Release type: Transcript


Minister for Education Dan Tehan and Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy press conference

SUBJECTS: Coronavirus and Higher Education Relief Package, International students, Schools, COVID-19 update

Dan Tehan: Good morning, everyone. I want to thank you for joining us this morning, and I’ve got Professor Brendan Murphy here with me, and Brendan will give the daily medical update. And, Brendan, can I just thank you, on behalf of my constituents in the seat of Wannon and the general public, for the job you have done in making sure that, as best we can, we work our way through this pandemic. So, thank you very much.

If life gives you lemons, you make lemonade, and what we want to do is provide an opportunity for all those people who’ve had their lives turned upside down by the coronavirus, to reskill or to look at different career options. And, that’s why today we’re announcing that we’re slashing the prices of degrees and diplomas in short courses to enable people, rather than binging on Netflix, to be able to binge on studying, to binge on looking at a teaching degree, binge on looking at a nursing degree, an allied health degree –areas where we need people, and we’re going to need people, as we emerge from the coronavirus pandemic.

So, we want, also, our universities to seize this opportunity. And, it’s an opportunity for them to become world leaders in short courses, world leaders in what is called micro-credentialing. And, if our people can seize this opportunity, if our universities can seize this opportunity, we’ll be able to ensure that education remains one of the foundations which will build this nation into the future.

What we’re announcing today, also, is that, when it comes to our universities, we’re going to put a ballast into their finances. We’re ensuring that when it comes to the Commonwealth Grant Scheme, that what we estimated their income this year that they will get from the Commonwealth Grant Scheme, they will get. So, the estimates will now become the reality for the university sector, providing a ballast for them.

When it comes to FEE-HELP, which is the student loan contribution, they will also get a window to repay that. So, they won’t have to repay FEE-HELP if there is under-enrolment of students next year. And, then, we will give them eight years to repay any under-enrolment of the FEE-HELP calculation.

For the tertiary sector more generally, we’re also providing over $100 million in fee and regulatory relief. So, whether that be vocational education providers, the private education providers, and for our public universities, there is fee and regulatory relief of over $100 million. And, when it comes to our private education institutions – so, not our public universities, but our private education and higher education institutions – there’s $7 million there for them, so that they can participate in these new short course certificates. So, they can also offer that, and it will help them, as well.

So, we want to make sure that this pandemic does not take away education opportunities from the Australian people. The Prime Minister has said, when it comes to schools, that the pandemic will take a lot away from us, but we don’t want to take away our children’s education. Well, when it comes to tertiary education, we also want to provide opportunities for Australians to be able to use this period, this next six months, to re-skill or to re-engage in other parts of the workforce. I’ll hand over now to Brendan, and then we’ll be happy take questions. Brendan.

Brendan Murphy: Thanks, Minister. So, on this morning’s data we have 6,289 cases of coronavirus confirmed in Australia. Fifty-seven people have tragically lost their lives, and we remember every one of those families who are still grieving. We have 80 people in intensive care units at the moment, and 36 on ventilators. But, we have had continual reduction in the number of new cases each day. There’s no place in the world I’d rather be than in Australia at the moment.

Having said that, as my colleagues have been saying for the last few days, we cannot become complacent. We still have some community transmission – small numbers of cases – which do mean there are people in the community that are transmitting this virus. And, that’s why we have to keep our pressure on, and make sure that we don’t end up like countries in the world that you’ve all seen on the news, where this pandemic has developed uncontrolled community transmission. We are in a good place, as I’ve said a few days ago, but we have to maintain that good place.

I’d like to say a few thanks. I’d like to thank the Australian people for embracing and living within these new very restrictive measures that we’ve had to put in place. And, they have come to the fore, as all Australians do. They have shown that they can change the way they behave. And, I think, as I’ve said on other occasions, we will start to see a whole different way we interact, even when this is over, in terms of hand hygiene and distancing.

I also want to thank our frontline health workers who have been treating the cases of COVID-19. But, particularly today, I want to recognise unsung heroes, and they are our public health workforce. There are 7,000 or so people working in each of the public health units in states and territories, who are case detection, contact tracing, isolation, and making sure that our transmission is contained.

The single biggest reason why we have not had a terrible outbreak of community transmission is that we, in Australia, have got on top of those cases – two thirds of whom have still been our citizens returning back from overseas. And, this public health workforce, in each of the state and territory health departments, have done that. We’ve set up to do that. We’ve set up to test, we’ve set up to trace, and this public health workforce – our enhanced testing regime, the way we have approached this pandemic so far – is the way we can negotiate our way through the next month’s living with this virus. By having a strong public health workforce, we have put ourselves in this position of strength, where we can plan how we move on.

