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Doorstop interview about coronavirus (COVID-19) with the Victorian Minister for Health

Read the transcript of a doorstop with Minister Hunt and Jenny Mikakos, Victorian Minister for Health, about coronavirus (COVID-19) in Melbourne.

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

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It’s great to see so many people interested in our new drug discovery centre. It’s fantastic. It’s good to welcome you to the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research.

My name’s Doug Hilton, I’m director of the institute, and I just really wanted to start by acknowledging the health ministers and their collaboration around this centre, but I think much more from a community viewpoint, thank the health ministers, their staff, the chief medical officers around Australia, the chief health officers, for their collaboration around this infectious disease crisis.

So that is something that makes me very proud as a medical researcher and proud as an Australian.

There is wonderful research being done on COVID-19 here at the institute, but it’s being done in the collaboration with remarkable researchers at the Doherty Institute, our fabulous universities and our hospitals.

And again, I think that collaborative spirit of Australian health and medical research really allows us to make a contribution to this global pandemic.

And with that, I’ll obviously let the ministers answer the questions that you’re most interested in asking.


I’ll speak briefly.

Look, thanks very much to Doug and to Jenny. I think Doug’s points about collaboration are absolutely right. This is a combination of medical research, the Victorian Government, and the Australian Government all working together.

It happens to be a National Drug Discovery Centre, but much more importantly, it is one of the many parts of the Victorian and Australian medical research system which is contributing to the global push for treatments, for cures, and for vaccines.

Here, at the Drug Discovery Centre, there is the potential for work on recovery and treatment.

So in particular, a focus on antivirals and potentially respiratory medicine to assist with patients recovering from and having better outcomes if they do contract coronavirus, or COVID-19.

This centre has the potential to help lead the world in people recovering from and potentially finding a cure to coronavirus.

Across the road, at the Doherty Institute, they helped us find a leading approach to testing for coronavirus – the ability for Australia to have faster tests and to share that information with the world.

That’s why this is so important.

More generally, the latest update that I have just prior to coming here from the National incident Centre is that there are now 118 countries with cases of coronavirus that have been identified; 125,000 cases confirmed globally; and approximately 4600 lives lost, sadly.

In Australia, we have 128 cases that have been confirmed and reported to the National Incident Centre, and as we receive those we update twice daily.

More significantly, I want to add even further, our support to those individuals and their families who might be diagnosed.

It can be a very stressful time and we want to add our support to each and every individual, and to indicate that this is about a country and a community supporting them to provide the way through.

Today, the National Security Committee of Cabinet has met and decided to reaffirm and continue, following the medical advice, all existing country travel bans.

And the Prime Minister has also referred the question of all travel from Europe to the National Security- from the National Security Committee to the medical experts.

So just to repeat, the Prime Minister has referred the question of all travel from Europe to the medical experts at the Australian Health Protection Principles Committee, and we will continue to follow the medical advice.

And the reason we've done that is that it has allowed us to be ahead of the curve, one of the first in the world to put in place a China travel ban, and similarly an Iranian travel ban, some of our decisions that have allowed us to stand up the National Incident Centre, the National Medical Stockpile, the National Trauma Centre early.

And these have allowed us in treating, isolating and ensuring that cases are being prevented wherever possible.

And we are working with our amazing states – and I do want to emphasise this – with our amazing states to provide the best possible care.

On that, I think that's an appropriate introduction for you, Jenny.


Thank you, Greg. Thank you. I want to acknowledge both Doug and Greg as well.

Look, it's absolutely no accident that the National Drug Discovery Centre is here in Melbourne, and I want to acknowledge the fact that Victoria is home to leading- world-leading and Australian-leading health and medical researchers.

And so, this centre is going to lead to new ground-breaking drugs and medications.

It's already had great successes at WEHI Institute in leading to ground-breaking leukaemia treatment.

And as we’ve heard, there is great work underway now to deal with, develop new treatments for COVID-19, as well as work for cancer therapy, diabetes, and many other emerging threats to Australian’s health.

I have no doubt that this National Drug Discovery Centre is going to play a huge role in terms of global ground-breaking discoveries.

And I want to acknowledge the work that has been undertaken here at the WEHI and thank them for that important work.

In terms of the collaboration that you've seen here, this has been a National Drug Discovery Centre that's involved funding from both the Victorian Government, the Australian Government, and the institute itself.

And it really is a product of how federation works well when all levels of government across the political divide can put politics aside and put the health interests of Australians first.

Just in terms of COVID-19, I too want to just give you a quick update, and that is to inform you that Victoria now has 27 confirmed cases of COVID-19.

