PRIME MINISTER: Morning, everyone. I’m joined by the Chief Medical Officer and General Frewen, as usual. And there are a number of issues I want to raise with you today. First of all, I want to start with the floods in Queensland and I want to express my condolences to the family of the 22-year-old man who was killed during the course of those floods, and also we continue to hold out hope and prayers for the young girl, 14-year-old girl, who was washed away in the floods, and our thoughts are with her family as well. I have a daughter who’s 14-years-old, so I can understand the terrible, the terrible time that that family must be going through at the moment. And I want to thank all of those who are engaged in the rescue and search work up there in Queensland at the moment.
It was quite a deluge, as we know. The floodwaters peaked in Maryborough last night at at 10 metres. That’s a little less, I understand, then back in 2013, but that’s a very serious flood. An evacuation order was put in place for the CBD area. Homes were obviously affected, as was parts of the CBD. There is a a evacuation centre that has been established at the Brolga Theatre. There was around 25 people there at the last advice I had on that. COMDIS Plan was activated by the head of Emergency Management yesterday. What that enables is all the disaster arrangements and requests being facilitated through the Commonwealth, through the Emergency Management Authority.
I've directed the Commissioner of the National Recovery and Resilience Agency, who was in Queensland at the time, to be there in that area and to be liaising with officials in Queensland. I want to thank the Queensland Premier, we were in contact yesterday. The capacity of the Queensland Government and particularly local authorities, and I want to thank the local mayors and local government areas in that region who have been doing an excellent job. They are, of course, used to floods in that part of Australia at this time of year especially, and they’ve been doing an excellent job and there has been no request for federal resources to support any response or recovery effort. That is well in hand with those local authorities.
But you would have seen this morning that Minister McKenzie has announced that the Commonwealth Disaster Payments, which are $1,000 for adults and $400 for children, have been activated. You will be able to get those online or by ringing up by tomorrow at 9am and get those payments if you’re in the Gympie, Bundaberg or Fraser Coast areas, as defined. That is the same area that the Queensland Government has been working on in terms of any DRFA assistance that’s necessary.
There’s also the Disaster Recovery Allowance for those who’ve had income impacted, which is a payment for up to 13 weeks at the, at the JobSeeker rate. And that will also be available from tomorrow morning to be able to access that.
The weather system, which is now linked to Tropical Cyclone Tiffany, it’s currently at a category 2. It’s due to make landfall between Cooktown and the Lockhart River today. And so an area that is obviously a lot less populated than the areas that we’ve seen affected by the floods to date, but nonetheless, I know Queensland authorities will be watching that closely and the Commonwealth will be available to assist.
I particularly want to thank, in addition to the Premier, to Llew O'Brien and Keith Pitt, who are our local members in that area, who have been working closely with local authorities and I’ve been staying in touch with both of them for the work on the ground, and they have two messages. First of all, if it’s flooded, forget it. I cannot stress this enough. This is a season that we were anticipating floods, and wherever they might be, whatever they might strike next, if it is flooded, forget it, please. The other message is to thank all of those who have worked so hard on the ground to support people, those who are in the evacuation centres as we speak.
So we’ll continue to monitor those situations. I was here yesterday working through that with Joe Buffone, the head of Emergency Management Australia.
On the issues of the virus and Omicron, I will ask the Chief Medical Officer to speak further to this, as well as the General Frewen. Omicron is a gear change and we have to push through. That’s what Omicron is about. We're dealing with serious volumes of cases but we are not seeing the same impact proportionally from previous variants in terms of the impact on hospitalisations, ICU and ventilated patients. There are 5,097 patients in hospital who have COVID. That does not mean they went to hospital because of COVID. It meant they’re in hospital and they have COVID. As we outlined a week or so ago, up to half or thereabouts of those patients who are being admitted are being admitted for other reasons and have COVID. That still means they have to be treated in hospital as a COVID patient, but that is not the reason they went to hospital. We're also seeing that, as the CMO advised us yesterday, in ICU numbers as well. So people who are in ICU haven't gone into ICU because of COVID. They’re in ICU for other reasons and they have COVID. So it’s important to have that qualification around those numbers. There are 78 patients who are on ventilators, which is well, well, well within the capacity. The major stresses on the hospital system relate to workforce issues and I’ll come back to that in a moment.
But, of course, today, living with COVID means continuing to ensure we press ahead with the vaccination program, and the children's vaccine commences today. We have contracted 3.3 million vaccines. There are over two million of those which are already in the country, the balance will be here within a week. There are 2.3 million children in those age groups of five to 11. There are 6,000 places where people can go and get those children's vaccines. There are 835,000 vaccines in those places right now as of last Friday, and more would have been added to that since last Friday. So the aim here is to have as many of the places where you can go and get it. So if you can't get it from where you would normally go, know there are 5,999 and more other places where these vaccines are on the shelves. So there’s 835,000 doses on those shelves, in those fridges, in those pharmacies, in those GPs, and in those state hubs right now. And General Frewen can go into more detail about the breakdown of those when he speaks in a moment. 5,100 children have already had, aged five to 11, that vaccine, because they are in those priority categories of a medically required earlier vaccination.
