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Doorstop interview about the COVID-19 vaccination plan and rollout on 14 February 2021

Read the transcript of a press conference with Minister Hunt and Chief Medical Officer of Australia, Professor Paul Kelly, on 14 February about the COVID-19 vaccination plan and rollout.

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

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Well, good afternoon everybody. I’m joined by Professor Paul Kelly, the Chief Medical Officer of Australia who has been in meetings with the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, or the panel of medical experts today.

We're here to outline two things. Firstly, progress on the vaccine rollout and the latest update; secondly reports about the epidemiology in Victoria and Professor Kelly will also add the latest on the AHPPC’s considerations with regards to the cases that have been reported out of New Zealand.

The first thing is that Australia is on track for our vaccine rollout. We have said that the vaccine rollout would commence in late February.

I can confirm that the vaccine rollout is on track to commence with first jabs in late February. I think that's very important news.

I’ve been speaking with Pfizer over the weekend. As many of you may know, we were with CSL and the Prime Minister on Friday and I’ll be discussing international arrivals with AstraZeneca over the course of the next 24 hours.

All of these three lines of support are travelling well. In particular, many have asked about arrivals. You can understand that because this is the most precious of cargoes, we are being cautious with our details in a highly competitive global world, as we saw during a time of shortages of masks and of test kits and so we are being cautious with that.

But I can also confirm that the vaccines scheduled to land in Australia before the end of the week, if not earlier. Before the end of the week, if not earlier.

In particular, as part of that, once they arrive, the TGA will ensure that the numbers are correct, that they, in particular, haven’t had any inflight actions that damage quality such as a loss of temperature.

They’ll look to see that all of the vials are intact and haven’t had seals broken. And they will also do batch testing as part of that. Some of that has been done in Europe; additional tests will be done here in Australia.

Our number one priority is safety, safety, safety. And we’ll continue to follow the plan. That plan has been built around safety.

And the reason why is firstly, to protect Australians, but secondly, very, very importantly, we know from all of the research that what Australians want to know is that safety has been prioritised above all else.

And if they know that what we believe to be the best medical regulator in the world, has overseen a safe process, working to a plan that’s thorough and doesn't cut corners, then confidence increases.

And if confidence increases there's an increase in uptake. And if there’s an increase in uptake, that helps with coverage and, ultimately, that's what best protects individuals Australians, but all Australians collectively.

As part of that, one of the things we're doing is today releasing the culturally and linguistically diverse COVID vaccination plan. That’s to support our multicultural communities around Australia.

We will be providing $1.3 million as part of an overall, now $31 million campaign to support vaccine confidence, awareness, take-up, and to dispel any myths that have been put out along the way.

And, as well as that, in particular, that means that we’ll be doing advertisements in over 30 languages, information sheets and videos in over 60 languages with the support of SBS. And I want to thank everybody who’s been involved with that.

I have had a recent meeting myself with culturally and linguistically diverse communities as sort of a major national Zoom and they’re all pitching in.

We’ve seen from the UK that one of the challenges is making sure that people from particular backgrounds where they may not have English as a first language have the information, particularly older Australians from non-English speaking backgrounds.

If they have the information, if their communities are supporting them, then the vaccine take-up will be higher and many of those are, of course, in an age group where they’re more vulnerable.

The final thing is in regards to the Victorian situation. Two further cases today and Professor Kelly will take you through those.

We, in particular, as a Commonwealth, have stepped up in a number of ways. Professor Kelly has declared a Commonwealth hotspot, which was announced on Friday evening and which he addressed yesterday.

Further, we have offered Victoria support with contact tracing through the National Incident Centre if they need it. And, in addition, and I think very importantly, the Victorian Aged Care Response Centre has been stood up.

Since the start of January, they have conducted asymptomatic testing in over 820 aged care facilities in Victoria. Since the start of February, that has included 190 facilities, with a particular focus in recent days on those areas where there have been cases within the community and over the coming week, it’s expected that they will see over 140 facilities tested. And that, I think, is important and heartening.

