Doorstop interview on 17 January 2021
Read the transcript of a press conference with Minister Hunt about removal of last remaining hotspot definition, Pfizer vaccine and the Australian Open.
The Hon Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care
Good morning, and thank you for joining us today.
I’m pleased to be able to provide advice that the Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly, has today removed the last remaining hotspot definition in Australia.
He has removed the hotspot definition from the Commonwealth for the Greater Brisbane area, after reviewing the last 14 days since the case involving the UK strain from hotel quarantine, which passed through a quarantine worker.
And he’s been very pleased, and we are very thankful to everybody involved in Queensland. It’s the Queensland Government, it’s the medical workers, the pathologists, the extraordinary testing, and above all else, the Queensland community.
There were some difficult decisions that had to be made, which we did support – decisions by the Queensland Government, and the Prime Minister and the Australian Government were very, very clear in our unequivocal support for measures which were taken out of an abundance of precaution, but which had been an important step.
Similarly, what this shows is that we are containing the virus. There are no remaining hotspot definitions.
Of course, inevitably, there will be days of new cases. There will be days where there may be a requirement for a Commonwealth hotspot definition to be reintroduced, but that’ll be done on the basis of facts and cases.
But we have very, very clear evidence that the Australian system has been tested and tested again and continues to pass.
We’ve had outbreaks in South Australia recently, in New South Wales, in Queensland, and in Victoria, and all of them have responded magnificently in partnership with the Commonwealth, in partnership with the Australian public.
And it could be anywhere, it could be anytime. The states will report on their cases today, as will the territories, and we’ll get those numbers later on.
But I think it's important, perhaps, to put what's occurring in Australia in context with the rest of the world. And we’ve put together data over the course of the last three days, and in Australia, we have had one case of community transmission.
Around the world, there have been over 2.2 million cases. One case of community transmission in Australia, and 2.2 million cases around the world.
And although what we face is challenging, and it can be disconcerting and disrupting, the results in Australia are light-years away, a universe away from what we're seeing in so much of the rest of the world.
Indeed, that's underscored by the agonising figures with regards to loss of life. In Australia, we've been blessed. No lives lost in the last three days. Around the world, over 47,000 lives lost in three days to COVID-19.
And so that, I think, just underscores the immense achievement and progress. We’re not out of the woods because the world isn’t out of the woods. And our challenges remain always whilst there is a disease that is abroad in the rest of the world, but Australians are doing incredibly well, our systems are holding up.
And in fact, over the course of that time, those three days, there've been over 160,000 tests conducted in Australia. And again, thank you to all of the Australian people who have come out to be tested, and please continue that process of being tested.
It's important to understand that our real challenge, our real threat, is international, not domestic. And over the course of those three days, there’s been the one case of community transmission. There have been all up 40 cases in Australia, of which 39 have been in hotel quarantine.
And so that's an exemplar of that at the same time, we must provide a pathway and bring people home, including the extra 20 flights that were announced early yesterday.
But it does come with challenges. That's where our risk is. And hopefully today's announcement is reassurance and ways forward. There'll be more cases. Could be today, with the announcements from the states. And that's inevitable.
And we just need to recognise and prepare for that. But be aware that that we have been able to do this as a nation in a way that very few others around the world have been able to do, and that's simply a tribute to all the elements of the Australian response and the Australian medical fraternity and the Australian people above all else.
At the same time, we prepare for a vaccine and we continue with all of our paths.
I do want to make comment on a report from Norway with regards to the possible consequences of the Pfizer vaccine.
We have immediately sought, and I have been in contact with the Australian medical regulator, the TGA, this morning and requested that they seek additional information both from the company but also from the Norwegian medical regulator.
We have been in contact with the Foreign Minister, and Marise Payne will task DFAT to seek advice directly from the Norwegian Government.
In addition, I’ve briefed both the Acting Prime Minister and the Prime Minister's office today.
So as further information is available, we'll share that with the Australian public.