So we've had six new cases confirmed overnight and we'll be providing further details of all of those to enable contact tracing to occur shortly.

Five of those six were, in fact, people with international travel histories. The sixth person is a person who is known to another diagnosed case, so it's a known local contact.

So, at this point in time, we still don't have any cases in Victoria where we've had unknown community transmission occur.

In terms of testing and what's been occurring in Victoria, we now have more than 5200 negative tests. So, that shows that many, many people are getting tested.

Many Victorians are getting tested and thankfully, at this point in time, we've had only the 27 have positive results.

I can also inform you that we now have 12 screening clinics open across public health services across Victoria.

So, St Vincent's and Peninsula Health have now opened screening clinics in our metropolitan hospitals, and we also have three regional hospitals offering screening clinics to date, and that is Albury, Wodonga, Bass Coast Health and also Barwon Health.

So we now have a total of 12 screening clinics and we will be working to open more of them.

We’re also working very closely with our public health services, together with the Australian Government, to ensure that we can get our GP pop-up clinics opening up right across Victoria as well.

Look, I too want to join Greg in making the point, firstly, that we have been working very closely together to address the threat that we are facing as a nation with COVID-19; and of course, to acknowledge and thank everyone in our health system, particularly for me, for those in Victoria, who we know are already doing a huge power of work.

I just had the opportunity to visit Box Hill Hospital this morning and look at their incident room and how they're responding as a health service to COVID-19, to have a tour around the hospital, and also to see the measures they have put in place to screen local people coming into their hospital.

So, that shows me that our public health services are well prepared. They are doing all the steps that are necessary to deal with the increased demand.

We’re already seeing increased amount of people presenting for testing, and I thank people for their patients as they present to those screening clinics.

But also, the fact that we do anticipate that we will have more pressure, more demand, in our public hospital system in the coming weeks.

So, at this point in time, our call centre has also received more than 21,000 calls.

We thank people for their patients as they try to get through that call centre as well.

We know that the community is certainly looking for advice and information. We have started radio ads to give the community more information, as well as what's available online, and through the call centre to give them the advice and the reassurance that they need.

And look- and of course, we will have many people who will be self-isolating, as well as those people who are recovering at this point in time.

Of the 27 diagnosed cases in Victoria, it's important to stress that only one of those individuals is currently in hospital.

So, the vast majority of people, we expect, will be able to recover at home with the support of their primary care supports. That is GPs and pharmacists.

But we will make sure that we continue to do the work that is necessary to ensure that our public health services are able to respond in coming weeks.

So I'll pass back over now- or we're happy to take your questions. Pass back over to Doug, perhaps, if you want to ask him firstly about the National Drug Discovery Centre.

We're very keen for you to focus on the National Drug Discovery Centre, of course.

If you’ve got some questions perhaps for Doug first, and then Greg and I are happy to take any other questions you might have.


Minister Hunt, can I ask you please? You've asked the doctors to consider a European travel ban – why? And are you including the UK in those considerations?


Look, what they're doing is, on every day, they're focusing on all of the developments around the world.

So, we have a meeting each day of what's called the Australian Health Protection Principle Committee.

I'm not in any way pre-empting it, I hesitate to say, because they have been empowered by the states and territories and the Commonwealth to make independent medical judgments.

We've asked them to do that, and they've been frank and fearless.

And sometimes, they have said something is not necessary. Sometimes, they have said something is necessary.

I know there've been a lot of questions, for example, on mass gatherings and their advice has been, at this point in time, there is no case against major events continuing.

And so, they’ll give frank and fearless advice. This has been referred.

Obviously, the United States has made a decision and in light of that, we thought that we should, out of an abundance of caution, make the reference.

But they’ll make an independent assessment, an independent judgment, and give independent advice.


Is there a point, Minister, where Brendan Murphy, the Federal Chief Health Officer, may make the ultimate decision on mass gatherings?

And also given what we’re seeing around the world – the NBA being cancelled and other events – make a decision on the Grand Prix?


So firstly, the latest advice as of earlier this afternoon, provided to the National Security Committee, was that the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee – or think of it as the collective chief health and medical officers from the states and the Commonwealth, who so far have been, I’m advised, unanimous in all of their determinations. They have not indicated that there are grounds in Australia.

So each country has different circumstances. Each state may have different circumstances. But they have not said that the grounds exist for changing their guidance on mass gatherings.

And I think one of the important things in allowing us to be ahead and to stay ahead and to be prepared is the independence that we have given to our chief health and medical officers.

