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Doorstop interview about the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and recent COVID cases

Read the transcript of the doorstop interview with Minister Hunt in Mount Martha on 27 June with an update on the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and recent COVID cases.

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

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GREG HUNT:         

Good afternoon, everybody. I’m joined by Dr Karen Price, the President of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners. And in particular, we’re joining together today to focus on encouraging Australians to continue to do what they have done in the last week, to come forward to be vaccinated with first doses and also second doses.

And we have very positive news on that front. So today, I want to deal with three things briefly. One is the national case situation; two is the vaccination rollout and in particular the uptake, which has been very positive of over 400,000 AstraZeneca doses in the seven days to the end of Friday; and then thirdly, to look at our GP initiatives, two GP initiatives today, one with regards to primary care research, particularly in remote communities, but secondly with regards to support for GPs to visit aged care facilities.

If I may, I’ll start with Australia's cases. To midnight last night, there were 35 cases in the community in one way, shape, or form in Australia. That also includes those in isolation but domestically transmitted cases or acquired.

Today, there have been or will be updates from states and territories of any cases after midnight last night. I might just ask one of the journalists if they can pop themselves on mute, please. In particular, what we have seen is strong and immediate, coordinated national response.

I’ll start with New South Wales but then look at the Northern Territory. The Northern Territory is responding magnificently, as is New South Wales, but our primary concern on the advice that I have from the Chief Medical Officer, Paul Kelly and from Professor Brendan Murphy is to ensure that everything that can be done to protect remote Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory is done.

We’re working according to a plan, which has been prepared well in advance, and that’s being put into action as we speak through the meeting of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee being chaired by Professor Kelly.

With regards to New South Wales, the Chief Medical Officer has widened the declaration of the Commonwealth hotspot to cover the same area as the New South Wales Government and extended that to 9 July.

That also brings with it asymptomatic testing for all New South Wales GP-led respiratory clinics or the Commonwealth clinics with which Australians have become very familiar. Support for aged care workers in COVID-19 has been expanded significantly, and that includes the single-site worker arrangements, the provision of PPE.

In addition, we have a Commonwealth Officer embedded with New South Wales Health in the Aged Care State Health Emergency Operations Centre. General JJ Frewen has authorised activation of expanded roving clinics for in-reach vaccination, and there are 410 residential aged care facilities across Sydney; all of these, 100 per cent of these have had first dose vaccinations, and 409 of the 410 have had second dose vaccinations with the remaining one scheduled in the coming days.

And then finally, we have offered New South Wales support if they need it for contact tracing, and at this stage they have all the resources that they believe that they need and continue to link all cases, doing an extraordinary job.

With regards to the NT, I've been in touch with the NT Health Minister, and I’ve also briefed the Prime Minister. They have implemented immediately with strong actions early to ensure that their Territory and their Indigenous as well as non-Indigenous communities are protected.

We think that this is appropriate, the actions that they’ve taken, and timely. The Commonwealth is responding with 10 principal actions. Firstly, we have set up a National Incident Management Team to support the NT response, and that’s hosted in the National Incident Centre and includes representatives from the National Indigenous Australians Agency.

We've ensured that the current stock of point of care testing is focused in the NT. More than 4,000 cartridges for testing all of those who maybe need it in remote or otherwise difficult-to-reach communities.

Thirdly, asymptomatic testing has been activated in the Northern Territory. Fourthly, the Royal Flying Doctor Service has been put into a position to assist with rapid deployment. Fifthly, Aspen is available for additional workforce support to the Aboriginal community-controlled health services.

Then we have Purple House, where we are working to ensure that dialysis for patients continues safely. The seventh action is that all aged care facilities have had first and second dose visits and that we are assisting the NT Health in terms of their joint aged care response centre.

And then today, we have convened a joint briefing with the Aboriginal health sector along with the NT and are working closely with them. Our focus is in particular on the remote and vulnerable Indigenous communities.

Then, finally, flight manifests have been provided to all states and territories with regards to the workers who have left the Granites Gold Mine near Yuendumu, and this is the same with all of the Virgin Australia flights involving that flight attendant. And then finally, we’ve offered any and all support to the NT Government for contact tracing, so I want to thank them.

I know today is a challenging day for Australians. This is a global pandemic, and as we've seen, even in the UK overnight, there were 18,000 cases in one country in one day.

And so these are great challenges, but Australians have stepped forward; over 87,000 have stepped forward to be tested. And at this point, there’s one Australian in ICU in New South Wales. But we also know that the world has agonisingly lost over 8,200 people in the last 24 hours and over 2.1 million people in the year to date, but no Australians have caught COVID-19 and passed from it in the year to date.

