Date published: 
22 February 2021
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

RACHEL STEPHEN-SMITH:

Alright, well welcome everyone here to Canberra Hospital’s COVID-19 surge centre. This incredible facility was built really quickly when we didn’t know what was going to happen with COVID-19 in case we needed extra emergency department capacity.

But for the last two months it’s been a COVID-19 testing centre, and now it’s our first vaccination centre, our Pfizer hub for the ACT and surrounding region.

It’s really, really exciting for our Canberra Health Services staff to be on the front line again, delivering COVID-19 vaccinations for our frontline workers here in the ACT, and from our surrounding regions.

So, it’s great to have Minister Greg Hunt here to see our very first vaccination here in the ACT, and I’ll hand over to Greg to talk more about it and the national program, and of course take all your questions.

Thank you.

GREG HUNT:

Great. Look, thanks very much to Rachel and to everybody involved here at the Canberra Hospital Vaccination Centre. Importantly, this centre was set up as a COVID overflow emergency department.

It was set up with the possibility that Australia could’ve faced what Italy, or Spain, or France, or New York faced in the early agonising days of COVID; or what we’ve seen in Los Angeles most recently or in parts of the UK. It was never used in that purpose, and we are deeply grateful as a nation.

But we have had the challenges, we’ve not been immune. We have done extraordinarily well but we have to continue to fight to help contain COVID.

But the next phase of that national challenge, that national partnership is the vaccination program, and today, scenes such as this which is occurring here in Canberra are occurring in every state and territory.

Maddy and Nicoletta - two nurses, one of whom was receiving the vaccine as a front-line worker - one who was giving the vaccine as a front-line worker - are Australian heroes, and they’re emblematic of Australian heroes who have helped protect this nation during the course of the pandemic.

So, there’s a lot more to go, but the next phase begins in earnest today. And that is an extraordinary moment for our country.

And I do want to acknowledge people such as the ACT Chief Health Officer, Kerryn Coleman, and the Deputy Chief Medical Officer of Australia, Dr Nick Coatsworth.

They and so many others have worked nights, through days, through weekends to protect Australians, and I do have to show you, Nick, just before joining you gave me a pair of socks and you’ll notice that there is a need and a spike protein in its last moments - and that’s symbolic of what today is about.

But we know that around the world this pandemic continues, and so we have to ensure we take every step to continue our containment, our COVID safe measures continue remain equally important. Please, keep being tested.

Victorians have been magnificent in recent days, and more news of zero cases today in Victoria within the community.

And so, we’re doing well but we have to have as many Australians vaccinated as soon as possible, and we are on a positive track. But this will be a watching brief, but today’s a day of hope and protection.

Happy to take any questions.

JOURNALIST:

Minister, you’ve refused a few times to say what the precise figure would herd immunity. Why is that?

GREG HUNT:

Well, it is a medical issue which really relate to three factors, because coverage is one element.

But there are all other elements that are equally important, according to the advice from Professor Paul Kelly.

One is the transmission impact. The early data coming out of the United Kingdom and Israel is more positive than we’d hoped, but it’s not definitive data. And then the second is the longevity of the antibodies which are generated by the process.

And that’s why, once they have a real feel - and this is a global process for establishing that evidence - then they’ll be in more of a position.

So, one of the things we’ve tried to do is always be honest about what we know, and what we will know. That elements in the group of things where will know it in time.

Jonathon.

JOURNALIST:

Minister Hunt, we saw over the weekend that there was wide spread anti-vaxx protests right across the country.

This morning, the ABC’s Norman Swan, and I want to take you to his comments. He says, we’ve got a problem in Australia.

He goes on to say, we want international borders to open up but we’ve got the wrong vaccine.

Is he leading the anti-vaxxer outfit with comments like that?

GREG HUNT:

Well, I draw a distinction between the two. But what I would say, and I’ll simply turn to the facts, which Professor John Skerritt and others and highlighted – the Head of the TGA.

I have here a copy of the Lancet’s peer-reviewed paper of 3 February, the latest data that has come through clinical trials. And the head of that paper is COVID-19 vaccine AstraZeneca confirms 100 per cent protection against severe disease, hospitalisation and death in a primary analysis of Phase 3 trials.

