse Professor Skerritt.

 

JOURNALIST: Can I ask Professor Skerritt a question. The Minister has described you as one of the world's chief regulators. So you're obviously getting all this information, you're assessing it. Would you have given this emergency approval based on what you know about this vaccine? And can I ask you also, is it that Boris Johnson may have in some way done the world a service by having a massive real-time trial, turning people into guinea pigs, we all watch that and see whether it works and then draw our conclusions about what we do ourselves? 

 

ADJUNCT PROFESSOR JOHN SKERRITT, DEPUTY SECRETARY HEALTH PRODUCTS REGULATION: Well, I wouldn't want to use the word guinea pigs with the UK. We all have friends, family and relatives, or many of us do, in the UK, and we're deeply concerned about the situation there. Essentially, these vaccines were developed so quickly because of - again, it’s an overused word - the unprecedented investment of billions of dollars and governments across the world essentially at risk, taking supporting companies and researchers to be able to do several steps at once. Because we know that often vaccines fall along the wayside. They don't meet particular steps. And governments across the world stepped in and said, well, we'll put up that $100 million to allow you to do pilot manufacture and so forth. The second reason is it became the main area of focus for researchers and companies, most major companies. And so we've never seen an area of health where globally in one year everyone moved to focus on one thing. Thirdly, we were able to build on what we learnt from SARS and MERS and some very similar conditions. And so things like the Pfizer vaccine actually came out of some of these earlier developments, as did the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine. So in that sense, we're building on a lot of knowledge about safety and so forth. Our situation, as the Prime Minister has said, is different from the UK. What it will enable is that, let's say come late January, February, we actually not only will have the data from the clinical trials of 10 to 40,000, depending on the type of trial people, but we'll also have the real world experience of several hundred thousand people having had the vaccine, and that'll enable us to know whether or not it's suitable, for example, if you have multiple sclerosis and certain conditions. It'll actually improve the quality of the advice that we can give for Australians.

 

JOURNALIST: Would you have given it approval?

 

ADJUNCT PROFESSOR JOHN SKERRITT, DEPUTY SECRETARY HEALTH PRODUCTS REGULATION: There is no regulatory process in law in Australia for an emergency use authorisation similar to the UK or the US. And as the Prime Minister has indicated, Australia's situation, thanks to the efforts of everyday Australians and governments, is very different from the UK. 

 

PRIME MINISTER: So we'll have a front row seat, working with a very close partner. And to be able to learn from their experience and no doubt the swapping of important data and information amongst the clinical experts here and with other countries around the world. I think this will be an important next stage.

 

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, just on the health front, the case in New South Wales has brought that could possibly lead to a delay in Western Australia opening its borders. Is there any reason why this case should lead to that or to Queensland closing its borders again?

 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I'm not going to speculate on that. I mean, the Premier will in New South Wales will provide an update. She may be doing that even now as we speak. And New South Wales has one of the world's best tracing systems, that is already demonstrated, and we are moving again in Australia and we're seeing the great hope and confidence and optimism that that's producing and I'm very keen for us to remain on that path, as I always have been. 

 

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, the CDC in America says that the quarantine period to seven to 10 days. Is that a realistic possibility for Australia before wide scale rollout of the vaccine? And could I ask also the Minister and Professor Skerritt, what's the prospect of rapid fire antigen testing here for different flights and things like that before a vaccine or some sort of complementary method as well? Or is that off the table? 

 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I've offered a comment on sort of all of those collectively, really. I mean, all the things that you've raised have been constant issues for examination by the medical expert panel led by Professor Kelly. And it is a constant issue we revisit with him as we gather around both the Federal Cabinet, working with the Minister, but also around the National Cabinet. And if we ever thought that there was sufficient clinical and expert advice to support that, then you could expect us to do it. But I would just assure people that all throughout the pandemic, we have been considering all of these things. We don't leave any stone unturned in finding ways to get Australia back to as normal a situation as we possibly can and I think that's been one of the strengths of our responses. But we haven't been ones to just simply cut and paste from other places. I think that's not a good approach because Australia has different challenges and we are very conscious of that and so we look at this very much in an Australian context and look for the opportunities where they can be proven and proved up and where they're not, we're patient. Greg? 