Every case is a risk to that individual, and any case can, as we know, around the world as well as in Australia, lead to more spread. That's where the vaccination program comes in, and in particular today, I want to acknowledge that we have now passed 7,326,000 vaccinations.

That includes 28.5 per cent of eligible Australians who have had first doses, over 50.8 per cent of over-50-year-olds, 59.5 per cent of over-60-year-olds, and 68 per cent, well over two-thirds, of 70-and-aboves.

And importantly, one of the things we've seen is that our AstraZeneca uptake has continued with over 404,000 doses in the week to Friday, and so that has been extremely important. And that's been spread quite evenly, 182,000 first doses and 221,000 second doses, and we want to strongly encourage people to continue coming forward, both for first doses if you're eligible and for second doses.

This is the moment and this is the time where those second doses are beginning to become due, and it’s an extremely important thing. The simple message is do not wait. If you catch COVID, you could die. And that's a strong, clear message, but it is a global message, and so please do not wait, either for your first or for your second doses if you are eligible or due respectively.

Finally, I want to particularly acknowledge, Karen, the role of our GPs. An extraordinary role during the course of the pandemic. We have seen their work. We’ve seen the incredible achievement.

We know that in primary care, our general practitioners have given over 3.8 million doses around the country. They’re providing guidance and we’ve supported them with an additional in-home visitation fee, with an additional consultation fee which have been developed very much in consultation with the RACGP.

Today, there’s $12.9 million for primary care research, with a particular focus through the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute on data for older Australians, and in the Kimberley area, working with the Aboriginal medical services on ensuring that we are tracking the health of Indigenous Australians.

And, as of 1 July, $42.8 million will flow for additional incentives for our GPs to visit aged care homes to help both with the vaccination rollout and to help with ensuring the general health of those in aged care is maintained in line with the royal commission.

My last message is to thank all Australians. There are difficult times that we’ve faced in this pandemic. Today is another one of those days. But we know how to get through this. We’ve done this before. We know how to do it again. We will get through this, but in particular, please keep coming forward to be tested, and please keep coming forward to be vaccinated.



Thank you, Minister Hunt, and it is a challenging time and it’s a reminder that COVID is not going away. It’s going to be here with us for a long time, and the only way to avoid having serious consequences from it is to get vaccinated.

I strongly support the message of coming forward and getting your vaccination as required and to also, in particular, to those people who are due for their second AstraZeneca dose to come forward and do that. And for those people who have still got questions, your GP is ideally placed in this pandemic to answer those questions of whatever they may be.

We have got into a position in Australia of great public health response. We’ve got there because we followed the science and we’ll continue to do so by continuing to follow the science. Your GP is updated regularly on those initiatives, and will help you navigate those particular requirements.

I’d like to thank the Minister for continuing to support general practice and primary care research which is important, we know, and we know how important the GPs have been in this community.

And lastly, I’d like to say thank you to all my GP colleagues. This is difficult to keep pivoting and changing and adapting again, because you’ve got to be the rocks that are rock solid for the community.

And to the community thank you for treating your GPs carefully, and for their staff also, when things don’t go according to plan the first time. It is a challenging time, but your GPs will step up for you this time. They’ve stepped up for you last time, and they will continue to step up because that’s what GPs do. We look after people in the community. Thank you very much.


Thank you. I’m happy to take questions. I’ll start with Rachel from the SMH.


Thanks, Minister. And if I may, I’m going to ask this question as well for Chris Uhlmann from Channel 9 who couldn’t get on the line.

My question is what is being done to help New South Wales with vaccines? The Premier again called for some more doses. And will there be a deal with Johnson & Johnson now that they’ve been approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration?


Sure. With regards to J&J, the advice that I have had reaffirmed today from the Science and Industry Technical Advisory Group is that they are not recommending any additional purchases at this point in time.

This is a viral vector vaccine, and we have full supplies, whole of nation supplies. And, of course, the AstraZeneca is limited to those who are over 60. The advice from SITAG, it’s the committee led by Professor Brendan Murphy, is that the issues with regards to thrombosis may well apply to the J&J vaccine.

That’s a matter that they are reviewing. And that we have both supplies and that therefore, it's unlikely to provide any additional protection or to have additional safeguards. So that's the advice that I've had from SITAG as of this morning.

Then, in relation to the support for New South Wales, we've provided an additional 50,000 vaccines over the course of this week. That's an important thing. We all work within the available volumes.

And then as we go forward, we know that so far we have provided approximately 900,000 vaccines to the New South Wales Government and they have approximately 119,000 that are available. We've provided almost 1.8 million vaccines to primary care with about 577,000 available.