Equally, the World Health Organization last week published its emergency use authorisation for AstraZeneca, and in that they said this regime - and they are referring to the four to 12-week interval, was shown in clinical trials to be safe and effective preventing symptomatic COVID-19 with no severe cases and no hospitalisations more than 14 days after the second dose.

JOURNALIST:

Does it stop transmission?

GREG HUNT:

What we see is that there’s a significant transmission effect which was identified in the Lancet journal – there’s more work to be done.

But the advice of Professor John Skerritt was that we have the right vaccines, and it is very important that we look at our medical authorities.

And we believe we have the best medical authorities in the world. They have been absolutely clear that we have the best vaccines in the world - safe, effective and thoroughly tested.

JOURNALIST:

Have you seen any delay whatsoever to the roll out in aged care homes? today. What’s you’re latest advice on this?

GREG HUNT:

My understanding is that it will occur throughout the day and around the course of the week. During the course of the week we’ll see Alice Springs, Altona Meadows, Albany, So, these vaccines are beginning today.

And I do want to say this, over the coming months, on any one day there may be a truck that has a flat tire or stalled engine, there’ll be all of the ordinary course of things that happen with flu vaccines or human elements but they’ll be more focused.

So, we’re just pushing forward and every day we deal with it, and today a lot of senior Australians are going to be vaccinated.

JOURNALIST:

Are you indicating there’s a hiccup today?

GREG HUNT:

No, I’m not.

JOURNALIST:

You said that we could see issues with trucks breaking down.

GREG HUNT:

No, I’m just saying, over the course

JOURNALIST:

Are there problems today with getting vaccines?

GREG HUNT:

None that have been drawn to my attention, Jonathan.

JOURNALIST:

Minister, we’ve got tens of thousands of Australians stranded overseas. What plans are being put into place to vaccinate them, so they can get home sooner?

GREG HUNT:

So, our goal is to bring them home and the vaccination won’t change the pace at which they come home from overseas because the world is looking at the transmissibility advice and the advice that we have from what’s known as the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, the medical expert panel, is that for the time being, vaccinated or unvaccinated, people will continue to go through hotel quarantine.

As we see around the world, more data, then that may change the equation in terms of for how long or if or how people are quarantined when they come home. So, that doesn’t change.

But, our goal is two-fold; to work with other countries to make sure as many people as possible receive the vaccine, to ensure, within Australia, that we can bring people home.

The Chief Nursing and Midwifery Officer of Australia was vaccinated yesterday and today, is heading to Howard Springs to expand the capacity. She is looking at the maximum safe capacity for expansion of Howard Springs. That’s another part of helping to bring people home.

JOURNALIST:

But, are we paying the – like the British NHS, for instance, are we going to pay them to vaccinate Australians or Australians in the UK?

GREG HUNT:

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade will consider options. At this stage, our focus is on bringing Australians home.

JOURNALIST:

Will Australians eventually be able to get multiple vaccines, like the Pfizer vaccine, can they later perhaps get the AstraZeneca vaccine or perhaps, order an approved vaccine from overseas and pay for it?

GREG HUNT:

So, there’s no plan for a private market at this point in time. All vaccines that are coming into Australia are being used as part of the immunisation program.

Free, voluntary, universally available and as vaccines arrive, we simply make them available to the Australian people.

And we're working to a very clear plan based on safety. Safety, safety, safety – that’s our duty, but it also breeds confidence and confidence breeds uptake and uptake breeds coverage.

So, that’s the pathway going forward and we’re on track. In fact, we’re in a very, very strong position and during the course of the day, during the course of the week, more and more Australians will continue to be vaccinated.

JOURNALIST:

Just on the previous point, are you going to [indistinct]…?

GREG HUNT:

Look, at this stage we are vaccinating in Australia. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is considering the question of those Australians who are serving overseas and, of course, what we're looking at is bringing Australians home.

And I think it is very important to make this point that all the medical advice that we have is that the quarantine system will remain in place for the time being, subject to consistent review, irrespective of whether or not vaccinations occur.

