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Canberra Press Conference, 16 January 2022, on Omicron Primary Care and Medical Support Package, COVID-19 update, Tonga eruption

Read the transcript of Minister Hunt at Canberra Press Conference, 16 January 2022, on Omicron Primary Care and Medical Support Package, COVID-19 update, Tonga eruption.

The Hon Greg Hunt MP
Former Minister for Health and Aged Care

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GREG HUNT:         

And I’m pleased to be able to bring you the update in regards to vaccination and the Government’s response to Omicron in particular.

Yesterday, we were able to talk about signs of hope, the advice of the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly. Today is about our additional support, for GPs and patients, and specialists and pharmacists, with the announcement of an Omicron Primary Care and Medical Support package.

Just before addressing that, I want to acknowledge, obviously, the hardships that the people of Tonga are going through with the undersea volcanic eruption. Obviously a major eruption, which has led to a tsunami in that area. The Foreign Minister with whom I’ve been in contact this morning, the Foreign Minister and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, are working with Tonga.

At this stage, there are no reports of any Australians that have had any injuries or suffered significantly in any way. DFAT will continue to engage with the Tongan government, and has offered, through the Foreign Minister, all possible support that may be required. In terms of the safety of Australians, the Bureau of Meteorology and the Emergency Management authorities have issued a land based warning, or a land threat warning, for Norfolk Island and for Lord Howe Island.

So that's the threat of possible inundation in low lying areas, and a marine threat warning for the coasts of parts of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania. Obviously, the nature of any seismic event and therefore the marine flow comes from the North East and therefore affects parts of those coasts. Essentially, the marine threat is about waves, rips and tides. And so, it's about being safe before you go into the water.

So please check the Bureau of Meteorology. Please check with your local state based warnings. But Australia is well prepared and above all else, we're in a position to assist Tonga if that is required.

In relation to the Omicron Primary Care and Medical Support Package. I'm pleased to be able to announce that having made Telehealth permanent and universal on the January 1, a system which has now delivered over 90 million consultations, arguably the largest change in Medicare since Medicare was created, transformed the way that services have delivered in Australia.

We'll also be expanding Telehealth over the course of the next six months with additional temporary items for treatment of Omicron and its impact. It's not just confined to Omicron related cases, but it does have a particular recognition of the impact of that.

It's a $24 million package. It also includes over 20 million units of PPE for general practises and pharmacies. There are really three areas of work and assistance. The first of which, for general practitioners, we will be expanding Telehealth coverage to include what's called a long consultation or a Level C consultation.

It means that particularly dealing with COVID-affected patients, or where they're simply not able to have patients for a variety of reasons, isolation or hesitancy come into the practise, general practitioners will be able to charge. That's about $75.75 as a payment per consultation, but it gives them more flexibility in the time where some either do not wish to or cannot come in for various reasons to the practise.

As well as that, we are supporting the specialists with two items that are new under Telehealth. The first, is that will be now allowing initial and long consultations to occur by telephone. It had been that the medical preference was to ensure that initial consultations were face to face or for- or via video, and that was a strong medical view. But given the circumstances, working with bodies such as the Private Cancer Specialists of Australia, Dr Christopher Steer, amongst others, we've made this decision to allow this over the next six months. And that's just an important additional protection.

The second thing for the specialists, is to allow those specialists in isolation to treat patients in hospital via Telehealth. This is a fact that specialists are like the rest of the population. Some will be in isolation, either because they have cases or they are a close contact, most likely in a household setting, and that will give them additional capacity to support the hospital system.

With the Medicare, the second broad area outside of Telehealth, is in relation to the recognition that GP's, who are currently able to access the additional COVID payments will be able to do that, not just the PCR diagnosed patients. But for those that have been diagnosed with rapid antigen test, it's common sense, it follows the decision of the National Cabinet. And I want to thank all of the groups, the RACGP, the AMA, the Rural Doctors Association of Australia, the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine, and other groups who've been part of this, as well as the Pharmacy Guild.

Which brings me to the third element of what we're doing, which is the provision of 20 million units of PPE over the course of a three-month period. So continuous delivery.

