Doorstop interview about Australia's measures to combat COVID-19
Read the transcript of Minister Hunt's doorstop interview in Mornington Pensinsula, with Liz Deveny, Chief Executive, South Eastern Melbourne PHN, and George Tambassis, National President, Pharmacy Guild of Australia, about Australia's measures to combat coronavirus (COVID-19).
The Hon Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health
Today is about taking care of our health workers, it’s about taking care of the capacity in the health system, and it’s about improved health outcomes for Australia.
The Australian government has now received 60 million masks for the National Medical Stockpile. Twenty-two million have already been distributed.
This is 6 million more than we had expected, it is two weeks earlier than anticipated, and it is a very important step forward.
In particular, we have also been able to secure 100 million additional masks for between now and the end of May, and we will immediately distribute 11.5 million of those to our hospitals, our aged care workers, our general practices, our pharmacists, and our allied health workers and our pathologists.
What this means is that we are able to protect our healthcare workers in what has been an intensely competitive global environment, and it also opens up the possibility of elective surgery and in particular, IVF, recommencing at an earlier date than had previously been thought possible, and that is an important part of our capacity and an important part of the road out for Australians from the management of coronavirus and the suppression we’ve been engaged in of that coronavirus.
Significantly, we have also been able to secure an additional 3 million flu vaccination shots. In particular, Seqirus has played a critical role, Seqirus being the Australian vaccine arm of CSL.
And that will mean we’re going from 13.5 million flu vaccinations to 16.5 million, and we are expecting that not just every Australian who wants to be vaccinated will be vaccinated, but that this will help with additional supplies, additional resources, and additional capacities for our GPs and our pharmacies.
All of this is about keeping Australians safe and helping them not just with coronavirus but in the case of flu, with their other health.
And whilst flu vaccinations are not a defence against coronavirus, they are not a vaccination against coronavirus, they are an important mechanism for reducing the rate of flu in our community, for protecting individuals, protecting health workers, and it means that people will not have to contend with two different respiratory ailments at the same time, potentially, which is very important for their general resilience.
Before going into more detail on these two measures I’d like to give a brief health update in relation to our containment and our capacity measures, the two arms of our fight as a country against coronavirus.
In terms of containment, we know that our elements are control of the borders, and we are seeing from the quarantine hotels the fact that the decision to have people in quarantine has been an extremely important measure in protecting both them and the general population.
With regards to testing, we’ve now reached over 411,000 tests across Australia, and with regards to contract tracing, we continue to do excellent work around the country.
I want to thank our public health authorities across the states and territories for their work which is helping to save lives and protect lives. And then in terms of social isolation, these continue to be our strongest weapons against the coronavirus.
Social isolation, although it’s difficult, although it’s challenging, is extremely important in the fight against coronavirus. It’s helping to bring down the rate of transmission. With regards to that, we have now got 6,586 cases in Australia, and sadly 69 lives lost.
Very significantly, though, our rates of hospitalisation, those in ICUs and those on ventilators, have all fallen. We now have 184 people in hospital with coronavirus, 51 in ICUs, and 33 on ventilation, some of the lowest figures we’ve seen now for many weeks.
In particular, we have had a rate of increase of less than 1 per cent per day for seven days straight now.
I just want to repeat that: the rate of increase in new cases has been below 1 per cent for seven consecutive days now, and that’s an important national achievement.
What it means is, we now have a sustained and genuine flattening of the curve. There is more work to be done, 53 cases in the last 24 hours, admittedly some of them within the quarantine hotels, says we have to maintain what we are doing, but what we are doing is working.
As we go forward, in terms of our capacity with regards to primary care, where we are here, what we have seen is there are 4 million telehealth consultations that have now been completed.
In aged care, we are responding immediately to any cases and any threats that emerge, and in Tasmania, where there was a threat that three aged care residences might have had cases, 491 residents and staff have been tested and one case has been found.
So whilst that one case is always of deep concern, that is a far, far better result than any of us had hoped might have been the case.
In terms of our hospitals, our ventilator capacity is significant, and as we see, there are only 33 people on ventilators.
