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PRESS CONFERENCE - SYDNEY, NSW

Direct News Source

PRIME MINISTER: Good afternoon, everyone. Today was a very practical day for the National Cabinet. The National Cabinet has been meeting now for around about six months. And its purpose on many days is to resolve disagreements, work through difficult problems, find solutions, find a way forward and today was another example of us doing just that. As the COVID pandemic continues to roll on around the world, we're encouraged by what we're seeing out of Victoria now. We're encouraged about the relaxation of the restrictions that we've seen in Victoria in regional areas. We are hopeful that the road map that has been outlined by the Victorian Premier continues to be achieved and we hope it continues to be accelerated in response to the case numbers that we're seeing there and that was refreshing news. It's good news that ACT is being opened up to Queensland. There is a lot of progress that is being made and we continue to resolve to make that progress each and every time that we come together. It's about working together to just solve problems and keep moving forward.

Australia is the envy, in many respects, of so many other countries around the world in how we are managing both the health consequences of the COVID pandemic and the economic consequences of the COVID pandemic. This was brought home again this week by the employment figures that came out yesterday. I mean, these are employment numbers that have seen more than half now, more than half of the jobs lost come back. That's good news. And as Victoria continues to improve, as we saw job losses in Victoria, we will see that situation only go forward further. We saw, not that long ago, that in the June quarter, that we had a fall in the size of our economy in that June quarter by some 7 per cent. But we've learnt just this week that just across the ditch in New Zealand, in that same quarter, they saw a fall of over 12 per cent. Australia is managing both the economic and the health impacts of this COVID pandemic better than almost any other part of the world in developed economies. Countries like, of course, Korea, South Korea, have also been doing extremely well. Economies like Taiwan also doing very, very well. But when it comes to the league table of how countries are managing both, that is something that I think Australians can take some confidence from and some encouragement from, and the National Cabinet has been a key vehicle through which we have been able to achieve that. We haven't always agreed. There's been the odd, there’s been the odd exchange of words from time to time. But I want to reassure Australians that when we get in that room, we solve things. We make the compromises that are needed from time to time to get to a yes and to get to going forward and that's what's happened again today.

Let me run you through some of the arrangements that we addressed today, the issues, I should say, we addressed today and some of the agreements that were taken. We did note and you would have seen from the common operating picture, that the testing levels across Australia, the testing rates, we noted that they need to be improved. And so, to that end, I welcome the fact that we're advised that Western Australia is actually moving to sewage testing, which is an important other testing method to give us an understanding of the presence and the spread of the virus. This has also been done now in the ACT for some time and other jurisdictions. I can also note that not only has Victoria, Tasmania and Western Australia taken up the COVID pandemic leave disaster payment, that is also now to be taken up by New South Wales, and those arrangements will be put in place over the next little while. And that ensures that, when someone has a positive COVID test, they can get access to those payments. And I believe Queensland will follow shortly. There is just a couple of issues that have been finalised between the Queensland Government and the Commonwealth Government, and we have positive discussions with the Queensland Premier about that today, and I look forward to that being in place very, very soon.

We welcomed the extension today of telehealth. This is a major, a major commitment. A $2 billion commitment that will see telehealth services continued for a further six months, out to the end of March of 2021. One of the things we've been able to do with telehealth is we've reached more and more Australians through these health services, and particularly in relation to mental health services. We have learned a great deal during the COVID pandemic about how these services can be delivered even more effectively, and especially in regional and remote areas. And so this is a big lesson out of the COVID-19 pandemic. This will continue, as I said, until the end of March. But, of course, we're working on future plans on telehealth, as to where it goes beyond that time, but for now that ensures that we have a certainty of that support and that people can access those telehealth services out over that period of time. It was also pleasing to note today that the 15 mental health centres that have been open now in Victoria, and they are receiving patients who are coming and getting that help. And that's been another important COVID initiative.