But, at the moment, the message is the same – we must maintain our strong position of very enhanced social distancing measures. We have, we are bringing the infectivity of this virus, the transmission of this virus, under control in this country. We’ve been in a position of strength, where we can plan, with the National Cabinet, what else we can do to live with this virus over the next six months. Thank you.

Tehan: Thanks Brendan. Questions?

Journalist: Can I ask Professor Murphy, if those [indistinct] are in affect. Because, we are in a strong position. Is the question here that we, whenever [indistinct], when do we even start easing the restrictions? When would be the earliest we would, could it be safe that our state could look at easing some of the social distancing measures that have been put in place?

Murphy: So, I think it’s really important that we look at what’s happened around the world where people have released restrictions, and have had to be re-impose them. We have to get ourselves very well prepared. That’s why I was talking about the public health response. Obviously, the National Cabinet wants advice from the Health Protection Principal Committee, about what are the things that would need to be in place, what are the measures for surveillance, for tracking, that we would need to have, to enable them to reach a, reach a decision on, potentially, removing some of those restrictions. But, there is a huge risk, in doing so, and we’ve certainly said that it’s not the right time now. We would, we want to spend the next weeks looking at the framework with the National Cabinet, and helping them to make a decision. I think I’ve also said in this room previously, there is no right answer. No country has the right answer. We are in as strong a position as anyone to plan a very cautious way forward. But, at the moment, the most important thing is that we can keep our control.

Journalist: Professor, on that note, assuming we kept our control in Australia, is it likely that international travel will go ahead in the next 12 months?

Murphy: International travel is another huge issue for the National Cabinet to consider. At the moment, the biggest risk to Australia is still returning travellers. Two thirds of our cases in Australia are returned travellers or tourists – mostly our own citizens coming back. In fact, it’s likely that the new cases we will see over the next week will be returned travellers. We’ve just had a charter flight come into Melbourne this morning from a cruise ship, with lots of positive people. So, whilst this pandemic is across many other countries, we’re going to need, in large numbers, we’re going to need some form of border measures. What they will look like, will, obviously, be a decision of the National Cabinet and Government. But, it’s until we get a vaccine or this virus that moves through the community and is not very strong in other countries, we will need border measures.

Journalist: So, Professor, is it then reasonable to assume that there will be, we will need to social distancing practice in Australia until the vaccine is found? Is this going to become the new normal for 12 months?

Murphy: It is quite, some form of social distancing seems very likely. We’ve always said that measures of some sort will need to be in place for several months. What they will take and how, how stringent they are, will depend on the epidemiology at the time. But, there is, it’s not likely – we’ve always said you couldn’t put huge measures in for four to six weeks, and suddenly remove them, and life will go on. That’s an unrealistic position. So, there will need to be some form of social distancing. But, Australians are learning to behave differently. You’ve all seen it when you walk into, into shops. You’ve seen people obeying the rules. You’ve seen people hand hygiene – people have washed their hands more than, more in the last months than some of them have done in a whole year. These are all great changes into the way our psyche is.

Journalist: [Indistinct] those that are among the most at risk, is it realistic to ask people to not visit their own relatives for 12 months?

Murphy: I don’t think it’s realistic for someone in a nursing home to not have any visitors. We at the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee recommended that people should be allowed two visitors a day, under very strict, limited circumstances. I don’t think it’s reasonable, at all, that someone would be denied visitors. Now, some nursing homes, obviously, when we had more transmission, were quite worried, and may have restricted all visitors. I’m sure that they will be reviewing that.

Journalist: Minister [indistinct] package you’ve announced is significant. But, in New South Wales, they’re saying that the two biggest universities [indistinct], between them they expect to lose about a billion dollars this year. They’ve flagged staff cuts, reducing their building plans, a lot of reductions there. Have you sought any guarantees that there will be some, can you recommend university to not do some of those things? Then, further on that, some of the losses are due to a drop in, not just international, but, also, expecting domestic enrolments. Is that something that concerns you? Do you think that is related to the coronavirus outbreak?

