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Doorstop – Parliament House



Subjects: Coronavirus

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: So, you just go for it, obviously there are a few issues going around.

QUESTION: With coronavirus, are you expecting to use the bio security laws to detain anyone that is suspected of having it?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, first of all the bio security laws allow the government to do a range of things based on the best medical advice from the chief medical officer and others requires. It requires consultation with medical officials of the states. In certain circumstances potentially if people were declining to abide by the conditions of the control order some forms of detention are available, just like they are in other health circumstances, it's not inconceivable that those might be activated. But what we're simply pointing out is that there are a range of powers that are available that were designed specifically to handle something as serious as a pandemic. Prior to 2015 those powers weren't available. And for the first time ever it may be that Australia is going to have to look at the fact that we may be declaring zones - human health zones - that will have certain consequences. For the first time really at a mass level in Australia people might be required to give me information about who they've come in contact with at certain points in time. So these are laws that have existed for a while there's nothing other than in a preparatory sense that they could be used, but there is a very challenging time coming up for all Australians and these laws thankfully exist so that we can control the spread and growth of the disease.

QUESTION: Would you find it easier to do your job if you had the powers that China has when it comes to citizens?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: No I think that the way in which China has handled the situation that they have isn't the model that we would be looking to emulate. Our relationship, obviously, the government with all of our citizens is cooperative. And if you have a look, for instance, at what happened with the Diamond Princess, obviously there was a deal of inconvenience that had been put upon the travellers on the Diamond Princess. And that was a situation where the vessel overseas was actually declared using the Bio Security Act a human health zone. That was the authority by which we could make sure that the return to Australia of the passengers, the Australian passengers on the Diamond Princess happened in a way that was safest for them, safest for their families and safest for the Australian community.

And interestingly that process of returning passengers from the Diamond Princess happened with them sign a consent forms so that they were fully aware of the powers that are available and that might be activated upon their return to Australia.

QUESTION: Why won’t Australia put travel bans in place for South Korea…?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, we're just monitoring that on a day to day basis but if I can give coarsely a summary as I can. There are a variety of ways in which you can determine the scale of the outbreak in different countries. One of those, but one of many that we use as a proxy is to triangulate back from the mortality rate. In Iran around the mortality rate was extremely high for the number of cases that they had said existed. Now common-sense told us that that probably meant that the number of cases that existed in Iran was far higher - either than they were willing to indicate or that they were able to indicate - that caused us the great deal of concern. That is not an overly unfair criticism of situation that no doubt was very hard to manage in Iran. But reverse-engineering the numbers of the possible people infected in Iran, based on the mortality, caused us enormous concern. But those types of calculations and the use of data that we can, that we can reliably say should inform decision making is going on, on a near daily basis with range of countries around the world.

QUESTION: With the by security laws is it something that you got to work with the states with or does the Federal Government have control?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well depends on what particular order, but many of the orders require very close cooperation between the Chief Medical Officer of the Commonwealth and medical offices in the states so yes it's very much a cooperative set of circumstances. And the states have their own variations of these laws. You've seen in South Australia they're moving to update what they think might be a deficiency in the legislative framework that they have. I now have a team of people in my office looking across all of the laws that we will activate and because these are likely to be activated for the first time on a scale in Australia that will affect many people we want to make sure that they're working well; that where they are written to be the least intrusive and most effective mechanism possible that is actually how they're operating on the ground. So we're watching this very carefully in anticipation of the fact that for the first time, in Australia, laws will need to be used on a scale that will present a different experience for Australia.

QUESTION: Do you need new laws or are the existing laws adequate – do you need to go to Parliament to ask for new laws?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I have spent the last week or so looking very carefully at the suite of laws. I can say that I am very, very relieved and thankful that the Minister and the Government in 2015 put the energy and effort and time into redrafting our 1908 Quarantine Act into a modern piece of legislation that’s fit for the era of air travel and the mass transit and transmission of goods across borders. The 2015 update on the Bio Security Act was in effect, designed for precisely the type of situation we're now facing. It would have been a very, very difficult situation and a situation which would have been far away from Australians’ best interest had that actually not been updated and I'm very thankful that it was.

QUESTION: You say that these orders are foreign and unusual. How confronting do you imagine their implementation could be if things get bad in Australia?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I think that Australians want to have the health of their community and the health of their family and their own health protected as best and in the most least invasive way possible. So I think people are used to the type of powers that you might get to be stopped - to be asked questions when you come into Australia - but they may not necessarily be used to that if they were presenting at a hospital or at a fever clinic. But I think that people will adapt very quickly because ultimately these laws are designed to promote the health and safety of Australians and their families.

QUESTION: When you talk about measures under the Bio Security Act can you explain to the Australian public, what does that mean? Are there going to be state borders shut down, are there going to be potentially rail lines shut down? What does it mean for the Australian public?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: So a question like that jumps to the most dramatic conceivable outcome, what it would most likely look like is that at a period once the disease was more prevalent in Australia, if you had something that's described as a fever clinic where people are able to coalesce and return to health after the acute fever that occurs with coronavirus – people visiting relatives or medical staff coming in and out, might be required to undergo certain requirements such as decontamination. They might be prevented from entering or exiting if it was considered that it was too dangerous for them to do so. They're the types of practical things that are likely to happen. So, the absolute extreme-case scenarios are not ones that are likely. But what is likely to happen is that people will find that there will be more refinements on them coming and going into places particularly medical facilities. People are used to walking into hospitals in Australia and emergency department rooms, without necessarily having to go through a decontamination or being questioned. It may be that, as this disease does roll through the Australian community that those type of circumstances will change, and there’ll be greater controls on people's coming and going to certain places where the disease is prevalent.

QUESTION: With something as simple as not shaking hands will you no longer be shaking people's hands until we're in the clear?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well I shook David Crowe’s hand when I was in the elevator… forgot first of all that he was a journalist …. but look I think people will just need to be mindful, people will just need to be mindful that we're going to have a very challenging several months and perhaps towards the end of the year. And that will require some changes in the way that we behave and think and what our expectations are about a range of issues. And again, it may be at some point in time that you need orders around people coming and going from medical facilities. It may be that there are particular requirements and things that we would be very wise to do before we come and go from childcare or schools. But I think that information will flow always very swiftly and accurately from the commonwealth government, from state governments - always informed by medical advice. But I think Australians can be assured that because of the fact the government prepared the legislative and statutory framework that we can actually do things that we see might require to be done. That would have been impossible under the 1908 Quarantine Act. So we are very well prepared both in terms of resources, advice, but also in terms of the types of laws that we have at our disposal to ensure that this can run as smoothly as possible during what will no doubt be a challenging period.