I'm also pleased to note that the booster program, around 1.3 million boosters have been delivered, doses administered in the past week. We are now running at eight times the rate for boosters that we were on the first dose of the vaccine and now well over two times the second dose rate for those boosters. There’s 3.65 million boosters that have now been administered around the country and that rate is accelerating and we expect it to accelerate more, particularly as the state hubs now come online. As you know, the GPs and pharmacies, they’ve all been there. They’ve been carrying that load, particularly over this summer period, getting those boosters done, with those larger state hubs coming back online now, and over the next few weeks we will see those numbers improve even further and we welcome that. That is something that we’ve been working closely with the states and territories on through the National Cabinet process.
I note also what the New South Wales Premier said this morning, another reminder - the people who are predominately in hospital, who have gone there because of COVID, are unvaccinated. If you want to end up in hospital, being unvaccinated against this virus is the most likely way to end up there. So, please, take availability of those vaccines that are available to all Australians, free of charge, all around the country.
We’ve also been working, as we were yesterday, on the critical supply chain issue, and the Chief Medical Officer will go into more detail on this, but the medical expert panel, the AHPPC, has endorsed a new set of arrangements that relate to workers in critical supply chains - in food processing, food production and distribution, as well as emergency services. Now, as you know, some states have already moved on that, as we are working together on that. I understand the Victorian Government will be making further announcements on that today. That paper is now before National Cabinet for endorsement. I was not going to wait until Thursday for that, and after discussions with the Chief Medical Officer as soon as it was endorsed we agreed that that should immediately go to National Cabinet for endorsement. I anticipate that will happen over the course of the morning. It was sent to them earlier today. So we will just wait for their endorsement and that will enable them to take that up. What that involves is asymptomatic close contacts being able to go to work in those sectors. But I’ll allow the Chief Medical Officer to speak more to that.
The next step is to take that further into other critical sectors, and we’re especially looking at the transport sector, both in aviation, and in other distribution tasks. So not customer facing, I should note, on the food side. So if we’re talking about Coles and Woolies, we're not talking about people who are working on checkouts. Anyone who’s customer facing, they are not doing that. But those who are driving the trucks to deliver the food, those who are stacking the shelves at night, those who are in the distribution centres, those who are in the abattoirs, those who are in the manufacturing places that are producing food - all of those now caught up in those new critical supply chain rules, and we’re looking to extend those to other sectors.
I note some premiers have noted that they’d be keen to look at how we could apply that in the hospitality sector. We'll take that one step at a time. But for now, we are very focused, through the process being led by Minister Andrews, on those critical supply chains and getting the workers where we need them to go.
As the case numbers continue to rise, the volume of cases will, of course, have an inevitable impact on the workforce. And so we’re looking to maximise those who can remain in the workforce. And that is why these arrangements are being put in place. But anyone who is symptomatic or has COVID, they are not going into work. And I should note that these arrangements are already in place in the aged care sector, they’re already operating there, as they are in the health care sector.
Now this is an incredibly tough time on business. There aren't lockdowns but there are many people obviously impacted by being close contacts or people being wary, or those indeed who have COVID themselves. And that is having an impact on consumer spending. That's predictable and understandable. And that will be the case for a while yet while Omicron works its way through and moves to its peak, but that means it is very tough on business, and so we’re working to ensure that we can alleviate the impacts on business.
Firstly, when it comes to any regulatory issues, and the first of those is occupational health and safety regulations. The Attorney-General is leading a process with the states and territories which we anticipate being concluded in time for National Cabinet on Thursday, which will remove any suggestion of a requirement that small medium-sized businesses have to be undertaking testing of their staff. There is some confusion about that. I should note in pretty much all states, except possibly for Western Australia, there are no exposure sites anymore. And so the risk of a business becoming an exposure site is not something that they as they were concerned about earlier in the year, that is now changed because of the definition of close contacts and the like. So working out those occupational health and safety regulations and giving small business certainty around that is very, very important. We identified this issue last week and so that work has been done.
Secondly, while large businesses in critical supply chains like Coles and Woolies and so on have the means to be able to support the arrangements that are set out in the medical expert paper about how their close contacts are managed in their centres, there are small and medium-sized businesses in the supply chain, in those critical supply chains, which won't have necessarily those resources. And yesterday I tasked Minister Robert with Minister Andrews to be working with those small businesses in those particular sectors about how we can support them more effectively, together with states and territories, to ensure that they can be taking up these new arrangements that are set out by the medical expert panel.
We have also, the Treasurer, despite having COVID, he is still battling on. He's improving. I speak to him very regularly, and he's been speaking to the banks as well to be monitoring what the impact is on their customer base, on their small businesses, and the reports we’re getting back are that while this is a tough time, and it is really tough for businesses because of the impact of COVID. That's, living with COVID when there are a high number of cases is difficult. But what we are seeing is there are strong balance sheets, right across the economy. And that is backed up by what the data from APRA that the Treasurer’s referred to today, and this is in the household sector, but we’ve got 45 months, on average, ahead of monthly mortgage repayments, as of October of last year. Now that's up from 32 months. In September of last year there was $222 billion on mortgage, in mortgage offset accounts, and that’s up from $174 billion in March 2020. So Australians have been making good decisions to increase their financial resilience during the course of this pandemic. They’re using their smarts. They’re making their choices. They’re ensuring they’re getting their financial position in as strong a position it can be to get through this pandemic. That's obviously been massively supported by everything from JobKeeper to Commonwealth Disaster Payments during the lockdowns that occurred, and these have been used well to strengthen people's resilience, and small businesses have had similar supports but they’re obviously dealing with the challenge of reduced consumer activity at the moment because of the Omicron variant.