We have seen no cases in that time, which have been confirmed positive. So that is about keeping our older Australians safe and we have an outstanding leader in Ann Smith who’s the head of the Victorian Age Care Response Centre and she briefed me this morning.

With that, I’ll turn to Professor Paul Kelly and after that we’ll take questions. Thank you for your patience.


Thank you, Minister, and good afternoon, everyone. So just a couple of matters from me just to give some more detail of what the Minister’s already talked about.

Firstly, in Victoria there are these two new cases that have been confirmed. These are the first two cases in the community who are not household contacts of the people that have been working in the Holiday Inn.

So that’s important. It shows two things. One, it shows the thoroughness of the Victorian response and the ability they have of tracking down those chains of transmission, those incredible disease detectives that have had so much training and experience over many months, and particularly in Victoria, that’s coming to the fore.

So they’ve found two more people in that group of 38 that was talked about yesterday who were at a social function last weekend and that was related from a household member of someone who works at the holiday Inn.

So there are those two cases, that is a concern in a way because it’s outside of the house. But reassuring that they’ve been found very quickly and they’re the only two so far who have tested positive in that group of 38 in a social gathering.

I'm assured by the Victorians this morning, and they were on the AHPPC meeting, which concluded only  a few- in the last hour, that that is all, that everyone has been contacted, all of the other members- people at that particular event are in quarantine and that testing will continue over the coming days.

Other news from Victoria is that, we were talking yesterday about the cafe worker in Terminal 4 at Tullamarine. So that person- sorry, the people that work with that person are exactly all negative now. So those 12 out of 12 workplace contacts are negative.

So it's a very good result, very reassuring. It’s similar with the other workplace settings that the Victorians have been looking at. All of those tests are negative.

And so that's good news. The rest of the news from around Australia is that all states and territories have been looking to find anyone who passed through Tullamarine, particularly on the 9th of this month, and they are so far all negative.

Thousands of people have been contacted; thousands of people have been tested. They have all tested negative at this stage. So that’s the situation from Victoria.

I was notified just before the AHPPC meeting by our New Zealand colleagues, who came to the AHPPC meeting and talked directly to the other chief health officer's around Australia about the situation in New Zealand.

Two cases so far from their investigation there, associated with a facility near Auckland Airport which does the laundry for the international flight arrivals.

So it’s a mother and a daughter and then also now the latest case, there are three cases now in that family.

So they’re doing that investigation now. It’s all very new. That’s hot off the press this morning in terms of positive tests. We were hoping to hear the genomic analysis of those strains this afternoon.

As we know, they have had the South African strain come out of the quarantine facilities in New Zealand. It may be that; it could be the UK strain. We don't know yet. But those things are ongoing.

The important point is that we’re very closely associated with that information coming straight to us from the authorities in New Zealand as it happens.

At this stage, there will be no change to the green zone flights coming from New Zealand. We feel, at the moment, that the risk is very low. But of course, we will and we have looked at what those exposure sites are in New Zealand and we’ll be looking at that for anyone coming across the border from New Zealand.

My state colleagues have asked for the manifests of all of the Air New Zealand and other flights that have come over the last few days into Australia, so we’ll have all of that information and they’ll be followed up directly, as they’ve been doing with the Tullamarine cases.

One final thing I would note is very good testing results around Australia. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of people being asked to test. So over 50,000 tests on a weekend day is extraordinary.

And so a real shout out to everyone that has come forward and done that, have that test done and to all of the stuff that have been doing that testing.

In relation to that, we have reached a milestone this weekend, our GP respiratory clinics which were rapidly set up with Commonwealth funds early in the pandemic, that group of 150 all around Australia, reached a milestone of 1 million people assessed at those GP respiratory clinics this weekend.

So that’s an extraordinary effort by our GP community and others involved. And of course, it’s a part of a much wider system through the states and territories and other mechanisms that have been charting this pandemic from the beginning.

Thank you.