Today we received reports from Dr Alan Finkel and Commodore Hill on the tracing regimes. Following the last meeting, what we were able to arrange with the Victorian Government is the Victorian Government, together with the New South Wales Government, did a comparison of the New South Wales and Victorian tracing regimes. And the good news about that is there were lots of lessons learned and the upgrade that has been taking place with the Victorian tracing regimes, they're to be commended for. And we've seen that working, in particular, just in these last few days as they have been dealing with a particular outbreak. And so what we've seen is a lifting of the bar with the tracing capacity, and we welcome that in Victoria. And what was agreed today is that the work that Dr Finkel and Commodore Hill have done will now be spread across all the other states and territories, and under the Commonwealth lead we'll be taking the lessons out of that New South Wales/Victorian exchange and applying that to each of the states and territories. So, that will provide a reckoner against a benchmark to ensure that we keep our tracing systems up to standard and up to being match-fit over time as well. One of the challenges that you have with running a tracing regime when you have no cases is there's not much to do when you're tracing no cases. But you always need that capability to be there, and you need to be able to switch it on very fast. So, it was also agreed today that the Commonwealth would lead an initiative to connect all the digital systems that the states and territories are using so they can interact with each other. That doesn't mean they need to be all on the same system. Reproducing that effort would take considerable time and unnecessary cost. But we can design and develop a digital overlay across all those systems, which will mean that if there were to be an outbreak in a particular place, what that means is that we would be able to swarm, harness the tracing capabilities of more states and territories, to plug in to the tracing work that is being done in that particular jurisdiction. So, that's a positive development. It comes out of that process of Dr Finkel and Commodore Hill working, looking at the two systems that were being used in New South Wales and Victoria. So, we welcome that as a further initiative.

We noted today reports from Jane Halton, the former secretary of Health and Finance, and the work that she has been doing to examine all the quarantine systems around Australia. And that was a very positive report. She will be now moving to finalise that report and she's providing that feedback directly to each of the states and territories. But her report today was a positive one about the standard of that quarantine arrangements that are now in place right around the country.

We also, of course, addressed the issue of international arrivals today. We want to see Australians be able to get home. Some months ago, in the middle of July, the states requested that the Commonwealth put in a cap, that the Federal Government cap the number of arrivals coming back into Australia. Now, the reason for that was fairly obvious. We had a situation in Victoria which was rapidly escalating. In New South Wales, there was also a lot of pressure on their system as they were dealing with outbreaks and that was causing concern in many other jurisdictions. So, we put those caps on. They have been in place now for several months. But it was time to start lifting those caps and we made announcements about that earlier this week. I want to thank, in particular, the New South Wales Government for their very quick and prompt response to support those liftings of the caps and today we did get support for moving to those additional numbers. But it will be done in a staged way. New South Wales will move to take an additional 500 by Monday week, so that's the 27th of September. Queensland and Western Australia, on that same day, will be taking an additional 200 per week from the 27th of September. By the 4th of October, Queensland will then move to that full 500 extra. So, they'll increase it by 300 again. And by the 11th of October, WA will also go to that 500 extra a week. That will give those states additional time to get the quarantine arrangements in place. All of that will be done on the express guarantee of support, which I've always been happy to provide, which was ADF assistance in that task. So, we'll be focusing much more of our ADF support on that quarantine assistance in those jurisdictions. And this is going to help get more Australians home.

Australians who are trying to get home at the moment are seeking to do that for many reasons, and particularly those more vulnerable, for circumstances completely outside their control. It's not like they had an opportunity to come home early or anything like that. But we've got to remember, these are Australians coming home. These are Western Australians coming home to Western Australia. They are Queenslanders coming home to Queensland. Now, New South Wales has been carrying the majority share and will continue to do that. They will go to 3,000 a week from Monday week. About, I understand, 40 per cent of those who are coming through New South Wales are going on to other states and territories. So, New South Wales is welcoming home those from other states and territories, and they are quite happy to do so. And I thank the New South Wales Government, and I know all the other states and territories appreciate the role that they have played. So, Queensland and Western Australia will be also increasing the number that they'll be taking and I welcome their support for that today. Now, the smaller states and territories, they have also agreed to work with the Commonwealth to assist us when it comes to bringing in commercial charter flights. The reason we need to focus on Sydney and Queensland and Western Australia is because that's where the commercial flights go. If additional commercial flights were to go to Darwin or go to Adelaide, that would be fine, and those states and territories have expressed their willingness to take additional. But that's not where the flights go. But all of the other states and territories, including the ACT and Tasmania, even, where there is not yet an international airport, but we can put those arrangements in place quickly to deal with a commercial charter or an emergency evacuation.

