The National Cabinet met today to discuss Australia’s COVID-19 response, the Australian COVID-19 Vaccination Policy and management of Australia’s borders in the context of the emergence of new variants.
National Cabinet continues to work together to address issues and find solutions to the health and economic consequences of COVID-19.
The Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly, provided an update on the latest epidemiological data and medical advice in relation to COVID-19.
There have been 28,571 confirmed cases in Australia and, sadly, 909 people have died. There are now 41 people in hospital. More than 11.8 million tests have been undertaken in Australia.
Australia has done well on both the health and economic fronts compared to most countries around the world. National Cabinet noted the significant increase in COVID-19 cases in many countries and the comparative strength of Australia’s effort in addressing COVID compared to most other developed economies. Globally there have been over 87 million cases and sadly over 1.8 million deaths, with 925,628 new cases reported in the last 24 hours.
National Cabinet discussed the management of emerging COVID-19 variants and agreed to a range of measures to further mitigate the risk to Australians.
National Cabinet reaffirmed commitment to the Australian COVID-19 Vaccination Policy, which sets out the roles and responsibilities of the Commonwealth, states and territories in rolling out COVID-19 vaccination.
National Cabinet will meet fortnightly, or more frequently if required.
Management of COVID-19 Variants and Brisbane Case
Professor Kelly briefed National Cabinet on the emergence of new variants of COVID-19. New variants have a clear higher transmissibility, are rapidly becoming the dominant virus in the UK and are now being seen in more than 30 countries across the world, including Australia where there have been 12 occurrences of the variant.
Additional measures to further mitigate risks of the spread of COVID-19, including new variants, arising from international and domestic air travel were agreed and outlined below.
National Cabinet was briefed on the current situation in NSW, Victoria and Queensland. National Cabinet welcomed the decision taken by the Queensland Government following the confirmation of a positive case of the new variant. In recognition of the increased risk of transmission, National Cabinet agreed to include the Local Government Areas of Brisbane, Logan, Moreton, Redlands and Ipswich as hot spots.
National Cabinet agreed that the national standard for any worker involved in quarantine arrangements (transport, cleaners etc) will be to have daily COVID-19 tests, with jurisdictions to work towards meeting this standard as soon as possible.
Domestic and International aviation measures
National Cabinet agreed to additional measures to strengthen end-to-end protection of Australians from COVID-19, including new variants.
International passenger caps in New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia will be temporarily halved from no later than 15 January 2021 to manage the flow of returning Australians and other travellers who have been potentially exposed to the new variants. Current international passenger caps in Victoria and South Australia and arrangements in the Northern Territory are considered manageable and will remain in place.
Arrangements on international passenger caps will be reviewed by National Cabinet in early February.
National Cabinet also adopted a number of recommendations from the AHPPC in relation to in-flight and in-airport measures.
For international travel:
- Returning Australians and other travellers to Australia must return a negative COVID-19 test prior to departure. Exemptions will only be applied in extenuating circumstances, such as seasonal workers where there is limited access to testing.
- Air crew must take a COVID-19 test every 7 days or on arrival in Australia, continue to quarantine in dedicated quarantine facilities between international flights or for 14 days, and not reposition for an outgoing international flight unless they do so on a crew-only flight.
- All passengers and air crew must wear masks on flights and in airports.
- Airlines will continue to have appropriate infection prevention and control measures on board aircraft, including crew wearing personal protective equipment where appropriate.
For domestic travel:
- All passengers, excluding children 12 and under or those with particular exemptions, and air crew must wear masks on flights and in airports.
These measures will also be applied to government facilitated commercial flights which already have in place strong mitigating measures for passengers and facilities.
COVID-19 Vaccine Update
National Cabinet reaffirmed their commitment to the Australian Government’s COVID-19 vaccine national roll-out strategy and agreed that heads of Departments of Health in all jurisdictions and the AHPPC will to develop a nationally consistent approach on the use of public health orders for the vaccine roll-out.
Additionally, to protect the most vulnerable, and based on normal vaccination practices, for public health reasons this work will include an assessment of any requirement for vaccinations for priority cohorts in critical and high risk sectors, such as aged care workers for example.
National Cabinet will consider this approach at their meeting in February 2021.
PRIME MINISTER: Good afternoon, everyone. The National Cabinet has met, we will meet on a fortnightly basis now, at least, if there are requirements to meet more regularly then we will certainly be doing so. It was a very productive meeting. I want to thank all the Premiers and Chief Ministers for coming together, but I particularly want to thank the work done by the medical expert panel. The AHPPC who has been meeting every day now for many weeks and has been following very closely the developments of this new strain that has emerged firstly out of the UK, but has now moved to many countries around the world. Indeed, 80 per cent of Australians registered overseas are now in countries where the, where that new strain is evident. And there are other strains as well as the Chief Medical Officer will set out, which means that this this virus continues to write its own rules. And that means that we must continue to be adaptable in how we continue to fight it. And that's what we have done today as we've come together.