That still is 33 people on ventilators and is a significant amount, but dramatically less than anybody had been predicting or warning at this stage. But a critical path on the road out is the role of PPE or personal protective equipment.
There has been an intensely competitive global environment. Supply had dropped significantly, demand had increased significantly, and through that, Australia has been able to maintain an air bridge.
We have now received 60 million masks into the national stockpile. We have already distributed 22 million masks. From that, perhaps most importantly, we have secured an extra 100 million masks over the next six weeks and that means that we can now allocate an additional 11.5 million masks.
That means that includes 7 million to our hospitals. It includes 2.8 million to primary care, with 1.5 million for our magnificent GPs, half a million for our pharmacists and half a million for our allied health workers, 160,000 for our respiratory clinics, and 75,000 for Indigenous Australian healthcare workers.
All of this means that we are protecting our doctors, our nurses, our pharmacists, our allied healthcare workers, our amazing general health staff, and I want to particularly thank our frontline doctors and nurses for their work and our pharmacists and allied health workers, and our pathologists.
As well as that, what this means is that a secure supply opens up the possibility for elective surgery to be progressively and cautiously recommenced, and for IVF to recommence.
That will be considered by the medical expert panel and considered by the National cabinet over the course of the coming week. Along with the flu vaccinations, the masks mean that we have additional capacity.
The masks and the flu vaccinations are about protecting our healthcare workers, protecting Australians. I might invite Liz Deveny and George Tambassis to speak briefly, and then open up for questions.
Thank you, Minister. On behalf of the South-eastern Melbourne Primary Health Network, we have been delighted to work with you and the Department to distribute more than 110,000 masks to general practices, pharmacists and other key staff across our region.
We work with over 2000 GPs and 500 practices, who have amazingly transformed their businesses in the last few weeks to meet this challenge. In addition we’re starting a very important piece of work, working with aged care facilities to support their staff and their residents to get a flu vaccination as soon as possible.
For us, that means working with 158 different facilities and ensuring that there is a vaccination for 16,000 staff and more than 13,000 residents, and we are delighted to be able to provide the service to our older Australians at this very important time.
Good morning everybody. The Pharmacy Guild of Australia, and certainly community pharmacists all around Australia, are absolutely delighted that the Federal Government has decided to boost up the flu vaccines by 3 million this year.
There’s been an extremely high demand from our patients certainly coming to community pharmacies wanting the flu shot.
We know last year community pharmacies and pharmacists working in our pharmacies vaccinated 2 million Australians, and we think it’s not a long shot to think that we would get up to 3 million people vaccinated through our pharmacies this year.
So the extra 3 million that the Federal Government, Minister Greg Hunt, has decided now to boost up our stock is going to be fantastic.
It was only a number of years ago that community pharmacies didn’t have the right to vaccinate Australians through our pharmacies.
Now we’ve got that, we’ve got access to get the NIP vaccines in some states, it would be great if we could get it across Australia as well. But we’re certainly delighted that extra vaccines now can be used to vaccinate our patients walking through our pharmacies.
Certainly the extra PPEs are going to be really handy as well because we’ve got to protect our staff, masks are very important to protect our staff especially when they are vaccinating patients. Some patients asking for masks as well, so it’s great that we’ve got that extra stock.
Staff’s really important in our pharmacies, we remain open, our patients need to feel safe when they come into our pharmacies and it is now fantastic that some of the suppliers like flu vaccines will be boosted up so we can vaccinate more people in our community. Thank you very much.
Happy to take any questions. I think starting with Blake and Elias and then we’ll come to those on the phone.
Minister, realistically, how soon can we see a return to elective surgery and IVF treatments?
That will be considered this week but what these additional masks do is to provide the supply, the capacity and confidence for our hospitals.
So I am hopeful that during the course of this week, the medical expert panel and the National Cabinet will be in a position to make decisions and to give guidance for the future.
In particular I know that the prime minister and myself have been very focused on IVF as an important and indispensable treatment, so we are hopeful that over the course of this week, there will be some positive news and today is about building that capacity and laying the foundations for the road out.
What will be the turn around for that meeting? When do you think we would actually see.