Minister, can you please clarify how many doses will be on that first plane and how many days will it be between touchdown and that first jab?


Sure. So two things. Firstly, with regards to doses, we’ve given the guidance that we are anticipating at least 80,000 doses in the first week to arrive.

We are always being cautious and always working quietly behind the scenes for more. But what we do is we set what we regard as a confirmed minimum and if we’re able to achieve on the upside, I think that’s more doses for more Australians.

The guidance then is that there has to be TGA assessment, there has to be damage assessment, quality control and we are on track for commencement in the last week of February.


So where did the Deputy Prime Minister get the figure 3 million from? What does that relate to?


That’s in relation to the number of Pfizer that we’re expecting over the next quarter.


Mr Hunt, are you concerned the latest outbreak in Victoria, has exposed holes in Victoria’s contact tracing system?

And more broadly, do you have concerns about Victoria's ability to contact trace and the performance of the Department of Health in that state, in general?


These are challenging times and we actually have strong confidence in all states and territories. As we see from New Zealand, we have a highly contagious disease.

Strong hotel quarantine systems in Australia have protected Australians but they are not impermeable.

We have said right from the outset that there are rings of containment. The hotel quarantine system, over 220,000 people have come back to Australia. People coming for births and for deaths, to say goodbye to loved ones, people coming home with terminal conditions.

So it’s vital part of our humanity and our engagement with the world. It’s about bringing our medicines home; it’s about our wheat and our wool going overseas.

We then, of course, know, though, that we always have to prepare for possible cases in a world with over 300,000 cases today and sadly, the best part of over 10,000 lives lost, that we’re not immune from that world.

So the first ring of containment protects us but the testing and the tracing as you set out, and the distancing are all part of our four principal rings of containment.

So do we have confidence in Victoria? Yes, we do.


Are you concerned about delays, though? There’s been reports of close family members have not been contacted, they’ve been contacted too late to self-isolate and get a test.


So I’ll let Victoria address the particular cases. Our goal is every case, every day to be contact traced. The specific details, I have seen some of those reports but I’ll leave those for Victoria.

Let's be clear - the Victorian system has increased markedly. Professor Alan Finkel who’s just completed his term as the Chief Scientist of Australia, went in, applied his incredible rigour, worked with Victoria.

It’s improved significantly. Everyone is always looking to improve further. They can address those specific cases.



Minister, just on the Pfizer schedule, the 3 million this quarter, do you mean the first quarter of 2021 as in the end of March or for the next 3 months? And you did indicate that Pfizer would be giving a global update on what their schedule would be. Is that a result of this?


Correct. So, two things here - the base agreement with Pfizer is for 3 million in the quarter April, May, June. We will provide updates beyond the early weeks once we have that from Pfizer, once they do their global assessment.

And so, at the moment, we’re setting and hoping, obviously, to beat, but we’re setting the baseline of 80,000 doses to arrive in Australia as our previous expectations. I'm cautiously optimistic that we might be able to do better than that.

But as it was with masks and test kits, I won’t count any of these until they are literally in hand, until they have been secured, until they have been tested and they’ve been counted.

So, I have to say this - right through December and January and until now in February, we’ve had an amazing team, both with the companies and within the department. And you know, there’ve been up days and down days. That’s an honest assessment.

The world has a global supply challenges. We are looking at sunlit days at the moment, that the news over the last week has been continuously strong. Sorry.


Who is going to be leading the rollout? Is it the Federal Government or the states?


So it’s a partnership. The Commonwealth is doing the outreach into aged care homes. We're coordinating the program, and it's a very good partnership, may I say.

All of the states and territories have done an outstanding job. They are then leading the vaccination for Phase 1A of their health care workers and in particular, the border facing workers.

That's been an agreed priority with the Commonwealth, states and territories, that there will be a very strong, early focus, I think understandably and sensibly, on border, quarantine, hotel quarantine and other workers who are engaged in directly meeting international arrivals.

That would, of course, include the pathology workers.


You said just before that you’ve offered national contact tracing assistance to the Victorians? Has that been taken up?