JOURNALIST:

Minister, when we have vaccinated the majority of the population, what does the new normal look like?

Do we still have to worry about social distancing and hand sanitising with this vaccine?

GREG HUNT:

Yeah, this is ae very important question. So, COVID-safe practices will be with us for a long while, particularly because of the question of the longevity of the antibodies. That’s something that the world will learn.

We’re engaged in the world's largest ever vaccination rollout and, at the same time, effectively, clinical trial. We will learn more; we’re already learning more.

We’ve learnt more from the United Kingdom about the safety of AstraZeneca, the effectiveness. Talking with Matt Hancock, the UK Secretary. They’ve been delighted with the results. Their officials have briefed our officials and so all of these things are occurring.

But the broader trend of history is that as global cases come down over the year, and over the last month we’ve seen a very significant downward trend, that’s not to say it’s locked in. But over the last month, a very significant downward trend in daily global cases and as vaccinations increase, both around the world, in Australia, then progressively we will be able to reduce restrictions in Australia.

Our goal is to get to a situation where, if we can protect the population against serious illness, hospitalisation and death, facilities like this, which Rachel and her team have magnificently created, won’t be required. And what that means is the ability to operate and to address cases without having to close borders, without having to bring down lockdowns.

That’s a journey and assessment is being done jointly with the states and territories. And I do want to reaffirm - the states and territories of Australia have been magnificent.

Thank you and I just check – anybody that hasn’t had a question yet?

JOURNALIST:

We’ve seen across the country today, state premiers, chief public health officers and police commissioners getting the jab. Does that suggest there’s a confidence issue?

GREG HUNT:

No, I think it is important that we show confidence and the debate was had in December and many of you may have been part of press conferences where we were asked, would you show confidence?

And we've all thought about it and there is a reticence about being seen to seek a priority and none of us have wanted to do that. But equally, there’s a duty to provide that confidence and so what we're doing is showing, if we think it's safe, if we're willing to do this, then it’s safe for every Australian.

JOURNALIST:

And how annoyed are you that all of this coverage, right around the country today, isn’t going on Facebook to help bolster that confidence?

GREG HUNT:

Well, I would continue to say to Facebook there are higher duties, that I said in the Parliament last week they should be putting people over profits.

That if they profess to be an organisation that is concerned about community, concerned about their social responsibility, if they're concerned about being a social network, not a corporate titan, perhaps they should just allow the coverage to occur.

JOURNALIST:

Minister, if you vaccinate frontline health workers and you eliminate the danger to them, is there the possibility to bring home a greater number of Australians into hotel quarantine, because the threat has been mitigated in some way?

GREG HUNT:

Look, that is our hope, that we can progressively increase hotel quarantine around the country. But as I say, the Chief Nursing and Midwifery Officer, was vaccinated yesterday and is headed to Howard Springs today.

The great thing about so many of our healthcare professionals - there’s the Deputy Chief Medical Officer of Australia, I think most of you will recognise, Dr Nick Coatsworth now. He has a day job, working in Rachel’s system.

She reminded me, when I said you’d stolen him back from us, she said: no, no, you borrowed him from us and we did and he’s back working in the hospitals.

And Alison McMillan is a frontline nurse as well as the Chief Nursing and Midwifery Officer, and so she’s looking at expanding the Howard Springs capacity, Victoria’s looking at expanding capacity, the ACT has played its part. I’ve been a guest of the ACT quarantine system for 28 days in the last 12 months, and it’s never easy, but it was magnificently well-run. Okay.

JOURNALIST:

Minister, there’s $24 million for the advertising campaign for vaccinations. Of that money set aside for Facebook, is that being used? Is that still on hold? What will happen with that?

GREG HUNT:

Yeah, all our funds will be used. Some may be reallocated temporarily, but there are multiple channels; television, radio, newspapers, on multiple forms of online advertising.

We’ll continue to post on that particular channel, we just won't be boosting, and there may be some tail in terms of things which were already entrain. But the simple answer here is there are multiple channels, and you’re all playing your part in getting your message to Australians.