Now, the final issue I was going to raise before passing on to the Chief Medical Officer is our real focus, in addition to those other critical supply areas on Thursday, is going to be on schools. The Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Secretary Gaetjens, has been working with all of the other states and territories to harmonise their back to school plans. Remember, as I said last week, our objective is go back, stay back, day one, term one. Now, the peak of the Omicron virus is going to be different in different states and territories. It's clearly going to peak in NSW and Victoria versus other states. And so states and territories will obviously work that through and I’ll ask the CMO to talk more about that. So the idea is, once we go back, we stay back. And we get certainty around that issue. And so we’ll be working through those issues this week and to get further certainty and harmonisation between the states and territories, and I thank all of them for working with us on that process. It’s obviously a key issue for parents as they are thinking about their children going back to school in a few weeks’ time, and we’ll look to have those arrangements very clear by the time that occurs. And with that, I’ll pass you on to the CMO. Thank you, Paul.
PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY, CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER: Thanks, Prime Minister and good morning, everyone. We're in a new phase of the pandemic, as we've been talking about in the last few weeks. We're living with COVID and that that brings with it many advantages. But some issues that need to, leads us to change some of our settings in relation to living with COVID. One of the key areas there was discussed by my colleague, Professor Michael Kidd, yesterday at a press conference. That was about preparing yourself in case you are in contact with or actually contract COVID. I'm sure everyone who's listening to this and seeing this knows someone now in Australia that that has COVID. We have had, we have over 500,000 active cases at the moment. That is a very different situation to even a few weeks ago.
So those issues about being prepared - having some paracetamol or some ibuprofen in your cupboard. Don't wait to get symptoms before you do that to treat yourself with if you have symptoms of COVID. Make sure you know where to get the best advice to assist you in those circumstances, and there are, there are several ways of doing that. Of course, talking to your general practitioner is one of those ways, and there are very good guidelines that have been funded by the Commonwealth and developed by the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners for GPs to follow. So they are informed about what should and could happen. There are other ways of getting 24-7 advice. Any time of the day or night, you can ring one 1800 020 080. That is the health direct line. You can get advice.
If you develop severe symptoms, then you should not hesitate and call an ambulance. But that is a very, very small proportion of what we are seeing. The vast majority of those 500,000 active cases are mild or indeed asymptomatic, and that is an important part. But sometimes those those more severe things can happen, and so seek advice and seek it early.
We know that we have, in the meantime, our three main levers for dealing with the virus and decreasing the transmission of the virus in the community, and those three levers are still being used. Public health and social measures have been introduced by states and territories through the last few weeks in different ways in different states and territories. That is their responsibility. They have the powers under their Public Health Acts to do that. We discuss those those exact issues at AHPPC on regular meetings - twice, for example, over the weekend. We still have our test, trace, isolate and quarantine procedures, and I'll talk specifically about the issue of the food supply shortly in relation to that. We always foreshadowed that if in a high case situation, as we are at the moment, those that particular lever will be adjusted. It has to be adjusted. We cannot test everybody when there are so many cases. Hence, the discussions we've had around rapid antigen testing, and that will assist in the coming weeks. We cannot trace everybody as we used to. That contact tracing exercise has changed and there are reasons, very strong and good reasons, for society to keep functioning, for our health care system to keep functioning, for our aged care residents to be cared for, and now in the food and grocery supply chain to make sure that we do have those products on the shelves, that we do need to make a risk-based approach to those settings of isolation and quarantine. And the third lever, of course, we have is vaccination, and I'll leave General Frewen to talk through that. But today is another great day in terms of opening up for the five to 11s, and I would encourage all parents to go ahead and get that vaccination in the coming weeks.
So to the, as I said, the AHPPC agreement we we got to yesterday, an agreement right across Australia through AHPPC, on the provisions and restrictions for workers in food and grocery supply chains. So I would point out that this is, this is a reasonable step in relation to the increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant and the expected high number of incident cases in the community, and with the majority both mild and, majority of mild illness. The provisions that allow greater flexibility in balancing the need to reduce transmission against detrimental loss of workforce is an appropriate measure. That's the, that's the headline in this, in these particular guidance, which will become public shortly, as the PM has mentioned.
So we've worked very closely with this particular sector right from the beginning of the pandemic in relation to these matters. They have a lot of mitigation measures in the workplace in place. They've had that, particularly in distribution centres, which are a key component of the food supply chain. But I would really stress, as the Prime Minister did, that this includes food production, grocery production, it includes manufacturers, transport and other matters, it includes the distribution facilities. It does not include or apply to people working in the retail sector that are immediately facing the public. But it does include night stackers, for example, in stores themselves, online ordering, etcetera.