We've worked this through with the different groups and that will cover five principal areas. The first is eight and a quarter million N95 masks or P2. And these are- have in particular been requested by general practises and pharmacies. There'll be 3.3 million surgical masks that are made available, 4.1 million gloves, pairs of gloves, 2.3 million goggles or face shields, and 1.6 million gowns.

So this is additional PPE to assist the practises and the pharmacies in their work with patients. They're doing an amazing job. Throughout the last week, we've seen a series of record days for primary care and in particular for pharmacies in terms of vaccinations, so they've helped lift that vaccination rate.

And that brings me to the vaccinations. And at this point in time, we are at almost 46 million vaccinations. About midday today, we'll pass the 46 million vaccination rate. As of last night, we're at 45.94 million vaccinations that have been completed.

A series of milestones. The first is that all states and territories have now passed the 90 per cent first vaccination rate, with the Northern Territory having reached that mark. That's about broad coverage right across, right across Australia.

The second thing is that just prior to joining you, we've passed the five million mark for vaccinations as of last night, for boosters. We have passed the five million mark for boosters at about 10am this morning. And thirdly, we've now reached over 99 per cent first vaccination for over 50s across Australia.

So obviously, vulnerability follows age. We've had 99 per cent for over 70s for some period now. We've now reached 99 per cent of all Australians over 50 years of age, which is an extraordinary national achievement by all of the individuals who've come forward. All of our vaccinators who've assisted in that process.

And that then that brings me just to a brief rundown first doses. We've now passed 95.4 per cent and second doses 92.54 per cent. So huge numbers yesterday. On a Saturday, we had a very, very pleasing 190,000 doses delivered, which is taking us to almost two million for the last week, 1.94 million.

And so over the first half of January, to see those rates where people have been on furlough, where practises, state clinics and pharmacies have had staff that have been taking annual leave to see them coming back. They've in many cases sacrificed leave. That's allowed the rate at the absolute peak of our national vaccination program, with Wednesday, Thursday, Friday being the three highest days consecutively in terms of vaccination in Australian history.

And so to do that in the first half of January, I think, is just an extraordinary tribute to Australians to the vaccine supply that COVID-Shield and Lieutenant-General Frewin and his team have put in place, and to the vaccinators who are literally working around the clock. Then just to note that in relation to our boosters, 133,000 thousand yesterday, and as I say, we've passed the five million mark this morning, 4.998 million yesterday, but that's been passed today.

And then finally with kids, and I'm really delighted about this on a sad day, 39,500, we're now 295,000 children. We will pass the 300,000 mark today, only a few days after that children's program has started. So kids and families are coming forward in large numbers, but yesterday was about the signs of hope that Professor Kelly set out in terms of the course of the current outbreak. A global outbreak, which is seeing over four million cases a day.

Today, is about the Omicron Primary Care and medical support package. Additional Telehealth, additional PPE. This is to help our doctors and our specialists, our GP's, our pharmacists, our nurses and our patients all be better protected but have better access. Happy to take any questions. I'll start on the left hand side of the room as you look out. If that's okay, please, and if you could just identify yourselves and work across the room.


Thanks. Minister Shubha from SBS here. I'm just wondering, with this pivot to rapid antigen test, how is that going to impact our ability to detect and respond to new variants? And is the Government allowing for that?

And just on the Djokovic case, I know you can't talk about the case itself, but is this episode going to set a precedent for future sporting tournaments held in Australia? And will the Government, from now on, take more of a forward role in vetting international players rather than a sort of joint system with states and sporting administrators?


Sure, look, I appreciate the question in relation to Novak Djokovic. I'll respectfully not answer. Whilst the court case is going on, I'll await the outcomes and then the Government will review them and that will impact on other matters going forward. But for now, the case is underway and I'll leave that out of respect for the court.

In terms of new variants, we're always looking at new variants. We're seeing over 200,000 PCR tests a day. And I think that that's very important to note that that system is continuing, and that PCR testing system can provide that capacity to do the sequencing to identify whether or not there are new variants.