I’ll let Paul answer that.


Yep, sure.


And the second question or is that


Oh, the second question is for the Minister.


For the Minister? So, yes, we have all, on a daily basis, offered our contact tracing assistance to Victoria.

So far, they haven't seen the need for that. But we remain ready, as do other states and territories.

Of course, over the last few days, the states and territories themselves have been dealing with their own issues of people coming through Tullamarine. So they've been concentrating on that.

So that's available. At the moment, Victoria’s said they don't need it.


Professor, why do


Hang on.


Minister, just on the hotel quarantine


Then we’ll bring Paul back after that.


So the arrivals caps were all due to go back up tomorrow. They're obviously not in Victoria. Is there a need to have more rapid capacity to ramp Howard Springs up and down to respond to changes in states like Victoria?


Well, I know Howard Springs very well, having been there twice and it's expanded significantly.

So, of course, its initial role was in providing quarantine support for those people returning on, I believe, the second Wuhan flight and also the Diamond Princess. Subsequently, it was added.

It is on the outskirts of Darwin. Sometimes it's presented as if it's in rural Australia. It's a Darwin facility and that's precisely because it can be supported by public health officials, the public hospitals, the AUSMAT team, which is based out of a facility near Darwin Airport. And so it is linked to all of the facilities of a city.

We've expanded it then a second time and now we're expanding it with the Northern Territory for a third time. I had the discussions with the Northern Territory Health Minister, Natasha Fyles, whom I have to say has been just an extraordinary partner throughout all of the COVID period.

And we agreed on one principle: safety, safety, safety. So they will advise us what is the next level they can increase it to, subject to the very simple condition of what's the safe operating capacity. And that's got to be the way we do these things.


So just on that, how close are you to striking a deal with the NT Government on increasing the capacity of Howard Springs?


Well, we've so far struck two deals with the Northern Territory, and then the third one is very close. But it's simply dependent on their capability assessment of what is the safe carrying capacity for the third stage of the Howard Springs facility.


What number would you like to see, Minister?


A safe number.


Minister, what are the specific logistics of the actual rollout of the vaccine? We’re going to have 80,000 doses in the first lot; I think Phase 1A has something like 700,000 people in it. Who will those first 80,000 doses actually go to? Which specific people?

Will it just be the first 80,000 people in that cohort to rock-up or will it be 80,000 specific people invited?


Look, that’s understandable. During the course of the week, what we’ll also be setting out are these things. Later on in the week, once we've got the confirmed doses and the confirmed numbers, we’ll set that out.

But to indicate that within those areas there are three priorities. There are the border and quarantine workers and there’ll be a specific focus in the first two weeks on border and quarantine, not exclusive.

Our aged care residents and our staff and of course, our aged care residents are vulnerable, and our frontline health workers, and disability residents and staff for disability care centres. So that's Phase 1A.

We think that that will take the best part of six weeks over the course of it. What we will see along the way, is subject to the approval of the TGA and that would be a matter for discussion later on in this week.

They'll do their assessments. We're hopeful that in the course of the next week, there will be an assessment from the TGA and they operate independently and they'll advise us when they’re finished and they'll advise us and we will immediately advise you of the outcomes, once we've been able to prepare everything.


Just to really bookend that, just then you said you wanted to get 678,000 done in six weeks. That’s 110,000 per week. Obviously, you’re hoping that the next Pfizer doses will be, their shipments will be higher than the 80,000.


We also have AstraZeneca to come in. So just to remember this, I think for everybody, we have to do a first dose. We have to allow for second doses in case there's any breach of shipping.

One of our things here is it's a very interesting but important mathematical assessment based against the real world as well.

Will there be planes that are unable to take off because in a foreign country there's an issue at the airport? Will there be issues with vaccine production? So we're planning for all of those contingencies and we continue to set a cautious bar with safety as our number one priority.

But secondly, making sure we're meeting and beating those expectations.

Chris and then Tamsin?