 

THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH: Two things very briefly. Firstly, exactly as the Prime Minister said, that we have referred both of those questions to what's called the AHPPC, the Australian Health Protection Principle Committee, and Professor Paul Kelly is the Chair of that. And at this stage, they haven't advised any change in either quarantine or the introduction of antigen testing. That is in evolution though, and so that's under constant review. They’re exactly the same questions that the PM and I have asked and referred to them, as well as I think some of the premiers, but they continue to review and where they see the evidence, they'll change. The second thing in terms of backing Australia's evidence and advice. It's worth remembering when we closed the borders on the 1st of February, the World Health Organisation did not support that, but our medical experts did, and that made an enormous difference to the course and trajectory of this virus in this country. And dare I say, I think that that single decision of following the Australian regulators and the Australian medical advice might have saved countless lives and for that, I want to thank, on this occasion, Professor Murphy.

 

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, with Pfizer - I don’t pronounce it very well - is the 10 million doses currently purchased enough? Or do we need to increase it, given how advanced the UK is and also where will yourself and other politicians be in the order of who gets the vaccine? 

 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I'll let Greg cover off the broader issue and then I can come back to the other one. 

 

THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH: OK, so Pfizer, thanks. Pfizer for the 10 million doses. We have followed the medical advice on that because it was an MRNA vaccine. They wanted to make sure that we had three different platforms, four different vaccines. That was very much the strong view of Brendan Murphy and Paul Kelly and all of those with whom they're working. All of our vaccine contracts have the ability to purchase more if more is recommended. So we'll continue to follow the advice of that medical expert panel. So there's the capacity to purchase more of any of them, if that's recommended. We built those into the deals. And very happy for you to address the other question. Let me say something first. We have been asked this. This is an honest question that we're considering. I've actually had this discussion with Chris Bowen on the basis that none of us want to be jumping the queue. We are quite acutely aware of that. But nor do we want to mean there's any lack of confidence. So the honest discussion I've had with Chris Bowen is it may be that there are some from both sides, but not as a class, we don't, there's no medical advice that we should have a special exemption. But it may be that there are some of us who on both sides and indeed all sides of the chamber are put forward on a voluntary basis as demonstration and I would be very happy to take any vaccine that the medical regulators deem safe for Australia. 

 

PRIME MINISTER: My view is the same. We will follow the medical advice on those issues, like all other Australians. I'm very keen to see the Australian Parliament be able to function in its normal way and there may well be issues that the health advisers may consider when it comes to enabling that and obviously immunisations can assist that. But again, all through this we have been very disciplined in hearing the medical advice, listening to it very carefully and evaluating that and making decisions as a government. And the premiers and chief ministers have done the same thing and we will follow the same approach on this as anything else. But I share the Health Minister's view. If Professor Skerritt gives it the tick, then I'm happy to take the jab.

 

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese has said that you presided over a complete breakdown….

 

PRIME MINISTER: There's a lot of interest in health. I know we want to get to those issues and it's good to be out and I'm happy to share with you for longer. But any more on health? We're going over here and then come here.

 

JOURNALIST: You said before that the national immunisation [inaudible] individual level, but is there any work underway for us to provide that information to, say, Qantas or other airlines to view that data, through an app or something?

 

THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH: No, there's not any prospect of it going directly from the government. It's a matter of individual control of individual records. And I reaffirmed that in the Parliament this morning.

 

PRIME MINISTER: Last one on health, yep?

 

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, you’ve said that more vulnerable Australians will get first priority. Will you include, like, Indigenous Australians in that vulnerable cohort, given that group often has underlying health issues?

