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Doorstop interview with an update on COVID-19 vaccine rollout, Auckland, NZ being made a hot spot, Private Health Insurance on 25 February 2021

Read the transcript of the press conference with Minister Hunt, in Canberra on 24 February with an update oHoly Spirit Home vaccine situation in Carseldine; COVID-19 vaccine rollout; Auckland, NZ being made a hot spot; Private Health Insurance Legislation Amendment Bill.

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

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Good afternoon, I’m pleased to be joined today by the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Professor Michael Kidd, who has been making inquiries into the Holy Spirit Home in Carseldine. I’m going to address briefly, if I may, four things, and then Michael will also speak with you.

Firstly, the follow up to the incident in relation to Holy Spirit Home in Carseldine. Secondly, as part of that, the overall aged care rollout and the broader national rollout, where we have some very positive figures today, I’d be pleased to say.

Thirdly, to deal with the news out of New Zealand and the Commonwealth hot spot declaration made by the Chief Medical Officer. And, fourthly, the Aged Care Royal Commission and, related to that, private health insurance.

If I may, in relation to the Holy Spirit Home in Carseldine, just before joining you, Michael and I spoke with Dr Liz Rushbrook, who is the Chief Medical Officer of Metro North in Queensland.

She's overseeing the care of the two patients, the 88-year-old male and the 94-year-old female who were given more than the recommended dose. Her advice to us was very good and very heartening. Both patients are well. Neither is suffering any adverse effects.

The woman will return home to her residential home in the facility after she's had lunch today. That was the request of the family. The man will stay in hospital for no other reason other than he was actually admitted in preparation for elective surgery and an appropriate procedure unrelated to this.

So, the fact that the surgery is proceeding, the fact that the woman in question is returning home, is, I think, a very positive sign. That is the first and foremost element.

Secondly, of course, Michael has now completed his investigation, and I will allow him to go through his findings. But, in particular, the bottom line here is that the doctor in question administered a dose in breach of the recommended and prescribed amounts, believed to be approximately four times the recommended dose. But as Michael will explain, that this is similar to those amounts which were administered during the clinical trials and has also occurred in other places. But it was an unacceptable action.

As we now know, contrary to the advice given in writing as well as verbally by the company yesterday, the doctor wasn't trained. And so as a consequence of that, there will be a medical referral in relation to the doctor.

The company has had the book thrown at it by Professor Brendan Murphy, as secretary, not something he does very often, and a series of actions are occurring.

Firstly, they have been put on notice of potential termination for any significant further breaches. Secondly, they have brought in their Chair to act in an executive administration role. Thirdly, they've brought in additional senior management. Fourth, at the Commonwealth's request, the Commonwealth has installed the clinical leadership of the former Chief Nursing and Midwifery Officer of Australia, Deb Thoms.

And we will be standing up additional support in New South Wales and in Queensland for aged care. We will be bringing on an additional provider. This particular provider, Healthcare Australia, operates under contract in those two states.

So, that then brings me to the broader rollout. At this stage, as of last evening, the advice I

have is that 71 aged care facilities had been completed, and 4,715 aged care residents had been vaccinated.

Today, we're expecting over 20 additional facilities. We always check at the end of the day to be done. And in particular they're dealing with some of the more complex facilities. And well over 1,600 additional patients to be vaccinated.

Importantly, the advice from Liz was that yesterday, 60 patients were vaccinated at Holy Spirit Carseldine, and today the program is continuing. And they were expecting over 95 per cent take-up. Of course, individuals who may be in the later stages of their lives or have an illness may not be vaccinated under those circumstances. But the take-up in that facility is extraordinary and heartening. And we are seeing very high take-up rates around the country and our facilities.

In addition, the advice that I have is that, as of yesterday evening, the national vaccination program, in cooperation with the states, had completed over 17,500 vaccinations. The ramp-up over the course of the first three days has been approximately 1,600, then 6,000, then almost 10,000. And so what we're seeing is exactly as planned. From a small base, continuous growth.