Today's meeting was an opportunity to accept the recommendations of the expert medical panel, the AHPPC, and in responding to, to my request to have a set of improved measures to tighten the end to end process of international arrivals in Australia both from the time of embarkation and entry into the airport all the way through to their acquittal from the formal quarantine period. It was also an opportunity to provide an update to states and territories on what we briefed you on here yesterday on the rollout of the National Vaccine Program. And that was very well received and I thank all states and territories for their engagement in that process and we substantively dealt with that issue yesterday.
It was also, straight off the bat, important to review the situation in Queensland, as well as get updates on New South Wales and in Victoria. The situation in Brisbane is a serious situation. Yes, we know there is only one case, but what we do know is that this new strain is some 70 per cent more transmissible than the previous strains of the virus. This strain is likely to become in the very near future, the dominant strain, as it largely already is, Paul, in the UK, but we anticipate that this will become the more dominant strain of the virus globally. And so the idea that it somehow can be contained just out of the United Kingdom is a false hope. As I said, 80 per cent of the Australians looking to come back are in countries that have had exposure to that strain of the virus. And so it is a very wise decision by the Queensland Government, by Premier Palaszczuk, to put in place the precautions she has over the next few days. It moves so quickly, far more quickly than previous strains of the virus and that means we need to give our contact tracers that head start to ensure that they can track down and run down all of the contacts from this individual and ensure that they can be identified, isolated, that people in the appropriate places can get the testing and we'll see the same, I'm sure response to the call for testing in Queensland, as we've seen in Victoria and we've seen in New South Wales that has been so effective in containing the spread of the most recent outbreaks that we've seen there. But in Brisbane, we're dealing with a different situation. There are many unknowns and uncertainties in relation to the new strain. And so that's why this precaution, a precautionary approach, we believe is very sensible and has the full support of our Chief Medical Officer, the AHPPC, all the Premiers, the Chief Ministers, and of course, myself as I indicated earlier today. This will hopefully ensure that we do not see this go to the next level. And so I want to thank everyone in Queensland, as I have, and those in the Northern Beaches and Melbourne in the past for the patience that they'll be called on over the next few days. Hopefully that's what it will be. But as we all know, we'll just have to take this step by step.
So the Brisbane hotspot, as we are declaring it at a Commonwealth level, it is different to the normal definition we've applied to hotspots but you've got to change the rules where you know that there is new information and new uncertainties that are being introduced. And that is the case in relation to this strain. And that applies to Brisbane, Logan, Morton, Ipswich, and Redlands. This comes into effect at six o'clock this evening, is my understanding. And our message to Australians who are in those areas is stay where you are, don't go anywhere. Don't go home to another state or any other part of your state, over the next few days stay where you are. If you're somewhere else and you are planning to go there, don't. If you are from any of those places and you are somewhere else, you may be here in the ACT, you may be in Western Australia, you may be in Victoria, you should treat yourself as if you are in those places. You should get tested. You should monitor your symptoms. And until you've gone through the testing process, you should remain isolated. This is something we can't allow to get ahead of us and the quick response here proportionate, I would stress, I believe this is a proportionate response to the very real risk, I think all of you know that I've always taken a very balanced approach when it comes to weighing up the risks, the need to keep things open where we can. Certainly had plenty of discussions around that table regarding domestic borders and the like. But where I believe the risk is absolutely proportionate, I can tell you, I'll back it in. And on this occasion, I'm advised and believe that this is the most prudent course of action to ensure that the great gains that have been made over the course of this last year are not put at risk by this most recent strain.
So as a result, we decided to take a number of actions today in relation to quarantine and how it operates, as well as in relation to flights. The purpose here is to both reduce and debulk the risk in terms of exposure to the new strain, starting firstly with arrangements that are substantively already in place on what the Chief Medical Officer would call the ‘should’ basis and turning them into the ‘must’ basis. It is already largely practised, but and particularly, I should stress, for flights that are being chartered by the Commonwealth Government. And so the Commonwealth Government, these arrangements are already in place when in terms of the flights that we are chartering. But this will now be a requirement right across the board. Travellers to Australia must return a negative COVID-19 test result prior to departure to Australia. There will be exemptions and extenuating circumstances and this could include for seasonal workers from amber risk countries where there is limited access to testing, with mitigation of testing on arrival in Australia, in the Pacific where this applies, this is not presently an issue, but where we can put those mitigations in place, people will be aware of the challenges in the ag sector, particularly in the harvest, particularly in the stone fruit industry. You know, we need to have tailored responses when it comes to applying this.