For example, we were one of the very first countries in the world to declare this an emergency when on 21 January, following the collective advice of the state and territory chief health and medical officers and the Commonwealth together, Brendan Murphy declared this to be a disease of pandemic potential.

Following that group's work, we declared this to be a global pandemic two weeks ago.

And I note that the World Health Organisation has now adopted that same formula.

And so they have allowed us to be in front, and Victoria's Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton has been a wonderful contributor to that, and so we'll continue to listen to their advice, and I think that's what we should be doing.

At the same time, we're planning for all contingencies.


(Inaudible) T20 final had coronavirus. Don’t you think that should prompt a rethink for the F1?


Well, I think- I’ll let Jenny talk about the Formula One.

But again, what we’re doing is working with the authorities on the medical advice, and basing our decisions off what we think is the world's best medical advice.



Thanks, Greg. Look, we didn't wait for the WHO to make a formal declaration that this is a pandemic. We started this work many, many weeks ago.

The first advice that came out, that was issued by the Chief Health Officer in Victoria, was on 10 January.

We were closely monitoring what was occurring in China and we've been closely following what's been happening internationally ever since.

So we have been acting on the advice of our Chief Health Officer.

The advice to date has been that there has been no need to cancel mass gathering events.

But we were very upfront with the Victorian community. Just a few days ago, the Premier and I spoke about the types of extreme social distancing measures that we will need to put in place at some point in time, but we have not reached that point in time yet.

The Chief Health Officer explained what that measure will be, what the test will be, and he explained that we would be looking to see, firstly, significant community transmission to occur in Victoria before we would put those extreme measures in place. And we have not-


(Inaudible) Grand Prix and does have COVID-19?


Reached that point yet. To this point in time, we do not have a single case of unknown community transmission in Victoria. Now, that is likely to happen. It might well happen soon, but-


(Inaudible) happen to the Grand Prix?


Well, as I said, we have been acting on the advice of the Chief Health Officer.

Look, we are taking the Victorian community on a journey here.

We are talking about unprecedented measures that none of us have experienced in Australia in our lifetimes.

To be shutting down schools, to be cancelling mass gathering events.

Just think for a moment that there will be people already- and it's not just the Grand Prix that's on this weekend. Weddings, funerals, concerts; there are many, many gatherings of Victorians, people coming together.

So that is a very significant step, but we have not reached the point in time where we need to take these extreme measures, but we will not hesitate to do so.

If we get the advice that that is what is required, we will not hesitate to take those steps.

We know that that will be hugely disruptive to our way of life, but we will do that because we will prioritise public health.

But we've been acting in accordance with the advice all along. We will continue to act in accordance with that advice, and that is when we have significant community transmission.

We haven't reached that point yet but we won't hesitate to shut things- to start to shut events down, to see mass cancellations of public gatherings when that is required.


Minister, we know that five people who were members of F1 teams – four from Haas, one from McLaren – have been tested for COVID-19. They were feverish at the track.

I know you don’t want to make a blanket call on mass gatherings, but we are speaking specifically about the Grand Prix where five people are being tested.

Isn’t it now the time to say we should probably rethink this event?


Sure. So firstly, I don’t have any update to give you in terms of the test results of those Formula One team members.

I also have Annaliese here, who’s the Deputy Chief Health Officer, who can provide you with more information about specific cases.

But look, if those people do test positive, then- and that does have an impact on teams’ abilities to- well, firstly, it’ll have an impact on their need to self-isolate, just like any other member of our community.

We would not expect those people to be treated any differently to any other Victorian who would be testing positive.

So if that does then have an impact on teams’ abilities to participate then it will be a decision for the Grand Prix organisers themselves about teams’ ability to participate.

But that's a different discussion altogether than what we're talking about, and that is crowd participation.

And we have not reached the point yet where we need to be saying that the Grand Prix needs to be cancelled because we do not have community transmission in Victoria.

We don't have significant community transmission which is what the Chief Health Officer’s advice is.

And as I said at this point in time, we don't have a single case.


How are you not worried though that this event, the Grand Prix, may be where significant community spread happens?

Are you not worried about that, because that’s what a lot of people in the community, including doctors, are actually saying? This is a petri dish, basically, waiting to happen.


Yeah. Look, so our advice, the Chief Health Officer’s advice has been if people are unwell they should not be going to work, they should not be going to mass public gathering events, whether it's the Formula One or it’s somebody’s wedding or it's a work conference.

They should be self-isolating, they should be staying at home until they can get some medical advice and potentially be tested for COVID-19 if that is required.