National Cabinet is meeting on Tuesday and so I am hopeful that, whether it is Tuesday or whether it’s the subsequent meeting on the Thursday, that they will be in a position to indicate that the states have confidence.
The elective surgery decision was made on two grounds: one was PPE, or personal protective equipment of which masks were critical. The second was the concern that if the coronavirus had grown dramatically, our hospitals would have been under intense pressure.
At this point, Australians have done magnificently and we are not facing a threat to our hospitals. Now it is about securing the masks and the PPE and today is an important part of that, and laying the foundation for this week on the road out.
The Foreign Minister thinks there should be an independent global review into the coronavirus and the response, is that something you support?
I agree with the Foreign Minister, absolutely. What we’ve seen is Australia has been able to have, by global standards, just a profoundly important and successful human outcome, but we have done that by following the course that our medical experts here in Australia set out.
We do know there was very considerable criticism when we imposed on the 1st of February the China ban, from some of the officials in the WHO in Geneva. The regional body has done well in terms of polio, measles, malaria, but what we saw from some officials in Geneva, we think was a response which didn’t help the world.
We’ve done well because we made our own decisions as a country.
(Inaudible) bit of discussion around golf, Minister. What’s your take on the safety of it in the current environment?
Our goal as the National Cabinet is to set baseline standards and we’ve done that. All of the states have adopted those. Some have gone further, so I won’t comment on individual measures by individual states.
All of them are doing a great job, so my view is that collectively the states have worked with the Australian government and the Australian people, and they will focus on their own individual measures over and above the baseline Australian measures.
Barnaby Joyce and others have said they won’t download the tracking app because he doesn’t trust the government with his information. Is that undermining what you’re trying to achieve with that?
I think our very point here is that this is voluntary, it is an additional part of our contact tracing. So at the moment, if any of us are diagnosed, the public health officials trace back all of those whom we have been in contact with.
What the app would do is simply add to that. It would make that tracing easier, it is voluntary, the data stays on your phone, it then only goes to the public health officials, so the government would never have access to it, and it is only used to enhance what we are already doing.
But the critical thing is, it is voluntary and there is no government access, but it is one element of a much broader process of borders, testing, tracing, and isolation, and those elements together are what have helped deliver Australians, really a world leading outcome so far.
Do you think enough people will download it to make it worthwhile?
If two people download it we will be in a stronger position. The more that do this, the better it is for everybody, but it is an individual choice.
I will certainly be doing it and I would encourage as many others as possible, to help safeguard health workers, to help safeguard their families and to help safeguard themselves, but it is a voluntary app.
Do you trust China’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and the information coming out of China in regards to deaths and the amount of people that are infected?
Well, I think the critical thing here is that everybody is doing their best.
We do know that the figures have been updated and that they have been updated is good.
Professor Murphy has previously said that the figures in which we have most confident are Australia’s because we have the rigour, we have the data and we have the systems in place, which have led to Australia’s own figures being identified by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine as the most accurate of 83 countries around the world.
So we have confidence in our own figures, we know that other countries are doing their best.
(Inaudible) What about China specifically, though?
As with everybody else, they are doing their best. I will let others with more detailed information make comment on them.
Can you trust the information coming from China (Inaudible)?
I have the highest trust, as Brendan Murphy our Chief Medical Officer has said, in Australia’s own figures, and then other countries will have differing degrees of accuracy.
Probably what I would do is refer everybody to the international study of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which ranked every country according to the perceived accuracy of their figures.
So there has been an international study, and I think that is the baseline for judging how each individual country is going.
Is 16.5 million flu shots enough to service every Australian?
That will more than meet all conceivable demand, but if more is required, more will be provided. At the moment we are expecting that will far outstrip demand, in other words, supply will exceed demand significantly.
But that is something we are very happy to do to make sure that everything is covered. Now I might turn first to Tom Minear.
Hi Minister. Just returning to the app for a second. The Government has talked this week about 40 per cent being the number that you want to get to, ideally more, in terms of the number of people that sign up to it.
