Doorstop interview on 27 November 2020
Read the transcript of a press conference with Minister Hunt about Extension of telehealth, $4 million for COVID-19 digital health delivery, Quarantine facilities, State borders, travel bubble and returning Australian travellers.
The Hon Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care
To have somebody who’s an outstanding medical professional in his own right as well as an outstanding medical leader, I think, is just incredibly important.
We’ve been meeting this morning about the Australian partnership between the Australian Government and the Australian Medical Association with regards to primary health, specialist health, and, in particular, the vaccination of Australians during the course of 2021 for COVID-19.
And there are a number of very important developments.
Firstly, I should note that the world has now passed 60 million cases. On any one day, over half a million cases are occurring.
And yesterday, agonisingly, we saw the highest daily loss of life on any day since COVID-19 began. Over 12,000 lives lost.
And that shows that, whilst the virus is potentially at a point where it's peaked globally, we still have more to see.
The loss of life has a lag effect, and that's still following the immensely high case numbers of recent weeks.
And so, the outside world is not a safe place. We see that the outside world, beyond Australia's borders, has enormous numbers of cases.
And so, we will, as a world, have to manage COVID-19, at least through 2021 and potentially beyond, and that has implications for Australia.
At the same time, Australia has done incredibly well. We've still had heartache, we've still had tragedy, but the world looks at Australia and overwhelmingly says: we wish we were Australia.
And one of the reasons why - and, Omar, I want to thank you and all of our medical professionals, our doctors and nurses - is I think we have the finest health system, and even more importantly, the finest doctors and nurses and health professionals in the world, without question. And on that basis, it's a privilege to work with the AMA.
In particular, I'm pleased to announce that, for the long term, telehealth will become a permanent part of the Medicare system.
We have just passed 40 million telehealth consultations. They were introduced as a temporary item. But what we're working on is ensuring that this is a permanent transformation in the Australian scheme.
There's not been much good that's come from COVID. One thing that has come from COVID is the fact that we have skipped a decade and jumped from 2030 to 2020 for the delivery of telehealth for all Australians. Universal, whole-of-population telehealth and it will now be permanent.
And I think that's just a wonderful tribute to our medical professionals, but also to everybody who's been involved. And for Australian patients, that's transformative.
As part of that, I'm delighted to announce $4 million today for COVID digital health delivery.
What that means is that there are six projects which are being funded by the Government.
There's been a competitive peer-reviewed assessment process, and the six projects that have been supported include the Sydney Local Health District, for the integrating remote monitoring technology into digital health infrastructure with a COVID focus; Monash University towards a national data management platform, and learning health system. In other words, assisting with a whole-of-nation overview of the impacts of COVID-19. Monash is also delivering real-time modelling of Australia's COVID-19 response. And then we have three projects which are assisting with the communications and messaging for all Australians with regards to COVID-19 and behaviours, and uptake.
As part of that, one of the things that's absolutely critical is to encourage as many Australians to have confidence in, and to take up, the vaccine.
We are in a strong position. Australia has acquired access to four vaccines. All of those are progressing well, and each day there's news and there's progress, and there will be ups and downs in the vaccine process.
But what we're seeing is very clear evidence that the world will have not just one but a series of effective and safe vaccines. And that's, I think, good news for Australia, and good news for the world.
What we were focusing on in particular is that the general practice will be the cornerstone of delivery for most Australians for the vaccine.
But we'll work through a variety of different distribution mechanisms, and our first priorities, as we've said, will be our doctors, our nurses, our aged care workers, our pharmacists, our pathologists, our health workers who are on the front line, our elderly, and other critical workers that are defined by the medical expert panel.
And so, that's the pathway. And as we've been through the vaccine journey, we've had to select, acquire, test, design the distribution mechanism, and then ultimately to focus on making sure that the public has full access to their own records, as they all will through the Australian Immunisation Registry.
And we couldn’t have done this without our medical team, and to have a partnership with the AMA and our Australian medical professionals is our privilege, but it’s recognising what I think has been the year of our doctors and our nurses and our health professionals.
They’ve been our national heroes this year and, Omar, I want to thank you but also thank you for your support in helping Australians have confidence in COVID-19 vaccines that will save lives and protect lives.
Thank you, Greg. First, I would very much like to thank the Minister for his commitment to healthcare and in particular, to deliver telehealth for all Australians in recordly short time.
A reform that has been, in our view, long over due but it’s one that has been, I guess, a silver lining of the COVID pandemic. And it will transform healthcare in this country for many, many years to come.
I’d also like to say that, we as an AMA, are very confident in the Government’s approach to the vaccinations for COVID.