So similar to the, this document is based on the one that I showed last week in relation to aged care. It's been adjusted and adapted to the particular different setting, but it has that same risk-based approach that I showed yesterday, with particularly what we do with asymptomatic people who are test negative, even if they are close contacts, that they can come back to to work earlier than has been the case in the past. So I would really stress that. We are not asking people that are sick to go to work. We're not asking people that have been shown to absolutely have COVID to be in the workplace. But we are taking, we are allowing people to come back, to be monitored for their symptoms, to be monitored using rapid antigen tests in the workplace, so that they can work and keep those supply chains moving.
Just briefly on schools, as the PM mentioned, there is work being undertaken on behalf of National Cabinet in relation to that. The AHPPC met on this issue yesterday. We’ll meet again today, and take those health-based issues into account. Again, it's a, it's related to balancing the wider aspects and the importance of face-to-face learning in schools with the risk of COVID. And that's a matter that's going through AHPPC now and will be discussed at National Cabinet on Thursday.
PRIME MINISTER: Thank you, Paul. General Frewen.
LIEUTENANT GENERAL JJ FREWEN, COORDINATOR GENERAL OF OPERATION COVID SHIELD: Thanks, PM. Good morning, everybody. The commencement of the rollout for five to 11-year-olds is an important day in the vaccine program. This is the last piece in the puzzle, if you like, in our comprehensive national vaccination plan. The, I do want to emphasise again that there is enough paediatric doses in the country to offer every five to 11-year-old a first dose before they commence school this year. The PM has mentioned, right now there is over 800,000 doses sitting in pharmacies and GPs and other state and territory hubs around the country. There is another 400,000 doses being delivered as we speak, and there will be 200 million doses out on the shelves by the 21st of January, with more doses to follow after that.
PRIME MINISTER: Not 200 million.
LIEUTENANT GENERAL JJ FREWEN, COORDINATOR GENERAL OF OPERATION COVID SHIELD: What did I say?
PRIME MINISTER: You said 200 million.
LIEUTENANT GENERAL JJ FREWEN, COORDINATOR GENERAL OF OPERATION COVID SHIELD: Two million, two million doses. Yes. The PM has mentioned, as at today, there are 6,000 places that are offering paediatric doses. That will grow to around 8,000. Of the more than 10,000 vaccination points, 8,000 will be participating in the paediatric dose rollout. So the message again is there has been very strong take up on bookings, and I do commend parents for their determination and willingness to bring their kids forward to get vaccinated. I do understand if there had been frustrations around getting appointments for some. But please, if you can't get an immediate appointment with your primary health care provider, if that is your GP, please do try the pharmacies. Please do try the state hubs. There are additional bookings coming online every day and there will be more and more opportunities over the weeks ahead.
In terms of boosters, the PM also mentioned there has been a very strong response to boosters. I think Wednesday, Thursday, Friday last week we were doing over 250,000 vaccine doses a day. The vast majority of those were boosters. We've done more than another 250,000 doses across the weekend. Again, a majority of boosters. The rates are far exceeding what we saw for first and second dose at the height of the program back in August, September and October. Again, the points of presence are growing. The state hubs are coming back into play. There are bookings available right now for boosters. Response has been very strong, very encouraging. But, again, I do emphasise to everybody, if you are eligible or becoming eligible, get a booking in. Get along as quickly as you can to get your booster done. And if you are still out there and you haven't started your primary course, it is absolutely the best protection against Omicron, as it has been for all of the variants. So please do get out there and get your initial doses done as well.
PRIME MINISTER: Thank you, General Frewen and Professor Kelly. Sure, I'll just start here and move across. It's probably the easiest way. Yeah. I’ll start with you, Sarah.
JOURNALIST: Thank you, Prime Minister. I wanted to check a couple of things. Firstly, how many more workers do you anticipate will be in the, in the private market and in the distribution supply chains as a result of the AHPPC changes, compared to what otherwise would be the case? On schools, National Cabinet, excuse me, in November first discussed a test to stay approach for schools. Why is it that two months later, we’re we still haven't got a plan for the return to school?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, Omicron is the answer. Omicron changed everything. Delta was a completely different variant of this virus, and so as we have had to do on so many occasions during this pandemic, rules that were written for one situation have to be reconsidered and redone again for Omicron. And that's what's being done right now. And so the the applicability of those types of arrangements and the sensibility of those types of arrangements is being reconsidered by the medical experts. And that's what Paul and his team have been doing quite thoroughly. And that's what we set out to be able to be talking about this Thursday. That's why I was very keen for us to move on these critical workforce shortage areas and get those done today. And I anticipate even before Thursday we'll be able to hopefully move what Professor Kelly has done already into some of these other sectors, like aviation and so on.
How many additional workers? Well, I can't give you an estimate of that. I mean, that requires an absolute crystal ball. All I can tell you is more than would have been the case otherwise, and I, can I say, can I, I just want to thank the businesses and the unions for the way they're working together with us on this. It is a critical supply shortage issue and we need to have people at work wherever we can. And we've been working constructively through the National Coordinating Mechanism process, which is led, as I've said by Joe Buffone, but at a ministerial level is led by Minister Andrews. I announced that last week. So she is leading all the work and coordinating it around from the Commonwealth's point of view, ensuring we can keep as many people in work as we possibly can and to do so safely. But Paul, did you want to add anything to that?
PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY, CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER: Just to give a scale of of the of the issue and the reason why we've gone down this path. We heard from from the CEO of Woolworths yesterday. He's come to AHPPC before, as well as the the chief operating officer from Coles to give us a sense of the of the concern they had. That they're finding 30 to 50 per cent absenteeism rate. It's huge, particularly in the distribution centre. They cannot operate in those sort of circumstances. We asked them specifically about whether that's because people are contacts or whether they're actually sick. It's a mixture and it's different. It's patchy around the country, but that's the sort of issues we're dealing with and we need to move faster to take these, these risk based approaches so we can deal with that issue.
JOURNALIST: Just a follow on from Sarah's question. Just with regards to the rules as they currently stand, is there any thought to widen, to bring, you know, isolation requirements in line with US, doing five days isolation rather than seven days for workers in critical sectors? Given the fact that this is only going to get worse as the weeks progress. And secondly, on the measures introduced by New South Wales and Victoria. I mean, it's relying on there being ample supply of rapid antigen tests. I mean, as everyone in Australia has experienced so far, that's not actually the case. Is the government considering providing workers with free rapid antigen testing to enable them to get back to work?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, the second one, the advice we have from particularly those big companies and there I'm talking about Woolworths and Coles and others. They have ample rapid antigen tests to meet their need, and they've advised us that. So that is not a challenge that they're facing. Remember, we've also got those point of care tests, which you can do in workplace settings as well, so you don't always need the self-administered tests to deal with those issues. I did refer in my earlier remarks that we're looking specifically at if there are small and medium sized businesses that don't have the same resources as the large businesses, which dominate a lot of that sector, then we're looking at what direct support we might provide to those. And that's what Minister Robert is doing right now. That issue hasn't been raised with us, but that is an area where we may become involved with the states and the territories. Sorry and your first question? Oh the broadening of the rules, I'll ask Professor Kelly to comment. As I said, our measures are never set and forget. They never set and forget, but they're always set for Australia. Let me stress that. Other countries are doing any number of things. We always look at what they're doing, but that doesn't mean it works here. Other countries have different experiences, different health systems. They have different experiences of the pandemic. We set Australia's rules for Australia, and Australia has one of the lowest death rates, one of the strongest economies coming through the pandemic. One of the highest vaccination rates in the world. By following the Australian way these Australian results have been proved to be very good for Australians by and large. And so we're going to keep focused on making sure our settings are for Australia and for Australians. Paul.
PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY, CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER: So, so we've certainly looked at all options of ways we could in a risk based approach go forward with this to increase the availability of the workforce in these critical areas. We have kept with the seven days for people that have been proven to be positive actual cases, but that can be and will be reviewed, as the PM has said, according to circumstances. But for asymptomatic people, if they are negative on, even if they are close contacts, if they are negative on their day one test, they will be back at work. They can come back to work and we're encouraging them to do so. So we've in fact gone further than some other countries in relation to that.
JOURNALIST: Some pharmacies are saying with relation to the concessional rollout of free RAT tests, they're saying that they're a bit confused about how they're going to be administered and given to the most vulnerable Australians. How is that going to work and how are we going to make sure that those tests get where they need to go? And then just one for Professor Kelly. Given the sad news out of New South Wales this morning about the young child who passed away with COVID. Why shouldn't parents withhold their children from going to school if they're not fully vaccinated, if they have concerns about severe or potentially severe illness?
PRIME MINISTER: I'll let you start with that one, Paul.
PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY, CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER: Oh, well, of course as always, our condolences go to the family of the person that's passed away. I don't know the details of that particular case. What I would know is that from the beginning of the, from the beginning of the pandemic, we've been very closely monitoring the effect of COVID on on children and and universally throughout all of the different variants we've seen, it's been much less severe in children. Now with large numbers of cases, there will be, the occasional terrible event like this. There was a young man who died last last week too actually who had been working with the health department, so we felt that very closely. So these are very difficult matters. And as I say, our condolences go out. In terms of returning to school. They're there in general, and the vast majority of children that have Omicron is a very, very mild disease. And that's that's the reality. There are many other reasons why children should be at school. These are the matters that are before the AHPPC to give that health advice in the widest terms, including mental health, including developmental health, including physical health outside of COVID. So these are these are tricky things to talk through, but we are talking through them.