Individuals, including travellers and staff, must undertake measures for infection prevention and control for international travel, that includes passengers to wear masks throughout international flights, crew to wear masks and other personal protective equipment where appropriate. Airlines to have appropriate infection prevention and control measures on board aircraft. All individuals within Australian International Airport environments to wear a mask. Passengers should wear masks while in international airports overseas. International air crew must undergo a COVID-19 test in Australia every seven days or on arrival. That will be determined by the state jurisdictions. To continue to quarantine in dedicated quarantine facilities between international flights or for 14 days, no special rules for flight crews moving about, not reposition for an ongoing international flight unless they do so on a crew only flight. In addition, we agreed that for domestic travel, mask wearing will be mandatory on all domestic flights for all persons in Australia, excluding children under 12, and those, 12 and under, I should say, and those with other accepted exemptions, as an additional preventative measure to prevent geographical spread, mask wearing will be mandatory in all domestic airports in Australia. These measures over the course of the next week and the compliance arrangements that sit around that will be put in place by the Commonwealth and the state governments.
In addition to these arrangements, we will be reducing until the 15th of February the caps on international arrivals in New South Wales, Western Australia, in Queensland by 50 per cent. That means in New South Wales there will be a weekly cap of 1,505, in Western Australia, the 50 per cent reduction these will be finalised with state jurisdictions, at 512, Queensland at 500, Victoria there'll be no change because they are already operating at less than 50 per cent of their current capacity or were on their way back. That will be reviewed now by the 15th of February, not under the arrangement we previously had which was at the end of this month. South Australia there is no change. They are at 490, at a relatively low level compared to the other jurisdictions. In the smaller jurisdictions, the ACT, the Northern Territory, Tasmania, they are very bespoke arrangements in relation to those airports and they will be settled between the Commonwealth and those jurisdictions. Specifically in the Northern Territory, in particular, they are the primary entry point and will be the sole entry point for chartered flights that the Commonwealth has put in place. Those chartered flights will continue over the course. There is one arriving next week because without chartered flights, we have total control of who gets on the plane. So we can ensure that it is vulnerable people who get on those flights and the flight for example, next week that will be coming in and quarantining at Howard Springs, which is not in a densely populated area in Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane, there are appropriate arrangements in place there. Everyone on that flight I'm advised is either a vulnerable individual as identified by DFAT or a family member of that vulnerable person. So it's important that we keep those chartered flights going where they can be done in a safe way. As I said, all of the requirements that I've outlined to you today substantively are already followed on those chartered flights right now and so that will apply.
The other standard we agreed to today is that for quarantine workers, and states are encouraged to take as broad a definition of that as they can as is done in many states, so that would extend to transport workers for people going to quarantine, not just those who are the cleaners or others directly involved in that process, medical staff and so on, that they would move as a national standard to daily testing. So shift by shift testing for those on a daily basis who are working in those environments and that currently at a national standard has been every seven days. But I stress that that is already being done on a more regular basis in some states and territories now and all states will move to put that in place under their own local arrangements as soon as possible.
What all that means is that we are working together and I must say it was one of those meetings where everyone was on the same page here. Everybody understood what the risk was and I want to thank again the Chief Medical Officer and all the state health officers for the very important work they've been doing and advising on this issue. This is absolutely consistent with the medical advice that has been provided. The suggestion that Australia might be able to close off every single flight that comes to Australia was considered by AHPPC and was not recommended to the National Cabinet. Australia needs to continue to function. For example, vaccines need to come to Australia. They come here on planes, as do other critical supplies. There are people who need to come to Australia who have critical skills that are involved in supply chains and other essential functions in the country, for everything from medical workers to any number of other specific occupations. So Australia must maintain practical contact to ensure that we maintain the functioning of the nation. This is being done because of the many unknowns associated with this strain and over the course of the next four weeks, we will be in a better position to understand what we think fully the impacts of these new strains. So I thank Premiers and Chief Ministers for their cooperation and as I said we will meet fortnightly and more regularly as necessary.
PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY, CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER: Thank you, PM. So just to reiterate and give a bit more detail about the situation with the new strain. I think we've said for many weeks now we live in a dangerous world in terms of this pandemic. It is still raging globally. Looking at the number of active cases in Australia during this week compared with the UK, for example, the UK has about one in 50 people in the UK are currently active coronavirus COVID-19 cases. In Australia, it's about one in 85,000. There's a big difference there. We haven't had a death from the virus for quite some weeks, if not months. In the UK, every day at the moment they are having more deaths. As the PM said yesterday, more deaths in one day than we are getting, we've had in the entire pandemic. So it's a dangerous world out there. What is our major risk? Our major risk is people coming from overseas. We've known about this UK strain for a while. Before Christmas, we specifically looked at that at AHPPC, saw what we knew in terms of the science. It's become clearer now that that particular strain is more transmissible, it's more infectious, if you like, between people and that has now become the dominant strain in the UK. But it has also now been found in many other countries, most of the countries where Australians are travelling from to come home. So that's the issue.