TGA approval for AstraZeneca, you said that you’re hopeful that this week we’ll see the Pfizer vaccines. How far off do you think approval for AstraZeneca is?


Look, we’re hopeful over the course of the next week. It's travelling slightly ahead of where we had previously given guidance and hope.

And also, what happens there is there's an exchange. The company provides data. Questions are put back by the panel of experts, comes back and the TGA and the panel assess it, questions are put back.

So they zero in on making sure that all concerns or information are met. So as the TGA’s confident of safety, and we're confident of safety.


And like Pfizer, you expect it to be a provisional rather than an emergency approval?


I think I might leave that one for Paul.


So just to reiterate what the Minister has said, of course, the TGA has their independent assessment. They need to do that without anything to do with myself or the Minister, in fact.

So they'll do that. But our understanding is it will be a provisional assessment. We don't have emergency assessments here as in other countries. So we're expecting that soon.


I will add, sorry, one thing there, and that is one decision Australia made was to do a full and thorough assessment.

We recognise that countries in extremis, with agonising loss of life on a daily basis, had to make a decision for emergency use.

But we made the decision on the basis of the medical advice that safety is the number one priority. But as I said earlier, that safety leads on to confidence, and the confidence leads on to uptake, and uptake leads on to better protection.

And so by doing that assessment, and all of our research and understanding shows that to be the case, Australians don't want us to cut corners.

They do want a thorough assessment. That's our health and medical duty. But it's also the pathway to higher uptake.


Minister, a question for you and a question for Professor Kelly, if that’s alright.

Victoria seems to be expressing that they’d be interested in dropping their caps back down once they come out of their lockdown, hopefully later this week.

Have you had a conversation with them about that? And what would be your reaction if they were to drop their cap?


That would be a matter for National Cabinet and a discussion with them. Look, our job is to work with all of the states to help them ensure that their hotel quarantine and their tracing standards are to the highest levels.

The Halton review, the Finkel review, the ongoing work of AHPPC throughout the week and every week they're assessing these questions.

And, you know, they've been meeting - I think you met yesterday and today, Paul? They met yesterday and today is about making sure that we have systems that are safe and we do.

You know, the UK looked to Australia for advice. Our AUSMAT team is providing advice to the UK. I spoke with the UK Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, at his request to outline how the Australian system would be.

And we both understood that no system is impermeable. But their view was that the Australian system was as good as any in the world.

And when you think of 220,000 people, that's immensely important. And what does that mean going forward? Bringing those people home is a task for all of us. It's something we work on together.

And when there are discussions, it has to be boiled down to the human - mums and dads coming home to see their sons and daughters, children who've been studying overseas, families that have been separated, people coming home to say goodbye to loved ones, some themselves who may have terminal conditions.

That’s our deep, profound human duty and we’ll continue to do that and we’ll encourage all states and territories to do that. And we're following the advice as to the safest way to do that going forward.


A question for either the Professor or the Minister – whose decision is whether to stop the New Zealand travel bubble and what factors will you be looking at as you monitor that situation?


Well, I can answer that. It's Paul's decision but Paul can answer more. And then I think Tamsin had a question for Paul. Then we'll take one more after that. Somebody who hasn't had one.


So in terms of the New Zealand one-way green zone travel rather than a bubble, I would call it that because it is only one-way, that's been operating very successfully with tens of thousands of people almost exclusively, either New Zealand citizens or Australian citizens or permanent residents coming across the border for some months.

We had that small glitch a few weeks ago, in relation to an outbreak in in Auckland. So we're looking daily and we have conversations daily with our New Zealand counterparts.

Every week, I make a very specific and detailed assessment of where they are in terms of the epidemiology of COVID-19 in New Zealand.

If there are any doubts there, we talk directly with our New Zealand counterparts. So the sort of things we look for are, of course, are there cases, are they in the community? And if so, what's happening in terms of chasing down those chains of transmission, exactly as we're seeing in Victoria at the moment.

