Coronavirus update | Friday 19 March 2021 Transcript

Last Updated: 29 Mar 2021 3:05pm

Good afternoon, Stephen. How are you? Good thank you.

Today for the update I’m joined by the secretary of the Health Department Kathrine Morgan-Wicks and Dr Mark Veitch who will take questions later as well.

Now in the past week we have reached an important milestone; we began vaccinating our priority at-risk Tasmanians in the north and north west of the state and I’m pleased to report that the rollout is progressing smoothly in both regions. Today we take another important step with vaccinations beginning at the Mersey Community Hospital where health workers will be the first to roll up their sleeves. The first phase of the rollout, Phase 1a, has now been underway for four weeks and I’m pleased to report that we vaccinated 6,557 Tasmanians with 1,074 of them also having received their second dose. The commonwealth has vaccinated around 3,000 Tasmanians as well and so in total, receiving their first dose, is getting close to around 9,500 people.

Now this is a very good achievement. Again I'd like to thank our professional skilled team who are working to administer this vaccine every day. From today we expand our efforts and Kathrine will be available to speak more about this.

Bookings will open from this afternoon for appointments at the first of four state government-run community clinics. These clinics are at Kingston, Mowbray, Brighton and New Norfolk and will start operating from this Monday coming March 22nd. They're expected to vaccinate around 16,000 Tasmanians over the next four weeks. These clinics are open for bookings for Tasmanians who come under the categories which fall under the Phase 1b of our rollout. These are elderly people aged 70 and over, remaining healthcare workers not vaccinated in Phase 1a, younger adults with underlying medical conditions, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders adults that are aged 55 and over, and critical and high risk workers including defence, police, fire, and emergency services, as well as meat processors.

Now my message for Tasmanians today is that we expect there to be considerable interest in getting vaccinated at these clinics. Please be patient when trying to make a booking; it may take some time at first due to demand. I must have - I’m thankful that there is demand and Tasmanians want to get vaccinated, but there's no need to worry; just take your time. At the end of the day you will be vaccinated. Importantly, if you don't have a booking, don't just turn up to the clinics. Bookings are essential to ensure that we can manage the process in a safe and efficient way. If you're unsuccessful getting an appointment quickly, please don't worry. More appointments will become available in coming weeks and the government will set up additional clinics as vaccine supplies from the Australian government ramp up over the next couple of months. More GPs will be joining the rollout program over the next few weeks and Tasmania's three GP-led respiratory clinics at Derwent Park, Launceston and also in St Helens will be participating giving Tasmanians a range of options over the next few months.

Importantly, the vaccine is safe; it's effective; and it's free. And it was pleasing to read overnight the news from the United Kingdom and Europe that a number of countries have restarted using AstraZeneca after the European medicines agency's chief included to be a safe and effective vaccine. Our priority throughout COVID has been to protect the health and wellbeing of Tasmanians and whilst our vaccination program continues it's important we don't become complacent.

Yesterday we announced that the Director of Public Health determined that from the first of May the free Check-In TAS app will be the only system used for collecting contact tracing information in Tasmania. Now this means that specific businesses, community groups and event operators required to collect contact tracing information will need to register for check-ins and ensure their patrons can easily use the check-in QR code at their premises ahead of the May one deadline. And I was with a group of media yesterday checking into a business and it was very pleasing to get the feedback of just how easy it is and how responsive people have been to that system. Importantly the process only takes a few seconds. It's an easy and safe way and importantly will help Public Health should we need to track and trace. I do want to just shout out to our businesses; they have done an extraordinary job and in the main. They've been on board either through Check-In TAS and that has been rolled out widely, but some have used other QR code programs and some are still using paper and pen.

Now obviously we would like everybody to be on this one app. Importantly, where none of the options are available the venue is able to record your contact information with pen and paper. Similarly, if you're in a venue that doesn't have access to internet, pen and paper can also be used, but if you're in a group somebody more than likely will have a mobile phone. Use their phone to check-in so that we are capturing it all under the one system and we'll be communicating this change further with Tasmanians in the coming weeks.

In terms of seasonal workers, we're preparing to accept more seasonal workers to help with our harvest and fulfil our agreement with Victoria. A flight of Victoria workers from Vanuatu are scheduled to arrive in Hobart at 11 30 this evening with 162 workers on board; 56 of which will be staying to work in Tasmania post-quarantine; the rest will be heading to work in Victoria. A second flight from the Solomon Islands is scheduled to arrive in Hobart very early on Tuesday morning, March 23rd with 144 workers on board; 54 of those will be staying at work in Tasmania post-quarantine with the rest heading to work in Victoria as well.