Tehan: There’s very good discussions going on at the moment between the university sector and the NTEU, and those discussions continued yesterday. And, my hope is we’ll get a resolution to those discussions, which will then, I think, limit the impact that the drop, especially in international students, has had on universities in New South Wales. Universities in New South Wales are also in discussions with the New South Wales State Government around some type of financial loan, and whether that would be appropriate, or not. We have seen in some universities a drop in the number of domestic students, and that’s what this package today is all about – is putting a ballast into the university sector in that what they had planned their income to be for domestic students, will now be the actual income that they’ll receive. And, where there are, has been a drop in domestic students, these short courses give the opportunity for the universities to fill those places, in areas of national priorities – whether it be teaching, nursing, counselling, IT – all areas where we’ll need a good, strong workforce to help us get through the other side of the pandemic.

Journalist: Professor, one of Britain’s leading scientists has forecast that we could have a vaccine viable by September. What’s your understanding, just with where the process is at? And, where this will be done?

Murphy: Sure. So, there are a couple, and the Israelis have made a similar statement in the media this morning, too. Look, it’s too early to tell. If there is any disease for which vaccine development will be accelerated, it’s this one. So, it is hard, though, because coronavirus vaccines haven’t been successfully made before, with SARS and MERS. But, there are so many people working on this now, so many brilliant scientists, including many in Australia, that we, we can hope. But, we cannot be unrealistic. And, none of these announcements, that I’ve heard, give me enough confidence to say that those dates will be met. But, I’m, you know, these are reputable universities, and let’s, all strengths to their arm.

Journalist: Minister, how many universities have taken part in this? And, [indistinct]?

Tehan: Yeah, so, all those people who are interested, who want to take up this opportunity, should contact their local university or go online, and, approach any university, have a look at the types of courses that are being offered, and, then, approach a university. For instance, we’ve already seen, when it comes to Swinburne, for teaching, they’re providing, they’re going to provide a short course in online teaching. So, we know in Victoria and New South Wales, there’s the move to do more teaching online, as students stay at home. So, they’ll be, teachers will be able to upskill. When it comes to health administration, Western Sydney University are going to offer something in health administration, so all those health administrators can upskill to help to deal with – whether it be regulatory burden, impact of the COVID-19 on hospital systems – all that type of help will be there, and learning will be there for people who want to do that. In Adelaide, the University of South Australia is looking at helping when it comes to aged care – how we can upskill our aged care workforce, and through a six-month short course. So, there’ll be numerous opportunities which are available from our university sector. So, anyone interested, approach your local university, or, otherwise, go online, and see what offerings are there. Because, of course, all this will be done online. So, really, any university, anywhere in Australia, will be able to offer these types of courses to people who want to upskill their education.

Journalist: Professor, what’s your view on the National Rugby League restarting in May?

Murphy: That’s a matter for, I know New South Wales Health has been dealing with the rugby league. I sus, my personal view is, I think, it’s probably premature to be planning things at the moment. But, that’s a matter for New South Wales.

Journalist: [Question inaudible]?

Tehan: Well, the Government, the Federal Government, has expressed a desire that we want all schools open. Now, the different states and territories will put in place different arrangements, depending on their unique circumstances. But, the NT, for instance, has said their schools will be open, and they’re requiring students to attend school for the second term. In Victoria and New South Wales, they’re encouraging parents to – if they can – to have their students study at home. But, what the nationally consistent approach is, that, when it comes to parents who have to work, when it comes to vulnerable children, schools have to be open, and have to make sure that they provide a safe learning environment for those children.

Journalist: Sorry, just on a school issue. One of the problems seems to be that teachers are concerned for their own welfare. I’ve got two questions on that point. Have any teachers been infected with coronavirus from working in a school? And, secondly, is the Government able to either provide them with swabs and hand sanitisers, to make it a safer work environment?

Tehan: So, Brendan’s medical expert panel has already provided some advice on this. Brendan, so I might ask you to respond to this.