We've always said that there would be challenges and there would be issues. The one that occurred this week was earlier, and certainly more concerning than that which was anticipated. And, you know, I have apologised for that, and we apologise for that again. But it is very important to see that this program is actually rolling out right around the country.

I will make one point here, that in six of the eight states and territories, the provider Aspen is meeting all of their deadlines and contracts. There had been some reports out of New South Wales and Queensland, which are accurate, where facilities which had expected to be vaccinated today have not been, and that is because the provider in question, Healthcare Australia, slowed down their rollout in response to a demand from the department that they provide an absolute guarantee of clinical certainty and quality. They were reviewing their practices this morning.

I would note that the particular agency has been engaged in New South Wales for hotel quarantine, in Victoria for hotel quarantine, in Western Australia for hotel quarantine, in the Northern Territory for hotel quarantine, and in other COVID emergency response roles in Western Australia, New South Wales, and Victoria.

Having said that, Brendan threw the book at them. They are on notice of termination.

But around the country, around the country, the program is proceeding and we're delighted at those figures which will continue to grow.

Briefly, I mentioned New Zealand. The Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer, because of additional cases in and around Auckland, along with the medical expert panel, has declared Auckland to be a hot spot. And that will remain in place until 6 March of this year, but with a review at 72 hours.

So, it's a three-day review, and that remains the case. And then the states have responded accordingly.

Then, briefly, with regards to the Aged Care Royal Commission, the advice that I have is that the royal commissioners will be conveying their report to the Governor-General during the course of tomorrow.

I will receive the report after the Governor-General has been provided with the report. We haven't seen it. And we are anticipating it could be well over a thousand pages and there could be more than a hundred recommendations. But I don't know.

The Government will review it carefully. Obviously we have been preparing for a range of possible contingencies, but we'll review it carefully over the weekend. We will release the report and provide an interim response by the middle of next week, and we will provide a full response during the course of the Budget, because it will actually be a major initiative, as the Prime Minister and the Treasurer have previously indicated. And so, they'll do that.

Lastly, I just want to note that the Private Health Insurance Legislation Amendment Age of Dependence Bill has been introduced into the Parliament.

Why is this important? It does two things. It lifts the age at which people can be considered dependents for the purpose of private health insurance, from 24 to 31, and it removes any age barrier for people with a disability to be considered dependents.

It means that they have better capacity to be part of a family package, which increases the potential take-up of private health insurance. And this comes as, this week, we've had advice of an increase of 56,000 people with private health insurance, an increase of 0.1 per cent. And what is interesting is that that was contrary to our expectations during the course of COVID.

So, many of the reforms which have been put in place, the fact that we’ve had the lowest private health insurance rise in 20 years, and of course, the premium that people are placing on their own health may well have come together to provide those outcomes.



Thank you, Minister. So, an update on the investigation that I've been carrying out into this incident. A mistake was made, a human error, and a serious error, and, of course, we need to learn from these mistakes if they occur.

This error should not have happened and we apologise to the residents and their families and the carers at the facility for the distress that this has caused.

I'm advised that it appears that the two residents received the equivalent of four doses of the vaccine, but this is still to be verified.

During clinical trials, similar high doses, or higher doses, of the Pfizer vaccine were initially used without significant side effects being reported among the recipients. There have also been similar incidents of incorrect administration of higher doses of the vaccine reported in other countries as they have been rolling out their vaccines, including in Germany and the United Kingdom.

As the Minister has said, both the residents are doing very well. They have not experienced any side effects in relation to this dosage. And as we've heard, one resident is returning home and the other is staying in hospital for an unrelated reason.

The doctor concerned made a serious mistake. He delivered an incorrect dose of the vaccine to two people. He had not undertaken the required training on the safe use of the Pfizer vaccine. This incident has been reported, as is required, to the appropriate regulatory authority, the Office of the Health Ombudsman in Queensland, which will make a determination about whether to refer the incident on to the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency, AHPRA.

I have been advised by the company that this doctor has not been involved in the delivery of vaccines at any other facilities. The Chief Executive Officer of HCA had advised the Department of Health that this doctor and all health professionals involved in the immunisation rollout had had their registration checked as part of their employment, that all the health professionals involved had completed the compulsory online training provided through the Australian College of Nursing. And the company had also advised that it had cited copies of the successful Certificate of Completion of the course for each of the health professionals involved in the vaccine rollout.