And that future deliveries of Pfizer are due as we speak. At the moment, there should be another 134,000 which are arriving and that we will see the average number over the course of the month increased significantly from June to July, with both an increase on average to the State Government and the introduction of primary care supplies.



Oh, Minister, sorry. Can I ask Chris Uhlmann’s question? Is that alright?


Oh, I thought you did ask two questions, but anyway, go ahead.


Sorry. What percentage of people have to be vaccinated to avoid lockdowns like this in the future?


Sure. There's no particular figure that, we look at the United Kingdom where they have had 18,000 cases in one day. So, sometimes the UK is mentioned and we know obviously, agonisingly, they've now had over 128,000 lives lost.

But in just one day, they've had 18,000 cases. So what we do know is that it's the combination of all of the different elements: of borders, testing, tracing, distancing and vaccination, which work to protect a nation.

We have been protected through that full complement of actions, the rings of containment this year, and so all of those rings are being used within Australia. We're seeing them with the testing, the tracing, the distancing, obviously the continuation of the border protection measures, and the vaccinations.

So, there is no one figure. What we want to see is as many Australians come forward at the earliest possible time to be vaccinated as soon as possible.



Yes, thank you, Minister. Just one on the AstraZeneca vaccine please. With the, I guess, change in risk environment, we've got outbreaks in several states, winter's onset.

Do you think the TGA could revisit this guidance around even the age recommendations or the dosing interval between shots for AstraZeneca? Or would you imagine that’s kind of set in stone, unlikely to change right at this moment?


So, what we have from ATAGI, so for those who don't know, ATAGI is the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation. They have been and are the principal vaccination scientific advisers to the Australian Government. They are in a process of what's called continuous review.

And so where they've seen that changes are needed on a risk basis, then they have recommended them. And what we have done, our role with ATAGI has been to provide them with full freedom and confidence that they are in a position to provide continuous review.

And we've seen where difficult decisions have had to be made. They have recommended and we have adopted and we’ll continue to do that. If future circumstances mean that the risk changes in one direction or another, then we will, of course, adopt those recommendations.

Max? Okay, I'll hold and if Max comes back. Clare from The Daily Telegraph?


Hi, sorry. I am here.


Oh, no, Max. Max, and then Clare. Sorry, go ahead, Max.


Just following up on Josh's question, I was just wondering if you’re going to open up and allow people to make their own decision on AstraZeneca and weigh up the risks and benefits themselves, regardless of what ATAGI says?


Sure. So, well, we won't be overriding the advice of ATAGI, I think that's very clear.

What has kept Australia safe, what has put Australia in a different position to a world in which, you know, in just the last 24 hours, there were over 8,200 lives lost in one day, or 18,000 cases in the UK in one day, more than 50 per cent of the entire Australian numbers throughout the entire pandemic.

It's been following that comprehensive medical advice and having a comprehensive approach to multiple rings of containment. That's the first thing. The second is the advice from the Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation is that for 60 and over, AstraZeneca is recommended and for 59 and under it is not recommended.

And the situation is that, in particular, that Pfizer is the preferred vaccine, and as Moderna and potentially Novavax come on board, they would be subject to their age range being approved. They would also be available. So at this stage, we have not had any change in that advice and we’ll continue to emphasise that advice to them.

I don’t know, Karen, if you wanted to add anything on this?


No, that's completely, completely correct here. We're not going to change ATAGI’s advice, but they do adapt. And that's the thing. There is an adaptable response to this pandemic and its risk benefit.

And clearly what this outbreak shows, is the importance of people stepping forward to get vaccinated. That's what this message should be about, going and getting your vaccination according to the ATAGI advice, and knowing that the risk benefit in particular as an outbreak occurs, is definitely on the side of vaccination rather than getting COVID.


Great. Clare?


Thanks, Minister. Picking up from this conversation we're having, young Australians under 40 have absolutely no way to access the vaccine at the moment, which given they’re in the midst of this Delta strain outbreak, which is infectious for younger people and is making younger people more sick, is obviously a source of anger.

Yes, ATAGI’s advice is to the over-60s and supply size is limited. So, what actually can anyone under 40 do right now to protect themselves? The Government hasn't given them any access to vaccines. And given the risk profile is changing, why can't a person under 40 decide that they'd rather the risk of a blood clot, not the risk of getting the Delta strain of COVID?


Sure. So, firstly, one of the critical things here is that we do have very clear lines of medical advice. And I respect that there are differing views in a nation of over 25 million people that the very nature and notion of democracy is that there are competing and contestable views.

But equally, what we have done since the day that Brendan Murphy declared this to be right at the forefront of the world of disease and pandemic potential. And then, where we took the medical advice and closed the borders with China, in defiance of some very, very strong international opposition, is we have followed that medical advice.