Our advice right through this period has been that these workers present a low risk of COVID-19 to our community, but in line with our requirements will enter 14 days of hotel quarantine on their arrival to ensure Tasmania is kept safe.

Now last two pieces of information I want to provide. One is in respect to direct flights with New Zealand. We announced that we were actively working to welcome a new direct air service from New Zealand to Tasmania late last year for the first time in over 20 years. Today I’m pleased to say that we've reached agreement on commercial terms with Air New Zealand for a new direct service from Auckland to Hobart due to begin around Anzac Day. Now obviously at the moment I would make this point: that New Zealanders can travel into Australia without quarantine arrangements, but on the way back it's a matter for the New Zealand government. Now I am quietly confident that we will see a travel bubble established prior to those flights starting and so I’m very excited about this. Now Air New Zealand will fly from Auckland to Hobart and return on Thursdays and Sundays with the possibility of a third flight as demand increase increases. I met yesterday with the Hobart International Airport who advised me that it will be ready to accept the flights for their terminal work nearing completion and the support that's been provided by the Australian government who will stand up Australian Border Force, so we will be ready to go. The new flights will be available for bookings in coming days. Now Air New Zealand is a global brand with a great reputation and has a significant New Zealand customer base and importantly has connections with key priority overseas markets as well. As I said, this is great news for our community and importantly for our tourism industry as we are heading to our winter months which I expect to be unlike any winter that we've seen before in terms of the demand for the Tasmanian product. Over coming months Tourism Tasmania has been readying the market with its Come Down for Air brand campaign since January this year. And importantly we welcomed 25,000 visitors per year from New Zealand prior to COVID so we only expect this to increase without the requirement of transit by the main from the mainland.

The other matter I'll provide a quick update on is regarding the AFL. I was in contact with Gil McLaughlin last night we've had a positive discussion. This morning I expect that we will land on a consultant very soon and I’m looking forward to a very positive announcement in in coming days if not at the latest by early next week in terms of who the consultant will be taking us forward.

I'll hand over to Katherine Morgan-Wicks to provide an update and we'll take questions.

Thank you, Premiere. For the first four weeks of the program we have focused on our most vulnerable citizens in our community: in aged and disability care and our priority workers. As of last night, 7,631 doses have been administered in our Department of Health clinics and around 3,000 doses have been delivered by the Australian government in aged and disability residential care in Tasmania. With second doses having started this week, we estimate around 9,400 Tasmanians have now received their first dose of COVID vaccine in our clinics. 6,557 Tasmanians have received their first dose with 1,074 of them having received two doses and this week we saw the start of our Pfizer vaccine hubs in our major hospitals in the north and north west. And this afternoon we opened our first hospital AstraZeneca clinic at the Mersey Community Hospital to vaccinate healthcare workers. I can advise that as of last night, 1,156 doses have been delivered at the Launceston General Hospital to priority workers and 1,086 at the North West Regional Hospital and vaccination continues in the north west today. The hospitals will continue delivering vaccinations to priority groups in coming weeks and I'd like to thank our vaccinating staff at all of our hospitals for their enormous work that they're putting in.

The start of Phase 1b today is an important milestone given the logistics of what we are doing. Over the next few months it will not be without its challenges and I particularly like to acknowledge the work of the health staff who have been setting up four of our community clinics. There's an incredible amount of work that has to be done to get these ready: finding the right venue, having the right number of staff on hand, putting in place a safety regime for them and for those who visit the clinic to be vaccinated, as well as ensuring that the site and supplies are secure.

Now the first clinic at Kingston will have its first session on Monday the 22nd of March with other clinics at Mowbray, New Norfolk and Bridgewater starting progressively through next week. Opening times for the clinics will vary depending on the location and will be confirmed to people through the booking process. And as the Premier said, bookings open for these first four state clinics today.

People need to check their eligibility and search for a clinic using the Australian government vaccination clinic finder and this can be accessed through the Australian Department of Health's website at www.health.gov.au and click on COVID 19 vaccine eligibility checker or through a link on the Tasmanian government's coronavirus website at www.coronavirus.tas.gov.au. You will have to answer a few simple questions to complete the eligibility checker to confirm that you are eligible. If you are you'll be directed to the vaccine clinic finder where you'll find details of the Tasmanian community clinics as well as participating GP clinics and GP respiratory clinics.

