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Doorstop interview in Melbourne about coronavirus (COVID-19)

Read the transcript of a doorstop interview with Minister Hunt in Melbourne on COVID-19.

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

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Around the world there are now over 253,000 cases and, sadly, 11,000 lives have been lost.

In Australia the latest update I have from the National Incident Centre shortly before joining you is 874 cases and seven lives lost.

I particularly want to note that our level of testing is now, on the latest advice that I have –– and this will be updated over the course of the weekend –– at 115,000 tests which is one of the highest in the world and in particular one of the highest per capita rates of testing in the world.

That means that we've had over a 99 per cent negative rate – so for every 100 tests –– well over 99 have been negative.

What that means is of course that we are testing widely, more widely than almost any other country –– I think Singapore and Korea would be also at the forefront of the global testing.

That, I think, is a very important message to Australians about the breadth of what we are doing and the depth of what we are doing, in other words taking early action to keep Australians safe by testing widely and on a scale unmatched anywhere else in the world other than Korea and Singapore.

In particular, as part of that I want to announce $15.6 million of funding today for assistance with testing, research and the development of new tests for assistance with new antiviral treatments –– these are treatments which will assist people to recover from the corona virus –– and $5 million to assist with respiratory medicine rapid research.

And these are treatments which will assist those who are most affected by the virus in their treatment of the virus, effectively minimising the impact on lungs.

The first $2.6 million is to the Doherty Research Institute.

This Institute is part of the University of Melbourne and, in particular, it was the first centre in the world to grow and share the virus, so therefore it is one of the world's leading virology and, in particular, COVID-19 research centres.

This funding will go, among other things, to developing a new Australian pathology test.

This is about a faster test, a simpler test, and expanding our capacity to continue to grow the testing in Australia which is already at the forefront of the world.

I particularly want to thank Professors Howden, Catton and Williamson, and Professors Howden, Catton and Williamson who are leading this research and who are helping Australia lead the world.

So by developing a new additional test over and above what we already have that will mean more tests for more Australians more rapidly.

In addition to that we have $8 million which is going to antiviral research.

What is antiviral research? Its research which is allowing people to have a better recovery rates, faster recovery rates and better outcomes.

Around the world, from those countries which have had a far higher progression of the disease, we are seeing some examples out of different countries of reports of significant work and development.

The University of Queensland is doing very important work on that.

And so this is one of the most promising areas of research around the world for helping people to recover.

That round of $8 million will also be supported by $5 million which will go towards respiratory medicine treatment.

Now respiratory medicine treatment is dealing with the very impact that coronavirus has where the lungs in many cases have a response which means that there are higher levels of liquid, and many of our elderly and our immune-compromised –– or those with extreme chronic conditions –– will often effectively lose their battle because their lungs are being flooded, and this immunotherapy research means that they will have a better chance of survival.

So ultimately this is about helping people to recover, this is helping people to be protected, and helping to save lives and protect lives.

This is in addition to the world leading vaccine research, and we're currently cooperating with the Queensland Government on a very significant announcement on that in the very near future.

So these are important developments and I want to thank everybody involved for what will mean more tests for more people at a faster time, better treatments in terms of lung capacity for our respiratory medicine, and better treatments in terms of our antivirals for recovery and clearance of the virus.

Happy to take any questions.


How long do you think it will be until those tests are in use in the public?


So, what we've done this week is we've had three flights of new testing equipment arrive, or about to arrive in Australia and we are in a position very shortly, I hope, to be able to indicate the new test kits that on top of that will be arriving.

Secondly though, the Doherty Institute is looking at working on this within, the within the coming weeks –– they hope that they can actually be faster than that but we're talking about a matter of weeks for the development of this new Australian test over and above what the world already has.

So one of the highest testing rates in the world –– Singapore, Korea, Australia –– but now we're looking at new tests –– a new test which will provide additional support.


How long will it take for the funds to end up in the back accounts of those research?


The funding for the Doherty is available immediately. I spoke with the Director of the Doherty Institute yesterday, Professor Sharon Lewin, these funds are available immediately.


How do they go about getting it? Or do you just put it into their accounts? How will they?


There’s a direct relationship between the Department of Health and the organisations.

They're ready, they're willing, they've already commenced the work because they realise that the normal processes are being expedited at light speed because this is about saving lives and protecting lives.

But it's also, and this is a very interesting thing about us being part of a global community, what we do here we share with the rest of the world.

What the Doherty Institute did in growing and sharing the virus was the first in the world.

The work that the University of Queensland is doing on a chloroquine compound as well as an HIV drug and looking at combination therapies coming out, they are sharing with the world and other countries are sharing with us.

So there are different respiratory medicines which are currently being trialled around the world. There are different antivirals which are being trialled around the world.

So we are part of a global mission to produce, not just the vaccine but also the cure, and also the medical mitigation.


There’s a promising clinical trial out of the University of Queensland I’m told involving two drugs already approved for human use that has been shown to kill the virus in test tube studies.

Why has the government, the government not chipped in any money to assist this?


No, we are supporting that trial –– I've spoken with Professor David Paterson from the University of Queensland –– that's the one which involves both chloroquine and the HIV Medicine, and along with the Queensland Government we will be supporting that.

They have two stages –– the first stage they were given a philanthropic donation almost immediately, and the second stage will allow trials around the country and that's what we're supporting with the Queensland Government.


We’ve got a lot of questions for us to.


That's all right, I understand. I'm here to answer these.


We want to talk about social distancing as well.




Is the message getting through? I mean there’s all sort of (inaudible) coming out of Bondi last night, it was.


Yeah. So around the country people are generally taking enormous strides on social distancing –– it's new but it is absolutely important.