And that remains that, in order to manage the vaccination program, we follow a risk based profile. That risk around the world, in the overwhelming majority of countries, not everyone, but in the vast bulk of comparable nations has been age based.

So coming down, we will, over the course of the coming months, double the Pfizer from 300,000 to more than 600,000 a week on average coming in from that company. And that will grow, particularly during October to December. But potentially, we're working on bringing forwards more and we work every week with the company.

Now, in terms of risk for people who are under 50 and indeed under 40, whether they are the workers in aged or disability care, whether they are the hospital workers, so doctors, whether they are people involved in the medical profession, frontline health workers, quarantine workers or those with disabilities, they have all been given that primary access through the risk based grouping.

So one of the things here is that where somebody is of a younger age and in either a vulnerable group or in a group which has a heightened risk of transmission, they have been given that early access.

But around the world, the principal approach, based on the medical advice, has been to provide the available supplies on medical risk. And so it starts at the oldest and works its way down, as we've seen in other nations, but in particular, where there are groups that are vulnerable, then those vaccines have been made available irrespective of age. And that's what we've done in Australia.



Thanks, Minister. We have seen this NT mine worker become infected with COVID-19 in Queensland hotel quarantine, with hundreds in isolation and hundreds more travelling away from that site to other parts of the country.

Considering the epidemiology, are there concerns Australia is on the brink of a nationwide outbreak? And would this have occurred if Queensland had not put a domestic traveller alongside international arrivals? In regards to the mine sites flight manifest, can you say how many have travelled on from the NT to each other Australian jurisdictions?


Sure. So look, firstly, in relation to the manifest, they've been provided to all of the relevant states and territories. We’ll let the NT outline those details. And so we have people from that mine who have returned to the NT and have returned to various states. The NT is tracing that with the Commonwealth's support and each individual state. So I'll let the NT provide those details.

Then, in relation to Queensland, we respect the work that they are doing. But we also note that particular practise of putting in hotel quarantine, in an environment with international passengers, a domestic traveller is a matter for Queensland. And I'll let them outline their reasoning and their rationale for that.

James from the ABC? I'll just wait for one sec. Anything from James? No?


Minister, sorry, it’s just Madura again. In regards to the epidemiology, are you concerned that the rest of the country is also now at risk?


Look, every case is a concern, but what I am focussed on is making sure that we have the testing, the tracing and the appropriate distancing in place around the country. I have confidence and we have confidence in every state and territory system.

We are, in my view, better placed than virtually every other country in the world to manage outbreaks. We've done it before. We'll do it again and we will get through it. So I am confident that we'll get through it. There will be cases that will follow. We need to be honest and aware of that.

But can we manage it? Yes. Will we manage it? Yes. Will there be challenges over the coming days and over the course of the year because it's a global pandemic? There will be. But I think looking at these agonising case figures just in the UK, one day, 18,000. Around the world, 8,200 lives lost.

What we do know is that Australia's systems are stronger than virtually any other jurisdiction and able to manage, and able to resist, and able to adapt, and able to protect Australians. So we'll continue to do that.

The last thing is I have one from the ABC in the room.


Yeah. What preparations have been made to provide the mRNA booster vaccine for those Australians vaccinated with AstraZeneca? Will you commit to providing those booster shots, prior to opening international borders?


Well, at this point, the advice is very, very clear that if you've been vaccinated with one vaccine in Australia, you should have your second dose with the same vaccine. So there are adequate supplies, both of AstraZeneca for every Australian over 60 and for completing second doses. Those are available now.

And the message is to please come forward. And there is also 50 million units of mRNA vaccines which will be available to Australians over the course of this year. So, over 50 million viral vector AstraZeneca vaccines and over 50 million mRNA vaccines available. So I'll just finish with that.

I want to particularly thank Karen, particularly thank our GPs, and especially thank Australians for coming forward.

There is one very last question, I apologise.


Thanks, Minister.


Hang on. Sorry, there’s one in the room.


Have you been in talks with New Zealand? And do you have any thoughts on the travel pause?


Look, we have been contacted. The New Zealand High Commissioner contacted me on behalf of the Government yesterday. We understand and respect their decision. We have had to make difficult decisions as a nation and as individual jurisdictions. We recognise they’ve put in place the temporary travel pause, and we understand and respect that and regard that as reasonable under the circumstances.

I'll finish there, but say thank you to all Australians for your patience. Your actions have saved lives and protected lives. Your continued testing, tracing, vaccination, and observation of the distancing requirements will save lives and protect lives around Australia.

It's a difficult day, but we've done this before. We know how to do it and we will get through it. Thank you very much.

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