Way Off the Cuff in a Covid-19 Press Conference
Posted on July 27, 2020
A unique press conference took place in Melbourne the capital of Victoria, Australia, today. One worth noting not just because Covid-19 questions relating to masks, testing, intensive care units, hoaxing and controlling the virus came up but its participants—a State premier and his chief heath officer—allowed themselves to go off the cuff and show some emotion.
Victoria, Australia’s second-most populous State, is now alone in an official Covid-19 “Wave 2”. The first for Australia. And as the State approaches the mid-point of a self-imposed six-week partial lockdown leaving the majority of its businesses open, it today reported its largest daily case number of 532.
“Wave 2” though, isn’t yet part of the broader Australian vernacular. Sport is alive and well outside Victoria. As are the restaurant and cafe scenes. The broad red-expanse of Western Australia and the tiny green-isle of Tasmania are boasting they’re keeping Australia afloat while the country’s two eastern States, Queensland and New South Wales, are eager to open tourism, just not from each other. One State will soon be reconvening its symphony, while another is talking theatre. Good times lay ahead, right?
Not so fast.
In a nutshell, Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison, whose party I voted for in the last federal election, is running his country like a corporation of competing subsidiaries. But as I’ve written more than once, subsidiaries—I mean States—don’t win wars, only nations do. And for now, while it’s only one subsidiary that’s pulling the balance sheet down, one-quarter of the business in fact, he’ll soon wake up when another begins to wobble. He knows Covid-19 isn’t over but still isn’t ready to nuke it.
What follows then, is a verbatim transcription of this morning’s Q&A session that accompanied this press conference. Its hosts were the Victorian premier, Dan Andrews, and his State’s chief health officer, Brett Sutton.
I offer it here, not merely as a record you won’t find in the regular news but because as Covid-19 press conferences go, its words are relevant for Australia’s entire Covid-19 fight.
For the first time since the pandemic began, we get to glimpse some hope with some warnings.
We get to address a series of serious issues for the global Wave 2 onlooker: its pattern of contagion, its question of aged care, the road to Covid-19 eradication, and the impact that social media hoaxers and fear mongers have made. Again, these are all issues I’ve previously commented on here too.
But above all, we also get a glimpse of my fellow journalists (though taking half an hour of Q&A to get there) finally reaching the crux of the Victorian Covid-19 situation. And that’s where this article picks up.
They began pushing the big questions and I’m proud of the answers they were able to elicit from two guys, whose responses show they’ve seen the trenches and felt the shrapnel fly. In this way, we also get a story of leadership to study.
As this transcript is word for word, there’s no need for quotation marks unless to highlight a saying. A number of repetitive questions about aged care, abattoirs and procedures have been omitted. I’ve also taken out all the um’s and ah’s—bar one. Any helpful clarifications I’ve added in square brackets and significant emotions I’ve placed in regular parentheses. I hope it all makes for an interesting read:
The Chief Health Officer, Brett Sutton:
Journalist Question: Are you confident we can get on top of this?
I am. In every country in the world essentially, apart from a few notable ones, [they] get on top of it. You do need to keep looking into what you have to do, and it can take longer in some settings; it can take longer in a second wave, that certainly seems to be the case internationally. But you can get to the other side—and we will get to the other side.
Again, modelling with our effective Reproduction Number [R0] that I’ve seen most recently, suggests that today should be the peak.
Now, I’m not gonna sit back and say, “Today is the peak”. We have to—we have to see what happens in coming days.
But driving that effective Reproduction Number down below 1 (being emphatic) is the thing that will start to see numbers drop. And as numbers drop, outbreaks drop.
At the moment I’m more concerned that we’ll probably see a rise in numbers because the outbreaks are really volatile: in aged care settings, the numbers can increase very significantly in a very short period of time—even as community transmission might be coming down.
So, you know, it’s encouraging to see that effective Reproduction Number come to 1 or just below 1. But we have to keep at it every day.
Journalist Question: When should we begin to get really alarmed?
Alarm is ok! If that motivates you to do the right thing, please consider what the consequences are of our increasing daily numbers. It is causing an increase in hospitalisation of scores of people.
“Another couple of people in ICU” are still relatively low numbers in terms of ICU and what our capacity is. But the consequences of [the] daily numbers that we’re seeing are lots of people who are very unwell. And we’ve seen the ads, we’ve seen the peoples’ stories about what a devastating illness it can be for them and how many weeks and months it takes for them to recover, and others who die.
And so, that should be alarming to all of us and it should be something that we keep in our minds in terms of how we think about, you know, going about our daily lives—how we follow the rules—and even with that very mild symptom that we might dismiss.
I think this is part of the factor of people coming to work—it’s just a runny nose, it’s just a tickle at the back of the throat. You know, I’ve got a headache and some lethargy.