Now, in particular, Howard Springs. Howard Springs is a facility that we will be able to use to deal with those type of evacuation charters, if they become necessary. Now, at present, we don't have any of those currently planned. But I should note that, since the pandemic started back in March, in its most significant form, we have assisted some I think it's 27,000 Australians to get back over that period of time. So, the Commonwealth has been out there, trying to help Australians get home. We understand that, for the reasons of putting the strain on quarantine capacity, we had to limit the number of places that could come in on flights over the last couple of months. But with the improvements and with the success that we've had as a country in recent months, we can start opening that up again and we can start helping Australians get home again. And so I thank all the states and territories for their assistance in that agreement today.

Now, another important agreement today is that there will be mandatory data collection on domestic flights to assist states and territories when it comes to contact tracing when people are moving between states and territories. From the 1st of October, part of the mandatory manifest information will be name, email address, a mobile contact number, and a state of residence. There's still some work to be done there. That will be arranged with the major airlines, with the Department of Infrastructure, and those arrangements are being put in place now. Now, that is just simply to help our state and territory agencies in the contact tracing that they may be required to do, when it comes to tracking when people are moving from state to state, and that information will, of course, be treated sensitively by the states and territories in the same way that public health information is always treated.

Another way we'll be able to help more Australians get home is we're working to ensure that New Zealanders can come to Australia, and Australians can return to Australia from New Zealand without the need to go through quarantine if they're not coming from an area where there is an outbreak of COVID-19. For example, the whole of the South Island is an area where there is no COVID. And so if we can get to the situation soon where those coming home from New Zealand are able to enter Australia without going into a 14-day quarantine in a hotel, or in the worst-case scenario, only having to do that in their home, then what that does is that frees up places in our hotel quarantine system. And so we see that as another way of enabling more and more Australians to come home. I think they account for about 15 per cent, or thereabouts, of those who are going through quarantine, are those coming back from New Zealand. So you can see that's a sizeable component that will assist us to do that.

The boarding school advice provided by the medical expert panel was adopted and I thank the states for the work they're putting in to enable kids to come home in the school holidays, particularly those coming out of boarding schools and going back to remote areas, where they will be able to spend time with their family. This year has been tough enough on our kids at school without putting them through a situation where they wouldn't be able to go home and spend the school holidays with their families. And so we welcome the work that's been done there. This is about getting them home safely, having the right conditions in place.

The final thing is that the National Cabinet agreed a tasking for the Rural and Regional Committee. That's one of the six subcommittees of National Cabinet. After our last meeting, we tasked the Energy Subcommittee, and so they will be working on the growth of jobs in rural and regional areas, and things that can be done to achieve that with the states and territories working to together.

So, it has been another busy meeting of the National Cabinet. We next meet on the 16th of October. The next meeting would normally have been held just before the Budget, so that's not something that the Commonwealth will be able to do at that time. We'll be very focused on the Budget at that time and so we agreed that we'd meet again on the 16th of October. And by that time, much of the work which I've mentioned today will be coming to fruition as well and that will be welcome.

Happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: How did you go with discussing the definition of a "hot spot" in Australia?

PRIME MINISTER: There was no further recommendation from the AHPPC on that today.

JOURNALIST: What did Jane Halton brief on and was she able to give any indication of whether there were actual issues with other states quarantine systems?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, she will be going into that detail with them specifically, with each state and territory. But the overall report was good. And particularly in places like New South Wales it was very good where they're doing it at an industrial scale. And so they got a very big tick today. But the other states and territories, I mean, obviously there's none going on at the moment in Victoria, but a lot of lessons learned there, obviously. But Jane's report, I thought, was very positive today. I think Premiers would be very encouraged by and Chief Ministers by the work that's been done. But to scale that up in those areas, particularly in WA and Queensland in the weeks ahead, well, with the ADF's support, the medical support that is provided by the states as well, then it will meet the test.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, that cap of 6,000, is that likely to be increased again?

PRIME MINISTER: Yes, I believe it will, and we spoke about that today. So, let's get to this next level, and then ultimately we'd like to see those caps lifted, as they were back in early July. That would be my goal and we'll work towards that goal and get there as soon as we can. But between now and the next meeting we will have increased the number of people who are able to come home every week by 2,000 a week and I think that's a good step forward. And to do so, I've got to stress, in a safe way. In a safe way. And for those states and territories where they have been many, many months now without a case, I understand the sensitivity in those states. But it's also important that they let their neighbours come home and many of their neighbours are coming home in situations which can be very distressing. So we want to facilitate and enable people to come home as soon as they can.