The last figure I had is that the Australian Register has identified not just the 13 major variants of concern, but 30,000 variations. And so it's a constantly evolving disease. It's followed the pattern as the epidemiologists and Professor Kelly and others will identify as often happens with viruses and mutating so as to become more transmissible but less severe.

But what we're seeing now is over four million cases worldwide, so we work internationally. And if there's evidence in Australia, if there's evidence internationally of an emerging variant, then we are able to pivot next if that's the right place. Next, if that’s alright please.


Yeah, thanks, Minister.

It’s Josh from the new daily on the rapid test as well. The U.S. government announced yesterday it was making about 500 million rapid tests available for people to order online. People can order them online from a government website, which would seem to get around some of the hoarding and stockpiling concern some people have raised.

Why won't the Australian Government institute a similar distribution system there? What is this? Basically an acknowledgement that we don't have the supply here in the country, even if you didn't want to go down this path?


Look, I respect the US approach. I think if my calculation is correct, that's about one and a half tests per person.

The Australian system through the Commonwealth and the states have purchased over 200 million tests, and they're available through a variety of options. If you think of three different approaches, there's the supply that we're giving directly to aged care over 5.6 million so far.

Secondly, there are the state tests and they'll increasingly be used as the state supply comes on board. Commonwealth supply the first of our distributions have already been made to the- to states.

And then thirdly, there is the supply which is available through the community, through pharmacies and supermarkets, the concessional program for pensioners and healthcare card holders and other relevant groups. About 6.6 million Australians will commence on the January 24, subject to individual supply.

So if you think- if you're comparing it with the US, I think that US system, as I say, is about one and a half tests per capita per head of population. The Australian purchases at this stage are over eight per head of population, and that's the distribution system that has been agreed with the states and territories. Next please.


Thanks Minister. Rachel Baxter from 9News.

Firstly, how many rapid tests will be provided to doctors free as part of this package funded by the Federal Government?

And secondly, you say five million people have received their booster shot so far, well, that's less than a fifth of the population. Yesterday, Professor Paul Kelly said that boosters were, you know, a key element to fighting at this current outbreak. Why haven't we rolled out the boosters sooner?


With great respect, Australia was one of the First Nations in the world after Israel to commence a whole of nation booster program. And we've just rolled out boosters in the last week at the highest rate of any period during the vaccination rollout, with up to almost 250,000 boosters a day.

And so the boosters were only available recently. They had been rolled out at a rate where it's faster than the highest peaks of the first doses or the second doses. And at this point in time, it's already up to 53.2 per cent of the currently eligible population and boosters have not been approved for under-18s. And so it's 53.2 per cent of the currently available population.

And when you look at that 1.94 million doses delivered in the last week of children of boosters, but also people coming forward for first and second doses still, what we see is that that rate is faster than almost any country in the world, higher than the peaks in the US and the UK during their rollouts.

And so what we're seeing is very significant additional coverage being provided during the course of the rollout. Okay, next.


How many rapid tests will doctors be receiving?


Sorry, no, this is a PPE package. We're working with suppliers to ensure that there's priority direct from the suppliers and through other sources for general practises. Jay.


Thanks, minister. Two questions, if I may.

Are you concerned that nearly one hundred childcare centres across Victoria are closed for health reasons?

And can you provide any update on the TGA's evaluation of Moderna’s paediatric vaccine? Do you expect when we get an outcome about it?


Yeah, sure. So in terms of childcare centres, I know that what's called the National Coordination Mechanism, which is currently being led by Joe Buffone from the Emergency Management Australia, is focussing on those elements of workforce supply. Two big changes to assist on that front.

One is the work in relation to the definition of close contacts, which was changed by the National Cabinet.

The second important change is in relation to the ability of asymptomatic close contacts to work. So, those will flow through to the childcare centres, as is the case with other parts of the economy and the national coordination mechanism led by Joe Buffone is working with all of the states and territories in relation to this in terms of Moderna and the paediatric doses.

So this is the five to- six to 11, I believe in the case of Moderna six to 11 doses. We're expecting new information imminently. My understanding is that Moderna was receiving, on the 15th in US time, additional safety and efficacy data. They're due to provide that to the European Medicines Agency and the Australian TGA simultaneously on the 17th.

