This content relates to a former minister

Doorstop interview on 10 September 2020

Read the transcript of a doorstop with Minister Hunt on Thursday 10 September 2020.

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

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Good afternoon everybody. Today is a day of hope and support for not just Victorians but for all Australians. Six out of eight states and territories have had zero cases today. In New South Wales, very small numbers, and in Victoria the trend continues to improve.

At the same time, though, we know that mental health has been a challenge for so many Australians and a concern for all Australians.

The combination of the lockdowns, the curfews in Victoria, the challenge that people have faced with their economic circumstances, employment, concern about their health, concern about their future.  All of these things have combined to make mental health such a fundamental challenge for so many Australians. But there is real hope.

And of course, today is R U OK? Day and World Suicide Prevention Day and it’s a day to reinforce the messages of hope and support for Victorians. And on this day, I am privileged to announce on behalf of the Australian Government, that 15 groups will receive $19 million between them for additional support for suicide prevention.

We know that on the real time advice we have available from states and territories, that to this point, there has been no known increase in suicide this year. That’s a national achievement given all the circumstances.

It’s the collective support, not just of governments, not just of carers and health professional, but of one family and one individual looking out for another family and another individual. That’s an Australian achievement.

But equally, there hasn’t been a decrease and we will not rest until there has been a decrease and we head towards zero for suicide prevention. And that’s why we’re supporting groups such as Mates in Construction - building workers, many of whom are younger men with $1.6 million; the LGBTI Health Alliance with $500,000, Orygen and Pat McGorry and so many others who do such brilliant work for youth mental health with $400,000 on top of all of the work we’ve been doing with Orygen and headspace. R U OK? $400,000 and Suicide Prevention Australia amongst many others, $600,000.

In addition to that, I’m now delighted to announce that the $44 million which we’ve made available for the Way Back Program with beyondblue, for people after they’ve been discharged, having been in hospital, having attempted suicide, having reached the darkest of points, that we have now reached, more than two months ahead of schedule, agreements with six out of eight states and territories and making real progress with the remaining two.

And that means these services for people who’ve been discharged, who are at their most vulnerable, at the single point in their lives where they are most likely to take their lives, this support focused on the very individuals in Australia who are most at risk is now flying. That's an immensely important national achievement.

The second thing I want to address beyond mental health today is the AstraZeneca vaccine. At about 7:30 this morning, I received a call from the Australian head of AstraZeneca. The advice that I have, as of that time, is that the patient who had an adverse event is recovering and recovering quickly, is likely to be discharged from hospital within the next 24 hours.

The best advice that AstraZeneca Australia has from the global firm and from Oxford University is at this stage, the illness, although neurological in nature, is undiagnosed in terms of its specific form and nor is the source known.

They indicated that two months ago, there was another event where the trial was paused temporarily where somebody had an adverse event. The medical expert panel reviewed it and it turned out that it was entirely unrelated to the trial.

So the best advice is that the medical expert panel will now consider the patient's case. Undiagnosed at this point in time and undetermined as to the cause of the particular event, but that this is part of the highest and most rigorous of safety oversight programs imaginable. One of the world's finest universities, working with one of the world's finest medicines companies, under one of the world's strongest regulatory regimes in the UK.

In particular, the advice that I had from the head of AstraZeneca Australia is that there is no change to the timetable for the delivery of the vaccine in Australia, and they have no belief that it will be changed in terms of its nature, form or delivery, but they are always subject to the medical advice, and in this case it's what is known as an independent medical expert panel.

Finally, in terms of the progress of Australia against COVID-19, we know globally that the pandemic continues to spread and to spread at pace. 27.8 million cases, 901,000 lives lost.

In Australia, 26,513 cases and very, very sadly, 788 deaths on the advice just provided to me by the National Incidence Centre. In terms of hospitalisation, 195 Australians in hospital, 23 of those in ICU and 15 of those on ventilation.

So they are very ill patients, but those numbers are coming down and our survival rates in ICU, on the last advice I have, of 89 per cent are amongst the very highest in the world, which is a tribute to our medical officers. Our testing continues to be strong and wide and rapid and accurate, 6.85 million tests.

And then lastly, I want to really welcome the actions of the Victorian Government in moving to take additional steps with regard to contact-tracing.

The move to digitisation, the move to a local public health unit model, based and grounded in the community, and the flight to New South Wales to work with New South Wales on lessons that can be learned, unqualified support and an unqualified welcome. These are important steps for which we have been advocating and I think that cooperation is a great sign.

I'd be delighted to take any questions and I think, first up, Olivia?


Thanks, Minister. Are there any health reasons why 26-year-old Sarah Caisip who travelled to Brisbane from the ACT should not be granted an exemption to attend her dad's funeral today?

And do you think it's good enough that modelling from your own department shows hundreds of millions of dollars in promised funding for aged care will overly amount to 300 additional aged care packages by 2024, despite there being over 103,000 people on waiting lists for care?


Sure. In relation to Sarah's case, I know that the Prime Minister and myself and so many others are urging the Queensland Government to show compassion.

This is a very difficult situation and somebody facing the loss, the agony that Sarah has faced, as we all do at different times in our journeys, I think is deserving of compassion.

And we have quietly worked behind-the-scenes on many cases with many states and had very strong compassionate outcomes, and I would gently, but clearly, urge the Queensland Government to show compassion in this case.

In terms of the home-care places, what we’ve seen is that we have added over $3 billion in the last two years to home care. There were approximately 60,000 home care places when we came to Government. Over the course of this budget cycle, we'll see those numbers rise to approximately 164,000 or more than 150 per cent increase.

And we have, in fact, brought forward many future increases and will continue to provide additional places, whether it's at each economic update or in response to the royal commission, but we haven't waited, we got ahead of that commission and we’ve continued to provide places, indeed, new places having been recently announced.

And what we do use as our guide is the capacity of the sector to safely deliver people who are well-trained, who are in a position to provide the services, and as we bring forward that training, we'll continue to provide more places. Clare?


Thanks, Minister. Just following again, the specific border case that we’ve been talking about today, the issue more broadly as well. Firstly, the Queensland Government has just confirmed that Sarah will be able to have a private viewing at the funeral home after the service but will not be allowed to attend the service itself. Seeking your reaction to that, I guess, compromise?

And secondly, the Government has long held that decisions like this made on medical grounds, there should be more transparency on why those decisions have been made. Are you satisfied that the reasons that the Chief Health Officer in Queensland has been providing on these cases that have been denied exemptions?


So, on the specific case, I haven't seen the Chief Health Officer's ruling or reason. So I think it's important for me to be clear on that.

Generally, what we would like to see is a very transparent system. So there is a capacity to appeal for exemptions on compassionate or other grounds. That there is an initial assessment which is done, and that there is a transparent process to make that appeal.

Obviously, I think, the most sensible and sensitive and compassionate thing to do with regard to Sarah's case is if, in a COVID-safe way, obviously, masked and with any other appropriate distancing, Sarah were able to attend the full funeral, I think that would be the most humane, and the most decent and the most compassionate thing to do.



Thanks Minister. Just three questions about Victoria specifically. Premier Andrews today has said the Prime Minister had made some of the restriction decisions without health reasons. Has that ever occurred to your understanding?


I'm not aware of any decisions that the Commonwealth has taken to restrict freedoms during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic without health advice. And I say that because the Biosecurity Act powers vest in the Health Minister.

And so at present, for example, there are four decisions that have been taken under those powers and we’ve been very cautious in using them, and those four decisions relate to the entry of cruise ships into Australia, the supply and sale of certain essential goods, restrictions on overseas travel, and restrictions on retail stores at international airports and my advice is that all of those four decisions have been based on written medical advice.

I exercise that only after having sought that advice. And although the Act is very broad, they effectively give plenary powers to the Health Minister of the day, we deliberately put in place protocols which required the minister to seek written medical advice, the minister to consult with the National Security Committee, the minister then to make a decision which was subject to approval of the Governor-General.

So we put in place those protocols, and the reason is because these democratic freedoms are absolutely fundamental to who we are and any exercise of power to restrict, for us at our level, has to be based on the most serious medical need and the most compelling medical advice. And I think you had a second part to your question?


Yeah, given all of that, now that we know that the curfew set in Victoria are not based on any medical advice, how - I guess, how concerned are you about that?

And if this has happened potentially with any of the other restrictions that have been placed on Melburnians? And have you made any sort of representations to Daniel Andrews for him to remove this restriction?


So with regards to the Victorian restrictions, I'll let the Victorian Government speak to the source and the origin of them, although we were somewhat surprised to learn that not all of the restrictions were based on medical advice.

Against that background, I think they should continue to review those restrictions which are not based on medical advice. I think that is very important. I do know, of course, that Victoria has a strong human rights charter.

I believe the freedom of movement provision, might be Section 12, others will know it better than me, but that Victorian human rights charter sets out under the relevant section that freedom of movement is a fundamental right in Victoria and so I am sure that that would only ever, ever be impinged upon if they have the strongest reasons.

It is important to review these. We review all of the federal- all of the federal restrictions which have been limited and few in nature and number on a frequent basis.

Okay, Tom.


Thanks for taking our questions, Minister. Pauline Hanson – do you believe that she was being unhelpful by sending One Nation stubby holders to lockdown public housing tower residents. Isn't this trolling by One Nation? Is it inappropriate during a pandemic?


Look, I'm sorry, I was completely unaware of that, I have to say. I would suspect that most people would not be influenced in any direction either way by the arrival of a stubby holder.

Sorry, that is one of the more unusual things I’ve heard during the course of what has been a very serious pandemic. But in terms of those, I would say that people wouldn't be particularly influenced in either direction by a stubby holder. I'm not sure whether the people in the towers were using stubby holders.

I'll give you a second question, Tom, if you'd like.


Thanks, Minister. The second thing I'd like to ask you is - business are lobbying the Victorian Government, as you know, for an easing of restrictions.

Has the Federal Government taken up representations of business? And has the Federal Government satisfied itself that the road out won’t lead to unnecessary restrictions of logistics and food delivery?


We were very focused when the Stage 4 restrictions were announced. We worked very closely with business and we made representations to the Victorian Government.

There were concerns about, for example, food warehouse supply chains, concerns about medicine supply chains, and we worked quietly behind-the-scenes with the Victorian Government and they did make a series of adjustments on the basis of our representations in conjunction with business.

In terms of the roadmap out - the Prime Minister, the Treasurer and myself have all jointly said this week that what is absolutely critical is that there's clear medical advice.

I did see a piece, in fact, in your paper today from Professor Tony Blakely, and the indication there is that perhaps some of the thresholds and triggers were not necessarily drawn directly from the modelling, but were developed at the Victorian level rather than through the model.

And I would encourage them to focus on the achievability of the triggers, the statement by Professor Jodie McVernon, by Professor Dale Fisher, by Professor Peter Collignon, about the fact that some of these targets, may be unachievable for some years in some cases.

For example, the 14 or 28 zero case threshold is a matter of very great significance. When some of – not just Australia's – but the world's great epidemiologists are raising concern about the achievability.

That, I think, gives the Victorian Government the opportunity and the reason to reflect and review. It would be no negative position for them to review those thresholds and targets given the commentary of these leading epidemiologists who understand tests, understand triggers, understand the spread of the disease.

We're all committed to the health and mental health of Victorians and Australians. One thing we don't want to do is affect the mental health of Victorians and Australians in a way which impinges on them.

So we can save lives and protect lives, and that means we have to safeguard the health, but also the mental health of Victorians and all Australians.



Thanks, Minister. I’ve got a question on mental health. You have announced funding to extend the [indistinct] services today. Many in the sector are hoping for broader, more structural reform. The Productivity Commission report on mental health has been sitting on your desk now for more than two months. Will that be released before the October election- the budget?

Why hasn't it been release so far? And do you intend to make sure that the budget responds to the representation to that report?


So we will be responding to the Productivity Commission. I think it's a very fair and important question.

The Productivity Commission's given great thought on mental health and so I'm anticipating that once we have developed a little bit more work, we'll be releasing that report. And I think it is important to make sure that it's out there.

And I am, as ever, focusing on mental health as a significant and important part of the budget. I think at every budget, or what's known as midyear economic statement, we’ve provided additional support for mental health. And I think the Productivity Commission will inform exactly and precisely what we do in the budget.