We have very strong regulatory regimes here in Australia. It’s good that our Government acted early to provide us, as Australians, with access to a number of different vaccines, we didn’t have all our eggs in the one basket.
And it’s really pleasing and perhaps, almost a little surprising that in fact so many of these vaccines, at least at first glance, are doing so well in their phase three testing.
We’ve talked today a lot about just how these mechanisms are going to come in place into getting vaccines out into the community once they’ve been properly tested and approved by our regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration.
The big challenge – and it’s a challenge that will be bigger than anything that we’ve done before is to rollout a program very, very quickly to our entire population and that’s going to involve our whole health sector working together to make sure that we deliver the right vaccine to the right patient at the right time.
And I’m pleased that the Minister has identified that the best place for that to occur is in general practice where your family doctor, who knows your circumstances, can give you the advice you need in terms of your decision making around the vaccine, around which vaccine, around when to have it and make sure that those records are recorded on the immunisation register so that if there are requirements for you to prove that you are immune when you travel, you will be actually be able to do that through our existing immunisation register.
It is really important though – and this is a message I’d like to leave with all Australians that we do not fall into complacency whilst we welcome this news around the vaccine success so far.
It is still critically important that we do all the things that we need to do, as directed by our state governments, in order to reduce the risk of this virus getting out into the community and causing another large outbreak before we have access to these life-changing vaccines that are coming.
There is very much a light at the end of the tunnel but we’re not there yet and it’s really important that we all do the right thing over the summer that’s coming so that we don’t have a very painful winter if there are any delays to the vaccines.
But on the whole, really enjoyed coming to Canberra for the first time today since starting as AMA President, and having a chance to meet face-to-face with Minister Hunt and go through these really important health care issues. Thank you.
Great, thank you.
Minister, what makes you think that COVID-19 has peaked?
What we’re seeing is, out of Europe, a reduction in some of the daily numbers. The world is certainly in the midst of some of the highest numbers, and agonisingly the worst death rates.
The European numbers are beginning to show a decline, and I think that’s heartening and positive.
The death rate is, agonisingly, still climbing. And there is a lead time, and it’s a number of weeks, and so the cases today will lead to lives being lost in coming weeks. The cases in previous weeks are now sadly taking their toll in terms of lives being lost.
The United States still has a long journey to go; there is no question. And as we’ve seen, this virus can come back with a vengeance and it can strike quickly.
We saw in South Australia an example of the fact that we’re not out of the woods yet, and I think Omar’s point is absolutely right; the virus can strike, and can spread quickly.
But South Australia was tested and passed, and it shows that our systems are strong.
We’ve got four elements to our containment in Australia; our international borders, our testing, our tracing and our distancing.
So, over the summer, we’re still going to have to practice distancing, that these notions of keeping distance, even if we’re in the same household, they’re hard but they’re lifesaving.
Abroad, as I say, we’re seeing some heartening signs that the European numbers are beginning to drop and moderate, not in every country, but overall in Europe.
But there’s still a long way to go, and with tens and tens of thousands every day, it can come back very quickly.
Minister, can I ask both you and President Omar if that’s okay, Victoria has today recorded 28 consecutive days without a single case or a single death, now no community transmission there.
The Western Australian Premier previously said that reopening borders to states like Victoria could be considered once there had been 28 days of no community transmission.
Should Western Australian, in your view, now open up? And President, as a West Australian, should Western Australia now open to Victoria?
All right. So, look, from our perspective, from a- the Commonwealth follows the advice of the Chief Medical Officer of Australia, Professor Paul Kelly, and Professor Kelly’s advice continues to be that there’s no basis on Commonwealth definitions for any state or territory to be closed to any state or territory.
But we are respectful of the different roles and decisions of each state and territory, but we would encourage them to look at the epidemiology.
And Australia’s results have been magnificent, and I say, congratulations to Victoria. My state has been through a hard time, but it’s in a good place now.
And we’ll continue to monitor, but it is in a good place now, and that’s good news for every Australia.
And this, ultimately though, isn’t about governments, it’s about mums and dads being able to reunite with sons and daughters, it’s about brothers and sisters, it’s about families and friends, it’s about weddings and births, funerals and deaths.
And this is about the human contacts, and if Australians can reunite, if we can reconnect, then that’s something which we should support but in a COVID-safe way, exactly as Omar said.
Speaking as a West Australian, I do have to say that Premier McGowan has presided over a regime that has protected Western Australians extraordinarily well from the virus.
But the situation has now changed, and there is no risk of contracting COVID from a Victorian if there’s no community transmission in Victoria.