PRIME MINISTER: And on the other matter, the Health Minister has been closely engaged with the Pharmacy Guild since the announcement of last week and we'll be making an announcement shortly about the arrangements we've come into play, we're bringing the place with them. I thank Trent and everyone over there at the Pharmacy Guild for working with us on that issue. As you know, those costs are being shared also between the Commonwealth and the states and territories 50/50, as all free rapid antigen tests and indeed PCR tests are. And that includes I note, as I said last week, there will be direct supply of rapid antigen tests based on health needs. States will do that. We will do that as a Commonwealth, but that is not a general rule that is just where there is a direct health need in a particular area. A good example is if something were to happen in a public housing block or something like that, that's a case where we, the state government, would move in those circumstances, and we'd share those costs 50/50. But the arrangements with the pharmacies are quite straightforward. I mean, someone has to have one of the concession cards that I mentioned last week, that's a very obvious area of proof and they're used to doing that with many other medicines and that follow a very similar process. And that's why we chose to do it with the pharmacies because they have those systems in place. That's why you can't do it with supermarkets, because they don't have those systems in place. That obviously constrains the number of outlets that they can go to to get their free tests. But I want to stress anyone who is symptomatic or a close contacts gets a free test. Always has, always will. That hasn't changed and that is done through the testing centres and that will continue. That will continue as it should and the additional supplementary tests that are that people are getting concessional to access to. They are not essential tests. They are discretionary tests that people are getting. They will get 10 of those, a maximum of five a month. They'll come through the pharmacies and the pharmacies are responsible for securing their private supplies to meet that demand.
JOURNALIST: Thanks, Prime Minister. Just on the SMES, beyond the cutting of red tape around the OSH issue, what are the sorts of examples that Ministers Robert and also Andrews are looking at in terms of helping with more support for SMES? And more broadly, what's the latest economic advice you are receiving about this latest disruption to the economy? Is it going to last a matter of weeks or months and how big is it going to be?
PRIME MINISTER: It's a bit too early to tell on the latter point, John, I think at this stage and the Treasurer is keeping a close eye on that, as you'd expect them to. And as is the Treasury. But at this stage, it is a bit too early to tell, but there's obviously been a dampening impact on consumer demand. I think that's fairly obvious and understandable. But what we've seen so many times that when you, it's a bit like when you've come out of lockdown, you see the economy surge back quite quickly. We've seen that on numerous occasions now. And we have no reason to think that would be any different once we go through. That's why I'm saying. You have two choices here. You can push through or you can lockdown. We're for pushing through. That's how you get through this. We get through to the other side. It's going to be tough. The whole pandemic has been tough and Australians have shown a resilience and a patience and a determination. They've dealt with the circumstances as they're in front of them, not behind them. And the government is taking the same approach based on the best possible medical advice and the best possible medical advice is to push through. We're seeing the Omicron variant peak in a number of other countries, particularly in major cities like London. There's the suggestion, well more than a suggestion Paul, that people in South Africa, that they've peaked there and and we will have a similar experience. And so you push through. You don't lockdown.
JOURNALIST: On the return to school. You mentioned that every state and territory is going to have to tailor that based on their own circumstances, and that's something that can be discussed ...
PRIME MINISTER: Take into account their circumstances. Hopefully, they'll be a lot of agreement on the principles that are being applied, but obviously if those principles or the situation on the ground is different and we often see that in places like the Northern Territory, for example, which has a very different population to many other, many other states and territories, but yeah sorry?
JOURNALIST: Does that mean that you accept or indeed expect other states and territories to follow Queensland's lead and delay that return to the classroom? And If I could to Professor Kelly as well. We're hearing anecdotally, many, many people saying that they have been repeatedly testing negative on a rapid test. But then when they do finally get access to a PCR test, they are testing positive. What sort of ongoing testing and quality assurance is happening with those rapid tests to ensure their efficacy? And are we going to have to deal with the situation where many cases could simply be falling through the cracks?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, I'll let the CMO speak to that second matter. But on the first matter, no, I don't anticipate that being the case necessarily. I, as you've heard already from the New South Wales Premier, the Victorian Premier, that the situation, both of those states are fairly similar. And I do welcome the fact that in Queensland, that children of essential workers and others are able to go back at the same time. So one of the big one of the big challenges we have is to balance that need to ensure we have kids back at school because we need kids back at school learning. We need kids back at school because it also has very significant impacts on workforce availability, particularly in our health sector. And so that is very important. And obviously, of course, above and beyond all of those issues is the health and welfare of our kids and those who work in our schools. And so they are the issues that are being managed. And I think we can have some very clear principles around all of those that can be applied to the to the relevant circumstances on the ground in each state and territory. Because it's a big country and the situation is different in many parts of the country. But what we do know about Omicron is if you're not there yet, you will be there. And the sort of scenes we're seeing in New South Wales and Victoria, we're already seeing other states and territories moving pretty rapidly towards those sorts of situations, but Paul.
PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY, CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER: So on the rapid antigen tests, there's two specific types. There's a point of care test arrangements that are done through and with medical or health practitioners. Then there's the self-test. They have slightly different characteristics. Neither of them are as as good as the gold standard test, which is the PCR test. But in the current circumstances that we're in, they are a very valid way of making the diagnosis. What's happening at the moment, a lot of people are using rapid antigen tests early in their illness when the virus is not, there's not as much virus in the in the nose and throat. And so that can be negative initially, but they become positive as you go through the illness. The PCR test is more sensitive to that, so they even very early or even in asymptomatic cases, the PCR can become truly positive. So it is a matter of persisting. I think my message to Australians at the moment, if you have respiratory symptoms, particularly if you're in New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT and increasingly in other states, it's likely to be COVID and you should take take actions along those lines whilst you're waiting to get a test or get your test result.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, a number of medical experts are now saying that Australia is most certainly in the let it rip stage of management of the pandemic. Why are we at that point now? And is there an acceptable death toll that's just a reality now in the same way as the flu?