What else has changed in the last 24 hours? I was rung last night by the Chief Health Officer, Jeannette Young, in Queensland. We discussed this issue of the cleaner from the quarantined hotels. This is the very first time we've seen someone with this strain in the community in Australia. We've had some cases in hotel quarantine in the past weeks. But they've been controlled through that process. So it is a change. We have therefore moved to calling this a Commonwealth hotspot as Queensland has done and will come in right behind with all of the Commonwealth supports in relation to that. Already last night I discussed with my aged care colleagues about making sure that our aged care, residential aged care facilities in that greater Brisbane area are being supported by our GP respiratory clinics in that area. We're looking to increase the number of tests, the hours and so forth so that there can be support to the Queensland authorities.
Our main issue is to keep Australians safe and to really make sure that this particular strain is not the one that becomes circulating in Australia. The reason is because it will be much more difficult to control. All of the things we've done in the past, all of those controls we've talked about in terms of test, trace, isolate, all of those personal measures, even some of the other measures we've had to do in certain times during this pandemic will become less effective if this virus was to establish itself in Australia. So that's why we're going hard and fast and strong. And to just reiterate again what the PM said, if anyone has been in Brisbane since the 2nd of, in the greater Brisbane area, since the 2nd of this month, wherever you are, you should assume that those directions that have been put for those people in the in that area now apply to you. Isolate and get tested and watch for those, how that emerges in terms of directions. And I will say that right now, whilst I've been with you, PM, by my own office is actually being fumigated on the basis that one of my staff was in Brisbane during that period. She's gone home. She's going to get tested.
PRIME MINISTER: You're welcome to stay here, Paul. You can have one of the offices here if you like.
PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY, CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER: Thanks PM, but I'm sure it'll be safe. So this is a moment for Australia to take notice. And as we did about a year ago, some of these drastic actions, they may seem like where we're changing things rapidly, there's a reason for that. There's science behind it and it's about keeping Australians safe.
PRIME MINISTER: Thank you, Paul. We're happy to take some questions.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, you’re mandating masks in airports and on flights. We keep seeing and as you've said it's expected that we'll continue to see clusters popping up around the country and sometimes we don't find out until a few days or a week after that cluster starts. Why are we not mandating mask wearing on public transport and other other community settings right across the country?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, they're decisions that are being taken by local jurisdictions, based on the advice of their own Chief Health Officers. And that will continue to be the case based on the risk as assessed in each of those states and territories. That's not a matter that has been recommended for a national position on, by the medical expert panel Paul. That's, I mean, there's been plenty of discussions, but it really depends on the circumstances in each case and you've seen that played out across the country as the circumstances suggest. I mean, the situation, for example, in Western Australia is very different to the situation right now in Brisbane, which was very different to the situation in New South Wales three weeks ago and even a week ago. So, you know, there is a flexibility that is maintained across jurisdictions to deal with those issues and those issues are determined by the Premiers and the Health Ministers based on the advice of the Chief Health Officers.
JOURNALIST: Is it now the standard that if your city has, and Professor Kelly, if your city has one case, even one case of this mutant strain, that you face a lockdown? Or is it a case of this is a one off to try and understand how this mutant strain works.
PRIME MINISTER: Well, we'll see. That's my honest answer. I mean, I can't tell you what we don't know. No one can. And so to lock in those sorts of, those positions as you've outlined them, I think would be imprudent. We don't want to learn the hard way on this and that's why I think the decision of the Queensland Premier today in this case has been very wise and very prudent. I think we're going to learn a lot in the next three, four, five days. The whole world is trying to understand how this new strain works and we've got a very live example right here in Brisbane in one of our major cities. And so let's learn what we need to learn over the next few days. Let's not get ahead of ourselves. There's no need to catastrophise this, but there is a very real need to address it seriously, as both the Queensland Government is and the Commonwealth Government is and the states and territories are. So I would caution and I would counsel reporting on this to be measured and to see it in the terms that it truly is, that this is a very significant issue and we will deal with it and we will learn what we need to learn from it and that is what will guide further actions. I'll just move across. I know there's a lot of questions here.
JOURNALIST: There's a lot of concerns right now, particularly amongst the business community, about what further lockdowns might mean for their revenue. Have you been considering extending supports like JobKeeper beyond March?
PRIME MINISTER: We've got a situation that we know to be in place for the next three days and what we have known when we've dealt with JobKeeper and JobSeeker transitions before, the last transition occurred while Victoria was still in lockdown. And then we saw 450,000 businesses come off JobKeeper and over two million Australians no longer needing taxpayer funded support and hundreds of thousands jobs created, including in Victoria. And so that is how the system is designed to work, where there are businesses that continue to be in need of it that continues out till the end of March. And I think what these events prove once again is you just don't want to get too far ahead of yourselves. We've got a very clear plan. That plan is working economically. And I think it does provide certainty to businesses to know what the next step is. We've just gone through the next step and there'll be another step in March, end of March, I should say.
