Peter Gutwein

Premier of Tasmania

PRESS CONFERENCE - 13 JANUARY 2022.

Premier Peter Gutwein

Now, good afternoon everyone.

With me Dr Mark Veitch and Dale Webster, Deputy Secretary of Health.

Before we discuss COVID cases today, I just want to provide a context for Tasmanians and just discuss a couple of matters that I think are important.

Firstly, since Day One Tasmanians have worked together, and I think it's more important now that we continue to work together and support each other as we work through this transition stage.

When we were working as a team last year, and I think it's important that we continue to work as a team as we move forward, all of us made sacrifices.

We didn't see family members and friends, in fact, for a number of people, they didn't see family members and friends for nearly the last two years.

Businesses had to transform, they had to find new ways of doing things.

Yet that was necessary to ensure using the tools that we had, which were lockouts and lockdowns, to ensure that we could get through this and be at the position we are today, where we are one of the most vaccinated places, not just in the country, but in the world.

Now, in moving through that strategy and moving to transition, I want to be really clear with Tasmanians, you know, what we are experiencing now is not living with COVID, what we are experiencing now is transitioning to live with COVID.

Things will get better, and they will become much more normal.

Once we get through this in the coming months, we will get to a point where we no longer are responding to a pandemic, and we will deal with this virus in the same way that we deal with the flu or other common respiratory illnesses.

Later this year, in the same way we manage a severe cold, or any other respiratory disease, we will manage COVID.

If ill, you'll stay at home, you won't go to work, you may do a test to be sure, but once it has passed, you'll go about your daily business, just as you do now with many common respiratory diseases.

Now, in the same way that our health system supports you and your family, if you have a bad dose of the flu, our health system will support you with COVID.

Our biggest challenge at the moment is not serious illness, our biggest challenge is the fact that we have so many people absent from work as a result of the isolation measures that we have in place.

Now, my clear message is that this transition period will end, things will return to normal, we just need to work together.

Now, we know from lived experience to date, that the vast majority of the illnesses that we're seeing are mild, but we know from our modelling that some people will get seriously ill.

Some people will require hospitalisation and, unfortunately, there will be a small number of people that will die.

That's the same as we experience every year with influenza on a rolling year by year basis but, importantly, we're able to live with it, and we're able to manage it.

And it's, I think, very important that Tasmanians do understand that this is simply the transition period that we need to go through and that things will get better.

Now, importantly, we have 7,969 active cases of COVID-19 in Tasmania.

We have 10 people in hospital being treated for COVID-specific symptoms, and no one in the ICU.

Now, this is lower than we anticipated, importantly, we've asked for additional modelling to be done to take into account the Omicron strain being much milder and, importantly, the impact that we're seeing across our workforce in terms of the isolation requirements that we have.

In the past 24 hours, there have been 1,100 more COVID cases recorded in Tasmania, either by PCR or RAT testing, but also 895 people that have recovered, with a total of 6,690 people that have now been isolated and have recovered from COVID.

While we know the majority of people are experiencing relatively mild symptoms, importantly, as I've said, in terms of our modelling, we know that some people will get seriously ill, we can't be complacent.

The only way to overcome this pandemic is to take safe and sensible steps forward.

And I know, as I've said, that it's not the impact on our health system causing our challenges, because our hospitalisation rate remains low, it's the absence from work that is impacting us a result of the isolation.

Now, in terms of close contact exemptions, I understand isolating as a close contact when you have no systems and testing negative is frustrating, but it's important that we continue to keep that in place.

However, we need to enable a framework that ensures that there is greater flexibility in balancing the need to reduce transmission, but also about managing and ensuring that we have essential services and critical supply logistics, especially in manufacturing and other essential services as we move forward.

Now, this framework that we discussed today at National Cabinet, based on what was announced earlier this week, takes into account the highly vaccinated population that we have, and together along with the growing evidence that Omicron is milder than previous strains.

Now, what it means is that workers in these categories that I'm about to outline will be allowed to continue to work if identified as close contacts, as long as they have no symptoms and produce a negative RAT test.

They must also wear appropriate PPE and take steps to avoid social settings, travelling only to and from their place of work, if they received an exemption.

Now, while some states choosing to categorise a very large number of sectors in this approach, we recognise, as we always have done, the need to take a glide path approach which will allow us to step through this in a safer and more responsible way, guided by our Public Health officials.

We've already allowed healthcare workers and aged care workers exemption from close contact isolation under strict rules.

From 12 noon tomorrow, the following sectors will be able to apply for close contact exemption, [inaudible] this will be emergency services, including Ambulance Tasmania, the Tasmanian Fire Service, Tasmania Police and State Emergency Services, health services at private hospitals or day centres, essential service workers at prisons, detention centres or correctional facilities, those workers working at power utilities and other essential infrastructure services, Government-run transport services, manufacturing, freight logistics, warehousing and distribution services relating to the supply, storage and provision of essential goods and services.