This advice was subsequently rescinded by the HCA Chief Executive Officer, following further review by the Department of Health. HCA then advised that the doctor had not completed the required training. They advised, however, that all other HCA immunisers have completed the training, and they also advised this doctor had not been involved in the vaccine rollout in other facilities.

The company responsible for the rollout of the vaccine in residential aged care facilities in Queensland, Healthcare Australia, HCA, is clearly at fault here.

Two serious breaches have occurred. The doctor engaged by HCA acted without the required training and delivered an incorrect result of the vaccine to the two residents. The company did not meet its requirements under its contract with the Australian Government Department of Health.

This doctor should not have been permitted to carry out these vaccinations without having completed the required training. This doctor should not have been permitted to carry out these vaccinations without proof of his completion of training being cited by the company. And this doctor should not have been required to carry out these vaccinations as the sole registered health professional deployed by the company to this site.

I am advised that the doctor was accompanied by non-clinician staff of HCA, who were assisting in supporting the residents and the facility in the vaccine rollout, but they were not involved in the vaccine administration.

As the Minister has advised, the rollout of the vaccine now continues at that facility with 96 per cent of residents and their families agreeing to proceed with the vaccination.

And this demonstrates how clearly the people of Australia accept the importance of this vaccine in saving lives and preventing serious illness.

Safety remains our paramount concern for the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccination program. This breach of quality and safety has been unacceptable. And as the Minister has said, the company has been put on notice by the secretary of the Department of Health that any further breach will see their contract terminated. Thank you, Minister.


Great. I’m happy to go, and we’ll have to finish at 1:40pm. So, we’ll go first here.


Professor Kidd, did the doctor lie to HCA or did HCA lie to the Government about his completion that of training? And also, in regards to the fact that there was no other (inaudible) staff from HCA with him, do they have enough staff to do this and who is (inaudible)?


So, HCA provided incorrect information to the Department of Health about the doctor having completed the training. And the issue of the staff, we are now working with HCA, reviewing the staffing arrangements that they have for each of the facilities. And there will be further advice on that coming from Deb Thoms, who as the Minister has advised, is now working with the company.


They're working on a number of facilities elsewhere without incident, with appropriate numbers. I know the department worked with them through the night to ensure that. But, we instructed that the former Chief Nursing and Midwifery Officer would become the onsite clinical overseer, given her history and qualifications.


Thank you, Minister. Professor Kidd, were you able to identify who from Healthcare Australia signed off on this doctor being involved? Did they cite a document saying that he completed the training? Yesterday we were told that this was a simple error. Is it something more than that?


They did not cite the certificate that he completed the training because he had not completed the training at the time that he delivered these vaccines.


Did he say that he had?


We're not aware of whether he said he had or not.


They've told us, it was in writing, I know the Chief Medical Officer received the advice in writing, that the full training had been completed. And in discussions they also indicated that they had it in writing and that they had cited the certificate. So, that was false.


Professor, in light of this, are you going to be mandating that more than one doctor visits every site? Is that going to be something that we're going to see across the rollout from here on in? And to you, Minister, was there not already some sort of protocol around this? Why wasn't there, are we going to be seeing, you know, the rules around this change in light of this?


So, the team of people went out from HCA to this facility, and there are teams delivering the vaccine in facilities right across the country, as indeed there are teams delivering the vaccine in the hubs which have been established by the state and territory. However, in this case the only member of the team who was a registered health professional was the doctor who administered the vaccine.


But should that change now? Should we be expecting to see more than one at every site?


We're having discussions with HCA about what we regard as being an acceptable level of the team membership.


Given that they're only running the Queensland portion of this rollout as well as in New South Wales, are we going to see that change for Aspen Medical across all states?


Aspen does have a different practice. So, in other words, the department is reviewing exactly that right now. They had worked through all of the clinical standards previously. This was a breach of the clinical standards. Jonathan?