JOURNALIST: Could I ask both of you, in your discussions on vaccines, did any jurisdictions suggest that it might be necessary to make it compulsory for a subset of the Australian population and particularly for Dr Kelly, do you have a view on states making it compulsory for the health and aged care workforce, for populations with a particular vulnerability, or for travellers to and from that jurisdiction?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, thank you, Paul. You raised this issue yesterday, and I think you need to be careful about how you are explaining this issue. Flu vaccines are not compulsory in Australia. They are not mandatory, but in certain workplace settings, it is a requirement of those workplaces. That doesn't mean they're mandatory vaccines for flus, but currently for flu vaccines through state public health orders, those arrangements are put in place for public health and safety. It's also true that you need a measles vaccination, I'm advised, to be able to work in an ICU. Measles vaccinations, similarly as with all vaccinations predominately or overwhelming, the Chief Medical Officer will correct me if I'm wrong, they're not compulsory. So I wouldn't suggest that an occupation that may require that for public health reasons is making the vaccination mandatory. That would be false and that would be misleading and I'd counsel you against that. So what states and territories are seeking to do with the Commonwealth is understand in which occupations the normal arrangements that might apply for other vaccines and that's the process that you would expect them to go through. So it's no different. It's the same thing. It doesn't make it mandatory. It doesn't take away from anything the Government has said on this, and I would encourage it to be reported in that way. Paul? Paul, it's based on public health risk.
JOURNALIST: But that could be for the vulnerable sections of the population. It might be travellers.
PRIME MINISTER: It will be based on the same way that any vaccine is currently considered in occupational settings, on a public health risk basis. So that's what it is. What I'm stressing is there's no different approach here. This is the same thing that is done to ensure that we don't lose hundreds of people each year through the flu in our aged care facilities and that's why those protections are put in place. It's not mandatory to work in an occupation, but it can be a requirement of an occupation for public health reasons that certain vaccinations are in place. Paul?
PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY, CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER: Thanks, PM. So we talked about this a lot yesterday, but the two main priorities that have been set by our, our advisory group, ATAGI, which is and this is the medical advice that's driving the vaccine rollout, there's two of them. So one is about exposure risk and the other one is about protecting vulnerable people. So in this case, it’s I think the word requirement rather than mandatory is really important. So we've done this, as the PM has said, for many other protections for vulnerable people in health care settings, in aged care settings before. So as COVID was coming to Australia in March last year, we very specifically worked through AHPPC about the public health risk, realising that we didn't want our most vulnerable people in our aged care facilities to have a double burden of flu and COVID. At that point, we didn't have a COVID vaccine, but we did have the flu vaccine. And so that became a requirement for anyone who was working in aged care to have that vaccine and also visitors. It was a requirement for them as well. That was to protect the most vulnerable. So that sort of assessment will be made for the COVID vaccine as well and it will be on the public health advice that will go to Government to make decisions about that and probably most likely, as was with the flu vaccine, be part of public health orders in jurisdictions.
PRIME MINISTER: So National Cabinet agreed to do that work and as we outlined the vaccination rollout program, there is ample time to do that work as well as we lead up to the commencement of the vaccination of those most vulnerable populations. I should stress, having outlined the additional testing requirements and other constraints around the quarantine space, that quarantine related workers are the first in the queue, along with others like them in border protection and other places like that. So that's incredibly, it's an added layer of protection in the first layer. John?
JOURNALIST: Thanks Prime Minister, what's the medium term end goal with the new variant of the vaccine for Australia? Is it to completely stop it getting into Australia any more to prevent community transmission or at some point once the vaccine is rolled out a bit more widely, will we have to live with it a bit more, given it's going to become the dominant strain in the world?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think the first step and I'll ask the CMO to comment from a medical perspective, but from my perspective as Prime Minister and I'm sure this view is shared by the Premiers, right now when so much is unknown and when a vaccine is yet not in a rollout phase, we should be very cautious. And I know there'll be some in Brisbane today who'll be going, ‘well, why is this necessary? That seems a bit rough. There's only one case.’ Well, this isn't any ordinary case. This is a very special case and one that requires us to treat things quite differently until we know more and we will learn much in the next few days. And what Queenslanders will be doing over the next few days they will be doing not just for themselves in their own communities, but I think the rest of the country. And so, again, I thank you for the patience that you'll have to show in relation to the disruption. We know it causes disruption, but we're also quite sure that that is the prudent course of action given the circumstances. But the longer term position of this, John, I think is one that we will learn more about as the weeks unfold, for example, the decision to take the caps down for those three major areas, which effectively includes Victoria as well, because they're already at 50 per cent and less than that, I should say, that automatically comes back to their existing levels on the 15th of February, so this is a temporary suspension of those higher levels of intake as we learn more about what's happening here and what's going around the world. And this isn't the only new strain. And you notice I'm not describing the strains using any nationalities, we haven't done that more broadly. I don't see why we would start doing that now. There are other strains that are coming in and other locations and they also can present a threat. But Paul?
PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY, CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER: What we know about variations in coronaviruses and in this coronavirus in particular is much more than we knew a year ago, pretty much about any virus. The genomic testing that we've talked about a lot is important in several ways. The most important is that it really assists our contact tracers to make those connections between one person with the illness and another person. So there are many variations, thousands of different variations. There are now three definite strains in the world that are, that seem to be associated with more transmissibility, more infectiousness. None of those are associated with more severe disease and none of them are associated with any problem with the vaccine. They are important things. You asked about what our plan is, it is the same as it's been from the beginning. It's a suppression strategy with the aim of no community transmission. And doing anything we can to do that is important, to take what's happening in Brisbane right now, the three days, and this is really important, the three days is not about controlling the virus. It's about giving our contact tracers enough time to make those connections, to make sure anyone who needs to be isolated is isolated, to do the testing and then to reconsider. And that's absolutely, I accept and support that approach.
PRIME MINISTER: We’ll keep going around this way. I’m just, one at a time, we’ll do a queue today.
JOURNALIST: Professor Kelly and Prime Minister, can you just clarify that testing? Is that rapid testing? Is there a time limit associated for travellers having to come back to Australia,
PRIME MINISTER: You mean overseas or,
JOURNALIST: For overseas, coming to Australia? And if so, will there be financial assistance to people in countries that need to get this testing? Because we're hearing from people in the UK that say that it's around $300 dollars and that's on top of costs for flights to get home?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, let me deal with the second part first, and I'll allow the CMO to talk about the tests that are around and how we work through those issues. We already have a hardship fund which is being extended right now to Australians who are overseas. And I can tell you actually, that the, I think I’ve got it here, that the amount that has currently gone out from that hardship fund is some $15.5 million dollars, has been provided to people overseas to assist them, and that's with some short term financial assistance, zero interest loans those types of things, small amount of loans, around $4.27 million in loans, but over $11 million dollars in direct financial assistance to Australians who are in trouble overseas. We approved a budget of over $60 billion dollars for that last year. And so, you know, in circumstances that warrant that, then there is a hardship fund that DFAT consular officials have available to them in circumstances, based on merits. So I wouldn't say it would be a carte blanche arrangement if people can afford to look after their own situations in those places, then well and good. But if there are genuine hardship issues, then DFAT is already resourced and supported to help people in that case. And I should note that given the announcements we've made today regarding the reduction in the caps over the next, over a four, four, five week period, it will take about a week because of the flights that are already in the pipeline, to ramp that down. And I was just speaking to Alan Joyce before coming out here today, and we had a bit of a chat about that, that those who are overseas and that may be in a hardship position, that I would expect the DFAT consular support to be, to continue to be extended on the circumstances as they determine. But Paul, on the testing arrangements?
PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY, CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER: So the testing, we will be expecting a rapid, a PCR test. Sorry real time PCR test, not a rapid test, as the standard. There may be exemptions there for various reasons. For example, some countries that just won't be available. So, but that's what we're aiming for. The reason and I've talked before against that particular proposal for the issues that you raised, equity and so forth, but with the UK Australian, we now have good modelling data to show that that would actually be very effective, increase in, in the rings of containment that we have. So none of these things that the PM's talked about today that we discussed at AHPPC and have been adopted at National Cabinet are the silver bullet for this. Each of them, though incrementally increase the chances that we'll be able to keep this virus out of Australia or at least recognise when it's arriving. So we want the very best test prior to departure, as many other countries have done previously.
PRIME MINISTER: Yep? Oh sorry. I missed, I missed you. Sorry.
JOURNALIST: In relation to the 15th of February date that you mentioned,
PRIME MINISTER: The which date?
JOURNALIST: The 15th of February date for the increase in the hotel quarantine cap. Is that connected with when you expect to start to see those initial frontline workers getting vaccinated? Is there a connection there?
PRIME MINISTER: No.
JOURNALIST: And just in relation to,
PRIME MINISTER: Whether that coincides or not is another matter. But that that wasn't the basis. It was effectively, you know, if you're going to reduce them, there is a sort of logistical process that goes with scaling it down and then scaling it up again. And that month period, we basically take another week. So that takes us through to the 15th at the end of next week, and then a month on from there.
JOURNALIST: Just in relation to the success of New South Wales in clamping down on its most recent outbreaks. Do you think that perhaps Victoria and Queensland and other states acted too quickly in implementing those hard borders, given how successful the contact tracing has been?
PRIME MINISTER: Oh look I'm not going to go back over that. I'm simply going to say that I think both the New South Wales and the Victorian, and I believe the Queensland system will demonstrate this as well and I think give Australians confidence. As we look back over the last few weeks, sure, there was a real risk, but they all got on top of it, you know, Northern Beaches is coming out. Thank you Northern Beaches. I'll get there at some point once I am able to return to Sydney, at some point. But, and say thank you, as I hope to do in Victoria and other places in the weeks and months ahead. I think Australians have done an extremely good job, but the systems that the states have built over these many months were put to great test over the last few weeks and they've come out well. And I think that gives us a lot of confidence. We've seen, particularly in Tasmania and Queensland, who took the hotspot approach to this. Now, I freely acknowledge that states and territories and the Commonwealth have a difference of view about what constitutes a hotspot. But I can tell you we were in no disagreement today when it comes to Brisbane and this and this case. But that is one thing. But the other issue is then having a hotspot approach, which I think in Tasmania's case and Queensland's case in relation to the New South Wales outbreak that has worked incredibly well. And that was acknowledged I think, by both states today. Victoria took a different decision. They'll be, as did South Australia. So it's not on party lines or anything. And I would hope that from every run around the block we have on this, something is learnt on every occasion. But I think the hotspot approach, which you know, has been my view since March, I think that has always been the best way to approach that to minimise disruption, but I have also acknowledged, as we discussed today, because this was a topic that came up today, that how borders impact on the country differs across the country. How it, this is why I've always understood Western Australia has a different scenario largely to what happens on the eastern states and the impacts of those things, of statewide restrictions can have a very significant impact on the east coast. And that's why, you know, that has to be taken account of by states when they make these calls. I understand the sensitivity in Victoria having been through what they went through last year and what I'm sure was a very strong public sentiment that they didn't want to go back to where they'd been in the back end of last year, for most of the back end of last year. So look, there's a lot of give and take in this process. But what I think is always important that where states are putting arrangements in place and we discussed this today, then you've got to be clear about why you're doing it. You've got to try and give as much head's up and time for business and others to be aware of what's going on so they can adapt, as well as for individuals to minimise the disruption. And you've got to be clear about how it comes off at the end of the day as well and that helps people plan. And so we discussed those things today and, you know, I respect the decision states have to make. And, but I think the hotspot approach, which was followed particularly by Queensland and Tasmania in this case, it proved to be very effective.
JOURNALIST: Professor Kelly, just on the PCR tests, you've got to get them before you get on a plane. But they're not the antibody test that you can have a result within a few minutes. It's the swab test, am I right? Yeah so are you expected, you can't get it when you get to the airport. You have to have it in the day or day before you get there. Is that accurate?
PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY, CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER: Correct.
JOURNALIST: So those are not foolproof tests either because, you know, you might test negative at the airport and when you arrive in Australia the next day you may test positive. So it's not a foolproof plan obviously?
PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY, CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER: No, it clearly isn't. And that's why I'm saying, we have these rings of containment that we've always had. This is just another layer to that. Yes, if it's positive, we know it's positive. If it's negative, that does not prove that the next day or even on the plane, they might develop, become infectious. But what we've found and as the PM has said, we've been doing this all along with our flights into Howard Springs. So I think the last flight that came, there were 15 people that were denied uplift onto that flight because either they or their household contacts and this is the new rule now for everyone coming. If you or your household contacts, if you're positive, you and your household contacts will be denied uplift. And that will be, that would be part of that. So a negative test yeah it is not foolproof, but a positive test, they're not coming.
PRIME MINISTER: Anyone looking for absolute guarantees in a COVID world is not going to find them. And the expectation of them being there is unrealistic. And we can't be cavalier about what the alternatives are to the approach which the Chief Medical Officer has set out. Every action will have implications and consequences. I do want to make it clear beyond Australia's borders that Australia has every intention of remaining engaged and the investments and the trade and the many other important connections we have with the rest of the world, so critical to Australia's economic recovery and the jobs of Australians and supply chains and access to medicines and all of these things are very important to Australia. So there are no consequence free decisions here and so it is about managing the risk as appropriately and as proportionately as possible and bringing together the full balance of factors that we have to consider as Governments.