 

PRIME MINISTER: The issue for Indigenous Australians is a very important one and I must say, and Greg will recall this, Indigenous Australians were one of our greatest concerns at the start of this pandemic. Not just by my government, but of the states and territories as well, and there were long discussions. Particularly, I’ve got to say, with the Northern Territory Chief Minister and Queensland Premier, Western Australia, where there are quite large remote communities, relatively speaking, for indigenous Australians. And so they always have been a very clearly defined, vulnerable community, like Australians with disability, like older Australians, and our plans and policies have reflected that. So this is a key issue to be addressed in the strategy, in the rollout plans, and I'll ask the Health Minister to comment on that. I should also say this is something that the Indigenous Australians Minister has also been taking a close interest in and given his pre-politics health background, that is proving to be enormously helpful. Greg?

 

THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH: Look, it's actually a very simple answer, and that is - the medical expert panel is expressly considering the appropriate place for Indigenous Australians in the rollout, and they have total freedom to recommend, and whatever their recommendations are in relation to the priority, then we'll be adopting those. 

 

PRIME MINISTER: It also goes to the distribution challenges also with remote communities and being able to use the networks of health professionals and how that can be best leveraged to guarantee the safe distribution and administration of the vaccine. Yep?

 

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, just on China…

 

PRIME MINISTER: We’re still on health. Yep, one last one, Kath.

 

JOURNALIST: In the party room meeting this week, Craig Kelly and George Christensen raised issues about the application of the compulsory register. They said in the meeting that they were considered this would supercharge the antivax movement, enliven them as it were. So given that is an obvious risk and you guys have been labouring safety in this press conference this morning, what is the Government proposing to do counter misinformation from activists in the antivax movement?

 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I will ask the Health Minister to add to it. I wasn't in the party room meeting this week but I obviously had a very good and full report and I understand there are a lot of great contributions in that debate. That's the nature of our party room. And Perrin Davey made a great contribution about similar issues along a different line, which was really very much about how helpful these sorts of registers can be for parents. And, you know, so getting the balance right again on these questions is really important. There are lots of different views that you have to take into account and ensure that you're focused on getting the right health outcome. What's going to get the best health outcome for Australians? Greg?

 

THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH: So, as I say, firstly the register, of course, is something which already exists. What we're doing is making sure that everybody will have full access to their own data but that it's only those people that have that access. I think that reassurance was very important to those that raised, I think, important questions. Secondly, as we look forward, we will be having a public information campaign, as we should do with vaccination. But one of the surprises this year is that with all the lockdowns and all the challenges of COVID, the five year old immunisation rate went to a record level 94.8 per cent in the June quarter and then up to a record level again in the September quarter of 94.9 per cent for the general Australian population and 97 per cent for Indigenous Australia. So the antivaxxers perhaps are getting more coverage, but they're having less effect, and so I've got to say that we're aware of them, but frankly, they're not winning their case. But we'll continue to prosecute ours. I spoke with Ian Frazer, the great professor Ian Frazer, the chief developer of Gardasil, which is saving lives around the world, and he's willing to put his name to supporting this vaccination process and many others will be doing it and joining us. 

 

PRIME MINISTER: So there'll be a clear communications campaign, Kath, which will, you know, inform people. People need to know. I mean, every Australian takes their health very seriously and particularly when it comes to making decisions about the health of their family and we’ll be doing everything we can to make sure they have as much information as possible. And as you say, if misinformation or disinformation is being presented, we will be also seeking to proactively address that through official channels, which you'd expect, and I think that's very important.

 

I think we're going to move to other issues now. And with that, I'm going to thank Professor Skerritt for his attendance with us today. Greg, you’re staying. Greg?

 

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese said that you have presided over a complete breakdown in China relationship. Can I get your response to that, please. And also the Foreign Relations Bill, seems like passing in the Senate today. Do you think that China will see that as yet another poke in the eye? 