Murphy: So, we haven’t seen evidence of, we’ve seen transmission from a teacher to a child in the school. We haven’t seen, to the best of my knowledge – and I haven’t got all the data from states and territories – significant incidents of student-to-teacher transmission. We have provided a lot of advice about making schools a safer environment. The issue, just to repeat again, we don’t think schools are a risk for children. Very, very few children get coronavirus, or, at least, get symptomatic coronavirus. What we don’t know is the extent to which children might be transmitters – there just isn’t the data there. On the basis that they may be transmitting, we’ve recommended a range of measures that schools can put in place. And, they’re being, actually, the National Cabinet has asked us to strongly modify, and be much more firm about these recommendations, and they’re going to consider them again later this week. But, essentially, it includes providing hand sanitisers, removing large groups such as large assemblies, practicing, where possible, social distancing in the classroom, very enhanced cleaning. We do believe this virus is spread from objects, quite often, and children in schools – computers, mobile phones, all of those sort of things – could potentially be tracked sources of transmission, if indeed, they are. So, there’s a range of advice that, that is being prepared for the National Cabinet, to try and give schools a sense of reassurance that they can reduce the potential for transmission. We’ve also advised that teachers who are over 65 with chronic disease, or over 70, probably on the basis that they may be at, more vulnerable, to getting coronavirus, is they probably shouldn’t be involved in situations at work, where they may be at risk of picking the virus up. So, some of those teachers are being redeployed to other roles in schools, and some may choose not to teach for the time being.

Tehan: Can I just add to that. In the same way that Brendan thanked the public health workforce, can I just thank all those teachers who are out there continuing to teach our students. You are playing an absolutely fundamental role in helping us get through this pandemic. I have two sisters who are teachers, and there’s enormous pressure on them at the moment – all, all our teachers – and I’d just like to thank them for the incredible job they’re doing in ensuring that our children get a year’s education this year, which is so fundamentally important to the future of our nation.

Journalist: Professor Murphy, overnight in Victoria, tragically, someone died while they were in quarantine. And, that’s been deemed non-suspicious, and is going to be looked at by the coroner. So, obviously, not asking you to talk to specifics on that case, but it does beg the question, what was the AHPPC advice in terms of mental health, when we are putting people into quarantine, especially with these return travellers? What services are available? And, what kind of concern is this for you?

Murphy: So, I think, obviously, the quarantine decision was not taken lightly. The states and territories have all set up their own different quarantine arrangements. They’re providing the health services and the supervisory services, so, they, they are very keen to do it on their own systems and process. The AHPPC advice was that, with the reduced number of travellers coming back to Australia with the high rates of infection we were seeing, that it was important to formally quarantine people. But, obviously, that does have to be in a safe environment. I’m not aware of the case in Victoria. But, obviously, that’s, that’s something that most of the states and territories have provided – a range of health and other advice to the quarantine facilities.

Journalist: Minister, the universities have wanted the Government to consider financial hardship payments to international students affected during the situation. And, we’ve heard stories of the people here in [indistinct] going homeless, by job losses associated with that. Why has the Government not taken that measure? And, are you really putting it on universities to take actions to support those international students that may have been affected?

Tehan: Well, can I just thank, firstly, those universities who have taken action. Deakin University announced a $25 million welfare fund on Friday. And, the other thing that we’re doing through the Education Council, which is all state and territory education ministers plus the Commonwealth, we’ve put this on the agenda for Education Council. We’ve asked officials to go away and look at what type of mechanisms might be put in place to help support international students through the coronavirus. And, the other thing that we’ve done, is, for all those international students in second, third or fourth year, they’re now able to access their superannuation to help them through the coronavirus. And, additionally, we also said to international students who were working, for instance, at supermarkets, or in aged care facilities, that they could extend their hours to help us manage the spread of the coronavirus. So, there’s been a number of initiatives which are already being taken. But, we’ll get more and more coming back to Education Council, in the coming weeks, as well.

Journalist: Professor, you talked about the significance of the contact tracing that public health officials are doing. Testing is being dramatically expanded and ramped up, particularly in areas where there has been higher rates of that transmission. And, yet, we, the number of cases detected is quite small, and getting smaller. In fact, New South Wales actually downgraded the number of unknown source infections by about 60 over the weekend. Is that a result of clusters being identified? How is it possible that we could suddenly source that many cases of infection, that we couldn’t previously? And, does this mean that the concerns we have around the community transmissions, as much as it is important not to be complacent, are potentially not where they were a couple of weeks ago?

Murphy: I think that’s, that’s a pretty good description. I think my, we are very pleased with, even with the broadening of testing, that we’re not finding significant new clusters. And, the clusters in Sydney, like the Bondi cluster, they got onto that really quickly. And, that’s what I was talking about before. Our public health response has been exemplary. And, if we can bring about really good control over the next few weeks, and we can keep that public health capacity there, that gives us a huge position of power, from which to move forward.

Tehan: Now, Brendan and I have got some Easter eggs we need to eat. So, can I wish you all a very Happy Easter, and we’re going to have a dose of chocolate, just to get us through Easter Sunday. Thanks everyone.