Now I'm hopeful, but it is an independent process from the TGA. I'm not aware that at this stage, the Moderna paediatric doses have been approved by any of the major regulators, but they are coming to Australia and the EMA as the first of the regulators with this new information on the 17th.

I've spoken with the Moderna CEO twice in recent days with regards to this, and so- the Australian CEO. So they are very focussed on bringing this forward and the TGA will do a priority assessment, but an independent assessment. So I'm hopeful that that will provide an additional option.

But I will say this, 300,000 doses as of today will be passed for kids. There's over 1.2 million that are in the field, and by the end of this week, there'll be almost two million doses in the field in the fridges. So there's enough out there and we want to encourage people to keep coming forward. And we've been working with GP's and pharmacies and the states to ensure that they have specialised clinics for children just to provide that additional access. Next, please.


Thank you, Minister Sarah Martin from The Guardian.

Just following up from Rachel's question, GP's family practises are spending thousands of dollars on rapid antigen tests and really do need them in their armoury. Why doesn't this package include the supply of RATs to general practise? And you said in October that you would let the market develop in relation to rapid antigen tests. You can see that that was an error, and the market hasn't developed adequately to meet the demand that we currently see in Australia.

And just secondly, I know you can't comment on the Djokovic case, but can you explain how a prominent anti-vaxxer, for example, Craig Kelly or Clive Palmer, undermines the Government's public health messaging and why the Government has been unable to do anything about that?


Well, look, I'll make a general point that as a country, we've got a 95 per cent vaccination rate. And so the vaccination message without making any reference to the comment is progressing well.

Australians are coming forward, and that's what we're advocating every day. I won't make any other comments that could in any way, shape or form be interpreted as having a view or an impact on the on the case.

In relation to rapid antigen tests, actually, we've now had 66 tests approved in Australia, 44 point of care tests and 22 self-tests or home tests. And that's seeing significant supply coming into the country. And obviously globally, with an Omicron variant, which has seen over four million cases a day diagnosed officially, but clearly around the world, having gone from pre-Omicron of 500,000 cases a day to with-Omicron over four million cases, and officially and unofficially, inevitably a vastly higher number.

What you're seeing is increasing supply of rapid antigen tests, but right around the world vastly increased demand. We've been in the market since August and we've been able to provide that continuous supply to aged care.

The states have more recently entered the market, and they've indicated that there are significant purchases that they've made and we are beginning to see now already more supplies coming into the pharmacies and the supermarkets. So that's been a global challenge. But what I'm pleased about is that the Australian market has responded and the package that we've set out in relation to GP's, as I've said, covers those elements and that's in addition to that.

What we've also done is recognise that the rapid antigen test diagnoses will qualify for the COVID supplement for cases that are going before GPS. So we're working within the priorities of the National Medical Stockpile. Next, if that's all right, please.


Thanks, Minister. It’s John Keogh from The Australian Financial Review.

As a health minister, could you please just clarify if an unvaxxed- are unvaccinated foreigners now allowed into Australia if they can prove that they have had COVID-19 within the last six months?


Respectfully and I do appreciate it and understand the question, that is another way of making an enquiry about the Djokovic case. Given the time and the sensitivity. I'll respectfully wait until after the case has been determined. Next.


Thanks, Minister. It’s Michael Foley, from the Age and Sydney Morning Herald.

Just on the- ATAGI’s process to assess boosters in under 18s. Is there a timeline for that?

And on the recently relaxed isolation requirements for critical workers. I was just hoping, could you talk us through what the health advice is and how there's an understanding or why there's an understanding that that won't cause a dramatic spike in workforce absentees and potentially leading to further supply chain breakdown? What's the reasoning that gives us confidence that the right approach?


Sure. So what we have done there is follow that medical advice and that's been the work of the AHPPC or the Medical Expert Panel, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee. That's the Chief Medical Officer of Australia, the chief health officers of the states and territories, and the advice of the CTA or the Communicable Diseases Network of Australia in relation to that advice.

The determination is, of course, based on close contacts, asymptomatic, the appropriate protections around that. And that, of course, is always about a balance of judgement.