Also, though, at the same time, what we have seen is a heartening report from the CDC, or Center for Disease Control, based in Atlanta in the United States, which had reviewed approximately 1.8 million doses of, I believe, the same vaccine, the Pfizer vaccine, with very positive results in terms of both the safety and the efficacy.
But this is exactly why, as a nation, we have been absolutely clear from when the Prime Minister and myself joined our Chief Medical Regulator, the head of the Therapeutic Goods Administration, Professor John Skerrit in the Prime Minister’s courtyard and outlined the process.
We were absolutely clear and we remain absolutely clear that safety is Australia's number one priority.
Safety is Australia's number one priority, and so we'll continue to follow the processes of the medical regulator, because that's going to keep Australians safe and ultimately provide confidence.
I want to thank everybody, and I'd be delighted to take your questions. I think Taylor for Channel 7.
Thank you, Minister, for your time this morning. If I may, just on this extra information from Norway, do you or the TGA anticipate that this will slightly delay the general approval? And how important is it that we keep things in perspective and keep pubic confidence around vaccines high?
Well, I think confidence is absolutely critical, but confidence comes from the Australian people knowing that we have the best medical regulator in the world, in my view, and that we have the best processes in the world in my view.
And we've been absolutely clear, even though there are some that wanted to shortcut or bypass some of the processes that we wouldn't do that, that if we are focussed on safety above all else, then the Australian public knows that we are being absolutely thorough.
And to have a cautious but highly focused media regulator who is taking into account all of the evidence from around the world, and we don't know yet whether this is a function simply of age and people who are older and sadly facing the natural loss of their life or whether there's any causation that hasn't been asserted as yet. But we're proceeding with an abundance of caution.
So there's no change in our timeframes at this point, but the medical regulator is completely empowered, completely empowered, to make independent decisions. That's how they operate. That's what they do.
And they have an independent panel of advisers, they run an independent process, and to have, I think, the best medical regulator in the world, being able, as we said earlier, to learn from what's occurring, whether it's in Norway, the UK, the United States, from their emergency processes, whilst we conduct a similar full-assessment process to New Zealand, Japan, Korea, Taiwan.
That I think is heartening, that's what will provide the confidence and balance for the Australian public.
At the same time, looking at what's occurred, looking at what has come out of the CDC in the United States.
Thank you, Minister. Just still on this issue in Norway that relates to elderly with serious health conditions, you said that our schedule wouldn’t change here, but given the situation in Norway, would cohorts like aged care residents and the elderly, would they be shifted on our priority list for all of the rollouts because of this information?
Sure. So, look, at this point there’s no change, but we'll follow the medical regulator's advice.
And one of the things that a medical regulator does, or what's known as the Therapeutic Goods Administration in Australia, or the TGA, is they provide advice on to whom and under what conditions.
So it's very feasible, for example, that a medical regulator, or our TGA, might choose that a vaccine would apply in certain age groups or not to people in certain immune conditions.
That's something which they do routinely. For example, at this stage there's no presentation before the TGA on adolescents and children.
And so they're not looking at this point at making a decision in relation to under-18s. That would be a consideration for further down the track later on in the year once there is clear evidence.
Similarly, they look at all age groups, and so any medicine or any vaccine should be and is subject to that assessment, and it’s perfectly feasible that the TGA with any medicine or any vaccine would provide conditions as to whom and in which circumstances a vaccine may be provided and would also outline any groups which wouldn't be provided with a vaccine until there was sufficient evidence.
Could the TGA recommend holding off on the Pfizer vaccine for this particular group and having them wait for one of the other vaccines?
So, the TGA has full authority and full empowerment to make whatever recommendations they believe.
I know there are some who wanted to skip those processes or to shortcut those processes. And this is exactly why we have emphasised throughout that we believe for Australia, given those extraordinarily positive outcomes with regards to cases, that we have to follow the full safety processes.
And with those safety processes protect Australians, and by protecting Australians we have confidence, and if we have confidence we have a higher take up, and if we have higher take up then we have great protection in turn.
So all of these things reinforce each other, and we're in a globally fortunate position, but really a globally fortunate position because of the work that we've been able to do domestically of our international borders, our testing, our tracing, and our distancing, which have delivered results that truly are remarkable by global standards. Nour.