JOURNALIST: Just in terms of facilitating people coming home, airlines will struggle to fly empty planes one way in order to get people home to Australia. Are you going to look at relaxing the exemptions for people to leave Australia so that airlines can be commercially viable to fly out in order to fly Australians home?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the first point that was being made to us by the airlines was to lift the caps so they can keep these flights going. So what we have announced and what we have agreed today, I think, will address that in the short-term, I think in the medium term, out over the next couple of months, I think if we can get to a point where we don’t have these caps at all that would help that. When you don't have the caps coming in, then that makes it easier for people to be able to move and if it's on essential business and travel and things like that. But there are thousands of these exemptions that are given every single week for people to go and travel in those circumstances, whether it is to attend a sick family member or an important event or business purposes, things of that nature. So we're continuing to provide those exemptions and I look forward to when we can have even less restrictions on those things. But we don't want to create a problem with the pipeline of people trying to get back in, so we need to address that problem first and that's what we're addressing today.

JOURNALIST: You said you wanted the international arrivals cap lifted by next Friday, why the delay?

PRIME MINISTER: No, I didn't say that. I said we would be increasing the cap.

JOURNALIST: Sorry, increased by next Friday. Why the delay in increasing it to that?

PRIME MINISTER: Working with the states and territories, you work together. There are some disagreements about that and there were issues raised in terms of the step up. So we've been able to resolve those today. So we'll get there. We will get there about a couple of weeks after I would have liked to have got there, but we're still going to get there. That’s the point.

JOURNALIST: What caused that delay?

PRIME MINISTER: The issues raised were about the ability of the Western Australian Government and less so the Queensland Government, because they're moving a week before Queensland, to get their quarantine up to that capability that quickly. So they've asked for that additional time. They'll move to 200 additional extra by Monday next week. So it’s not like there won’t be an increase in the cap, there will be, they've agreed to that, and that will happen in that next week timetable. Then it will scale-up first to 500 first in Queensland and then 500 in WA. New South Wales will move to that first and they'll do that within the next week.

JOURNALIST: Do you still believe that all states except for WA will have their borders open come Christmas?

PRIME MINISTER: Yeah, I do. I think we're making tremendous progress. I mean, Queensland has opened up to the ACT today. That's great. It's good news. South Australia has opened up to the ACT and I'm sure New South Wales won't be far behind. I mean, the Premier was able to report today, I think it was one case today in New South Wales. So that's great news. We're making great progress. We're making tremendously good progress and from time to time we'll disagree on this and that but when we get into the room, we sort it out.

JOURNALIST: What do you think about Queensland's decision to open up to the ACT but not New South Wales? Do you think it's fair and consistent?

PRIME MINISTER: I think it's a matter for the Queensland Government to explain.

JOURNALIST: What’s your relationship been like with the Queensland Premier today?

PRIME MINISTER: Fine.

JOURNALIST: The New South Wales Treasurer described the arrangement as a ‘Berlin Wall-esque’ arrangement.

Sorry?

JOURNALIST: The New South Wales Treasurer described the allowance for the ACT as a ‘Berlin Wall’ situation. Are you concerned about it fraying of relationships between the two states?

PRIME MINISTER: There's always a lot of rivalry between New South Wales and Queensland. I don't think anything's going to change that. Dom has got much more dramatic rhetoric than mine. He clearly has the gift of more dramatic rhetoric.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, exactly how many Australians are stranded right now overseas that want to come home?

PRIME MINISTER: We've got over 20,000 right now but we have…

JOURNALIST: Do you have a more specific number?

PRIME MINISTER: Yes, it is about 24,000. We have got about just over 4,000, and this number has been coming down, how we would categorise through DFAT as being more vulnerable. Recently, several weeks ago, we provided additional funding to DFAT to assist these most vulnerable cases. That has meant in cases assisting them with air travel. It has also meant assisting them with accommodation or other needs that they might have. There was very wide discretion given to our consular posts to do that. We're talking in the tens of millions that we've provided that support. We had to do that because of the caps that were put in place at the request of the states, which was a very reasonable request, but that meant we had to act to get more support into our consular offices to provide assistance to those in need, and we've done that. Our consular teams around the world are amazing. Let's not forget that after the Beirut blast, we got hundreds of people out of Beirut and we got them home. And that was done outside the caps. I rang the Premier here in New South Wales and Gladys didn't hesitate. She said, ‘Of course, of course.’ And we got them home, and we got them home to many states. So our consular officials are doing an extraordinary job around the world and our many Members of Parliament too, I know, are fielding these calls and these requests, and they are heartbreaking in so many cases and we're seeking to resolve them as quickly as we can. But the most important thing we can do is continue to get more people able to be on flights and coming back into Australia. So today by working with the states and territories we will achieve that and more Australians will be coming home as a result.

