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Doorstop interview in Melbourne

Read the transcript of a doorstop in Melbourne with Professor Brendan Murphy, Chief Medical Officer, about COVID-19 and $29 million for cardiovascular research.

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

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Over the last few months, Australians have done an extraordinary job in saving lives and protecting lives.

They’ve done that by respecting each other, respecting distance, taking the difficult steps and these steps have allowed us to get where we are now.

Today, the medical expert panel has met and Professor Murphy will provide you with an update, but there are real concerns that as we exercise our compassion and our care for each other, our concern for fair and just causes, that we do so in a safe way, not in a way which risks undoing all of the gains of the last few months.

The notion that we have fundamental democratic rights is not tradable in Australia.

The notion that we have care and compassion for our elders and our elderly, for Australians from all walks of life is not tradeable.

But how we do it now at this moment in history, at this time in the course of the pandemic, is fundamental.

We have to be safe, which cannot put at risk the lives of our police, the lives of our friends, the lives of our family and the lives of our most vulnerable Australians, our elderly and Indigenous Australians, for whom we have fought to protect.

And so our message, as people consider mass gatherings this weekend for understandable reasons of protest, is please stay safe.

Do not go. Do not attend. There is a better way. Express that concern online through donations, or with a vigil, as we did magnificently through Anzac Day.

We have learnt that we can do things differently. We never trade our compassion. We never trade our democratic rights.

But we have adapted and now is the moment not to put at risk all of those hard-won gains through the COVID-19 crisis but to consolidate them, to do what we do in a democratic way, in a respectful way but in a safe way.

And to have the medical expert panel make such a strong statement of concern, as they have come out with today, about the safety of a mass gathering, no matter what the purpose, is an intensely important moment for Australia because to go backwards would put so many lives of Australians from all walks of life at risk.

At the same time, that we have done an incredible job in saving lives and protecting lives through the pandemic, it's critical that we continue to focus on all of the other areas at risk.

And so today, I'm delighted to announce that the Australian Government will contribute $29 million under the Medical Research Future Fund, a cardiovascular mission, and that will be for 12 projects.

$11 million for six projects for cardiovascular disease and stroke.

As an example, the University of Sydney will have $3 million to deal with post-stroke anti-inflammation research and clinical trials.

This will save lives and protect lives.

Equally, what we have is for our beautiful young Australians.

2400 children who are born with some form of congenital heart disease every year.

The HeartKids Project as part of the Cardiovascular Mission will receive $18 million for six projects for these most vulnerable, beautiful young Australians.

An example here is $3 million for the University of Queensland to deal with improving post-operative outcomes for cardiovascular surgery for these tiniest beautiful young children.

There couldn't be a more important cause or recognition of what we do through the Medical Research Future Fund.

Next week, we're also likely to see additional investment through the Indigenous Health Futures Program in protecting lives, in securing lives and improving the health of Indigenous Australians.

As we do all of this, we're also of course making huge strides in protecting Australians from coronavirus.

As of today, to give you a brief update on the containment process, 7251 Australians have been diagnosed with the disease.

In particular, sadly, 102 have lost their lives.

There had been 11 in the last 24 hours – 10 of those have been in hotel quarantine.

That just emphasises how fundamentally important the border measures are as the first limb of our containment measures.

Indeed, 63 per cent of cases within Australia across the last week had been in hotel quarantine or from overseas sources. So we're making huge progress.

At the same time, our testing regime, which is now at 1.58 million tests, is an extraordinary Australian collective achievement.

Australians have stepped forward. The health authorities have stepped forward. And together, we have been able to achieve these test outcomes.

Our tracing follows from that and we've been able to trace those cases. But to trace a case from a mass gathering would be almost impossible, and that's why we need the COVIDSafe app.

Over 6.2 million downloads. But more importantly, the process of tracing within a mass gathering becomes incredibly difficult if somebody does not have the app and if there are thousands of people.

That defies all of the things we've sought to do as a country.

And then our last area of containment has been the isolation, the physical distancing that we've put in place.

This has helped save lives and protect lives. It's been fundamental.

In Indigenous Australia, in our remote communities, some of the most vulnerable people, we have, as I've been advised, yet to receive a single case in our remote Indigenous communities of coronavirus. That is an extraordinary national achievement.