PRIME MINISTER: No, I don't accept that analysis because that's not the approach the government is taking at a Commonwealth level or in the states and territories. I'd describe it more as a as I said before, is pushing through. I mean, we do have public health social measures in place. We do have other restrictions that are in place, but we also have a very practical understanding of how the Omicron variant works, and it works very differently to the Delta strain. So no, I've heard those suggestions, and I understand Mr Albanese has made this suggestion. Well, you know, if Mr Albanese thinks the answer is to put Australia back into lockdown, then I don't agree with him. I agree with the advice that we're receiving that we need to keep pushing through, and I'd encourage Mr Albanese to seek a briefing with the health authorities. I understand the last one he had was on the 2nd of December, and so that is available to him. I'm sure he'll take that up. But the fact is Omicron has changed everything. And what we're doing is sensibly listening carefully to the medical advice that we're receiving and and we're ensuring that Australia can keep moving forward. But if Labor are for lockdowns, that's for them. My Government is for keeping Australia open and pushing through.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, in relation to your encouragement to Australians to push through. Looking at potential future new strains, are you satisfied with the level of preparation and contingency planning that was done ahead of Omicron and has the government, the federal government stepped up in in relation to what's occurred with Omicron, its future preparation and contingency planning for potential new variants?
PRIME MINISTER: Yes.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, just in regards to sorry, Just in regards to comments that state and federal officials gave conflicting advice. What is your response to his claims? Do you accept that there has been confusion and will the government cancel Djokovic's visa again if he does actually win the case?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, the matter is before the court, so I'm not going to be making any comment on the matter before the court and in relation to any other action the government may undertake. I mean, that's purely a matter before the courts at the moment. But in relation to the government, our government, the federal government's advice to Tennis Australia, that was set out very clearly in November as I read the extract from this very podium. It could not be more clear.
JOURNALIST: New South Wales, just in regards to Omicron. New South Wales talked about passing 20,000 cases by the end of the month. It actually passed that at the start of the month. You've seen 18 deaths in New South Wales. Now hospitals are starting to struggle. We see a shortage of food. Can you answer honestly, has Omicron spread faster than you expected?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, I'll let the Chief Medical Officer, I think, respond to that. I mean, no one has a crystal ball on these things. There's no, there is, we do have the best advice. And I think what we've also seen is the severity of it being far less than perhaps was anticipated. I mean, early on, we were thinking about about a 30 to 50 per cent less severity. That was about right, I think Paul, and it's ended up being about a 75 per cent less severity. It's rate of escalation has been very strong and I would agree that that has been moving at a very quick rate compared to our early estimates.
JOURNALIST: Is it faster than you expected?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, the point is, what is the ultimate result? And the ultimate result is that we have in ICU now 299 patients and not all of those are there because of COVID and 78 on ventilators in Australia, despite the terrible fatalities that we've seen. Still, Australia still does have one of the lowest death rates from COVID anywhere in the world.
JOURNALIST: With respect, that wasn’t the question, has it spread faster than you expected?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think I've already answered that question.
JOURNALIST: You just said that it's not as bad. Has it spread faster?
PRIME MINISTER: What I said was it's increased higher than the estimates that we saw. So I think it's a fairly direct answer.
PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY, CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER: So we know, what do we know about Omicron when when it came to Australia, we knew that it was more transmissible, we knew that quite quickly and we knew that it was less severe and that, as the PM has said, become more and more clear and in a very good way, over the last month or so. We've seen in other countries the doubling rate of cases of about two to three days. That that became evident during towards the end of December. In the UK, that was similar to what had been seen in southern Africa and subsequently in many other parts of the world. The the experience we're having in Australia is the same as the rest of the world now. That is new for us, but that is the reality. It's the reality of living with COVID is we will have cases and when you have such a transmissible virus, they will spread quickly and the case numbers will go up, but they are mostly mild or asymptomatic. We have to remember that very, very much so. The PM has mentioned the figures that are in are in ICU at the moment and our approach nationally has been to suppress the virus, to decrease the, to make sure that our health care system is coping. And it is coping. There are challenges, particularly in New South Wales at the moment and increasingly in Victoria and in Queensland, but they are challenges we have expected and planned for. We have surge plans in relation to that. These issues about making sure health health care workers, aged care workers and other essential workers can come back to work safely is an important component of those surge plans and we'll carry on as as we are. That's what we have in front of us now.
JOURNALIST: PM, you said about earlier in the press conference about the need to maximise the workforce. You mentioned also about hospitality being a one step at a time. Do you think eventually, though, that we will reach the point where people in customer facing roles, anyone who essentially can't work from home will be exempted from these isolation requirements? What do you say to the unions who are concerned about putting, you know, people who are asymptomatic but who can spread the disease back into workforces? And to Professor Kelly understand, obviously the states are different paces, aware that is the virus. But do you have any national modelling on on the impacts on when hospitalisations will peak and what we can see in that picture?