Journalist Question: Are you worried that people less and less will follow the restrictions less and less thinking, “Oh well, lockdown’s been going three weeks doesn’t matter anyway?” I mean you see commentary like this on social media. Are you worried that in the end, the repeating number has an adverse response on people going, “It’s not worth following the rules?”
I’m not sure if people are losing motivation. I think most people are becoming increasingly concerned by the numbers. There’s a small minority who I think, we can just let be who are trying to whip up the idea that this is overblown or fear mongering.
You won’t see fear mongering in the consequences in aged care.
You will see the deadly consequences of infection. And people just need to recognise that these are all members of people’s families across Melbourne and beyond.
Journalist Question: What do the number of active cases and the numbers in ICU show us?
I mean 4000 active cases is a huge challenge, we know that people need to isolate and those 4000 cases represent at least as many close contacts. There aren’t as many close contacts for each case now because people are staying home—it’s a great indication. But the hospital numbers will increase based on the numbers that we’re seeing today. Those individuals from today will be hospitalised in the next fortnight. So, there will be challenges for hospital admission and there will be increasing challenges for those who require ICU.
Journalist Question: Are the number in ICU cases a lot?
I think there’s a lag. I think we’ll see an increase in ICU cases in the next couple of weeks that’ll be more reflective of our total active cases. But really the uptick in cases has just been significant in the last couple of weeks and it’s yet to play out in terms of those who require ICU; those who require ventilation.
Journalist Question: Do you think contact tracing is working given the current numbers and how things are going till now, do you need more support?
There are big numbers certainly every day, but all of those are allocated on a daily basis to contact tracers. We’ve had bottlenecks in recent weeks but at the moment even with 400-500 cases a day, all of those get allocated; all of those individuals who pick up the phone will be interviewed. And all of the close contacts identified and notified within 24 hours. So, it’s working very well at the moment. And we’re within capacity.
We could do 6-, 7-, 800 interviews a day. I hope we don’t (chuckling) have to go there but we could if we needed to. ADF are doing great door knocking.
To the premier, Dan Andrews:
This is a one in a 100-year event. And the point has been made by people many times that there’s no handbook for this. There isn’t. It’s unique in many ways. The—the second wave challenges though, as Brett indicated, there are a couple of exceptions who have not been able to get on top of their second wave: most around the world have found it more challenging but they’ve got there.
And that’s why I think it’s so important today, to thank those who are doing the right thing. That is the vast majority. I’m not so interested in focusing on people—I’m not criticising some of the coverage—it is quite newsworthy some of the (slightly pausing) amazing behaviour that some people are exhibiting: but let’s not have that detract from people who are doing the right thing.
I’ll say to each of you and to your news directors and others, let’s not have those sorts of stories detract from what is the central message:
If you have symptoms. You cannot go to work. You can only do one thing and that is go and get tested.
And it doesn’t matter what job you do, what workplace, what industry you work in. Anyone. If you’ve got symptoms you’ve got to come forward and get tested. You cannot go to work. That’s my request of you. That’s what’s required in order for us to get to the other side of this and see these numbers come down rather than continue to go up.
Journalist Question: [Too muffled but about] “conspiracy theorists and hoaxers”.
(Some agitation builds but no anger appearing in tone) The thing with conspiracy theorists is that the more you engage in an argument with them, the more oxygen you’re giving them. The more hot—the more—(pausing) you know, ultimately I think people can judge for themselves the efficacy, the credibility of people who are running those sorts of keyboard warrior campaigns.
Seriously? One more comment about Human Rights. Honestly, it’s about Human Life. And if we continue with this stuff, that you know, standing in a car park at Bunnings [a hardware chain] reading whatever nonsense you’ve pulled up from some obscure website (pausing).
(Rushing) But having said that, now that will run in your news tonight. That was not what I was wanting to achieve.
Today’s message, and the message that will be the most powerful and the most impactful: the message that will save lives—is not focusing on people who frankly, their behaviour is appalling—their views have no basis in science or fact or law. Don’t focus on them. What we should be focusing on is, is appealing to every single worker, “Don’t go to work if you have symptoms”.
Ah (shyly regretful), you’ve lured me into making some comments. But it is frustrating, and against my—perhaps I should apologise for letting my frustration get the better of me.
But ultimately, this is not about those issues. And it’s not about those people frankly. It’s about not diminishing our gratitude to the vast majority of Victorians who are doing a fantastic job. And it’s also about not taking away from what should be and what, what really must be, the central message.
And that is if you’re sick, stay home. Then get tested. And then wait for your results at home. The only thing to do when you get sick, even mild symptoms is to get tested—not to go to work as if you were not sick.
As all that does is spread this virus.
© 2020 Adam Parker.
Picture Credit: Live via Foxtel © 2020 Australian News Channel Pty Ltd.