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Doorstop interview about coronavirus (COVID-19)

Read the transcript of a doorstop with Minister Hunt about coronavirus (COVID-19).

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

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I recognise the importance and the gravity of the challenge, not just Australia but the world faces with regards to coronavirus.

We know that over 150 countries now have confirmed cases of coronavirus, that there are over 177,000 confirmed cases, but the likely real number, given the capacity of some countries to fully report, would be significantly greater than that.

And we know that over 7000 lives, very sadly, have been lost to coronavirus.

In Australia, the latest official figures I have from the National Incident Centre, just prior to coming to this briefing, is that there are 375 cases that have been confirmed.

But they will continue to be updated.

Against this background, we will continue to take important steps to protect Australians and, in particular, to protect the vulnerable.

On that front, there are three significant developments which I'd like to outline today.

Firstly, the Government will now move to the next stage of our provision of telehealth services.

In particular, we have expanded the capacity for telehealth to cover midwives, which I think is a very important development for Australian mums and Australian families more generally.

Secondly, we will expand the capacity where people have had a prior relationship not just with an individual doctor, but with their practice.

This is about protecting the vulnerable.

This is our fundamental national task, is to protect the vulnerable, because they are the ones who are most likely to have an impact from the coronavirus which could either be serious or could, of course, lead to a fatality.

As part of that, we are also expanding the telehealth to cover new specialist services.

And so a range of new specialist services, such as the capacity for general surgeons, the capacity for mental health, through psychiatrists, mental health facilities and support being made available, all geriatricians, amongst others, but a vastly expanded array of services through midwives, general practice, and now through specialists.

These are important ways of providing support to those who are diagnosed, in isolation, or from the broad vulnerable community, particularly our elderly or our immune-compromised.

Further than that, we have also seen some very important developments with regards to vaccines and treatments with regards to the COVID-19 particular strain of coronavirus.

A short time before joining you, I had the privilege of speaking to the Doherty Institute, Professor Carol Kedzierska- sorry, Professor Katherine Kedzierska.

And Professor Kedzierska has led the mapping of the immune response, probably the world's most advanced mapping of the immune response to coronavirus in mild to moderate patients.

Why is this important? It's important for two reasons. It's about fast-tracking a vaccine by identifying which candidates are most likely to be successful.

But it's also about fast-tracking potential therapies and treatments for patients who already have coronavirus.

And that means, particularly for those who have respiratory difficulties, they are looking at the potential for faster access to therapies, faster access to treatments.

Later today I'll be speaking with the University of Queensland, where they have made potential progress on significant application of current drugs to this new condition, where it will help with their respiratory conditions.

So, very, very important developments where Australia is helping to lead the world.

Finally, I'm also pleased to indicate that we've been able to support our testing process for this with a large volume of masks.

230,000 new P2 masks, which will support the testing process, have arrived in Australia today and will be shared with states and pathology providers, and general practices who are taking samples around the country.

It's part of the ongoing process of securing and supporting testing.

All of this is done with one very simple goal – to reduce the number of Australians who contract coronavirus and to reduce the impact on the vulnerable.

When we talk about flattening the curve, it means reducing the number of Australians, spreading the load over time, and protecting the vulnerable. And that's our goal and that's our approach.

And today's announcements and developments will assist in flattening the curve and protecting the vulnerable.


Minister, the WHO has told every country to test, test, test every suspected case. Why isn't Australia doing that?


No. We have actually one of the most advanced testing regimes in the world. We have had over 30,000 tests conducted in Australia, and I expect new figures in the next 24 hours which will be significantly in advance of that.

For example, the masks today will assist in further testing, and so we are testing at one of the highest rates of any country in the world, remembering that some of those countries, such as South Korea, have over 8000 cases, where we have under 400.

So, they have more than 20 times the number of cases.

So, on a per capita and incident basis, we have one of the highest regimes.

But, however, this remains one of my absolute highest priorities.

We have a team which is working with pathology providers.

It's about ensuring we have not just additional test kits, but the discussion I had with the Doherty Institute just prior to coming to air also included new testing regimes, so as that we can expand beyond the individual tests, and they are looking at ways of expediting the testing process, and, indeed, some significant new mass testing processes over and above what we're doing.


So how many test kits are there? That's something Bill Bowtell wanted to know on Q+A last night. How many test kits does Australia have?


So, we're expecting a major announcement on that within the next 24 hours, once we've collated the data.

I've asked for all of the data from the states, and we will also be in a position, I believe, to secure some very significant new test kits as well.


So you don’t know how many test kits?


Oh, no we- what we have is sufficient for current requirements. But they are being done on the same basis as the medical experts have recommended, focussing primarily on those who meet the case definition of, firstly, have they travelled overseas, or secondly, have they been in contact – and contact being defined as in contact with somebody within 24 hours of them having developed symptoms.

And do they themselves subsequently have symptoms?

And that’s been the very strong medical advice around the country.

And we’ve made sure we’re following those to make sure that priority is given to those who are most likely to have it.


Do you expect non-medical manufacturers in Australia to start producing medical supplies?


We are looking at lots of different options for production.

We're in advanced discussion on a variety of fronts, including masks and potentially there is a role for test kits, so as we're not just relying on international sources and international imports, but we are ramping up our domestic production of critical supplies.


Is the Government looking at following the UK's move and asking older Australians to stay at home and self-isolate?


So, we are currently receiving definition from what has been the major meeting of the chief health and medical officers in the states and territories.

That's been going on with the Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer over the last two days. We're look at receiving additional advice in relation to the elderly, aged care homes, and indoor mass gatherings over the course of the next 24 hours. I believe they'll be providing information to the National Cabinet, which is meeting this evening – the Prime Minister and the chief ministers.

