PATRICIA KARVELAS: Joining us now is David Gillespie, he’s the Regional Health Minister and my final guest this afternoon. Welcome.
MINISTER GILLESPIE: Great to be back with you, PK.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Another 35 cases in western New South Wales health district and six in the far west. The majority in Aboriginal communities. Why was this allowed to happen and are the vaccination rates so low?
MINISTER GILLESPIE: Look, it wasn’t a question of allowing it to happen, it happened because this is the very nature of this Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus. It is an incredibly easily infectious and easily transmissible virus. I mean, it's got an R number of something like between five and six which means one person gives it to six other people without much physical contact. You know…
PATRICIA KARVELAS: [Interrupts] Yeah. But that's like saying the virus just does what it wants to do. As a country we've been trying to control the virus and we've been talking about how wonderfully we were managing it and yet it was allowed to get into these very vulnerable regional communities. That's a policy failure?
MINISTER GILLESPIE: No. It’s like I said, the nature of this virus is different from the Alpha wave, it is more infectious. We know that now. But this idea that you can totally control a virus is a false premise. It is a pandemic, remember. It is one in a 100-year event - well it can happen more frequently than that - but it is just by the very nature of it, it has been suppressed. All our measures, even in the first wave and the other smaller waves and now this wave, it is always a suppression. This concept that we will control it or get rid of it is a fake or a- it's a mirage. We are controlling it until we get-
PATRICIA KARVELAS: [Talks over] Sure. So what you need to do then is have people in these vulnerable communities ready and protected but they're sitting ducks in those communities. And they are vulnerable people, vulnerable Aboriginal people largely and it was your Government's job to get them vaccinated to protect them from this scenario. In that sense, you’ve failed.
MINISTER GILLESPIE: Well, I disagree with that totally. Look the-
PATRICIA KARVELAS: [Talks over] But why? They weren't vaccinated. They weren't ready for this wave, were they?
MINISTER GILLESPIE: There is a thing called voluntary vaccination. There has been involvement with the Aboriginal community-controlled health organisations and distribution of vaccine around the whole network since the very beginning. There were plans in all these regional and rural areas. All the engagement with both the states had this scenario planned. But there is a thing called vaccine hesitancy, which as Minister Ken Wyatt has pointed out, is quite profound amongst many of these communities. We have been doing a great job to turn that sentiment around both with engagement with the Indigenous people and with other people. You know, other people besides Indigenous are equally vulnerable to this in small communities and we have rolled it out as quickly as possible. They were behind, yes, but there is a reason. It wasn't because of lack of vaccine or lack of distribution but the [indistinct]…
PATRICIA KARVELAS: [Interrupts] Well hang on a minute. It was about lack of vaccine for preferred groups; it was. And it was also about the way you managed the program. You can't just blame it on them, can you?
MINISTER GILLESPIE: I'm not blaming it on them, it's just that the premise that it wasn't planned for, and that there was a failure of policy, I just dispute. The nature of the rollout has been- there's been widespread hesitance initially, because we did think that, okay, we've suppressed it. Many people thought what's the point, because there's no cases? It was the same in the non-Indigenous population. And still in some states, people think they don't need to go out and get vaccinated. As soon as it reared its ugly head again in New South Wales and in Victoria, you've seen vaccination rates go up, because people realise the best thing they can do to get themselves and their family, and reduce the risk of them ending up sick like these poor people in ICU, is to be vaccinated. At the moment, most of those…
PATRICIA KARVELAS: [Interrupts] So are you saying the Federal Government doesn't take responsibility for the low vaccination rates in those communities that are now dealing with this wave?
MINISTER GILLESPIE: Look, the buck always stops with us but we've had a system in place, and we’ve been rolling it out as fast as possible. Look, the surge into these areas was a thing that was planned. One case in the original- one case in these areas triggered a whole lot of events which you've seen unfold. And we've had a ramp-up of vaccine delivery, and we've also had a ramp-up of vaccine acceptance. It's a two-way street, PK. And what you will see is that we are getting ahead in the right direction to get those numbers that are part of the plan to get us back to a more normal life. You know…
PATRICIA KARVELAS: [Talks over] The regional...
MINISTER GILLESPIE: …18 million vaccinations, 330,000 in the last 24 hours. In the last week, that huge number that you saw, 1.8 million, I expect it will be exceeded this week. I expect- this is my estimate, you can hear it from me first, is I think we'll be over two million in a week. And last week, half a million of those 1.8 were in regional Australia. Even in Broken Hill, a very remote area on the Darling River, in some age groups, 70 per cent have had their first vaccination. And in some of the groups, over 52 per cent have had their second. So look, it is ramping up.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, just quickly, the regional New South Wales lockdown has been extended until September 10. Is that long enough, do you think, to see a reduction in the case numbers…
MINISTER GILLESPIE: Yes.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: …to lift vaccine rates as well?
MINISTER GILLESPIE: Look, I think the epidemiologists have called it that way. I expect the logic is we don't have enough control or suppression yet. What we know is all this testing, tracing, isolating, and quarantining reduces that R number from between five and six, down to about 1.5. And so you will probably see numbers at this level for a bit longer before they drop. It doesn't mean the plan isn't working. Even Doherty said you won't see the full drop off until we get to the 70, 80 per cent numbers. Unfortunately, these numbers that we're seeing now, they are quite alarming figures, because we're not used to seeing it because we had such a great result in the first wave. But the difference in this wave is that because we are so much more vaccinated, the death rate of those hospitalised is actually significantly lower. And as this progresses, we will see that same phenomenon across all those areas that get up to 70, 80 per cent vaccinated.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, we're out of time. Thanks for joining us.
MINISTER GILLESPIE: Thanks, PK.