Thanks, Minister, for your update. Just on another issue, there are now two positive COVID cases on two separate planes carrying tennis players and officials.
Sorry, Nour’s just dropped out, but I think she was asking about the Australian Open.
So, the Victorian Government, through the Chief Health Officer and other medical officials, are monitoring and setting the terms and conditions for those that are arriving.
They have a pre-screening process, they have a subsequent quarantining process. And this is what we’re doing as a country with all of our international arrivals.
So we respect that process. We respect the steps they're taking and also the way that they responded. We think that that's appropriate.
But in particular, we are very keen to ensure that our priority is bringing Australians home, and also, as a result of the removal of the last of the hot spot definitions, ensuring that Australians who are within our borders are able to reunite with their families as soon as possible.
So Nour, I'm not sure whether you're back on? Or if not, Christina.
Thank you so much, Minister. On that, do you think it was the right thing to do to bring the Australian Open here, back home?
And also just a second question on the Maxwell Plus artificial prostate screening, just on that one, do you see room for developing this?
With regards to the Australian Open, we respect not only the right, but also the processes of particular states to screen, to monitor, and to conduct events, whether it's the Melbourne test, the Sydney test, the Brisbane test, the Adelaide test, whether it is the current event which the Victorian Government have been planning, and we think that they have taken appropriate steps.
But our priority as a national government is helping to bring Australians home, which is why we’ve announced the extra 20 flights, and to allow Australians within our own borders to return home to reunite with their families.
With regards to the prostate cancer test, this is one of a number of very promising new breakthroughs with regards to prostate cancer testing, treatment, awareness.
One of the first things that I did after being reappointed as Health Minister following the election was ask Cancer Australia to review new screening opportunities. We have identified lung cancer as a priority, prostate cancer as a priority.
We're making huge progress. So I welcome this progress today.
Obviously, like our medicines, our devices, our screening programmes and our vaccines, this would be subject to the medical regulator's assessment. But I think it's a really positive step forward. And Daniel.
Minister, Daniel Harris from Guardian Australia. You mentioned about the Australian Open procedures that have been put in place. Just to be very clear, do you fully back procedures that have been put in place and expect there won’t be any problems?
And secondly, you can understand, I imagine, why people would be nervous about this event proceeding. What’s your message to stranded Australians overseas? The announcement yesterday that the Government needs to do more to help Australians get home.
Look, one of the critical things here is that in bringing Australians home, our task has been to make sure two things occur.
Firstly, that we are getting our friends and our family home. Secondly, that we're protecting Australia from the virus and that that's why we have in place one of the toughest quarantine arrangements in the world.
Some are critical of it, but it's so important. We've seen, as I say, one case within the community in Australia in the last three days, another 39 cases in quarantine. And so we have to have a balance.
With the UK strain, there was a partnership through National Cabinet where the states and territories and the Commonwealth agreed that there would be a temporary reduction in some numbers for hotel quarantine whilst the UK strain and our ability to manage it was investigated.
And look, today’s a very good and positive step forward with the determination Chief Medical Officer with regards to the Brisbane hotspot.
And so generally we have full confidence in all of the states and territories. What we've seen is the systems have been tested. I mentioned four examples recently: South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, where they've had outbreaks, and they’ve all done extraordinarily well.
But there'll be more cases whilst there is a global pandemic. And when you see 2.2 million cases in three days and one in the community in Australia, then what that means is that there are challenges abroad and safety at home, but we're not immune.
So all the states and territories, we believe, having been through the Finkel review, the Halton review, constant engagement through the AHPPC, or the medical expert panel, and constant engagement with the Commonwealth are well prepared, and they continue to stand up, and together in that partnership between the Commonwealth and the states, we continue to keep Australians safe.
There'll be challenges. There'll be cases. But I want to say to Australians, thank you. And of all the countries in the world, we are in one of the strongest positions.
And truly, there is no place I would rather be, and people say that to me every day.
Thank you. Take care.