Having said that, we are now at a very dangerous moment. We've reduced the number of people in hospital to 23, the number in ICUs to four, and the number on ventilation to two.

To have, at this moment, a mass gathering is a very dangerous precedent.

It's a dangerous step off in itself but it also sends a message across Australia.

So, we respect deeply people's right to express themselves. It’s fundamental to who we are. We respect the compassion behind those concerns.

But we say that, at this moment in time, there is a better way and that better way is what we've been able to do and what we've learnt through the whole course of the pandemic.

Online statements, donations, the private vigil outside of our place of residence – these are all things that we say are available to Australians rather than coming together. There will be a time. There’s always a time for protest but it's not at this moment. Not in a mass gathering form. The right to protest is fundamental.

The means of coming together and risking the spread of COVID-19 is something we say to people: please think again, please do not do this, exercise your compassion, express yourself, but do it in a way which is safe, sound and respectful of our most vulnerable Australians.

And with that, I’m very pleased to be able to invite the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Brendan Murphy.


Thanks very much, Minister. So as the Minister said, we obviously respect the right to protest and we obviously understand and appreciate the passion for this cause.

But as we've gone through this pandemic, a key feature has been the fact that governments and the Australian people have at all times heeded the expert medical advice.

I'm proud to say that that expert medical advice has been very much responsible for the situation that we are now in with very, very significant suppression of the virus. Very small numbers of cases.

But make no mistake, this virus is still in our community, probably in small numbers.

But as we have been very cautiously relaxing our restrictions over the last few weeks, we have been very, very wary about not doing things too quickly, not increasing the risk of community transmission.

The Australian Health Protection Principle Commission met just before this press conference earlier today and we discussed this issue of mass gatherings, and we have put out a statement, as the Minister said, expressing our serious concerns.

The reason the state and territory health departments have regulations on gathering sizes are very sound reasons; the more people you have together, the closer they are together, the higher the risk.

A mass gathering, even if people try to make it safe by trying to practise distancing and hand hygiene, is inherently dangerous because people can't really keep apart. They can't stop touching each other. We don't know who is there. We can't contract trace.

So we really ask you to respect the rules and regulations, and policies that have been put in place across the nation to limit the size of gatherings, limit the nature of gatherings.

Please, we have done so much, we have sacrificed so much as Australians, to get us in an enviable position of where we are now.

It would be very foolish to sacrifice by exposing the population to a larger outbreak, all of those gains, or many of those gains, by uncontrolled, large gatherings.

This is a time for all Australians to be incredibly cautious.

We have to be cautious as we live through the next few weeks and months of this virus. So, please, I continue to say, we are not out of the problems with this virus yet.

It is with us, and please do as the Minister and I have said and avoid mass gatherings.

Thank you.


I'll invite Bill Stavreski from the Heart Foundation.


Thank you. I would just like to acknowledge the Minister, the Honourable Greg Hunt, and also Chief Medical Officer, Professor Brendan Murphy.

The Heart Foundation and on behalf of the Australian community, greatly welcome the funding today, the announcement for $29 million invested in cardiovascular research.

It is a step closer to a vision that is ever becoming so closer compared to what we were 50 years ago, when more than half the population, unfortunately, died of cardiovascular disease.

Now whilst there have been tremendous and remarkable steps forward, what we have seen is improvements in prevention, diagnosis, care for each and every Australian, whether that's young kids born with heart disease or older Australians who are living with chronic heart disease.

These steps have been remarkable, and it's increased the standard of living, the quality of living, and life expectancy.

But it's a job that's far from done. Today, and each and every day, we still have 48 Australians who die from heart disease, and some of those are kids.

We still have 400 people admitted to hospital each and every day, that's one every three minutes. Now this money will go a long way to making sure new ways of preventing, diagnosing and treating heart disease, which will be a great leap forward.

So hopefully, one day we can see heart disease is a thing of the past.

Now, on behalf of the Australian community, the Heart Foundation, together with our partners at the Australian Cardiovascular alliance, would like to personally thank the Federal Government as the biggest funder of cardiovascular research, and the Heart Foundation as the biggest non-government funder, the great initiative and investment through the cardio-vascular mission and the dedicated support and investment in cardio-vascular research.