 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, in relation to Mr Albanese, I'm disappointed, but not surprised. You can't have each way bets on national security and what Australia does to protect its national interests. That's really all I have to say about that matter. Australia's policies and plans and the rules that we make for our own country are made here in Australia and according to our needs and our interests and we will continue to do that. But I'd simply make this point, following on from my media conference earlier this week, and that is that my position and my Government's position is to seek constructive engagement. The relationship with China is a mutually beneficial one. It supports both our countries, it's good for both of our countries and it's good for the interests of both countries, I think, to constructively engage and Australia has been very clear. We've been very consistent. We’ve sought to be very respectful. We will continue to do that and we will seek opportunities for constructive engagement.

 

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, some of the criticisms of the Government seem to be about tone with China. But we now know, because they've given us a list, they've got 14 grievances and they're all about substance. And they start with what we do with our Foreign Investment Review Board, through to the banning of Huawei, to foreign interference laws. Are any of those things up for negotiation or any discussion with China? 

 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I've been very clear about Australia's position on those issues, and I don't think that's surprising. And I should stress that Australia's policies and positions have been consistent for decades and certainly under this Government and they follow on from many of the positions held by the previous government. And what has changed is obviously circumstances and events and the environment that has developed over many years and that just means that we simply will continue to work to have opportunities for constructive engagement. But Australia's interests are very clear, and I think Australians understand that my Government will always be very patient and clear about those interests. We know what they are. We feel very strongly about them. But that is no different to any other country around the world. And what we need is the opportunity for leaders and ministers to engage directly and that is something we have always sought and will continue to do so and we'll see what opportunities present. I think these events are an opportunity, I think, for us to get together and discuss these issues. But clearly, Australia's national interests will remain our national interests and I have no doubt that the Chinese government, as part of the relationship with Australia, that their interests will remain theirs.

 

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, you would have seen overnight news out of the United States that they're going to send more of their naval assets to seas around Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia, those seas. What's your understanding of that plan? And what's your advice or advice to the Australian Government whether that redistribution of the enormous US naval force will survive the changing of Presidency? 

 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think you're overestimating any real change in direction there, Andrew. I would say that there's always been constructive engagement of the United States in our region and I think that is welcomed across the region. Australia participates in that, as we have most recently with Japan and India, together with Australia and the United States. These are not new developments. These things have been the case with the United States engagement in our region for a long time and it's been bipartisan. It's been something that both sides of politics have always understood, the alliance between Australia and the United States. There's always been an understanding of the need for engagement of the United States in the Asia-Pacific and they have been here for a long time and their presence is welcome and not just by Australia, but the many countries of our region. So I would expect that to continue in the same way it always has, regardless of the administration. I think there's a universal view about that in the United States, not just at a political level, but at a system level as well, and that provides a continuity and a consistency which is always helpful to stability. Phil?

 

JOURNALIST: Given the events of the recent seven days, the wine duties and then the Tweet on Tuesday, are you prepared to hazard a guess what China’s endgame is? It’s a question no one seems to be able to answer.

 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I can tell you what Australia's…

 

JOURNALIST: We know what ours is.

 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, but that is something I have control over. I don't have control over the ultimate objectives of other nations. What I have control over is what Australia's objective is and our objective is to have a happy coexistence, as I described it earlier, one that has a mutually beneficial relationship which can and has been, and can be again achieved through our Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, where we stand on that partnership which provides the opportunities for leader-level and ministerial dialogue, and to abide by the rules-based international trade system and to work through issues that present in that way. And that, I believe, will lead to greater stability in the region. It will lead to greater prosperity in China and in Australia mutually and I think that's in both of our interests. And so our objective is to see that achieved and I would invite others to share in that objective and I would hope that that would be theirs also.

 

JOURNALIST: Just further on the Foreign Relations Bill, how quickly does the Government plan to use these powers should they pass today? And will Victoria’s Belt and Road deal be the first to be axed?

 

PRIME MINISTER: We’ll just pass the Bill first. It will go for Royal Assent and then it'll go through the normal processes that are set out for analysis of all the various agreements that are impacted by that. And the Foreign Minister will make a determination in good time.

 

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, given the WeChat message was censored, how worrying is this for the Chinese diaspora who's left that sort of regime to come to a country with democratic values? And what reassurances can you provide to Chinese Australians that they are not targeted in all of this?