When you are making decisions in coming weeks about easing restrictions and looking to ease the measures that we have in place at the moment, what does it mean if we don’t get to 40 per cent or a level like that? Will that mean that it’ll be a slower process?
I know you are talking about this being one part of a strategy, but how important is that number to some of those restrictions actually being lifted?
It’s our goal, but anything which adds to our tracing capability, adds to our ability to protect those who might have been inadvertently infected.
What this is about as protecting those who might have been inadvertently in contact, inadvertently infected, and any uptake increases our capacity to help with the contact tracing, which increases our capacity to save lives and protect lives, to protect our health workers and to limit the spread.
Thanks Minister. Just on the World Health Organisation issue. What kind of body could actually launch an independent inquiry into a global pandemic?
Does one exist or would a new body have to be set up if it wasn’t the World Health Organisation? And secondly, is there sort of a coordinated response here?
Is this the Australian government freelancing calling for an independent inquiry or is there actually a group of countries now looking to establish such a measure?
I think naturally at the end of any major global event, there will be and should be reviews, and they can occur at national level, they can occur at international level, they can occur on many different fronts.
And so as to the specific mechanism, I will leave that for the Foreign Minister at a time in the future. Right now, we’re focused on fighting this virus.
We are doing well in Australia but we still haven’t won. We are winning but we have not won yet. Therefore we have to focus on our containment and capacity.
Today is about capacity, going forward there will be absolutely many different pathways to reviews of what all countries have done.
Interestingly, before the virus outbreak, the WHO in 2018 identified Australia as being at the global forefront of preparedness for a pandemic.
I think they got that right, I do think they got that right as we can see in terms of our testing and tracing and our case numbers and in particular our flattening, sustained flattening of the curve, so there is plenty of time in the future for reviews. Right now, we’ve still got a job to do.
I’ll continue on, I’ve also got Tom.
G’day Minister, thank you for taking our question. The Royal College of Psychiatrists is the latest medical college to join calls for people to be released from Immigration Detention.
They say that social distancing isn’t possible in confined conditions. Can you give me the Government’s response to those calls? There’s quite a long list of groups.
I respect that there are those who have a long-standing, sustained difference of views with the Government. What we have done there is protected our borders and what we’ve done through this crisis is to protect our borders. These have been difficult, tough measures.
We are very focused on the mental health of people in all different circumstances and the health of people in all different circumstances.
But quarantine has saved lives, border protection has saved lives, and we’ll continue with both of those.
But we do want to make sure that there’s the strong, clear, mental health support, which as I mentioned earlier includes telehealth, and telehealth has seen over 4 million consultations, a large number of which have been in relation to mental health, as well as specific circumstances for those in specific circumstances.
I think Blake and Elias each had one more.
We actually did move as a National Cabinet. So, I think the New South Wales Premier and Government has done a fantastic job, as have all of the states and territories.
Having a National Cabinet has meant that we didn’t suffer the divisions of 1919 and 1920 where the federation fractured and the results for Australia during the Spanish flu were agonising and deep human loss.
It wasn’t the catastrophe that we saw when, during the Depression, the federation splintered and during the Second World War there were deep tensions.
The National Cabinet has, I think, been a model and a fundamental change in the way that Australia’s operated.
The Prime Minister proposed it, the Premiers accepted it, and I think together the country’s moved in a way which is now pretty much the envy of the world. Elias?
And just on other matters, did you receive a copy of Malcolm Turnbull’s (Inaudible)?
I’m not aware of that and I certainly haven’t read it, and I can’t see any circumstances under which I’ll have the time to be reading it.
My focus has been on the coronavirus, my focus will continue to be on the coronavirus.
And I do want to finish by saying to Australians: at the outset we said we’ll get through this. We are getting through this.
But there is more work to be done and that work means that we have to maintain our difficult social isolation principles and behaviours, but Australians have done that magnificently.
But today helps us chart that way out, and the masks in particular are about giving us the pathway to a recommencement of elective surgery, treatment for Australians and the capacity to expand IVF and ultimately that helps us both through and out of our Covid-19 management.
And I want to thank all Australians and say: we’re getting there and the latest figures are a testimony to your efforts. Thank you very much.