Doorstop interview in Melbourne about coronavirus (COVID-19)
Read the transcript of Minister Hunt's doorstop interview in Melbourne about coronavirus (COVID-19).
The Hon Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care
Welcome everybody and I’m delighted to be here at Monash University at the school of nursing.
In particular, I’m joined by the Dean of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences, Professor Christina Mitchell from the University of- from Monash University, by Professor Kylie Ward the CEO of the Australian College of Nursing.
Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, not just in Australia but around the world, our nurses and our doctors, our health workers have been our frontline heroes, they are our genuine frontline heroes.
We would not be where we are in Australia without the work of our nurses, our doctors.
I particularly want to acknowledge our public health officials and contact tracing units around the country and all of those that put themselves in harm’s way against an unseen but nevertheless dangerous and potentially deadly invader.
And against that background, today we are honouring and supporting our nurses and doctors.
I’m privileged to announce 40 million new masks will be made available to our hospitals, our aged care workers, our GP’s and our nurses, our Indigenous health workers, our respiratory clinics and our pharmacists and our allied health workers across the country.
Very significantly, we will also be making available, as of today, a new mental health support through the Black Dog Institute, part of a $3 million mental health support program for frontline health workers.
The stresses they have been under are real and absolute; obviously there’s the stresses and the risk of their own health, but above all else, the care and concern for their patients.
In particular, I want to put all of this in context of our containment and our capacity strategies, with regards to our containment, our border measures remain in place.
In relation to our testing, the second limb of what we do with containment; we have now passed 700,000 tests in Australia.
We are world ranked both for the breadth of our testing but also the accuracy of our testing by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
In addition to that, our tracing continues and our public health officials around the country in all of the states and territories have helped reduce the number of cases that we would otherwise have had by quick and rapid action. Every state, every territory doing outstanding work in the most difficult of circumstances.
The app has now moved to more than 5.2 million downloads and registrations.
The tech sector have told me that it is the fastest app to over five million in Australian history which is a real tribute to all of those Australians that have participated.
We would encourage more people to continue doing it, but you are doing a magnificent job, Australia.
And then in terms of our isolation, tomorrow the National Cabinet will consider the first stages on the road out, and that's only possible because of the extraordinary work of Australians.
And again, I say thank you, you have helped put us in this position, where Australians will now be at the forefront of beginning to regain their lives as the world looks on, and that's an extraordinary step.
So whilst we may take steps cautiously, gradually, to reduce and decrease the isolation, we will have to maintain our distancing and hygiene.
It's extremely important that we keep those basic measures – the one-and-a-half metres, the hand hygiene, the cough etiquette – these are not polite things to do; these are life-saving, necessary measures.
All of that brings me to where we are now, the latest advice I have from the National Incident Centre is 6891 cases, 18 cases in the 24 hours, which include the update of figures from Victoria.
Obviously, Victoria has announced 14 cases - four other cases in that 24-hour period in the rest of the country.
From the outset, we said there would be spikes or outbreaks in particular areas and in particular places, and I want to thank and acknowledge the difficult work that Victoria and their public health units are doing in dealing with the particular outbreak that they're facing.
And they are doing everything they can, and that's the same as other states have done, as they've had outbreaks.
So, we need to be prepared for this, we warned about it previously.
But I'll continue to say, as we go forwards, there will be cases of outbreaks or spikes, and that's why our testing, our tracing and our public health responses and our immediate rapid response capability are so critical and are being put in place.
Today in particular, I'm delighted that for the first time we have passed more than 6,000 cases of people that have cleared the virus.
The latest advice I have is 6023 Australians have cleared the virus and have officially recovered; that's an immensely important statistic.
Sadly, we have lost 97 beautiful lives along the way, many of them elderly. So, that's why we'll continue to fight. We are down to 24 people in ICU, and 17 people on ventilators, but we'll continue to push to save and protect every life.
That's why today we are honouring our nurses, honouring our doctors, honouring our health workers but, in particular, boosting their health support, their mental health support, and their training.
In terms of the health support, 40 million masks from the National Medical Stockpile will be made available now, on top of the over 34 million masks to date, which have been made available.
That will include 35 million masks between now and the end of May for our hospitals.
