Doorstop interview in Melbourne on 13 September 2020
Read the transcript of a doorstop in Melbourne with Minister Hunt about coronavirus (COVID-19).
The Hon Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care
Good afternoon everyone. Today is a day of hope and help. Hope and help for Australians. In particular, it's a day for help with mental health.
That's why I'm joined by Professor Ruth Vine, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer of Australia for Mental Health. Ruth is not only a trained and practicing psychiatrist, but she was formerly the Chief Psychiatrist of Victoria.
Today, we are announcing that the 15 new Head to Help mental health clinics will commence service for all Victorians tomorrow. That's ahead of schedule.
Most importantly, it's providing additional mental health support for people who will be facing challenging times, but real help, real hope at a critical time.
In terms of hope, today, six out of eight states and territories have recorded zero cases. In New South Wales, we're down to five cases within the community, consistently low, consistently staying low. And in Victoria, the numbers have dropped to 41, and the rolling 14-day average continues to fall significantly, and that's an achievement for all Victorians and all Australians.
With regards to mental health, we know that in any one year, 4 million Australians will have some form of mental health challenge. This is an abiding part of our human condition. It's something which we now acknowledge. It's something which is now open in our society, although we can always be better.
But this year has been the hardest of years, and so through lockdowns, through economic loss, through the fear of economic insecurity, whether you can pay the mortgage, whether you can meet the overdraft for your business, whether you can provide for your family. We've been able to provide economic support, but at the same time as JobKeeper and JobSeeker have been assisting Australians, it's fundamental to provide the mental health support.
Firstly, the message that it's okay not to be okay, it's okay two seek help. This week, we’ve had R U OK? Day, and it's transformative for Australians to know: I’m not alone, it's not just me, this can happen to anyone. And so that message is immensely important.
But in addition to that, we've also been providing fundamental support. Telehealth Has now passed 30 million services. Mental health has been a fundamental component of those Telehealth services, which are available universally to all Australians, such an important breakthrough.
At the same time, here in Victoria, I want to emphasize that we have doubled the number of Better Access mental health services under Medicare. So those services have been doubled, and if you need to access them, please call your GP, what with your psychologist. It's really important, it gives you that service, and it is available, and I think it's something that's very important to re-emphasize.
But going forwards, I'm delighted that the 15 new Head to Health mental health clinics will open tomorrow morning right across Victoria. In Melbourne, nine different services in Berwick, Frankston, Officer, Hawthorn, Yarra Junction, West Heidelberg, Wyndham Vale, Broadmeadows, and Brunswick East. And in regional Victoria, six different to services: Warragul, Sale, Bendigo, Wodonga, Sebastopol for the Ballarat region, and Norlane for the Geelong region.
And the services they'll provide include GPs, mental health nurses, psychologists, and psychiatric services. We've had the support of Professor Ruth Vine, our Deputy Chief Medical Officer, who's been working with her Victorian counterpart Pam Anders. They've helped bring this together ahead of schedule in record time, and the actual support can be provided face-to-face.
It's a permitted reason to leave, to seek that help. An incredibly important thing. So many people are craving human contact in the midst of lockdowns and curfews and five-kilometre limits. It is an immensely important part of human contact.
But if you can't seek face-to-face service, very importantly there’s online support through the Australian Government's health.gov.au, health.gov.au, or through the headtohelp.org.au, headtohelp.org.au website, and then as of tomorrow morning 1800 595 212, 1800 595 212.
There's another very important cause for hope today, and that is the news that the Oxford vaccine clinical trials have recommenced. The independent medical expert panel assessed the individual case. They determined that it was safe to proceed, and significantly the UK medical regulator, the MHRA or the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Authority, their equivalent of our Therapeutic Goods Administration, has given the green light for the Oxford vaccine program to continue.
This is a normal part of any vaccine trial. We have one of the strongest universities in the world with one of the strongest medicines companies in the world under one of the strongest regulatory regimes in the world.
They've prioritised – as we do – safety above all else, and they've examined the case, they've determined it's safe to proceed, and therefore the vaccine trials are continuing, and the latest advice we have from the company to my office as early as this morning is that the timetable for vaccine provision to Australia is unchanged with early 2021 continuing to be the expected timeframe.
More broadly, in terms of the numbers: we know that there are now over 28.5 million people around the world who've been diagnosed with COVID-19 and, agonizingly, over 919,000 have lost their lives. Here in Australia it's 26,651 cases that have been diagnosed and, very sadly, 810 lives lost on the latest advice provided to me by the National Incident Centre.
We've just passed 7 million tests, and all states and territories are doing a great job with their testing. There are a couple where we'd like to encourage even higher levels, but I want to acknowledge the work of the states and territories.
On contact tracing, I welcome and we welcome the changes announced in Victoria this week at the digitisation, the local use of public health units, the cooperation with New South Wales and the Commonwealth. These are really important steps, and they give us confidence that the system can manage further outbreaks as it must in any state or territory, because it can happen in any state or territory.