So, all of this, again, goes back to this message of flattening the curve by reducing the spread, where every Australian can be part of our national mission of helping to stop the spread and helping to protect the vulnerable.

And we do that – and this, I think, is an important message – of reaching out to help our elderly and others.

And that means, whether it's in the shopping aisle, making way, showing that courtesy, being our best selves; whether it's somebody who might be isolated either due to the coronavirus or they are alone – the very simple problem of loneliness and being alone – and supporting them, doing the shopping, perhaps delivering a meal.

These things will help our elderly to have the space that they need.


What about sports clubs that have matches this weekend? Should sports clubs be cancelling games for now?


So, the advice is very clear, that there are the mass gatherings rules that have been put in place, which are now mandatory in terms of over 500.

And individual clubs will make their own decisions.

I know that many sports clubs are choosing, out of an abundance of caution, not to.

The advice which is published on the Department of Health website, following other discussions, is that smaller groupings are within the rules, and then it becomes at the discretion of the particular clubs.


At what point will we look at European-style lockdowns? Would it be 1000 infections, or?


I think each country has to make its own judgement about their particular needs.

One of the things that we are looking at and balancing – and I think it is very important to explain to this Australians – is to make sure that, as we help stop the spread through our individual actions as well as our Government decisions and our collective actions, we are not making the problem worse by destroying the capacity for our health workers, our medical workers, of having an impact on supplies for food and other things.

All of these are a very important balance.

And so, we're taking medical advice on what's required medically.

And we have implemented everything that the medical advisers have said. But, of course, anybody may choose to go further, but we will always do at least what the medical advisers are saying.

And then, secondly, what we're doing is making sure that people have the information to take care of themselves, recognising that we are at a far earlier point in the progression of COVID-19 through Australia than many other countries.

So, the measures that we're taking are, in many cases, occurring ahead of other countries that are far more advanced in the progression of COVID-19, or at a very comparable time.

So, in terms of the actual numbers, what's happening in Australia is overwhelmingly happening at a significantly earlier time than the measures that are implemented in many other countries.


I guess what people want to know, though, is what's the tipping point? You know, a lot of private schools have told students to stay at home. State schools have not. You know, when is the point? What is the indicator that will make?


So, the Chief Medical Officer has addressed this following previous meetings of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, or the group of chief health and medical officers.

And the point that they have made is they are cautious.

They have certainly not ruled out school closures at some time. But they are cautious because of two things.

One is the young are far less likely, on all of the global evidence, to actually contract COVID-19. And secondly, if they do, it very significantly has a far lower impact than it does on people of an older age. That's the first part. So, the individual impact.

The second is they were very aware, and the Chief Health Officer of Victoria only yesterday put out a statement, that they were aware that mass school closures would impact significantly on critical emergency service workers, on health workers, as well as exposing young people potentially to being with grandparents on a much more broader basis.

So, these are important considerations. They are not ruling them out. They'll be providing additional advice to the National Cabinet of Prime Minister and Premiers today. But that was the reasoning behind their advice so far.


We've seen five people die of the virus. What do you think – and around the world the death rate is 3 per cent – what do you think Australia's death rate will be?


So, we're not making any predictions on that because the figures are varying quite widely.

One of the points that many of the medical researchers have made is that the actual number of cases globally is likely to be far higher than the reported cases, because in many lesser-developed health systems they have not been able to detect and identify all of the cases, so that the real death rate may be somewhat lower.

The South Korean death rate, when last I looked, was about 0.87. And we think of any of the countries that have significant outbreaks, they probably have the most sophisticated analysis. That's a guide.

But as the disease progresses, we will all globally have better figures.

But I think the model that our medical advisers, our virologists have pointed to as being the most significant analysis of any of the countries that have had a major outbreak, is South Korea.


What restrictions are you considering for aged care homes?


So again, that advice is being considered during the two-day meeting of the chief health officers.

But a very simple way to look at it, as Senator Colbeck, the Minister for Aged Care, has explained is, as a first stage, aged care homes around Australia have a highly developed system of influenza preparedness.

If an influenza outbreak, which can be devastating in an aged care home, were to commence, then they have a procedure which limits the number of visitors, which ensures that people who are coming in are subject to being reviewed as to whether or not they are likely to carry a disease.

And to make sure that residents are kept separated. And so, that's been his advice to the homes.

We'll receive further advice from the medical advisers in the course of the next 24 hours.


Should people stop visiting their elderly relatives?


I think what is being considered here is to make sure that there is access, but limited access.

And that's to make sure that there is not an increase of numbers, because many people will be worried, and that's the most human, most human of responses.

But what has been contemplated is making sure that there, rather than an increase, is a decrease and a reduction in numbers, but not a stopping of flow.

Because these are our parents and our grandparents. These are our senior Australians who have helped build what we have.

And so we have to protect them from the disease, but we don't want to remove them from the most human of contact.

I'll take one last question.


What about childcare centres? Are they being considered separately to schools?


Childcare and school, these elements are all being considered by the medical advisers.

But again, what virologists around the world have observed, as well as in particular our chief health officers in Australia, is that the young are far less susceptible – and this is unlike many other viruses – far less susceptible to actually contracting the virus.

And if they do contract the virus, it is far more likely to be mild to moderate to almost undetectable.

And so, today, the questions about the young and the old are very important questions.

But it's the old and the vulnerable – might be people who are immunocompromised, might be people with conditions such as severe asthma or with cystic fibrosis – who are most likely to have a very adverse reaction to this.

And so, it's about showing our care and our concern.

The practical measures we are taking in terms of the expanded access to telehealth, the additional masks for testing, the support and work on vaccine and treatment productions, are about protecting Australians in general, helping to stop the spread, but above all else, flattening the curve and protecting the vulnerable.

Thank you very much.

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