It will include 1.5 million additional masks for our aged care workers, and 3.5 million for our primary health care workers, including 2 million for general practices, with a specific focus, obviously, on the doctors and the nurses.
It will also include 220,000 for respiratory clinics, 660,000 for pharmacy, 500,000 for allied health workers and 120,000 for Indigenous health workers.
But, as well as supporting the health of our health workers, we have to support the mental health.
We’ve seen around the world the stresses that coronavirus brings and it's real and it’s significant and so, as of today, the Black Dog Institute's online e-health mental health hub is available to health workers at blackdoginstitute.org.au.
That complements what we're doing with the Beyond Blue coronavirus-online work, as well as Lifeline, headspace, which does amazing work - and I've spoken request Pat McGorry in only the last 48 hours - and they are doing work, Lifeline and John Brogden and so many others.
But, today is about the mental health of our health workers and supporting them through the Black Dog Institute's specific online, 24-hour-available e-health hub, and this will really provide the additional support.
In terms of our training for our nurses, I'm really delighted that 3000 scholarships have been awarded through the Australian College of Nursing.
Already, 2500 have completed their training to bring back nurses into the workforce. That's an extraordinary achievement.
Our nurses are coming home and we're thrilled to have them. Over 20,000 enrolments have now been received for upgrading the ICU skills of our nurses.
We'd hoped to do that and get those enrolments by the end of June.
At the start of May, we've already exceeded our 20,000 enrolments and over 27 per cent of those have completed their upskilling, which is an immensely important part of general training for our nurses, but improvement of skills capacity for our health system.
And then finally, we've had over 624,000 health workers around the country complete infection-control modules. And so we're boosting the capacity of our health system.
And these are not just actions which will help during coronavirus. They will help beyond coronavirus.
It's about expanding and extending the capacity of our health system and today, to our health workers, I look at you, I say thank you.
We would not be here without you and I'm delighted to introduce the CEO of the Australian College of Nursing, Professor Kylie Ward.
Thank you, Minister. Less than two months ago, the world, as we knew it, changed significantly, not only in Australia, but throughout the world. And we have been very fortunate as a nation, not to experience what other countries have experienced.
But, having said that, in the very early days of understanding COVID-19, the Australian College of Nursing worked very closely with the Minister and the Government to make sure that nurses were able to be educated and supported to work from non-direct clinical positions, to support their clinicians in the workplace.
And we couldn't be more excited to acknowledge the work that these nurses have done, to complete their refresher programs in the next few weeks.
There will be 3000 nurses ready to step in - hopefully not needed - but it shows that nurses were working and supporting their families and still completed these refresher courses.
We are very grateful to the support given and it is an indication of the essence of who nurses are, what we do, and how prepared we are.
When the rest of the world needs to stay at home, we, like all of our clinician colleagues, we will step up to fight for this great nation.
And next Tuesday is International Nurses Day, where we get to acknowledge nurses around the country, but I want to thank the support of the Government for enabling these 3000 scholarships.
Thank you, Minister.
Thank you. And I'll just invite Professor Christina Mitchell, who is the Dean of the School of health and nursing and health services, or Medicine, Nursing and Health Services.
And acknowledge that Monash University is one of the world's great medical research and teaching universities, and only yesterday, was the recipient of a significant award under the Medical Research Future Fund genomics round.
Thank you, Minister. I think this pandemic has really reaffirmed the great role of medical research and health workers' training that Australian universities are providing.
Monash University, along with many other universities, have played significant roles in terms of their public health pandemic preparedness, their modelling, their leading in terms of vaccine and drug development and clinical trials, and mental health.
So I think Monash, along with other universities and institutes, are supporting the Government's efforts in terms of dealing with the pandemic.
In addition, the Minister was very foreseeing when he awarded the National Centre for Healthy Ageing $32 million, a grant to Monash University and Peninsula Health, because this pandemic has showed us that we need new models of care for aged care.
The pandemic has showed us that our most vulnerable Australian citizens who are in aged care, either at home or in nursing homes, are very vulnerable and I think that the funding that he provided for this National Centre for Healthy Ageing, we can undertake that work to see what is the best model of care, both under normal situations but also when we have a pandemic such as this.