 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, my message, which has been made public not just on WeChat and I think over 60,000, I assume Australians, actually had the opportunity to read it. And it was a message of thanks and appreciation for the amazing contribution made by Australians of Chinese heritage to this country. I have consistently, right from the outset, Greg in particular mentioned what happened in February, and I remember being down in Box Hill in February with Gladys Liu and going down the main street and speaking to some local businesses there and speaking to the local Chinese Australian community there. And they were already practising the self-isolation and social distancing and the many other behaviours so essential that prevented that first wave in Australia being as mild as it was in comparison to other countries. And I have a deep appreciation of that. They played a critical role in Australia's health success and, as a result, our economic success. And so any Australian of Chinese heritage here in Australia, I know and want only to feel as valued as any other Australian because we are the most successful multicultural immigration nation on Earth. It is not debatable, it is not arguable. It's a fact. And we're very proud of that. And whatever nationality or ethnicity any Australian comes from, that is all part of the great Australian story and the great Australian journey. And I just simply sought to remind our Chinese Australian family, as part of our great Australian family, of how appreciated they are as a member of that family.

 

THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH: If I can add, just to give a personal anecdote. In February, obviously, we were working together every day on the pandemic and one of the things the PM said is, we have to reach out and show our Chinese Australians how we value them, how we care for them and we love them. And he walked that talk, he visited Box Hill, he made that case. And I remember going down to see Tommy at the Wok on Bay in Mount Martha, still serves the best prawn crackers on the Peninsula. And we all reached out and said how much we cared about our Chinese Australians and we do. They make us who we are and we're proud and honoured to have them with us. But it was the PM who said to all of us, these people are us. We care about them. They're so fundamental to who we are. Let's reach out and support them. 

 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it sounds like we've got prawn crackers for the Cabinet drinks for Christmas. You’d better get onto Tommy. 

 

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, we heard last night from Bridget Archer. She’s got some serious concerns with the cashless debit car. Has she raised those with you and your office previously and is it actually more widespread and if I just may, what do you think about a film being made about Martin Bryant?

 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, first of all, yes, I have discussed that with Bridget. We are in a period of our Party's experience and history in this place, and Greg has been around here longer than I have, that we have not known for a very long time. There is a great sense of unity and connection between all our members from our class of 2019 going back to the class of 1996, and indeed possibly beyond with Kevin Andrews. And one of the reasons we've achieved that stability and unity in our parliamentary party, which I pledged to regain when I became Prime Minister, is we have room to breathe. We are a confident Party that is confident about allowing our members to breathe and express their views as they do. But equally, that comes with the responsibility of being a member of the team, which ensures that the Government is able to continue to progress its agenda, as we indeed will in this area. But I've spoken to Bridget again today and thanked her for honesty, for her sincerity, because that's why she's the Member for Bass. That's why she's here. All my members are like that. They know that they can walk into my office at any time and raise issues. And do. And I think giving each other the space in our party room and the respect that comes with that is the reason why the Australian public is seeing a government the most united we've seen of any government for a very long time. And so I'm going to continue to follow that practice and trust and respect my members and that that will be my approach. 

 

Now, on the other matters, it's a free country, thankfully. We all celebrate that. And I must say, I am unnerved about the revisiting of the Martin Bryant case. It's a long time ago, but it seems like a few days ago even still, such was the horror of that day. It has scarred us as a nation deeply. So people will make films, that's OK in this country, that's fine, we think that's a good thing. Even if it unnerves a prime minister or many others, that's the society we live in. But I hope when this is done, and for those who choose to see it, we will remember the victims and their families and the torment that they have endured for all these many years since the wonderful work that has been done in this area, no greater than the incredible courage and strength of John Howard and Tim Fischer, who set this right. Australia leads in so many areas. It's why Australia, you know, is so respected and supported around the world, why people are so easily able to commend Australia, because we know what our faults are and we deal with them openly and transparently. But when it comes to challenges that we face, we confront them and we find the way through and we do it together. This year has been another example of that. And as this year comes to a conclusion, I have never been more proud of Australians than I am now. 