So we know as we go about our daily lives, of course there is a risk, we can't say that there is no risk whatsoever, just those types of numbers that we see at the Formula One are walking around Melbourne's CBD every day; people just going about their daily lives going to work.

So we've got significant, you know, community intermingling happening every single day.

Of course that represents a risk and this is why I've been stressing at every opportunity, the fact that we take those necessary precautions around hand hygiene, we stay home if we’re unwell, we get the medical advice that we need.

But I'm happy to pass over to Annaliese as well. Our Deputy Chief Health Officer here in Victoria, who can perhaps provide you with some more information about specific cases.


Annaliese, do you have an outline of where the tests are at with those Grand Prix certain team members?


Yeah, certainly. Their tests are being undertaken today and we are working closely with the Grand Prix officials and the teams involved to get those tests through as quickly as we can.

And to then identify any other team members who may have been in contact, should any of these tests come back positive.


And is there only three F1 team member cases? There was reports that there could have been six.


We're currently testing eight team members from various teams involved in the Grand Prix.


From more than just the initial two teams that were named?


I can't tell you exactly which teams; I know there's eight people.


If any of those come back positive, does that shift the goalposts for you in your deliberations about this event?


So as the Minister said, we will be taking no chances in terms of close contacts of those people. Any positive cases that are identified, they are already being interviewed as we speak.

We are already identifying who their contacts may be and they will be placed into immediate quarantine, and then it will be a decision for the teams in the Grand Prix as to the ability of them to continue their participation.


But would it alter your likelihood to recommend to the Government that the event not go ahead?


So that's something for Dr Brett Sutton to discuss with the Minister and with other ministers.

It will certainly depend on how many people are tested positive and how many potential contacts they may have exposed in the days running up to the illness.


Sorry, will you just get those results today from those team members?


We are hoping we will get those results today. Not likely to be during business hours, likely to be into the evening.


From all eight or just the initial three?


We're hoping for all eight but our labs are working as hard and as fast as they can.


What is the current turnaround time on testing?


So in terms of the current time that it takes for an actual test to be run once it makes it into the laboratory?


Well, no from collection though to.


Through to being tested? That's quite variable. It- at the moment we are running tests as quickly as we can 24 hours a day, but there is a limit to the number of tests.

So we anticipate in the coming days there will be a delay of greater than 24 hours because we are still working as quickly as we can with other laboratory providers to get them online.


For instance, with these cases we’ve had today, how long is it since some of those- some of those were announced this afternoon, how long since some of those undertook their first tests, do you know?


I'm not 100 per cent sure how long. However, all people being tested are being advised to self-isolate at home the moment they are being tested for COVID-19.

So there should be no people in the community who are awaiting test results.

Anybody who is tested must stay at home until they receive their test result, be that negative or positive.


I might just add something first, Annaliese, if I can, just in terms of testing capacity.

So we have been working incredibly hard with the Australian Government to increase our pathology testing capacity.

You'd be aware that the Victorian Government provided some additional funding to VIDRL, that's enabled them to double their testing capacity.

They're now doing in excess of a thousand tests per day.

In addition to that, both the Royal Melbourne Hospital and now Monash Clayton have also started to do onsite testing as well.

And so we're working to ensure that more of our public health services can do onsite testing.

The purpose of that will be obviously to test patients that present in the screening clinics but also to prioritise health care workers for screening- and clearance as well, so they can get back to doing their critically important work.

So we are working incredibly hard to scale up testing capacity in Victoria, but I'm grateful to Greg for the work that he has done in announcing this item number for pathology so that private labs can now come on as well.

And I understand that at least one private company will be able to start testing from next week.

That will enable our testing capacity to increase significantly.

So we're working on this each and every single day.

And further expansions to testing, to screening clinics, all of these things are happening on a very regular basis as this is a very evolving situation and we keep making additions to our testing capacity so we can get that quick turnaround.

But the Chief Health Officer did say this morning publicly that the Formula One team members would get prioritised so we can give that advice to the Grand Prix organisers.


Doctors are telling people to stay away from the Grand Prix. What is actually being done by health authorities to prevent people from getting sick there?

And we’ve also seen a case where- a suspected coronavirus case at the Golden Plains music festival.

What's being done if there would be- you know, community transmission at these large scale events?


So this is why the contact tracing has been so critically important.

I should point out we've had a number of situations now where it's actually been through us advising the community and then media reporting of diagnosed cases and where those people had actually been, and public exposure points that has enabled further people to come forward, to make contact with my department to then get the advice that they need and to get tested.

So that really transparent process has been really important to make sure we can follow up each and every single case and potential exposure point.