Hopefully, through these little steps that it will eventually, and in years to come, bring new ways of improving, diagnosing and treating heart disease that will not only help little kids but also help each and every Australian whether they're living with heart disease today, or tomorrow for those Australians who are at risk of heart disease.

Thank you.


Happy to take your questions. I'll start with those in the room and then go to Dana, Richard and Mel who are online.


Do the protests make a mockery of restrictions and the efforts that we've made so far?


So we believe it's fundamentally important for people to be able to express their democratic right, to have compassion, and we respect that deeply.

But a mass gathering, whether it's a protest or football match, whether it's an artistic endeavour, or an expression of views, a mass gathering at this time is not safe.

It undermines and risks all of the work that Australians have done to save lives and protect lives.


This may be a question for - yes, thank you. Will you be- we can't stop people going. Obviously people are going to attend these protests.

Would you be encouraging them to get tested if they have attended a protest over the weekend?


No, we're not - we are suggesting that anybody who has any respiratory symptoms at any time in any part of Australia gets tested.

Any sore throat, any cold, any cough that's unusual or suggesting a viral infection, any fever, that's when you need to get tested.

So, we're in the suggesting that if people go to an event, they get tested, unless they become unwell.

What we are saying is, if you are going to an event like this, please try and practise distancing if you can. But we would prefer people not to go.


We've obviously had protests in the United States for more than a week now and we've seen large gatherings in London.

How closely are you watching the numbers over there given how many people have been in close proximity?


We certainly are watching the numbers over there but they are in a very different place to Australia.

They have, you know, sustained and continuing community transmission of large numbers that we don't have.

So we would probably see a bigger read-out than they might more quickly.


While you don't want people to attend the protests, they obviously will. If the numbers don't spike after the protests, will that change restrictions, if you see mass gatherings and there's no.


No, I think this is a matter of principles and safety.

Of course there could be a gathering where there is no infected person, but we just never know and what we know is that one person, one, single, high-viral load person can infect 30, 40, 50 other people.

We've seen that in Australia. One person infecting 35 people at a wedding.

So it is an incredibly infectious virus.

So you just need one person in a large gathering where people are packed together and moving around, and you can have a large infection. So, it's just a simple precaution.

Large gatherings with closely-packed people are fundamentally dangerous.


When will we know if there has been an outbreak because of these protests? How long will it take?


Generally speaking, the incubation period of this virus is about a week, and then it often takes a week or more for cases to emerge.

So if we were to get an outbreak related, we would probably see a read-out in about two weeks.


How worried are you personally, this will cause a second wave, put us in a worse position?


Look, I'm worried about any relaxation of physical distancing beyond what we've recommended across the country at the moment.

Anything that puts at risk increased community transmission.

This is one type of event that I'm worried about, but there are lots of other things, people gathering in large crowds at the beach, people having large parties, a lot of things worry me.

We have to continue to be cautious.

So I am worried about any tendency to recommence large gatherings.


I would say this, that any mass gathering, at this time, is a lottery with people's lives.


Thanks. Do you think that we should be fining the protesters? Would that be more of a deterrent (inaudible)?


I'll leave that to the Victorian and New South Wales Governments.

I know that they are managing the question of public order of endeavouring to make sure that they are able to manage in the best possible way.

But all governments have expressed their deep concern, both through their medical experts, the chief health officers, the chief medical officers, unanimously today made that statement.

But I know the Victorian Government, the Victorian Premier, the Victorian Chief Health Officer have, for example, expressed extreme concern that this will put people's lives at risk.


Would you prefer it be cancelled altogether?


We do not want to see a large mass gathering. It's not whether it's a protest, it’s not whether it’s a beach party, a football match, an arts event.

This is not the time for large numbers of people to come together.

The protest can still continue online, outside people's front doors, in the same way that we respectfully and safely did the Anzac Day vigil.

That's taught us how to be creative, how to be respectful and how to be powerfully moving, whilst not putting others at risk.

Alright. I might go to Dana first.


Thanks, Minister. I just wanted to ask you about the academic paper in The Lancet that was retracted about hydroxychloroquine.

The study was found to be based on inconclusive data.

There's a lot of frustration in the Australian research community about how this study sort of derailed the research being done into that area.

I just wanted to ask what impacts you think that will have on trials in Australia? And are you disappointed that the paper was published in the first place?