JOURNALIST: Sorry, just according to the new cap increases, how long do you expect it will take to get everyone back home?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it's a question of who's looking to come home. There are and that changes, I've got to say, from time to time. Some, I mean, for example, there are quite a lot of Australians living in Bali at the moment. When you ask how many of them want to come home, it's actually only a few hundred. But there is, I think, around 7,000 Australians who are in Bali currently. So that doesn't mean they're all looking to come home. And so for those, what we're trying to do is for those who are seeking to come home, and particularly those who very much need to come home, we are prioritising them both in the financial support and other assistance we're doing through our consular offices and by opening up these flights we'll get them home sooner, and to make sure they aren't bumped off flights because of issues that only business class seats are available, things like that. That's what our consular offices are resolving. But I would hope that those who are looking to come home, that we'd be able to do that within months and I would hope that we can get as many people home, if not all of them by Christmas.

JOURNALIST: Should states who are forcing Victorians and other returning interstate travellers into hotel quarantine, should they look at alternatives like having those people isolate at home to free up space for more returning Australians?

PRIME MINISTER: Yes, we had that discussion today, particularly when you're talking about people coming from low-risk places. The ACT, for example, does home isolation on 14 days. We have Members of Parliament who are doing that exact thing in the ACT and there are medical officers who visit and take tests, and there are also police visits as well to make sure that they're there, and that has proved to be quite a successful model in the ACT. And the ability to apply those sorts of arrangements to people coming from particular areas where there's very, very, very low risk, well, they're options that the states can look to do and I would only encourage them to look at doing that because that eases the pressure on their other quarantine arrangements, which should be prioritised for those coming in from more high-risk areas. That's just common-sense and I'm sure the states will continue to try to exercise that common sense.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, has the Federal Government considered contributing to the states to allow that hotel quarantine system to be set up faster and allow that capacity to increase faster?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that's why we have so many ADF personnel involved. We have, I think, over 110 in Western Australia right now. There are 340, just over that, in Queensland doing that right now. Let's not forget, the people who pay for the quarantine are the returning travellers. They're the ones paying the hotel bills. Originally, that was being done by the states at their agreement, and on their initiative, and good on them for doing so. But the hotel bill for quarantine is being paid by the returning traveller. So they're the ones writing out the cheque and that could be 2.5 grand on a good day, up in the Northern Territory. Much more in the other capital cities. But then there are other costs that are attached to that. There's the work that the police do here in New South Wales. Other privately contracted security agencies which states and territories use and it's important that they have the right training and the right tasking, particularly around PPE and other protocols. And the review done by Jane Halton had some good news along those lines. But also, it's through the ADF support. In fact, the ABF support. The ADF, as I've said, we have got hundreds and hundreds. You will see in the statement released just after this just how many ADF personnel we have doing that task all around the country. The Commonwealth can be accused of many things but in this COVID-19 pandemic, not stumping up when it comes to costs, I mean, JobKeeper alone is over $100 billion. If you add up every single thing that the states are doing in their COVID response, you won't even get to the cost of JobKeeper.

JOURNALIST: Hotel quarantine is quite expensive. Would the Federal Government consider chipping in to help some of these Australians returning home?

PRIME MINISTER: I just said, we were providing that in-kind support from the ADF. That is all that has been sought from us by the states, I should stress. They haven't asked for that. No one asked for that today. That didn't come from the Queensland Government or the WA Government today. They weren't asking for money. They were asking for ADF support and the answer to that was yes, they will receive that support, because I want to enable as many Australians to get home as soon as possible and I want to do that safely and I want to do that in as constructive a way as we can and once again today at the National Cabinet, we were able to deal with our disagreements, come to decisions, come to conclusions, solve another set of problems and no doubt there'll be a lot more for us to solve when we get together in the middle of October. Thanks all very much.

This press release was sourced from Prime Minister of Australia on 18-Sep-2020.