 

THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH: I will just add something very briefly on that, just in relation to the party room. It was something we were discussing before. I've been around here, not as long as some, but a little longer than others. I first came to this building in 1994 and I have never seen the party room more unified. And I say that genuinely and there are ups and downs. But one of the most important guarantees of that is to have safety valves. And the safety valve is to respect the role of individuals as MPs to act as members of the Parliament of Australia under the Constitution of Australia, to speak openly. That can be a little uncomfortable sometimes and all of you will have seen it. This building thrives on difference. But what I've seen is the most unified party room since, definitively, since the mid-1990s and I would say arguably since the mid-1960s. 

 

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, I’d be interested to know what's weighing more on your economic decisions at the moment between the dangers of running up extraordinary debt and the dangers of scaling back too quickly the financial support. What weighs more on your decisions there and are we in a recession or not? 

 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, technically, the recession has obviously concluded, but that's of no comfort to those who are still trying to get back into jobs. The comeback of the Australian economy is clearly underway and that's recognised just not by the National Accounts but, of course, by the Governor of the Reserve Bank and many other commentators, both here and overseas. That's understood. But the humility of the Government is necessary in understanding that there is still a long way to go and there are many Australians still out of work. There are some Australians who have recently lost their jobs as the economy goes through this next transition. And it is our objective, if they have lost jobs in one area, that we'll do everything we can to get them into jobs in new areas as the economy opens up. And so it is not an easy path ahead of us. It is a challenging path ahead of us and we will negotiate those challenges in the same way we have successfully broadly to this point in time. Our portfolio of measures to address the economic recovery is not singular. There are many. There have been the emergency measures that we put in place immediately which cushioned the blow. There are those ongoing measures through JobKeeper and the JobSeeker COVID supplement that extends out until the end of March. But then there are measures like the hiring credit, which extend well beyond that. There's the instant expensing measures that go to June of 2022. There are the infrastructure investments that are being made and when we meet together on Friday week as the first meeting of the Federation Reform Council and National Cabinet will meet before that, that is one of the issues we'll be discussing, is the continued rollout of those infrastructure plans by the states and territories in partnership with the Commonwealth. And so our economic plan is very comprehensive and our plan is also agile in that, as we've seen this week in addressing the quite specific needs of the travel agents and the need for a bridge to be provided for them to get to the next phase, there are parts of the economy which will remain more COVID-affected than others. But the way you deal with that is by becoming more bespoke, by becoming more targeted, to ensure that you're reading the information correctly that is coming back to us from the data on the ground. We've always been careful not to get too far ahead of ourselves on some of the decisions that are made because the situation has changed rapidly this year. And so you've got to get the settings right. But your question is the one that we've been addressing from day one, and that is you've got to get the balance of the short term support, the medium term recovery and the long term growth right. And I believe we are getting that balance right and I think the evidence supports that. But we're only in this phase. We will go through another gear change in the first quarter of next year. We'll go through another one after that and another one after that. But our economic road to recovery here is well underway and I think that brings Australians great confidence and comfort as they go into the break and they look forward to next year. Last one. Someone- Michelle?

 

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, are you making any representations to WeChat about taking your message down and any representations to Twitter for failing to take the offensive tweet down? 

 

PRIME MINISTER: On the latter, we've made our views clear on that, and I'll leave that for them to explain their actions and I'll leave WeChat to make an explanation of their actions if they choose to make one. What's important is the Australian Government has made its views very clear on these issues. But what is most important is despite the events of recent months and weeks and indeed years, Australia remains committed to constructive and open and regular dialogue at leader and ministerial level to address the tensions that are clearly there in the relationship. It's in our interest to do that. It's in the Chinese government's interest to do that. We remain open to do that. We will be patient. We will continue to be clear. Our national interests have been clearly articulated and the Australian Government's position on those are well understood. Thanks very much.

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