So in terms of the Golden Plains Shire or the Golden Plains music festival, I understand now we've had one person who has been diagnosed or had (inaudible) for COVID-19 and of course we follow through on each and every single case and advise the community where there have been these potential exposures.

But in terms of you know, the risk and the advice to people attending the Formula One Grand Prix, as I said before, whether people are attending the Grand Prix or they’re going to their friend's wedding or they're going to a work conference or whatever mass gathering event they're attending, they should not be attending if they're unwell.

Please self-isolate, get the advice that you need, get tested and make sure you get that clearance before you go back into the community.


What do you make of the Federal Government's stimulus package?


Look, I’m very happy to say that I welcome it.

I welcome also the announcements that Greg has made in relation to supporting our state health systems with the expected demand that we will see in our health system as well.

So look, we, as a Victorian Government, will be making some announcements as well.

Clearly, we know our health system is going to be stretched and that has been the issue that I am focused on at the moment.

And of course, our own Treasurer, Victorian Treasurer, had made some comments just yesterday about how the health and wellbeing of Victorians is his absolute priority as he formulates the next state budget.


One last question.


Why are you not considering a US travel ban or asking the Chief Health Officers to do so?


I think what might help is to understand that each and every day, all of the chief health and medical officers review any international and national developments, and they have an open brief on travel advisories, whether it's any country in any part of the world.

And where they have done that, we have responded, and we'll continue to do that.

So they have an open brief. But given the international developments, the Prime Minister specifically requested this to be considered as part of their agenda.

But that's not to pre-empt, because when we said we gave them independence we really meant it.

And we’ll take one last.


Just on that point though, don't you think it seems that it doesn't match up – that we've got so many cases now even in Victoria of people who've travelled from the US and yet that travel has not been restricted?

And yet, countries like Italy, the travel has been restricted. I don't think we’ve had a single case in Victoria that's come from Italy. It doesn’t seem to fit with what’s happening.


We- look, this is at a national level.

I think what we've seen of course, there are four countries around the world that have been identified as the major centres of transmission.

China, where many criticised us for what they considered at the time to be an early and premature decision, but we took it on the medical advice.

Iran, where the evidence was that the official figures simply dramatically understated the actual figures, and that was not said as a criticism, that said as an acknowledgement that they simply did not have the capacity to detect, and therefore to record and report the cases.

South Korea, which has had a major outbreak, and Italy.

So those four have been the ones that have been identified as global epicentres of the pandemic.

And where they provide advice, then we’ll continue to do that.

But that advice has also allowed us to take the steps, contact tracing, which I have to say the states and territories have done in an exemplary fashion, which has meant that we have been able to minimise the transmission.

More broadly, I said on Sunday that over the coming months almost every Australian will, in some way, be aware of or have some knowledge of people who are either diagnosed or isolated.

This is something that is a global challenge and we are not immune from that.

But as part of that response, as part of the process of the preparation, what we have done is opened up two important new things.

One is the channels for people to seek support. We have the traditional channels of the general practice, or the emergency department.

We've also opened up in conjunction with the states, the clinics, exactly as was planned and prepared.

And Jenny's outlined to you that Victoria now has 12, which is really just outstanding.

And then the additional Commonwealth-supported ones are also coming online, but the plan was always for the state and territory-based clinics to lead and then we would add to that.

And then we have opened up telehealth. And the clinical advice is that the ideal is video, but also telephone. So if you can't have a video conference, we will make sure that telephone conferencing is also available.

But, for clinical reasons, the ability for a doctor to look at a patient, to look for febrile conditions, for feverish conditions, that's the preferred option. But if that's not available, then telephone is. So those four channels.

And then we've opened up to support the public pathology, the private pathology, and Jenny’s directed others are coming on board next week, but I'm also pleased to announce that private pathology has already commenced in terms of its testing.

And so, this is what we're doing as a country.

And it is a challenge, it is a real challenge. It's something that none of us have seen before.

But of all of the countries in the world where you would rather be, my view is that I think Australia is as well prepared as a country, and in terms of the health systems that the states and territories have in our preparations, but also above all else in our community.

We saw that bushfire spirit only a couple of months ago, how we backed each other.

That's what we need to be doing here.

And we'll continue to make the decisions on the basis of the medical advice.

They've been fearless so far, but we're doing this because we believe, and we will get through this.

On that, I will have to finish and Jenny will have to finish, because I'm literally going off to a meeting here in Doug's building with some of our vaccine researchers, those that might be working on antivirals and those who will be working on respiratory medicine.

Thank you very much.

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