PRIME MINISTER: Okay. Well, look on the other matter and customer facing roles. I mean, we haven't moved to those at this point. I mean, we're very focused on the non-customer facing roles in the critical supply chains. To the extent customer facing is probably not the word, public facing would be the word for emergency service operators and police and others like that. And that's covered by this statement, which has been which has already been agreed today by AHPPC. And we'll be releasing that, that that statement, which is the one Paul was referring to earlier. So that's why I say you look at that one step at a time. I do want to thank the unions for engaging as they've been engaging with the Attorney General, particularly on this issue around OH&S and what the implications of those issues are and they're being worked through at the moment. We've just got to keep working together to keep solving these challenges. That has been the notion of the pandemic from day one. You are presented with situations and you've got to work them through. So the point where you can start dealing with customer facing, public facing roles. Well, we'll take the medical advice on that and try and get the balance right. And this is always the critical issue. I mean, you can just shut everything down and lock everybody away, and then there'll be no food on the shelves and there'll be no children getting taught and there'll be no one providing health care. So that's obviously not a practical way to move forward. And so what we have done as a government has always sought to balance the various demands and pressures on the system with the health imperative. And and that's what I think as a country, we've done far better than so many other countries around the world. It's a very difficult issue to manage, but it means just not looking at these things from one perspective. There are so many things that this virus impacts, and when you have high case numbers, the high case numbers to go back to the earlier question, the threat increasingly is less about the direct health because the majority of cases, although very unpleasant, based on Josh's own account of the last few days. At the same time, not getting to the point where they're having to be admitted to hospital that the issue goes to workforces being eroded and that putting pressures right across the system. So it is a very, very complex challenge. And that's why I appreciate the constructive way that premiers and chief ministers, emergency management, offices, industry, unions and others are just working together each and every day to solve these problems. Paul.
PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY, CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER: So the modelling and particularly forecasting and particularly forecasting of of health services, capacity and ability to cope over the over the pandemic has been something we've been doing since the beginning of the pandemic and continue to do. So, just talking about essential essential workers. I was informed today that some of our modelling team have have COVID, so that's another another key touchpoint, which is which is it is touching our own work in this matter. But we do have we do have that. There's work that is done on behalf of national cabinet that is presented weekly to the AHPPC in relation to transmission potential and other matters that we've talked about before. But that also increasingly has improved forecasting of exactly those matters. So that was discussed on Friday at AHPPC, and it will be brought to national cabinet on the next meeting to work through those matters.
JOURNALIST: And just in regards to schools, is it disappointing that Queensland moved first ahead of the other states and before the health advice is received at the National Cabinet on Thursday? And on a related matter, do you see teachers being added to that critical workforce having the the lower testing requirements as this peak continues?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, all those issues are being addressed in the advice that's coming forward from the medical expert panel, the AHPPC now, particularly in relation to those testing issues, whether it be for teachers or others. So I'll wait for that advice to come through, and we'll have that with the major, the major focus of our discussion on Thursday. Each state is going to make some calls here and and that's why I do welcome the fact that in Queensland that the schools are open for those essential workers. That's very important. That helps solve one element of that problem. But as we see in, Paul might want to comment on this as we see the Omicron wave rise, I mean, sometimes you do things, which just pushes the wave further out. You still get the same outcome. And so, you know, you've got to balance those types of actions with the other pressures that are on the system. And so that's what states are trying to manage to go back to the question on this side, it is really about trying to get the balance of those things right. And in each state and territory, the timings and the push on that wave is is going to be different just because of where they are. I mean, Western Australia hasn't even entered it yet, but we know what happens with Omicron. And that will happen everywhere. The minute it gets in and it will be in everywhere it will, it will take that path. That's why I say you have to push through as one of I think one of you said the other day, I think it was Boris who said it, riding that wave. But you do that as sensibly and as carefully as you can, taking the best possible medical advice on the way through which is what we are doing.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, many people who work in the food supply industry they travel from state to state are yet not all states have adopted these new rules regarding isolation. So how do you prevent workers from getting caught up in the isolation rules of another state? And also, can I clarify, you mentioned Coles and Woolies have plenty of rapid tests for their employees and that you're looking at what else can be done with smaller companies? Are you looking at giving free RAT tests to those companies?
PRIME MINISTER: I'm going to do the consultation first with them before prejudging any actions that they may require. Many of them are doing that already. And accessing supplies, but that's something I'm looking forward to the advice to come back through from Minister Andrews and Minister Robert. On the other issue, just remind me?
JOURNALIST: The workers travelling from state.
PRIME MINISTER: Look, I anticipate given the paper, that we've been able to have agreed by all the states and territories chief health officers that that will see agreement occur between all the jurisdictions. And I think that's very important because you're right and you've got people working in food production, food processing, food distribution that does move across borders now. A really good example of that cooperation was last week when we abolished the seven day rolling testing for truck drivers. Now that has been something we put in place. And now, if that had not been done and agreed by everyone, bar WA which has a different set of circumstances, then that obviously would have been very problematic. But premiers were very, very quick and very practical about that and I'd expect a similar response here. Ok, thank you very much, everyone.