Health Minister, thanks for your time. A couple of issues. Victoria today, the Premier has offered to assist the Federal Government in the rollout of the vaccine in aged care in Victoria. I want your response to that. And also GPs have raised some concerns, the Federal Government plans to only pay them for 5-minute consultations rather than the 30-minute appointment that's going to be required when the vaccine gets to the GP stage?


With great respect, we're paying significantly more than is the case with the flu vaccine. It's a $55 combined payment for the two doses, with a $10 practice incentive payment for completion of a second dose at the same facility as the first. That was worked through and agreed with both the AMA and the College of GPs. I understand there may be individuals who have different groups, but the medical leadership was deeply engaged and ultimately signed off and supported that.


Doctors are going to be out of pocket, though, aren't they? If the appointments go on for longer, if it takes 30 minutes, are they paid for that certain amount of time?


No, I’d draw a distinction here between somebody who's in recovery, under observation, after having been given a vaccine. So, in other words, they're subject to supervision. As we saw with the Prime Minister and many others on Sunday.

Now, with regards to Victoria, we're continuing to work with the states and territories. Our position is that we actually have a strong workforce. We're always interested in constructive engagement with states and territories.

We are engaging additional clinical staff, an additional provider in New South Wales and Queensland to supplement that which was being done by HCA.

We are stepping in. There was actually a panel of four which the department appointed through their tender process, and they will be adding an additional clinical provider for New South Wales and Queensland on top of HCA.


Where is it going to come from and how many are you talking about boosting the workforce by?


There will be additional workforce, because we want to make sure.


How many?


The Department will provide advice once they have completed those negotiations.


Minister Hunt, just on those administering the vaccine in aged care facilities, are they also completing sort of simulation training, such as practising drawing the vaccine as they’ve been doing in the hospitals? And if not, why?


So I’ll let Michael run through this, but I will say this, that of course the training is established by the Australian College of Nursing. It’s been established on the basis of the advice of medical authorities. And we ask them to prepare everything that they believed was necessary, and then that’s been implemented. So Michael, on the training programme?


Each of the people, or the groups of people who are rolling out the vaccine had their standard operating procedures which they require their staff to work through before they’re going out and administering the vaccine to residents.


Considering there’s (inaudible), would it be a good idea if that was, kind of, more streamlined and everyone was doing that sort of thing?


I think we’ve got to draw a distinction here between what is occurring nationally, over 17,500 vaccinations, and one individual who made a careless error, and did not complete the training.

And let us draw a distinction because many of you will remember over multiple press conferences and interviews, as we have seen in every country around the world, there will always be challenges.

We’ve seen this. What has happened, there will not be a medical professional in Australia who is not acutely aware that these are multi-dose vials that require dilution. That is part of the mandatory training program, not set by us, but set by medical community.

And so, I think it is a fair question, and an important question, but what we’ll see is that the entire country is aware.

Fortunately no harm. Nobody was injured, but a clear error, an unacceptable error was made.

But this is something that we’ve seen around the world about which we warned. And there will be, inevitably, whether it’s in a state system, a territory system, whether it’s in a general practice. With the best will in the world, there will always be individual cases, things such as this which may happen with flu, which in this circumstance has a national focus. Yes.


Minister, are you aware that there are examples of DHL failing to deliver doses in the correct amount or at all to aged care facilities various states, and that in many cases there have been examples of the GPS tracker located in the box of each container of vials, that hasn’t been switched on. What is your understanding of those issues surrounding DHL’s delivery of the vaccine from the hub to the facilities? And if you’re not aware, will you be making inquiries to DHL?


If you’re able to provide me with any examples, I’ll be happy to take them up with the department.


Minister, you said last week that it was going to be 240 aged care centres this week. You said today it’s 70. It’s Thursday, that’s less than half way there. How are we going to make up for that? That’s quite slow?


Let's put everything in perspective. We’re on a six-week rollout for phase 1A. We will achieve, on all the advice I have that and to think through what we have seen this week, we went from 1,600 vaccinations on day one, which was effectively a trial and commencement day, to approximately 6,000 on day two, to almost 10,000 on day three.