JOURNALIST: You said earlier that Brisbane had been declared as a hotspot, but with different rules. So is this going to be the case wherever this new strain of the virus pops up? We're going to have different rules. And so how is the approach going to be different to other hotspots where other strains are?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, I'll give you the same answer that I gave to your colleague. This is how we're applying it in this one instance. And we will learn what we'll learn over the next few days about how this strain behaves. And we've made no further decisions about how our broader hotspot definition may be altered. That should be informed by the evidence. And so it would be imprudent of me to make those sort of sweeping generalisations or changes based on what we know right now. We don't know enough right now. So we'll be very cautious, if we know more and that enables us to take a different approach, then we will. So we're not locking anything here. We are just being careful right now in this case, because it is the first one. And, you know, you learn a lot from your first case. We certainly did many months ago and the many waves that came and we're going to learn a lot in the days ahead.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister on the international borders issue in regards to people coming in from the UK or South Africa. How close are you in your thinking to preventing Australians returning home from those areas, given the significance of the strain of this virus? I know you said it wasn't recommended today. Was it discussed? How close are you on that front? And just your reaction to Abu Bakar Bashir being released from prison today? Are you comfortable with the Bali bombing mastermind being released?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, let me come back to that issue. But on the other issue, as the Chief Medical Officer has set out, this isn't just a problem out of one country. This is a problem for 80 per cent of those seeking to come back to Australia from over 30 countries, and so the idea that you can somehow narrow stream your response here and mitigate the risk, just dealing with one channel into Australia is not true. And that was the discussion we had today, that just looking at it in terms of one channel of arrivals into Australia would not contain the risk. And that's why we went down the path of reducing the bulk of that risk by reducing the caps and where we would maintain those charter flights we were putting it through much more rigid channels, much more contained channels. And the National Cabinet was confident that the issue that you raised was well considered by the AHPPC and that they did not recommend that action meant that was not something that we should move on. That would be a very significant step. But it would mean not just one country, it'd mean the whole world. And that would have very profound economic implications for Australia. We certainly don't want the protections to be worse than the impact. And so that is the balance you always have to strike, we have to be very careful as we deal with these issues as we have all year, that we just don't go to the extremes of the debate and turn it into an either or proposition. The balance is always being found in the middle by calibrating and giving a proportionate response.
Oh, on, look, this is very distressing to the friends and families of the of the Australians, the 88 Australians who were killed in the Bali bombings of 2002. I still remember that day very vividly, like I'm sure many Australians do. And over the years where I've been able to, I would join the remembrance service down there in Coogee above where Giles baths used- Giles baths still are and come together with many others in remembrance of those who were lost. And so I understand. It's hard and it's gut wrenching, having spent time with the families of those victims of that terrible bombing, we have always called for those who are involved, not just I as Prime Minister, my predecessors of all political persuasions to face tougher, proportionate and just sentences in these cases. Decisions on sentencing, though, as we know, are matters for the Indonesian justice system and we have to respect the decisions that they take. We have made clear through our Embassy in Jakarta the concerns we have that such individuals be prevented from further inciting others. And we will continue to follow those sort of issues through. They have been released consistent with the Indonesian justice system. That doesn't make it any easier for any Australian to accept that, ultimately, that those who are responsible for the murder of Australians would now be free. It's sometimes not a fair world, and that's one of the hardest things to deal with. So I extend to the families and the friends and particularly those, I suppose, who I've met and discussed these issues. I remember one chap who would come along to the remembrance service with the thongs that he was wearing on that day, and he would bring the thongs along the remembrance service and he wears the sort of stuff he was wearing that night. And it's still raw all of these years later. Still very raw.
JOURNALIST: Other than daily testing of hotel quarantine workers, is there anything else that can be done to prevent the virus, especially the new strain coming out of hotel quarantine?
PRIME MINISTER: We do everything we practically can and that's what we've decided to do today. And if there are other things that can be practically done, then I can assure you that the Chief Medical Officer and the AHPPC won't hesitate in making those recommendations. We're in constant contact with jurisdictions in other places which are dealing with the same problems. But I can give Australians this confidence. This uncertainty is not different to the uncertainties we've dealt with over the past year. And as we've dealt with those uncertainties, we stand here today in a country that has been able to battle this virus better than almost any other country in the world and we've been able to do so while keeping Australians in jobs and getting them back into jobs to protect lives and to protect livelihoods. The mission hasn't changed from when I first discussed it here, you know, back in March or even before that time. The mission hasn't changed. We're all still working on it. We're all still working on it together. And we will get through this latest challenge as we've got through the others. Every day we've been dealing with this pandemic we have got better at it. We've got stronger, we've got more capable, and we've got better and better results as time has gone on and we've learnt and we've learnt and we've learnt. And that's what we will continue to do. The reason we've been able to learn has been because of the great forbearance and patience of the Australian people and the trust that they have offered to all of us, whether as Prime Minister or Premiers or others, to go and make these decisions. And we thank you for that trust and we will continue to honour that trust in the decisions that we take as a group. As I said, we'll meet again at the latest in a fortnight. The Acting Prime Minister tomorrow, Mr McCormack, will be taking up that position over the next week. On the 18th, I’ll be back here in Canberra but if there is any reason to convene things before then, then we obviously will and I'll stay in close contact. But I'm sure Mr McCormack and Mr Hunt and the many others who are working on these issues will follow through on the important decisions that we've made today. So we might leave it there. Thank you all very much for your time and I'll see you in just over a week. Thank you.