Now if you don't have access online, and want to find out if you're eligible or where your local clinics are, you can ring the national hotline 1800 020 080; the hotline staff will tell you how to book your local clinic. So at the moment we have about 20 clinics listed on the national clinic finder for Tasmania and we're working this afternoon with the Commonwealth to add our community clinics with more clinics to be added over coming weeks.

Now in the near future the four community clinics will include mobile pop-up clinics in their respective regions and this will allow people to have the vaccine in their local area and the likely first locations for these include: Ouse, Huonville, Kempton, George Town and Scottsdale. And we will be advertising locally in the near future and people will be able to book clinics and appointments at these clinics in the same way as for our community clinics.

Now we're already looking at other locations for community clinics around the state where we can take some pressure off the local GPs or to fill gaps where there are limited numbers of GPs participating in the rollout. So remember, please be patient we're only in week one of Phase 1b rollout and not everyone can be vaccinated in the first week, but GP clinics and state community vaccination clinics locations will be added progressively to the national vaccine clinic finder. If your GP is participating they will let you know. They will be contacting their patients to let them know how they can book in for one of their own GP clinics. If your GP is not participating there will be a state vaccination clinic coming to your local government area and we’ll advertise to let you know how to book in. More information on these new locations will be provided in coming weeks.

I'll hand over to Dr Veitch.

Thank you. I'd be happy to take questions if people have any of me.

Since we're seeing, you know, more people be vaccinated and you've got a clear plan, do you have any idea when some of those other restrictions might start to ease because of that? I would caution people not to expect a very immediate relationship between vaccination rollout and relaxation of restrictions. At the moment we have some baseline restrictions on how Tasmanians live and interact and enjoy recreation, but the vaccination program's got a fair way to go. The vaccination program that will roll out will eventually achieve offering vaccine to everybody who's eligible in Australia. That probably won't be until October or thereabouts. It's my hope that between now and then, as we can maintain a low level of risk in Australia from coronavirus vaccine, that it may be possible to do some further relaxation of some of the restrictions that are in place. But i don't see that being particularly likely inside two or three months. I think vaccination has got a fair way to go before we're willing to admit a bit more risk to the wider population.

Will you start, I guess, a dialogue with your counterparts in New Zealand or will that be up to the federal health authorities? Will you be with this - with these flights - about the start will you - sort of - I guess get on the phone and start speaking to authorities over there just to keep in touch? Most of the work in the negotiations with New Zealand will occur at a federal level and with the Premier and at his level and his counterparts in New Zealand. The matter of health considerations around people moving between the two jurisdictions is something that is discussed all the time on the Australian Health Protection Principle Committee which I sit on and which meets about every second day and we will often have a New Zealand representatives in both states - in both jurisdictions. And so you know, for example, recently when there was an outbreak in Auckland the imposed restrictions that were finally lifted actually at the middle of this week for people coming from Auckland so we have tended to manage outbreaks and clusters of cases in New Zealand as if they were in another state of Australia and i expect we'll continue to do that.

Have they managed outbreaks in a similar way to us? Is there sort of confidence that we're sort of walking in step with them in terms of how the risk is being managed? The communication is good and the approach to outbreak management is broadly similar just in terms of viruses generally at the moment.