Look, I'll make a brief statement and then pass on to Professor Murphy. When I was with Professor Doug Hilton at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute this week, he expressed his real concern about this paper in The Lancet.

He raised the fact that there were issues with the academic process and the academic merit, and he was right.

And so what we see is that Australia is taking cautious, careful steps, following the highest medical standards to look at a range of different therapies and treatments, as well as developments of vaccines.

And we'll continue with our programs.

And what we have done all along is take the advice of the Australian medical experts and that, I think, is fundamentally important. Brendan?


Thanks, Minister. So The Lancet did the right thing, as all reputable medical journals do, which is when questions are raised about the integrity of the data, they have had the paper withdrawn.

So at the moment, that paper has no status and the situation with hydroxychloroquine is it is still an investigational drug, it is still a drug that is being studied in trials in Australia and in other countries, and we still await evidence about what its place may be, if any. Thank you.


Great. I'll turn to Richard, Richard Ferguson.


Thank you, Minister. This one's for you and for Professor Murphy.

What is the risk of Indigenous Australians who are attending these protests, to their health, considering they are in such a high-risk category?

And are you concerned about the risks of people at that protest then going into metropolitan and remote Aboriginal communities and the virus possibly spreading that way?


Sure. Look, we know that Indigenous Australians, as a general principle, have higher comorbidities, lower life expectancy.

That is one of our great tasks. And it would be a terrible irony if, as we pursue the national goal of increasing the health of Indigenous Australians, there is a protest which put that health at risk.

There may well be many people associated with Indigenous Australia and if they attend a mass gathering, they then risk taking that back to their elders and their elderly.

People who may be more vulnerable than others. And so, that's why this protest is doubly dangerous to Indigenous Australians. I'll ask Professor Murphy to make some comments.


Thanks, Minister. So one of the things that absolutely terrified us at the outset of this pandemic was the consequence of an outbreak in a remote Indigenous community.

Where, as the Minister said, there are higher comorbidities, and the risk to loss of life and spread of this virus in some of those remote communities would be catastrophic.

We have done so well. We have done remarkably well, in protecting our Indigenous communities from this virus.

We've had very, very few cases in Indigenous Australians, and nearly all- most of them are from returned travellers and in metropolitan areas.

This would be an absolute tragedy if we got that virus into one of our remote communities. And I strongly support the comments that the Minister's made.


Great. I'll now take comments from Melissa.


Yes, thank you. Can I ask both of you, firstly Minister - we have already seen big protest today in Canberra. There were hundreds of people gathered outside Parliament House today. Do you have a message for them?

And for the Chief Medical Officer - you did mention that if there were to be a highly infectious person at a protest, they could spread it to 30, 40 or 50 people.

Is there any way to estimate what the risk might be at large- if you did have one of those circumstances in a protest, of what that could extrapolate out to in a large crowd?


So it doesn't matter what the form or reason of the mass gathering is at this point in time. Whether it's football, whether it's arts, whether it's social, partying or whether it's an understandable and legitimate protest.

Any form of mass gathering puts people at risk. And it doesn't matter whether it's Melbourne or Sydney, whether it's Canberra or anywhere else in Australia; the coronavirus is not gone. The disease is still with us.

We are not through this pandemic and these large mass gatherings, whether for the most noble of purposes or otherwise, put Australians at risk. Brendan?


Thank you Minister. So we’ve seen what’s happened with small outbreaks that are small in number, such as, in Victoria, in this state, in the Cedar Meats outbreak.

And that took a lot of controlling. A lot of people were quarantined. Took weeks to bring under control but it was effectively controlled.

But if you had, let's say, 50 unrelated people who got infected at a mass gathering and you had 50 outbreaks like Cedar Meats, each with 100 people involved, you can imagine that over a period of weeks, you could get a very significant community transmission event.

Obviously, that's a worst case scenario but it is certainly possible.

GREG HUNT:         

So, with that, our final message is stay home, stay safe. Express yourself online, through donations, or through a private, silent, dignified vigil or be loud. But it's that private vigil rather than that public gathering.

These are the alternatives. We know there's a better way.

Australians have been magnificent. Now is the time to express our compassion, to exercise our democratic rights, but to do it in a way that protects other Australians, our police, our nurses, our doctors and our vulnerable elderly.

Thank you very much.

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