So, so far, it's early days. We've been told immediately that they became aware today of those three cases in Auckland and we'll continue to have very close conversations with them as they go through and progress that work.



Professor Kelly, just on Victoria, what are the key metrics you’d be looking at to see whether it would be appropriate for Victoria to be come out of this snap lockdown in a few days? And are you confident at the moment, seeing there were two cases today, that they were community transmission but seem to be quarantining at the moment. What’s your confidence level?


So, first of all, the lockdown decision was one for the Victorian Government so they need to make the decision about whether the lockdown is removed.

In terms of how I would see things going there, I think they're doing an excellent job, as the Minister has said, in terms of chasing down those chains of transmission.

And as I said at the beginning of this press conference, there’s good and bad news today, that issue of having two cases that are not household contacts is a new development and we’ll need to look to see how that develops over the coming days.

But on very good news, the type of people that we would expect to have been positive if it was spreading, for example, in the Brunettis Café, are all negative.

So that plus the information from all of the other states and territories that have received flights out of Tullamarine is good news. So all of those things have to be weighed up.

The issue about what happens in Melbourne is an issue for the Victorian Government. In terms of the hotspot definition, I will be reviewing that tomorrow, as will my other colleagues in AHHPC with their own arrangements in other states for people coming from Victoria. And we'll have more to say once we've done that work.



Minister, on the CALD campaign, is there a need to make sure that this is not set and forget? We’re seeing a fast-moving situation where we're going to be evaluating when people can become available to get the vaccines; we need to make sure that this is.


Yes. So there will be ongoing engagement and in fact, $1.3 million of funding is for the CALD communities, multicultural Australia communities to themselves lead their own outreach.

So it's grassroots, but it's also, very interestingly, being designed with common themes, but appropriate messaging for each community.

I have to say, I saw the Islamic community put out a statement encouraging all of the members of the Islamic community in Australia to take up the vaccine.

And I thought that was a wonderful and important message.


Have you got any concerns about some of the church leaders saying that [inaudible]… that they’re not technically happy with it?


Look, I've seen the fact that the Pope has himself, as has his predecessor, received the vaccine and implored, as a matter of moral priority, I hope I'm presenting it accurately.

But let us take that as a best faith attempt to summarise the message from the Vatican. The Pope has implored Christians, and in particular those of the Catholic faith, to take the vaccines.

And if you take the vaccines, they save lives. I know, Claire, you've got one last and then I better go.


Just wanted to ask about industrial relations, if that’s alright, Minister?


You can try.


I just wanted to pick up on what you said about Phase 1A expected to take six weeks. Is that, obviously, exclusively with Pfizer are you saying that when AstraZeneca comes along, that timeframe would shorten? Or is AstraZeneca going to Phase B and therefore running concurrently?


No, the international AstraZeneca vaccines will be part of the Phase 1A. So that answers the very thoughtful question before about the numbers during the course of it.

What we're doing is providing progressive guidance. As we know, we're making sure that the Australian public is included in that knowledge.

But we're also able to plan for, subject to TGA approval, the international arrivals. And then, at the end of March, we will have the increase to a million doses a week of the AstraZeneca, CSL-produced vaccines, and that gives us enormous increase.

But at the same time, we'll have Pfizer continuing on throughout that figure of approximately a million a month, on current guidance, to be reaffirmed by global over April, May, June.

And Chris?


And just on industrial relations, is the Government opening the way for companies to slash people's pay and conditions.




Can you elaborate on that? Obviously, the Opposition says you are. The ACTU says you are. So there are concerns among workers. Why isn’t that the case?


Our focus is on creating jobs.  Mr Albanese's focus is on protecting his own job. Just again, our focus is on creating jobs. Mr Albanese seems to have a focus only on his own job.

Take care everybody and I will finish with this: These are challenging times, but the world looks at Australia and they wish that they were in our position. And that's a testimony to our medical leaders, but to all Australians.

And I also want to thank all of you for your work in supporting Australians. So we're doing well. The vaccine is coming and there are sunlit times ahead. Take care.

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