I have to say, yesterday when the first vaccines were being administered, it was an extraordinary moment. Live streaming and commentary.

And I met a woman at the airport, whom I didn't know, who said to me she was watching the live stream and she was just in tears of joy about what was happening, and it was somebody I didn't know.

And I think there were many Australians yesterday who felt a deep sense of hope. I'll take one more question.

JOURNALIST:

Minister this has probably been the most challenging 14 months of your tenure, and probably the most challenging tenure for a health minister since, you know.

GREG HUNT:

I think Rachel deserves to answer this as well.

JOURNALIST:

So, in that sort of sense, personally, how has it been for you? Has it taken in significance of everything that has been thrown at you over the past 12 months?

GREG HUNT:

And Rachel will, I think, deservedly answer this as well. It’s an honour and a privilege. And sometimes people hear the term public service and dismiss it. But you look at the nurses and the doctors and the administrators such as Bernadette or Professor Coleman, you look at all of the people; we play our role.

But I tell you what has struck me, this is an amazing country - and it’s not a light phrase. The sense of who Australia is, somebody pointed out, and I agree with it, perhaps we’re a little bit more east than just west. Perhaps we’ve got some of the best of our Asia-Pacific region, and some of the best of our multicultural origins from around the world.

And Australians are the ones who have risen magnificently, and it's been such a privilege. Yes, it's been hard – and I apologise to my family for not being there or not being there when I actually was there, that's probably the hardest part. You know, a little boy who misses out on time with dad, and a young woman now who misses out on advice from dad. But they came and they lived here for a term, and the ACT took good care of them whilst they were here, and my wife who is just, better than me. And so, we’re lucky.

JOURNALIST:

May I ask you, just on another question?

GREG HUNT:

Sorry, I would like to give Rachel a chance because she’s lived this same journey.

RACHEL STEPHEN-SMITH:

I really would echo Greg's comments about what a privilege it’s been to be Health Minister during this period. And yes, it’s been some long hours, but not nearly, well, the long hours that we have experienced have been echoed and then some by our chief health officers right around the country.

And I think the thing that has been such a privilege for me as a former public servant has been watching both governments and the community take the expert advice from our public health experts, and really take that seriously, listen to that and put that into practice – both from a policy perspective, but also from the way that our community has responded so magnificently in the face of this challenge, which is a global challenge, and we've seen what can happen around the world when that wasn't the case.

And I think the other thing that our public health system has come to the fore, when we talk about both testing and vaccination, it’s really important to remember that, yes, we are testing Australians and we are vaccinating Australians.

But we are testing and vaccinating every single person who lives in Australia who is eligible for the vaccine at that point in time, whether or not they have a Medicare card, because we know that that is absolutely crucial to the delivery of our public health, to our public health response to a global health pandemic.

And that’s not necessarily the case around the world. So, testing has been free, vaccination will be free to everybody in Australia when their turn comes, and I think that just makes me really proud of the public health system that we have and the frontline workers who work so hard in it.

JOURNALIST:

Minister, can I just ask you quickly, before you finish? There’s been a third young woman now who’s come forward and said that she’s been assaulted, sexually assaulted, by this alleged offender.

It appears there’s an enormous problem within Parliament and a desperate need to change attitudes.

GREG HUNT:

So look, obviously this is a deeply concerning and deeply distressing case.

And firstly, I don't know anything about the individual. I do hope that they have access to the support, compassionate, caring support that they need and that they feel the support and confidence to take this matter to the police. But first and foremost, it’s support for the individual.

There are a number of processes going on, both investigatory, in terms of the police, I understand that it’s been indicated over the course of the weekend that a complaint would be made and lodged, and I think that's an important step forward.

Secondly, though, as I said yesterday, there is a cultural change and a systemic change which is critical. Every workplace deserves to be safe, every person deserves to be safe in their workplace. Around the country, we have a journey to take. But within the Parliament of Australia, we have to not only walk and live that journey, we have to be even better and even stronger and to be a beacon.

But today’s an important day, I thank you. And above all else, I thank Maddy and all of our Australian health workers who are part of this rollout.

Thank you.

Ministers: