This content relates to a former minister

Doorstop interview on 14 December 2020

Read the transcript of a press conference with Minister Hunt about Australian COVID-19 response, $311 million funding for research into dementia and aged care, trans-Tasman travel bubble and Federal Cabinet reshuffle.

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

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We’ve had a wonderful partnership this year with the RACGP, our doctors, our nurses. They’ve kept Australians safe. They’ve embraced telehealth. Arguably, the largest transformation to Medicare since Medicare was created. A 10-year transformation delivered in 10 days in late March.

And Karen, the RACGP, and our doctors have been extraordinary in providing over 40 million telehealth services to Australian patients this year.

It’s not just transformed Australian medicine and Medicare in the year of COVID, it’s a permanent transformation in the way in which medicine and Medicare have delivered for the benefit of patients and doctors in Australia.

We know today looking around the world, the last seven day rolling average is over 600,000 cases of COVID-19 a day. We know equally that sadly, agonisingly, almost 11,000 lives have been lost on average each day in the last week.

By comparison, because of the work of our doctors and nurses and our health and medical workers in pathology and pharmacy, and all of the other areas, but in particular our doctors, Australia is in an extraordinary position.

I’m pleased to be able to announce that again, Australia has had zero cases of community transmission today. This is the tenth day in a row of zero cases in community transmission.

In a world of over 600,000 cases a day, almost 11,000 lives lost on average a day, that is an extraordinary Australian result.

It is almost an Australian miracle, but it's been done through the divine hands of our doctors and our nurses and the Australian public.

Against that background, one of the critical things that we want to do is to keep our general health and research going forward. And today, I'm delighted to announce that in partnership with the RACGP and our medical community, the Australian Government will be opening $311 million of new, competitive, medical research grant grounds.

In particular, that’s to support aged care and dementia. Dementia is our second largest killer in Australia.

We know the impact on lives lost and it's an agonising condition for so many Australian families. And this year, the distance has been greater, challenge has been harder, and the work of our health and medical workforce has been greater than ever before.

So, to be able to support our aged care research, our dementia research, with $17.5 million is fundamentally important.

Significantly, we’re also supporting our clinician researchers, our doctors and our nurses in their research, in their fields whilst continuing to practise, and that’s an immensely important partnership with $25 million to be open and available before Christmas.

And that means that we can allow our doctors and nurses to continue to improve in our research and our delivery with patients, whilst not losing them from their daily practise and their work, which has helped save lives and protect lives this year.

At the same time, support for paediatric cancers, for low survival cancers, cardiovascular health, Indigenous health, traumatic brain injury; all of these areas are being supported today.

And we can only do this with the help and with the support of our amazing doctors and nurses. So, Karen, through you and the RACGP, I want to thank all of our incredible doctors and medical leaders this year and I want to commend all of our health and medical workforce, they have saved lives and protected lives.

I think this has been our hardest year as a nation since the Second World War, but I think this has been our finest year as a nation since the Second World War, and the finest of them all have been our doctors and our nurses and our health and medical workers.



Thank you, Greg.

I want to say thank you too to the community for listening to our messages, which have been informed by research, in keeping our whole state and our nation safe. I think that’s a prime message that the Australian community have rallied to the cause, they listened to the evidence that we were producing.

You’ve been able to find reliable evidence on multiple channels and have listened and managed that very well. Having said, of course in some communities, it might be those with culturally diverse experiences and languages, and GPs being the forefront of helping them manage the language and information needs they have in managing this pandemic.

Research is very close to my heart. I'm just about to finish a PHD myself, and I know from experience that getting the right question to the right data is a significant issue.

It's also a significant issue to have funding for general practise research because so much seems to come out of a hospital setting, which is fine, but it doesn't always translate into the general practise setting. We have multiple chronic diseases that we manage in general practise. We have longitudinal timeframes that we need to manage. We have very contextually needed to put information into a patient's particular circumstances, as I just illustrated.

So, this is a really important part of understanding how, for instance, public health messages might go astray if we don't get that research we can’t inform appropriately in pandemics such as this.

These issues include being able to plan for a surge of general practitioners in future pandemics – hopefully we don’t have another one for a long time. And if and when we do, we have planning and processes in place that will be informed by this kind of research.

Minister Hunt has rightly mentioned aged care, and this is something that general practise and the RACGP have been vitally involved in.

General practitioners deliver an enormous amount of aged care and home visits to elderly patients, as well as in the community that we see. We are the most accessible across the country of health care providers and we can provide safe information and care into that community.

In terms of dementia care, there’s 250 new diagnoses of dementia every day, and general practitioners provide by far away the greatest amount of diagnosis in that area.

We’ve got our own Professor Dimity Pond in New South Wales who does a lot of research into early diagnostic testing and screening and this, again, is something that general practitioners do an enormous amount of.

And we work collaboratively. I think COVID has shown us how we work across the sectors with our nursing staff, with our research staff and with our hospital staff in managing any health condition.

So, I'm really pleased to see that research and particularly research into general practise, which has been missing, has now come to the fore. And it's another innovation in Minister Hunt’s office that I welcome warmly and support enormously. So, thank you very much.


Thank you. Happy to take any questions for Karen or myself.


Just while you’re here Karen, are you finding anecdotally that- you know, during the pandemic, there was a concern that people weren’t going to their GPs for other things other than COVID? How are you finding it post-pandemic? Well, not post-pandemic, but you know.


It’s not over yet.


I guess, here in Melbourne, out of the second wave, how are you finding that?


I think COVID is still dominating the conversation, and as you know about the vaccines, which have been rolled out overseas. In terms of people returning for chronic health conditions, there are still some screening, like breast screening and so forth which are down on their number.

So, we encourage everybody. Now is a perfect time as we’re coming out of lockdown. We've got access to GPs to come and talk about all those niggles, tweaks, squeaks, things that you might’ve missed.

And at the same time, you can have a conversation pre-vaccination to update yourself about what may or may not be known at this stage. So, it’s a perfect time to re-engage with your health.

I think there's been so much focus on a disaster plan that now we need to go into a recovery plan. And that means for those of us who look after other people, we’ve got to attend to our own health needs and then we can start attending to other people in our communities.

The other thing is Christmas time is an amazing time for us all, it’s a festive season in many different cultures. We often stop in Australia and take holidays.

This is a time when you might need to have some very specific information about how to manage that in the context of seeing your loved ones, including your aged care relatives.

So, there's a lot of conversations to be had, and this is part of that preventative care. Putting your seatbelt on when you go into the car. It's not terribly sexy, but it's a good thing to do.


Can I ask you about some other matters?


Yes, of course.


So, just recently today, Jacinda Ardern has said that New Zealand is likely to open up a travel bubble with Australia in the first quarter of next year, given or if there’s no big outbreaks.

What’s your response to that?


We welcome the advice from New Zealand. It’s the second half of the equation. We consciously opened up Australia to people coming from New Zealand because their case numbers were negligible and we knew that there would come a time when our case numbers gave them confidence.

And so this is a sign that New Zealand and Australia aren’t just working together, but that families can be back together in both directions. Friends can be back together in both directions. And flights can be full in both directions, which is good for the economy, good for our airlines, and it’s good for both countries.


So is the Federal Government likely to approve New Zealand’s decision?


Oh, absolutely. And this is very simple, because we’ve already committed to the principle of a two-way bubble.

We’ve established it as a one-way bubble where those coming from New Zealand on the medical advice of the Chief Medical Officer could come safely without quarantine.

Now this gives the chance for New Zealanders or Australians to visit New Zealand, whether it’s for friends, family, weddings, funerals, births, holidays, business, without having to quarantine. It’s the first step on a return to international normality.


And what kind of timeline do you have on it? I know it’s, Jacinda Ardern has only made the announcement today, but when will Aussies be able to head over there?


Well, we’re ready to implement from our side as soon as New Zealand’s ready.

We understand it may take a few more weeks, but we’re working constructively and patiently. New Zealand has been a great partner, and I have previously spoken with my counterpart in New Zealand, and they’ve done well through the pandemic.

Australia's done well through what has been a challenging and a difficult situation for so many people. But now both countries can bear the positive outcomes of that, and that just means more people getting to see their loved ones or people being able to take a well-earned break. And that’s good for Australians, it’s good for New Zealanders.


So, just speaking on that, Minister, New Zealanders can come to Australia un-detained at the moment without needing a vaccine. Will that remain the case once a vaccine becomes available or will you be checking them for vaccination?


So we’ll continue to follow the medical advice, but at the moment, the medical advice is crystal clear from the Chief Medical Officer of Australia Professor Paul Kelly, and that is that people can come from New Zealand without a vaccination because New Zealand has no community transmission at this point in time.


Yeah. On vaccines, there’s been calls from the Australian Education Union for teachers to be among the first to receive a vaccine. What do you make of that?


Look, I have deep respect for all of the views of different groups, but we’ll continue to follow the medical advice, and they’ll go through a careful process of identifying the priorities for the nation, and our position in Australia has been, because we’ve worked with our GPs and medical experts, and we’ll continue to follow the medical expert panel and what is called ATAGI – the Australian Technical Advisory Group Immunisation – which is I think the finest group of practitioners with regards to immunisation in the world and they’ll provide the priorities for Australia, and we’ll do that.


When do they provide that final advice? I understand there’s preliminary.


The first round of advice has been provided, which is health and medical workers, our elderly aged care residents, and then selected critical services that are at risk. And they will provide, before we begin the vaccine rollout, a second round of prioritisation within that.

But there are no surprises, and Australia as position will be very similar to that of other comparable countries, but it is provided by the medical experts, and they do that through assessment of risk and need on the basis of national interest.


Obviously good news out of the US with Pfizer. How does that impact the timeline for the AstraZeneca and other vaccines that you’re hoping will be online early next year?


So, it’s good news for all the world, and it’s good news for Australia. The reason why, obviously, we are on track still to have our early assessments, most likely Pfizer and AstraZeneca, hopefully completed before the end of January with- if it’s a positive approval. and again, that’s subject to the regulator, meaning that we're on track for first vaccines in March.

I spoke yesterday with the global CEO of AstraZeneca, and he reaffirmed that they’re continuing to get good results, and that they are continuing with ongoing disclosure of data to the Australian and other regulators.

They are finding that there are some very, very positive outcomes with their vaccinations, and they’re looking at issues such as the duration between vaccines the size of the first dose. But with what’s occurring overseas, we will have the best information, we think, in the world to keep Australians safe but to make sure that we’re moving quickly.


But there’s no aspects of those vaccines under review like what occured with the UQ vaccine?


No. At this stage, there are no red flags. There are only green lights.


Just coming close to home in Melbourne, you may be aware the Legislative Council here in Parliament delivered a report into the state’s contact tracing system.

Obviously, the Federal Government at the time during the second wave was quite vocal about the inadequacies of the contact tracing system - you yourself may have had views on that at the time.

Do you believe Victoria is up to scratch now?


I think there’s been a very significant improvement in Victoria. We’ll obviously continue to work with and monitor all of the states, but I welcome to improvements in Victoria.

I think when you consider our different rings of containment, hotel quarantine, seven out of eight states were outstanding. Clearly there were some challenges here, but they - we hope and we believe - have been rectified.

Testing, excellent across all eight states and territories. Contact tracing, excellent in seven out of eight states and territories.

And Victoria, it had its challenges, but we stepped in to help, and we now believe that Victoria’s contact tracing is a strong and robust system.

And the proof will be in the pudding, but they’ve made significant changes which we welcome without qualification.

And then the final area, the fourth ring, is the notion of distancing, and as part of that when all else has not been able to contain an outbreak, the lockdowns.

That is the way it works in Australia. We now think that all four rings are strong in Victoria.


But Josh Frydenberg was well against the lockdowns at the time.


No, there are two different things here. No, with great respect.


He was. He was wanting the lockdowns to end at the start.


We supported Victoria going into lockdown. I know because I actually made the statements on behalf of the Prime Minister, myself, and the Treasurer when the contact tracing system was overwhelmed for the Stage 3 and Stage 4.