And that gives us confidence that we can progressively, safely, support mental health, support social wellbeing, by allowing people to return to their normal lives, allowing people to return to a COVID-safe life with fewer restrictions on a faster timetable, immensely important steps forward.
And so, whether it's through what we see with our case numbers, whether it's the mental health support being announced through the Head to Help clinics or whether it's the increasing optimism around the availability of a vaccine, today is a day of hope and help, and I'm delighted to invite our Deputy Chief Medical Officer of Mental Health, Professor Ruth Vine, to provide more details.
Thank you, Minister, and it is indeed a very exciting day. You've given quite a bit of the original detail, but I did just want to expand a bit on where these services will fit within the broader health system and also perhaps some of the rationale behind them.
And I think- look, the first thing to say is that Victoria has experienced, I think, more impact on their day to day lives than other states and even more so for most Melburnians.
And so what was of the essence was getting these things up very quickly and working closely with the Victorian Government, the Victorian department, to ensure that how these services were going to be established and implemented would be well aligned with some of the expanded services that are being funded through the Victorian Government.
So working with the primary health networks then working very closely with their own regions to find a place that could host these clinics but also that they were in the areas of greatest need. So I have to say, I think we've done remarkably well, and I thank and praise the PHNs for their tremendous work in getting this going so quickly.
It's been a very collaborative effort with the Victorian Government, PHNs, the area mental health services, to provide these. And what's expected of these clinics is that they will provide a very accessible, free of charge, clinically driven mental health service.
We did note that close to the beginning of the lockdown in Melbourne there was, regrettably, a substantial increase in people presenting to emergency departments with acute mental health crises, a rise in- particularly with young people and those with eating disorders and other problems, and a great demand on inpatient beds.
So what these services will do is provide an accessible, free of charge, professional service located – as the Minister's highlighted – in 15 places that people will be able to access treatment and services but also through that number, the 1 800 595 212 number, to also access the most appropriate service for their need, which may at times be one of the helplines or may be to go to their general practitioner and get a better- a mental health plan and go through better access.
So these services complement, enhance, and provide greater integration to the mental health service sector. They'll start with a small number of staff because we need to respond as that demand grows. So tomorrow when the doors open there'll be at least two mental health professionals, but we expect that to increase over the coming weeks, and the services are up and running for at least 12 months.
So again, I do thank and praise the PHNs who've worked so hard to get these going, and I thank the area mental health services and indeed other peak bodies, I should add, that we've met with the College of General Practitioners, with the private mental health providers, the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations.
So, we're all very enthusiastic at getting these up and going as quickly as we can. Thank you.
Thank you. Happy to take questions. Tamsin.
Thanks, Minister. I just had two questions if that’s possible. Today the Victorian Premier said there’s been no major difference in evidence for the team that was sent from Victoria to New South Wales to look at contact tracing, no bolt from the blue.
Is that your understanding that there’s at this point no major differences? And I guess what was the point in them going if there were no major differences?
Well, I'll leave that to Victoria and New South Wales to set out their respective views on that, but we do know only in the last few days Victoria has adopted the strongly held proposal advanced by the Chief Scientist of Australia, Professor Allan Finkel for digitisation of the Victorian contact tracing system.
That’s an exceptionally important step forward. In addition to that, they've also agreed to adopt the New South Wales model of local public health units, so I think that was very, very good.
And then finally my understanding is that it was a very extended presentation. I know that the Chief Scientist felt that it was extremely important, and so I think wherever people can learn from each other. That's a really powerful step forward. Second question?
Yeah, just on the road map, the recovery road map outlined by the Premier last week, today he was asked if he’d had any thoughts about changing that given the backlash but also the improved case numbers this week. He said there was- it was unlikely to change. I’m just wondering on your reaction is to that.
Look, we've seen the University of Melbourne make a very clear statement through their modellers and through the Dean of Medicine that their model didn't dictate specific thresholds or targets and that they were concerned in particular that the five person accumulative and rolling average numbers and the zero case numbers may be unachievable.
And so they have suggested that the modelling should be redone and that the roadmap should be redone in consultation with the academic community, the business community, the broader community, and the Commonwealth, and we agree with that.
We think that there's a pathway which the University of Melbourne has set forward to, in light of the new case numbers, in light of the enhanced contact tracing capability, and in particular the fact that there was no connection between the modelling and the actual thresholds to reduce the restrictions on Victorians which were adopted, that now's the chance for everybody to work together to assist Victoria in redoing the modelling and to assist Victoria in redoing the road map which will allow basic activities to occur in a COVID-safe way and in particular to support mental health.
We know that social wellbeing and mental health are overwhelmingly important and that whilst people are locked in their home, whether they're under curfew, whether they're unable to see their family, then mental health is at risk, and we have to take steps to support that. Okay. James.