This includes the packaging and stocking as well of supermarkets and grocery stores, butchers, bakeries, brewing grocers, chemists and pharmacies.

Workers in the freight logistics distribution, warehousing, mail and post, including courier and distribution services, agriculture and aquaculture services, including but not limited to services relating to biosecurity and food safety, food and fisheries production.

Now, businesses need to apply to WorkSafe for close contact workers exemption.

Applications, as I’ve said, will be open from 12 noon tomorrow.

What they will need to be able to demonstrate as a business is that absenteeism as a result of isolation is having a critical impact on the service or the provision of services that they provide.

They need to be able to demonstrate that.

Now, workers who classify for an exemption will commence under this process, for some over the weekend, because I'm certain that there’ll be a very timely turnaround by WorkSafe, they'll need to be symptoms-free and produce a negative RAT test every day for the seven days that they are at work, or for the period of their isolation period.

Those close contacts will under their close contact rules have already had two negative RATs tests provided to them as close contacts, and if they are off for the full seven days or they’re classed as an exempted worker for the full seven days, they'll need to have another five tests as well.

For the next two weeks, the Government will provide directly to those businesses the RAT tests required for their exempt workers.

The RATs will be, rapid antigen tests, will be couriered to them, once their application is finalised, and we understand how many workers they have that they're bringing back through this process.

But, again, I want to make this point, this is only for critical workers in these nominated industry sectors, this is not a free for all, and you will need to apply and you will need to demonstrate that you need those workers because they are critical to the provision of services to Tasmanians.

Importantly, as I've said, we're not moving as fast as some of the other states have moved, but what we will do is continue to keep this under advisement and take further advice from Public Health as we move through this but, again, also understanding what's occurring in our economy.

Now, in terms of testing and rapid antigen test supply, we know that testing is an important, a very important consideration to the ongoing [inaudible] COVID and confidence for close contacts to return to work and into the community.

We have under contract five million RATs with 200,000 already received, and a further 330,000 to arrive by the end of this week.

To make access easier, we're putting in place as well a regional rapid antigen test strategy, so that we can provide rapid antigen tests to those that are in more remote or regional areas of Tasmania.

This will see, we'll have our PCR testing which is available, and we do have capacity in it at the moment, but see our PCR testing and our rapid engine testing continue in metro areas where it is accessible, with more additional regional rapid antigen test supply being directed into the regional areas, with hubs and a direct, contactless door to door courier service to enable people in remote regional areas to receive these RATs at their door.

Dale Webster will speak more about that in a moment, but the new service has effectively already commenced, as we're receiving contact through the Public Health hotline and people will start to receive their rapid antigen tests today and tomorrow by courier in those regional areas.

Now, in terms of schools, National Cabinet today has agreed on a set of principles supporting a national position in terms of school reopening.

All of the jurisdictions, and Tasmania will work to this timeline as well, we'll finalise based on these principles our school reopening plan and submit that to the Commonwealth next week for discussion at our next National Cabinet meeting.

Importantly, in terms of keeping our schools open, we've done an enormous amount of work already.

The Department of Education has worked closely with Public Health, not just in recent weeks, but over past months in terms of what's required to reopen our schools on February 9.

The Department is currently implementing a range of measures in schools, which the Education Minister has spoken about over the last 24 hours, including ensuring that we've got appropriate natural ventilation and there are improvements in that, air purifiers, enhancing outdoor learning and additional cleaning arrangements to ensure the safety of students.

The bulk of this work is underway while schools are closed for the summer break, and the majority of the works will be completed before the commencement of Term One in all schools.

A thousand air purifiers have been received by the Department, with more than 800 already delivered and in schools, and further air purifiers, around 3,500 in total, will be received before the start of Term One.

They'll be able to be used in learning areas where natural ventilation isn't adequate.

This followed work undertaken last year, where we collected amenity information [inaudible] heating, cooling, ventilation data on every Department-owned building, which was used to update the Department's asset management system.

These building works and procurement of air purifiers compliment the measures already being implemented in schools, such as social distancing, hand hygiene practices and additional planning of school sites.

Now, in terms of boosters, it's clear that vaccination is our best defence.

Our experience to date is while we cannot be complacent with COVID, high vaccinations are mitigating the severity of the disease.

So, if you're a parent or a carer, while it’s not mandatory, I encourage you to make an appointment to vaccinate your child, get a booking and make certain that they can have their first dose before school returns.

If you're over 18, make sure you get your booster when it's due.

You know, even if you've had COVID, and I want to say even if you've had COVID, you've had two doses, get your booster, importantly, and Dr Veitch can talk to the Public Health advice on that but, broadly speaking, if you've had COVID, once you've fully recovered and within six months, make certain that you get that booster.

Now, Dale Webster will talk more about boosters in a moment.

So, I'll hand over to Dr Veitch now to take questions.

I'm not sure if he's going to provide a short update, but to take questions on any of the matters, and then we'll circle round to Dale.

Thank you.