Thanks, Minister. Just two separate questions. Firstly, do you think a royal commission into the COVID outbreaks in aged care would be warranted, given there are now been more than 500 deaths in aged care due to the coronavirus?

And on a separate matter, there are reports today that an error in Doherty Institute modelling, the Federal Government used in formulating the early COVID responses- did that error result in an overestimation of the potential threat of the virus? 


Sure. Look, firstly in relation to aged care. The current royal commission has already been addressing. So we have a standing royal commission into aged care and they have specifically been addressing the COVID-19 response as part of their work, and that will, I understand, continue to be the case.

And we’ve made it clear that we believe that that's an appropriate part of their work. So we're in the fortunate position that that's standing, existing, empowered, and, in fact, has been underway.

Secondly, in relation to the Doherty modelling, my advice, my very, very clear advice from the Department, is that the underlying modelling had no error. I think there was apparently one chart which was public-facing, which had a curve drawn in a particular place.

That hasn't affected our actions at all, and it wouldn't have affected the actions at all because the underlying modelling and all of the work was correct and that hasn't had an impact. So I’ve got clear advice from my Department on that.

And I would say this: one of Australia's great achievements, when you think our task was two-fold - to contain the virus in a world of extraordinary numbers, in a world of 27.8 million cases and 900,000 lives lost, the world does look at Australia, an extraordinary outcome. But obviously, with a challenge in Victoria.

At the same time it was containing, we’ve built the capacity. And to build the capacity for 7500 ventilation units, at a time when we saw the chaos and tragedy in Italy and Spain, France and the UK, and New York, and so many other places, provided that protection for Australia.

And it's been an immensely important protection. And it also allows us to be able to support the broader region around Australia.

And then finally, Jen?


Just back on vaccines, Minister. Apologies if you answered this, I didn't catch it. When will the AstraZeneca trial resume?

And also what's your response to the chairman of the CSL this morning saying, quote: that we shouldn't bank on a vaccine. Are you building false hope?


So two things there. Firstly, the best advice from AstraZeneca is that their time frame for delivery is unchanged. The specific advice from the head of AstraZeneca Australia is that the medical expert panel will assess the particular case and then they'll make a decision about the trial.

So they don't have a time frame yet. It could be a matter of days; it may be longer. But the case study was given to me that earlier on in this trial, as is the case commonly with many, many trials, where there was one adverse event, there was a brief pause.

It turned out that adverse event was not related to the clinical trial. So they'll provide more advice when the medical expert panel has met.


This is from Peter van Onselen. He'd like your reaction to the Queensland Premier's claims that she was intimidated and bullied this morning by the Prime Minister?


I think the Prime Minister was very clear that this is about compassion. This is about a young woman who has lost her father in the most agonising circumstances, and there couldn't be a more human moment, there couldn't be a more human request.

And I think it's always important that we recognise and maintain our common humanity in this most difficult of times and difficult of periods.

Sorry, Jen, there was a second part to your question?


Yeah, just your reaction, your response to the chairman of CSL saying we shouldn't bank on a vaccine. And are you building false hope?


Having spoken with the chairman of CSL, I know that they are very confident that not only will the AstraZeneca, but the University of Queensland vaccines, proceed on a very prospective basis.

They're able to manufacture in Australia, but all of us – all of the time – are very cautious to indicate that each vaccine is going through clinical trials, therefore has to be subject to the results of those trials, has to be safe, has to be subject to effectiveness, and then has to be subject to the most rigorous of regulatory approvals.

So one more question, I think. From Channel 10.


Yeah, this is from Chris O'Keefe from Channel 9.

Do you think the questioning of the four Chinese journalists by the Australian Security Services was reasonable?


Look, I’ll leave this to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister of Home Affairs. Those are matters on which I don’t have additional information. I apologise.

Alright, thank you everybody. And as I say, it is a day for hope and support. Six out of eight states and territories with zero cases within the community.

Numbers are very low in New South Wales. The trends are down in Victoria, but there are still some agonising days ahead, and there will be up days and down days.

But today, we focus on mental health and support. Today, we focus on providing compassionate support for all Australians everywhere. Thank you very much.

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