Hello, Minister. Sorry, Jane Norman here. I’m actually wondering if you could shed some light on negotiations that are happening with the states on borders. We’ve got a lot of people, 25,000 Australians, stranded overseas right now. They can’t get home and obviously there is some pressure for the Commonwealth to act.
Is there anything more the Commonwealth can be doing? And what kind of associations are going on with the states for them to start actually taking more arrivals?
Sure. So obviously the Minister for Home Affairs has spoken this morning, and so I won’t try to repeat what he said, but the simple message is that if we can lift the hotel quarantine numbers, then we can increase the number of Australians that can return home.
We're working very constructively with the states to that effect. Jane Holton, a former secretary of the Department of Finance, has been working across the states and territories, reviewing their hotel quarantine system, helping them have the confidence to know that they can lift the number of people and in turn if they can lift the number of people in hotel quarantine, then we can increase the number of Australians who can come home and that will be good for families.
It's something we want to ensure that every Australian who wants to come home is home by Christmas. Tim.
Minister, Labor has been saying for a while now that the government needs more irons in the fire in terms of vaccine agreements. Doesn’t the latest blip with the AstraZeneca potential vaccine underline that point, underline how fragile all of this is and that we could do with more agreement?
And could you tell us what efforts are underway to get more agreements and when you hope that we might- you might be confirming some more?
Well, we already have 84.8 million doses confirmed for Australia. They are under contract, purchasing agreements, and as a consequence of that Australia is in one of the strongest positions of any nation in the world.
But when we announced both the AstraZeneca and University of Queensland CSL agreements, we also indicated that we’re carefully examining other vaccines around the world.
One of the things is that because we have the capacity to manufacture in Australia, we're in a very strong position. But it also means that we can rightly and properly examine for safety and effectiveness.
We've picked the two vaccines that we regard are the most prospective. We have vastly more doses on order than the number of Australians, and we're doing that on the basis that we are giving ourselves the capacity in case any of these vaccines doesn't come through.
But we've also indicated that we'll continue to work with other companies to examine, and when the medical expert panel is of a view that a vaccine is both safe and effective, then we'd be happy to enter into other arrangements as well.
But right now, with the news today that the Oxford trials are proceeding, as was expected, Australia is in one of the strongest positions of any country in the world.
And Robert. And Greg from The Australian.
Minister, have you spoken to the Victorian Government or have health officials spoken to the Health Department in Victoria about redoing the road map along the lines of what Melbourne University have suggested?
Have you told Premier Daniel Andrews or your state counterpart that you’re willing to help through that process? And do you have a view about when restrictions can ease as compared to what Victoria has suggested?
Sure. So, our officials met with the Victorian Government this week when they were looking at the model, and they’d indicated that they thought it was conservative, and they indicated that they thought it could be done in a way which would have more confidence and give greater freedoms at an earlier time.
Our view is that now is appropriate, and I'm again reaffirming that message. In light of the statements by the University of Melbourne that the modelling should not be used as a justification for the particular thresholds when you have people such as the Dean of Medicine, when you have Professor Tony Blakely and others indicate that the modelling doesn't lead to the particular thresholds that were put in place, then that's something we should all listen to.
The advice that I have from our officials is that in their discussions with Victoria they judge that it was a conservative set of estimates for Victoria and that their view and our view – and this is what they've conveyed – is that we can do better.
And so I think today when we're talking about mental health, the real thing that we know is that last Sunday so many Victorians felt the weight, felt the pressure. That was a moment when this state had a deep weight put upon the shoulders of so many people.
The extra time, the extra pressure on employment security, the insecurity people have about whether they'll have a job, whether they'll have a business, whether they'll have an income, that's an enormous weight on people.
So our message is very, very clear: that precisely because of the improvements in contact tracing, precisely because of the advice of the University of Melbourne, but also the response of so many people around Victoria, of course it's possible that we can consider things such as maintenance people who are working outside by themselves.
If we can have five people who are inside on a renovation or a construction site, then epidemiologically it makes even more sense that you can have one person working outside, whether it's on house repairs or garden or other forms of maintenance.
And that's good for their economic wellbeing, but it's fundamental for the mental health and wellbeing. So that's why, respectfully but clearly, our message is here is the opportunity to work together, Commonwealth, state, academic community, business community, broader community, to help redesign the road map, to bring forward those triggers.
We've already established Commonwealth definitions, and I respectfully commend them, and we already have the National Cabinet road map which might well provide a model to assist.
On that, I want to say to all Victorians and all Australians, incredible progress, but we do need to keep going. We're going to get there. We will get there, and we want Australia and we want Victoria in particular to be as normal as possible by Christmas in a COVID-safe way, and today, hope on vaccines, hope on numbers, hope on mental health, and real help with mental health. And if you do need help, go to headtohelp.org.au. Take care everyone. We’re going to get through this.