The principal challenge we have in Australia at the moment, as is seen in the United States and the United Kingdom, in France, in Germany, in Italy, right across Europe and in so many other countries is actually a workforce challenge rather than the hospital system being overwhelmed.

Which was the threat from the original Wuhan strain, from the Delta strain, and was primarily the threat if you had major case numbers prior to the Omicron variant.

Now, and the figures that I set out yesterday of having gone, with almost a million cases, from 54 to 124 cases in- 124 cases in ICU under ventilation, so an increase of 70. What that shows is that the severity is very different and so we have to maintain the workforce to actually protect our hospitals, our general practises and aged care, as well as all of the supply chain and distribution.

So that's the basis of the analysis, and it's a recognition of the relevant needs of the country. And then lastly, in the front on the right please.


Thanks Minister. It’s Jess Malcom from the Australian newspaper.

I just was wondering what advice (inaudible).


Under 18 boosters, I apologise.

So the analysis is going through the TGA and then we'll go through ATAGI. They're being jointly, jointly briefed.

At this stage, we have preliminary data on the 16 to 18 year olds from Pfizer for boosters. We're expecting that they will provide 12 to 15-year-old data over the course of the coming weeks with regards to that younger cohort. and they'll follow the same processes. But the preliminary data for the 16 to 18 year olds have been provided. The 12 to 15 is still with the company, which is going through its final international scientific assessment. Sorry Jess. Please proceed.


Thanks. I was just wondering what advice you had on when we're going to be reaching the peak in the latest outbreak or whether we have already hit it, given the numbers have trended down today in New South Wales and the ACT? And I was just wondering what that would mean for the furloughing of workers and whether that might alleviate some of the supply chain crisis issues?


Yes, so Professor Kelly yesterday addressed the peak, I won't add anything to that, but it's expected in the coming weeks. But there are signs that New South Wales in particular and the ACT may be peaking. I'll let the chief health officers of those respective jurisdictions give their views.

But there are some clear signs that they may be peaking. I won't call it as having reached it yet. But in particular what we've seen, is that all of these jurisdictions have so far significantly undershot the hospitalisation, ICU and ventilation predictions that were made at the outset. And I think that is the absolute basis for hope, and that is the most important element.

So then that comes exactly to the point that was raised before, and which you've just raised Jess, about furloughing. I spoke with DHL, a major distribution company. They are one of the principals in delivering the vaccines. They achieved a 99.2 per cent on time or early delivery rate of the vaccines over the first week and a half of January. And that is almost unimaginable that with significant workforce challenges, they were able to do that.

They prioritised, many of the staff worked overtime, but the real point that their director of operations made to me is that they are starting to see furloughed staff come back in significant numbers and they are expecting furloughed staff to come back in significant numbers.

The two changes; the definition of close contacts to being household contacts. But then in particular, the capacity of asymptomatic contacts to work are making significant differences.

And then the natural cycle of people returning from furlough, on that one major firms evidence is beginning to have an impact. But we know from the work of Joe Buffone working with the Treasurer, with Karen Andrews, with Michael Sukkar and directly reporting to the Prime Minister, is that we're seeing that pattern across the economy.

So people will cycle out of work to be in isolation and then people will come back from that, either having had the disease or as an asymptomatic close contact or as a close contact who has finished their work.

So it is challenging, but firms and workers and Australians are rising to it. To have reached record vaccination levels in the middle of this period is an indication of the way in which Australians are responding. To have reached record booster levels is that same indication and then to hear the evidence of a company such as DHL, where they have the same challenges as all workplaces. But they're beginning to see the benefits of the definitional changes and then beginning to see the natural return to work from those who had been furloughed. All of these are signs of hope.

Today, we're backing up what we did yesterday with the additional support of the Omicron Primary Care and Medical Support Package for patients, doctors, GPS specialists and pharmacists.

I want to thank everybody, wish them well and say what we've always said. We'll get through this and what we're seeing is with one of the highest vaccination rates and one of the lowest rates of loss of life in the world, that no matter what the challenge is there something very special about this country and it's a privilege to see and to assist and to watch the way in which Australians are responding and supporting each other.

Take care. Thank you.

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