So, we're very grateful for the Minister for awarding that award last year.
One of the other issues that universities have faced is the challenge of continuing the training during a pandemic – something none of us had ever thought about before.
And in particular, our nurses and our nursing students have been there at the coal face during the pandemic.
Our nursing research and educators are world-leading, and if there is a worldwide shortage of nurses, and as the Minister and Kylie have indicated, we’ve had that upskill existing nurses, but we also need to think about that we need to keep providing new nurses into the workforce and they need to have clinical training during a time of pandemic.
I'm very grateful for the Government, both state and federal, for supporting the continued clinical training of our nursing students.
Many of our nursing students have been at the coal face of the pandemic.
I'm grateful for our health services, such as Peninsula Health, Eastern Health, Alfred Health and Monash Health who continued to take our nursing students during the pandemic and supported our nursing students and treated them equivalent to staff so that they could get through the pandemic and train at the same time.
This has been through programs such as the Registered Undergraduate Nursing Student program, RUSON, and that has been wonderful in terms of supporting nurses, so that it means at the end of this year, there'll be a new cohort of nursing students who’ll graduate and go out into the workforce.
So, we are very grateful for the Minister, for the National Centre for Healthy Ageing and we're grateful for the government, both state and federal, for supporting clinical training of nurses during the pandemic. Thank you.
Now, in terms of questions, I think Jane Norman has the first question.
Hi, Minister. Thank you for taking our questions today. Just on the topic of mental health, we've had several experts tell the ABC that their modelling show that more Australians could end up dying rather by suicide than COVID-19.
Is this something that will be considered and included in the Government's mental health pandemic plan?
Yes. This is very important modelling and I welcome the work.
I've had the privilege, as I say, of speaking with Pat McGorry in recent days, and we are very focused on being ahead of the curve for mental health in the same way that we were ahead of the curve for physical health.
So coronavirus can have direct impacts, obviously, we've seen that around the world. But the indirect impact can also be mental health.
That's why we have a three-part plan. One is about the services, and all up, that's involved over $500 million of mental health funding, additional, which has been allocated this year, including suicide prevention through Beyond Blue, the funding package for coronavirus mental health, but also telehealth, which has now passed 8 million consultations.
And the report from the RACGP and the AMA is that a significant number of those consultations have been for mental health for people in isolation.
The second thing we're doing is providing the economic support through JobKeeper and JobSeeker, and they are a very important parts of dealing with the anxiety and stress that people face.
And the third part is helping people to recover their independence.
And the National Cabinet tomorrow will be considering that path back and if that means that there are more young people or people of any age that are employed, that will help.
And so, all of this, all of these impacts go into the considerations of National Cabinet and the pandemic mental health plan.
Now, I think the next is Tom.
Hi, Minister. Thanks for taking our questions. Just speaking of mental health, obviously, some of the restrictions we have in place now are potentially causing difficulties for people's mental health.
I know in Victoria there's been a debate about whether things like golf and fishing should be allowed as a way for people to get out of the house and exercise safely and get a bit of fresh air.
Would you support Victoria moving into line with other states and enabling some of those activities in a safe manner as a way to kind of help people's mental and physical health to get through these difficult times?
So the National Cabinet sets the baselines, the standards and the stages, and then each state has to determine where they're at against those challenges.
And so, in particular, what we're doing is making sure that there are common standards across the country and then, as any individual state faces their own circumstances, they can determine how ready and willing they are to get to the new stages.
So, as I said before, any restriction being lifted in any state is a cause for celebration.
Victoria has been battling its outbreak and I do want to say that I think that they have been doing a very, very good job in identifying, in contact tracing, and in helping to contain those outbreaks.
And it’s the same as New South Wales and Tasmania have had to do in recent weeks.
So each of those states has had outbreaks, each of them has done, in my view, an outstanding job in a difficult circumstances of managing them.
And so what we hope comes out of National Cabinet tomorrow, and what I expect, is a clear roadmap out, with clear stages and then each state will be able to judge and we’ll support each of the states as they make their judgements of their own circumstances in readiness to go to easing restrictions.
Jane, did you have any extra ones? Sorry, Sky.