There was a notice put out by public health about a significant increase in the amount of people getting the respiratory illness RSV - what kind of significant increase we're talking about. Respiratory Syncytial Virus or RSV is a very common infection that occurs most years in there would be thousands of cases in any given year. It typically affects small children. Most children in the first three or four years of life will all have two or three episodes of RSV infection but it can also cause respiratory infection in older people. The epidemic that occurs every year usually occurs around June and it tends to fade away a bit as flu picks up in the latter months of winter. We didn't have hardly any RSV in Tasmania last year, so we probably had a population of young children who hadn't had a recent encounter with it and probably were more susceptible as a result. It's not currently a notifiable disease in Tasmania, but we have excellent information about it. From diagnosis that are made by the major laboratories around the state there have been a total of 300 cases so far this year so that is a quite high incidence but it's probably not greatly dissimilar from what we would have in another big year but normally around about June or so when we normally hear it. So we're seeing it a bit earlier the important message out of this though is that if people have a respiratory infection and they go and get a COVID test as they should if they have a respiratory infection that's negative we hope. If you've still got symptoms, please stay home, away from school, use good hygiene, so you don't spread whatever else you have to your family. It could be RSV; it could be some of the other common cold viruses that are also common at the moment. Seeing as it's not a notifiable disease and presents as the common cold for adults is that 300 children we're talking about that have gone to hospital or had more severe reactions to the virus they've been sick enough for a general practitioner to do a test on them and it may be that they had COVID tests had a negative COVID test and then the general practitioner managed them did another test to work out what was going on so we had a lot of hospitalisations from children. I don't have the figures to hand on how many hospitalisations we have from RSV but we would expect in any given year there would be hospitalisations of children it causes bronchiolitis exacerbations of asthma occasional pneumonia so amongst those 300 people I would expect that there had been a small number of people who would have been admitted to hospital.

So you said that people should be following hygiene generally, but considering there are an unusually high number of viruses around at the moment; what do you think that says about people perhaps relaxing too much? It's a bit difficult to know whether this reflects relaxation of people; it's occurring mostly among small children and they can be a quite difficult group of children a group of the population to achieve excellent interpersonal infection control. So we have put information out to general practitioners and through education to provide reminders that if anybody in their settings has respiratory symptoms that they should be at home and that there's good hygiene. If kids have a sniffle that will have the sniffles when they're at school or in childcare.

So just to clarify, when will flights start to New Zealand? Well we are looking at around the 25th of April so around that date. Obviously Tasmanians or Australians can now travel into New Zealand with quarantining. New Zealanders can travel into Tasmania or Australia without quarantine. It's a matter of when the New Zealand government decides to reduce the quarantine arrangements going that way that we will see real demand occur. So, yeah, that's still a significant hurdle to overcome.

Do you think that will happen by ANZAC Day? Oh I’m hopeful it will and if not by then certainly sometime very close to that.

What difference is this going to make to, I guess, the tourism market here? Well, look, I think New Zealanders in the same way that we have seen Australians  and Tasmania's to some extent that have had a real desire for travel. In Australia we've seen it, you know, people traveling interstate and importantly we saw intrastate travel here in Tasmania at very high levels. You know, I think there will be real demand  from New Zealand and Tourism Tasmania has already been in the market there with a taster exercise reminding people just how good Tasmania is.

Would you consider flying over yourself and maybe meeting Jacinda Ardern or vice versa? Is some travel for you on the cards? Look I've travelled very little since I've been the Treasurer and certainly I've done no travel as Premier - apart from, I think, two trips to Canberra for meetings. In my time as Premier, look, I would hope that Jacinda Ardern might like to come and visit Tasmania which you know I would claim would be the jewel in the crown of our country.

With international fights starting, will there be different security arrangements at the airport that we put in place? The Border Force will manage security at the airport. Hobart will have an international footprint and so the arrangements for either leaving or arriving will be similar to exactly what occurs in an international airport which I’m sure most of you would be familiar with and then obviously the arrangements that are in place should they need to be in terms of covered will be be an overlay on that as well.

How long term do you think this will be? Is this just something that you think will last during COVID while international borders are closed or are you hoping that this is something that is permanent? Look I am firmly of the view that Tasmania is viewed by the world now as one of the safest places on the planet and I think this is a first step. I’m so very pleased that Air New Zealand has entered into an arrangement with us and I see this initial arrangement will be over a two-year period. But i would like to think that as we progress and the vaccine is rolled out around the world and international travel starts again albeit will be some time to some location so the States and Europe will take some time. But I’m hoping that we can use this as a stepping stone to further international flights arriving in Tasmania.

Are the flights being subsidised at all by the government similar to what was happening with King and Flinders Island? Look without going into too much detail, there is an arrangement that we are providing and underwriting then obviously that will rise or fall but I don't want to - I can't speak too openly about that for commercial in confidence reasons because obviously there are other international carriers that fly that route as well.

Does New Zealand have any other travel bubbles in place with other nations? And i know this is probably a question for them, but just in terms of the risk, so we know - you know - what - you know - who is going into their airports over there have they got any other …? I'll just look for a nod from Dr Veitch; from my understanding is they've been wrapped up as tight as a drum as we have. They may have some relationships with some smaller pacific region.

(End of COVID-related matters)