We are expecting significantly increased continuous numbers and then a stable state. And so will we achieve it in that timeframe that we are expecting? That’s my expectation.

Honest answer, in terms of because Healthcare Australia has slowed down whilst Aspen has been meeting all of its goals in six out of eight states and territories.

On the 60,000 doses, we are likely to achieve that either by Sunday night or within 24 hours afterwards.

On the 240 aged care facilities, it’s likely to be within 72 hours of the scheduled time. But by the end of the second week, we are expecting to be fully on track. And by the end of the six weeks, we’re expecting to be fully on track. So that’s part of the overall program.


Minister, regarding future breaches, is this going to be how you handle this now? So the two strikes, you’re out? If you make a breach, you’re put on notice. And then if you make another breach, then the contract is terminated. Is that how you expect to be handling…?


It’s the function of the contract and a function of the extent of the breach. Those matters are determined by the Department.

The truth is, though, the thing that particularly upset us was the combination of somebody who was brought on untrained and then the, clearly false information. And that was false information made despite repeated interrogation from the Department.

And it was only uncovered late in the day, fortunately in time for a correction by the end of Question Time. After even further investigation and the Department demanding visual proof, and so that was clear.

The company has now obviously made changes in management. It’s a company with a long history of medical provision across Australia, and a long history through COVID of medical provision. But frankly, we’ve thrown the book at them.


Just on the Auckland hotspot. Can you clarify exactly what that means? I know New South Wales and Victoria sort of went ahead yesterday with that. So are we just talking about Auckland, not the rest of New Zealand? And do they have to do 14 days of quarantine or is it just a test and then they’re out?


So the hot spot, and the restriction on the Green Zone flights. Anybody who’s been in Auckland in the last 14 days is not eligible to take one of the Green Zone flights. If they want to come to Australia, they take a Red Zone flight, and then they are quarantined in Australia for 14 days as everyone else is on Red Zone flight.


Okay, I’m going to take three more. One, two three. 


Given that you described what happened with the certificate of training as clearly false information, has the Department been completing independent verification that the training has been completed for HCA people? How far progressed is that, and will that be rolled out to other providers as well?


So the answer is yes, we carried that out overnight for all the staff who are engaged in the program with HCA to ensure that all the people had completed the required training.


(Inaudible) other programs and other contractors as well?




Minister, we heard concerns that vaccine messaging is falling on primary health staff in remote Indigenous communities. Does that there need to be dedicated staff or more additional resources to help them get the message out to those communities, especially when we know there’s a bit of vaccine hesitancy there?


So, look, firstly, I want to thank our Indigenous community health workers, and our Indigenous community leaders.

Our Indigenous vaccination rates are actually the highest in the country. So for five -year-olds across the country, the national average is 95.1 per cent. That has actually gone up successively during COVID.

Again, like private health insurance, that’s been a positive surprise.

But Indigenous vaccination rates of five -year-olds are over 97 per cent, so Indigenous Australians have the most successful contemporary record of vaccination, and we want to thank them for that.

However, within the Indigenous communities, we have specific material that is being prepared. Our vaccine communications program will also have culturally appropriate materials that will be made available in terms of video and radio format, and online format as well.

Thank you for the question, I appreciate that.


Minister, we have seen a letter containing advice from the AFP to MPs and Senators about reporting crime. Now why is that necessary? Does it show that MPs and Senators might not have been aware that they need to report such things?


I think it was actually important in all of this, and I’m not involved in that process, so I don’t want to speculate too much, to make sure that everybody is aware that the appropriate jurisdiction for determining and judging potential criminal activity, or the allegations of criminal activity is through the police. They are the appropriate and the only qualified body in order to do that.

So I’ll finish with that. I want to thank everybody for your patience.

And as I say, throughout this, we need to keep in context: today is another day of zero cases of community transmission.

It’s a day on which the world has seen, again, over 10,000 lives lost. And to have a vaccination program which, after the first three days, has grown and grown and grown, and will continue to do that, is an important national asset.

We’ve done remarkably well as a nation. There will be challenges. There will be challenges. But the outcome so far has been testament to our extraordinary health professionals.

Thank you very much.

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