So, I think the time is certainly coming that the West Australia border will open to other states, and in particular, to Victoria.
It is an extraordinary effort that has occurred, and I think many, many experts said that it was impossible to eradicate COVID from a community that had so many cases like Victoria.
And, yet again, Australia has proven all those experts wrong, and we have yet another state that has achieved elimination.
So, congratulations to Victoria, and I think we can look forward to a situation where all our borders are open in the fairly near future.
And ironically, because of the lack of social distancing and the complacency in Western Australia that we're all guilty of, me included, WA’s probably at more risk of COVID now than Victoria is.
I will say this, as a Victorian, I'm pleased to be told by Omar that I'm not a risk. So anyway, sorry, I think your question is for Omar.
The AMA has expressed concerns about telehealth over the past few months about the quality of care, and easy ways that addicts can work the system.
Now that it’s been made permanent, would you like to see some more safeguards introduced?
The details of what exactly the arrangements around telehealth will look like are still being discussed with Government, and they're still to be seen.
But telehealth has been a really life changing event for many Australians, and especially those who are struggling to get into the doctor or those who are vulnerable to COVID.
So, the benefits have vastly outweighed the risks.
We do though want to support the normal model of good patient care, where patients go to their family doctor, they get looked after.
And whether that occurs in the clinic or whether that occurs over the telephone or over a video conference, shouldn’t actually matter.
Minister, how confident are you (inaudible) able to start vaccinating in March given that the question marks have emerged over the AstraZeneca report overnight?
Does that affect the TGA’s approval process?
So, the TGA operates independently, and the TGA is, in a way, both a tough cop on the beat, and I think the best regulator in the world.
So, our vaccine timeframe is unchanged.
We welcome further testing; I think that's a really important part of it.
We will not approve, Australia will not approve unless we are absolutely convinced that a vaccine is both safe and effective.
The data on all of the leading vaccines has been good, and I'm looking forward to more positive news on other vaccines in coming weeks on preliminary briefings that we've had.
But what we do know is that it now appears that the world will have a variety of safe and effective vaccines, and Australia's been fortunate in our choices.
We've had excellent advice to both choose and acquire vaccines that look as if that they will be safe and effective, and that will mean that we're on track to begin in March.
That's unchanged, on the latest advice I have.
Is your advice this is just a bump in the road, or nothing too serious?
No, this is all part of the expected process.
We are ahead of schedule on our vaccine acquisitions, our testing and planning.
And so, my advice continues to be, in terms of what I've received, but what also I'm giving is that we're on track to deliver first vaccine to our medical professionals, our aged care workers, and subject to approvals, our elderly, beginning in March.
Do you concede that you- more needs to be done to get some stranded- or many stranded Australians back home?
Look, we we're always working on that. And there's a report in the Northern Territory news that we're looking to double the capacity of Howard Springs for Australians coming home, and that report’s correct.
We are very close to concluding an agreement with the Northern Territory to double the capacity for Howard Springs, which is the quarantine facility, to bring home more Australians earlier.
So, what we see is that we've exceeded our targets of bringing Australians home, but as is the case, always there are more people looking to come home.
So, we have to work with the states on expanding hotel quarantine capacity, but we're also working directly with the Northern Territory on doubling capacity.
And that report in the NT news today was, frankly, absolutely accurate.
Just on the comments from the AMA President there, Omar, about WA, (inaudible) ask you, he seems to be suggesting that WA isn't as match fit for COVID because it hasn't had the exposure because the borders have been locked down.
Do you share that concern, and do you urge Premier McGowan to get tougher on social distancing, and-?
Well, there are probably two different things. I’ll let Omar speak for himself on this, given that he's right here.
But the first is in terms of their contact tracing. Their contact tracing is first class, they have a system which was well established. I think the former chief health officer, Tarun Weeramanthri, has been one of Australia's great public health specialists and leaders over the last decade, and he helped establish that system to the current level, and he's effectively been consulting to Victoria and South Australia as they've had their outbreaks.
And WA is helping and has been helping with the contact tracing in South Australia.
So, they helped with Victoria, they’re helping with South Australia and I spoke with, Roger Cook, who’s the Health Minister and Deputy Premier I think twice this week. And he says, this is helping them just to keep their system tuned and tight.
So, I think their contact tracing system is outstanding and in outstanding condition.
The point that the Prime Minister has made, which is identical to the one that Omar has made, is that we want to make sure that the distancing practices of keeping that physical separation of keeping that process of checking in and recording in cafes and restaurants, that that is up to date, and that that’s being practiced by the population and I think that that’s a very timely reminder.