Yeah. So do you think Gladys Berejiklian has moved too quickly in already ruling out the gatherings of 10 people on Mother’s Day?
All of the Premiers are ultimately responsible for the safety of their own people.
And the National Cabinet has been a unique achievement of federation - we saw that in the Spanish Flu, the federation splintered; and we saw that during the Depression, there were massive strains.
What we’ve consciously done is establish the baselines and say that as states are comfortable then they can move forward.
And so tomorrow there’ll the final decision of the National Cabinet on the framework and my hope and expectation is that that will set out clear stages and then each state will determine how they’re able to move.
So we respect- and we don’t just respect but we believe in the right, the role and the propriety of the premiers and the chief ministers making those decisions.
Keep going, Sky.
I just have a couple of questions from my journalist here, she’s sorry she couldn’t make it. Andrea?
How many antibody test kits has the federal government purchased? Or currently have in stock?
We have approximately 1.5 million and they’re subject to testing and analysis. We’ve made sure that Australia has them.
The medical advice continues to be that the primary form of testing is what’s called PCR testing.
And then around the world there’s analysis being done of the antibody tests, as to whether they are appropriate and the circumstances in which they should be used. And so we’ll be guided by the medical advice on that.
So why haven’t they been used here so far? Is it because it’s not- you’re sure whether they actually work or not?
The- what’s called the AHPPC, or the medical expert panel, has provided advice that they wanted to see additional research.
The work of the Chief Scientist of Australia, Alan Finkel, and the Academy of Sciences has also reaffirmed that they believe there was more work before they could be safely deployed.
And so we follow the medical advice and that’s how we are where we are as a country – and we’ll continue to follow the medical advice.
We do know that some countries were provided tests and equipment in the early days which may not have been fully accurate, and so we’ve made sure that it is our health authorities following the highest procurement standards that have made the procurement – but then we have to make sure that there is fully, and safe, and accurate testing validation and affirmation from our scientific and medical authorities to ensure that anything we do is safe.
So safety trumps everything.
So the UK government obviously paid $20 million for test kits that didn’t work. Could Australia be facing a similar scenario?
No. And that’s because we’ve been very cautious and took a preliminary sample – we wanted to make sure that we had the option if the science stacked up.
And so there were many different forms around the world, the Australian Government went on validated, trusted, high quality suppliers.
But even then, there is a global assessment of antibody testing and our medical authorities have said they want to do more work.
And on this, above all else, our message as a government to our medical advisors is safety trumps everything and we’ll continue to follow your advice.
So if more work needs to go into ensuring that these tests are appropriate, how can you be that confident that they do work completely?
Well the advice that we have is that what Australia has purchased is of the highest quality.
The question is the utility of antibody testing and the way in which it can and should be used.
And the only people who should be determining that are the communicable disease and the virology experts who are then able to test and validate the circumstances.
The point about an antibody test is that it doesn’t identify in the early stages of a disease whether or not a person has that disease, it only identifies once they have antibodies.
So it’s very important to set up a protocol and a regime to identify at what stage it would be appropriate if it is appropriate.
And so, important as a country to take insurance; it’s even more important as a country to make sure that we learn from some of the lessons around the world about safety over everything else.
Again, Minister, just to be 100 per cent clear which- I’ve got you exactly the way it should be – you have absolutely no concerns that these test kits don’t work?
The only concerns you have is the way that they should be used?
No. My answer is very clear that we’re making sure that everything is of the highest quality and nothing is ever deployed until it is fully validated and the circumstances are fully determined.
And so we took an insurance population – which would have been irresponsible not to do, because I do remember that many people around the world were seeking desperately to achieve these purchase.
Australia was able to purchase the highest quality in the known market, but at the same time the sensible, cautious thing to do is to make sure that the utility of everything is proved and then the appropriate circumstances are determined.
And there are two stages in that – quality and appropriate use.
And one of the things with antibody tests around the world is that they are a later stage test, they are not a replacement for the absolutely critical work of the, what are known as the PCR tests – so the pathology lab tests.
So that’s a quick summary from me. I’ll just finish today by saying the masks, the mental health, the training – they are not just supporting our nurses and our health workers, they are honouring our health workers and we thank them, and we say we wouldn’t be here without you.
Thank you very much.