Once Victoria had its numbers below New South Wales, in terms of where New South Wales was able to operate with minimal restrictions, we believe that, we actually had faith in the Victorian contact tracing system having being rebuilt.

We believed at that point it is was appropriate to adopt the same level of restrictions as New South Wales.


There was a submission to the inquiry from the federal Department of Health, were you briefed on that one?

And were there issues that the federal department brought up with the Victorian Parliament regarding the contact system?


Yes, I am. I know that submission well. There were extensive challenges that the Victorian system faced. When the Australian Defence Force arrived, there were approximately 1000 untraced cases, and that was a matter of significant concern.

But the Defence Force came, and they assisted, and they helped. We’ve had Commodore Mark Hill who helped to lead the transformation in the Victorian system. I think Euan Wallace has done a tremendous job.

I think the other senior officials that they brought in have helped assist in a transformation. And so, they have strengthened their public health system.

They’ve strengthened their contact tracing system. I do think it’s strong. It’s been under the review of the Chief Scientist of Australia, Alan Finkel, who said that in his view, there’s been a significant improvement, and our judgement going forward is that all of the signs are that it’s strong and stable and effective. And I think that’s great news for Victoria and great news for Australia.


Can I ask you about the impending reshuffle expected in the Federal Ministry this week; are you holding, hoping to hang onto your job as Health Minister?


Look, my expectation is that I’ll be remaining in the same role. That’s what I would want to do, the Prime Minister has indicated to me the same thing.

My view is that; this pandemic is not over. And there’s important work to do.

And his belief and my belief is that continuity in Health at this time is just fundamental for confidence, and fundamental for making sure that we have systemic control.

And so, these things are always at pleasure of the boss. But we both have the same views that I’ve got a job to do, and we each want to see the continuity.


He wants to see you stay?


When last we spoke.


Do you expect to add to your portfolio- responsibilities? Or do you expect much change for yourself, or?


I don’t have any expectations of change. These things were always as they are, and always a matter for a Prime Minister whether there are minor variations.

But, that’s a matter for him. The general direction is that health remains as my fundamental task.


Reading into the timing of this, it’s just before Christmas, and Australians are starting to switch off federal politics, there’s a reshuffle?


No, I think you’d talk about the fact that Parliament’s just finished last week, and this week the Prime Minister, the Treasurer and the Finance Minister are focused on what’s called the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, or MYEFO, and that’s due later on in the week.

And I think once that’s done, the Prime Minister will be able to focus on the last part of the puzzle before Christmas.

But we’re all working right up to Christmas, and many of us will be working, like so many of our doctors and nurses, right through the period.

I know for myself, I’m not taking any formal leave, I hope to have a slightly quieter time, based here in Victoria. And it’s just a joy to be back, I was based in Canberra for a long while because we couldn’t move and we had parliament.

But to see, as I did on the weekend for the first time in three months, the faces of families that were going about their business normally, that were being happy. I saw great COVID distancing and safe practices in the community, I was really heartened about that. But just to see the return to safe normality, that was a real sense of Australia’s and Victoria’s achievement.


That’s a good point to end on. There is one question that’s been sent to me by a journalist colleague, Georgie from the ABC in Canberra. She’s asked: When will you be releasing the Government’s response to the allergy and anaphylaxis report which was delivered six months ago?

Will it be released tomorrow?


We are looking at releasing it in the next six weeks. I won’t put a more specific time-frame.

The reason is because; it’s actually something that I’ve taken very seriously, I encourage the House of Representatives Committee to do it.

Katie Allen, who always declares her interest, that she has been one of Australia’s lead physicians, she doesn’t put it that way, she’s more modest about it. But she has been one of Australia’s leading physicians in this area, is advocate within Parliament.

So, we’re actually working through some significant initiatives with regards to allergens, allergies. We know it can be tragic, or they can be deeply troubling for people.

And this has become a real personal passion, so we have taken our time, but the reason we’ve taken our time is because we make some very significant reforms in putting place an initiative.

But I’ll just finish by saying: being here with Dr Karen Price is about reaffirming our partnership with our doctors. Our GPs have been the frontline, along with our nurses, of our battle against COVID. And they have simply been magnificent this year.

Thank you.

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