What happened in Bondi was unacceptable and the local council must take steps to stop that occurring.

Our message to the local council is –– this is all of our responsibilities –– each of us as individuals, as families, as groups, as councils, and state governments, and as a national government has responsibility.

Where something like this is occurring the local council must step in, and that message is absolutely clear.


What would you say to those Australians that might have paid a visit to Bondi yesterday?


I would say to everybody: we are all in this together, and what that means is the vast majority of Australians, the overwhelming majority of Australians are not just doing the right thing but they're helping out their fellow Australians.

If you are breaking those rules you are putting, not just yourself, but you're putting other Australians at risk.

And so the message now is to be our best selves, and we know what Australians can do –– whether it's in cyclones, floods, fires, droughts.

Well this now is a pandemic and a pandemic is the same thing and we need to be our best selves and our most responsible selves, and the vast majority are doing the right thing.

To those small few who are doing the wrong thing –– think of others –– and to those who have local responsibility, discharge those responsibilities.


If you continue to see people flouting this kind of, these rules essentially, will you have no other option than to close everything down? We’ve already seen it happen in other countries.


Well what we are saying –– and the Prime Minister foreshadowed that this week –– is that there are local options that are available and if local authorities are not doing that then we will not hesitate, either through the states or through the Commonwealth, to make sure that these provisions are enforced.


We want to all –– asking too about the cruise ships. Do you have plans to get the 1000 crew members off the Ruby Princess?


So, New South Wales Health has responsibility for that and they are making sure that people are healthy and well, and if they are not well then they will be placed into medical isolation –– and that is part of the responsibility.

We made the decision to ban foreign cruise ships, those that were returning to Australian ports are returning under strict conditions.

We've seen for example in Western Australia and Victoria the strictest conditions be applied.

New South Wales is now applying those conditions and I thank them for accepting the advice of the commissioner of the Australian Border Force last night who rang and spoke with New South Wales to ensure that they were fully aware of their responsibilities, and they are now enacting those.

And we make no apologies; we make no apologies for imposing tough restrictions.

We have banned foreign cruise ships from our water; we are bringing those home that would otherwise not have a dock where they have come from Australian waters.

But those that have come from those ships must go into self-isolation –– the same rules as foreign travellers –– and those that are on the ships, if the relevant state health authority is not confident that they are virus free then they will remain on board until they have clear evidence, and if they have that evidence then they will go either into home isolation or into medical isolation.


And so just on those 2700 passengers that were allowed to leave the ship despite several passengers for COVID-19. Why were they allowed to leave the ship?


So the Australian Border Force commissioner has made clear to New South Wales health authorities that the standards that apply in all other states, apply to New South Wales.

And so we understand that they are now making sure that they apply those rules, absolutely.


Do the health risks of the crisis outweigh the damage it could do to the economy?


Health is the first priority. And the reason is because it's our vulnerable Australians, our elderly, our –– those with chronic disease, those who are immune-compromised that are at risk and this is a difficult time for everybody.

And I was asked before about self-isolation and the message is very clear –– it's all of our responsibilities, but the actions that each of us take can help to save lives and protect lives.

Not just of ourselves and of course our own families, but also of everybody else.

So we are all in this together.

Australians as a whole are lifting, are responding magnificently.

We have seen –– and I will point this out, I had advice from Woolworths only this morning which I've shared with the prime minister, that since the prime minister spoke about anti-hoarding earlier this week there has been a significant reduction in overall volume of sales from the supermarkets –– still more than is usual, but a significant reduction compared with what it had been, and that's a positive sign.

Supply lines are strong, restocking can take time but the supermarkets are employing new people –– including Qantas employees, and I think that that is a very powerful and important response both in terms of generosity but giving that reassurance.

So supply lines are strong, sometimes restocking takes more time but if we all take only what is our fair share and our immediate needs then that means we'll all, we’ll all be fine.

So these are challenging days but Australians are lifting and we will get through this.


Just on the travel bans, for any foreigners who fly to, on the way to Australia after the travel ban came into effect –– what's happening to those people now?


So I'd have to refer that to the Australian Border Force commissioner.

We put this in place as of 9pm Friday so as there should have been no flights which left with Australians –– with anybody other than Australians.

But on those particular facts, because I'm not in possession of them, I’ll respectfully refer you to the Border Force.


Just on the cruise –– there’s Australians around the world on cruise ships.

Do you have any idea of the number of people that are essentially stuck on cruise ships around the world? And what is your advice to them?


So firstly, our ban has meant that what we've allowed is for Australian based ships to return, to disembark Australian passengers straight into home isolation.

Around the world Foreign Affairs and Trade is reaching out, doing surveys, finding who is out there.

I do say this, the Prime Minister gave ample warning that there was the risk that flights and the capacity to return would not be possible –– that's been occurring over the course of the last month.

But nevertheless Foreign Affairs is reaching out, we're continuing to work with Qantas and Qantas is continuing to fly from major hubs to Australia and we thank them for that.


I do have one more question sorry, in Canberra. She's asking: how large can Australia expect the stimulus package to be tomorrow? Is the government confident it has the balance and the mix right?


We've been working throughout the week with the National Cabinet –– meaning the Cabinet of Prime Minister and premiers –– and we have been working with the private sector, the banks and also in particular the treasurer and the finance minister have been bringing, with the Expenditure Review Committee, the package together.

It's designed to support Australians –– I'll leave this obviously for the prime minister and the treasurer to explain over the course of tomorrow –– but it's designed to support Australians get through the next six months.

We see this as, on balance, a six month challenge –– a challenge like we've never faced before, not since 1919, not in any of our lives.

But in the end, with our economic measures, our health measures, our social measures as difficult and as challenging as it is we will get through this.

Thank you very much.



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