So, I couldn’t agree more with the point that Omar is making now.
Minister, given that we’ve seen 28 days of no cases in Victoria; how close do you think we are now to a two-way travel bubble with New Zealand or is this one way (inaudible)?
Well we are working very closely with New Zealand, so you’re right. We’ve opened up the one-way flow.
We’re respectful at New Zealand looking at Australia’s outcomes. But, we’re now, most days, at close to zero transmission and on many days, at zero community cases of transmission.
We’re still mopping up the final cases that are coming out of South Australia, but there have been no cases outside of the known contacts.
Does that mean we’re close?
I think – I won’t put a time frame on it. But, I would say that it’s not just within sight, it’s within reach.
So, we are within reach of a two-way travel bubble with New Zealand; I’ll let New Zealand determine when they’re comfortable, because we’re very respectful of that.
They were rightly cautious about the outbreak in Victoria and then, South Australia. But, New Zealand’s had its own outbreaks.
And I need to say this: as we head towards December and Christmas, there will be outbreaks inevitably in Australia.
Whilst we’re in contact with a world that has more than half a million cases a day, whether it’s a touch, a breath, whether it’s a surface, one of those.
Whether it’s through the hotel quarantine system and bringing Australians home, as you rightly asked, whether it’s sending our wool or wheat overseas, whether it’s bringing critical medicines into Australia.
That interaction with the outside world, which is critical to us driving and prospering as a nation, means that there’s always engagement and there’s always the possibility of transfer.
So, we presume that there will be cases, we’re doing unbelievably well.
But that match fit idea of keeping ourselves aware of the risk and then keeping our systems on total daily alert means that we’re always going to have to face it.
Until we have a world which has been fully vaccinated and until we have a country which has had every Australian who wishes to be vaccinated, vaccinated.
Minister, is that essentially a message – with what you were saying there, about the need to basically look (inaudible) there will be cases coming out over the next few months.
Is that a message to the states that they need to hold their nerve on this?
We saw South Australia shut down over a pizza worker; we saw Victoria get out of control because of complacency over hotel quarantine and significant failures in contact tracing.
Do they need to hold their nerve, when it comes to these outbreaks?
So, our message is very clear, that we’re not immune but we are prepared. And we were prepared when we came into this and you know, frankly, our public health officials, our medical system allowed us to do that.
I think the World Health Organization said in 2017 and 18 that Australia was right at the global forefront of preparedness and they were right.
So, we are prepared and we should be confident that we can manage it, but we should be aware that each and every one of us can help save a life or inadvertently risk a life through our behaviour.
So, what does that mean? It means we’re going to work in partnership with the states.
We supported South Australia with contact tracing support, with aged care support, with testing support and they stood up magnificently.
But, the message is through summer, though Christmas, the risk will be with us and we have to stay safe, but be confident.
Minister, probably a bit of a left field one, but given the sort of the requirements, it looks like the Government is going to have that you have to be vaccinated to get back in the country or do hotel quarantine.
Is there any consideration being given as to how you might be able to vaccinate those thousands of Australians stranded overseas ahead of the time before they get on the flight to come to Australia?
I mean, I know it’s incredibly-
That’s a fair question. So, on vaccination, the first thing is that it’s going to be free and voluntary and we’ll make it universally available to every Australian that seeks it.
The second thing is we will give consideration to the circumstances of Australians overseas; we haven’t made a decision on that, I think it’s important and the PM’s been very upfront, that through COVID, we set out where we’re at and where we’re going.
That’s one of those items which is for consideration going forwards and distribution is very difficult.
So, it may be that we have reciprocal arrangements with other countries, it may be that we look at what options are available.
But, currently, every Australian or every person who comes into Australia has to quarantine.
We won’t be imposing a requirement that people are vaccinated to come into Australia, but it’s likely that we will say that either you quarantine or if you’ve got a vaccine, that’s verified, you don’t have to quarantine.
So, sometimes it’s been said that we would impose a requirement that people are vaccinated, that’s not correct.
We will have a default position through COVID-19, whilst it continues to be a significant issue in the world, that it’s quarantine or if you have been vaccinated in a way that’s verified, then you won’t have to quarantine.
And on that question of Australians abroad, we will be encouraging them to – in the same way that we’re encouraging everybody in Australia to have a safe approved vaccine to do that, we’ll be encouraging them and we’ll also be considering ways in which we might be able to assist.
Whether that’s through reciprocal arrangements, access to private markets or if in some circumstances, we might be able to provide verified vaccines from Australia.
Okay, thank you very much.