Good morning everybody. It’s wonderful to be here in the heart of the Gold Coast at the Gold Coast Convention and Exhibition Centre for the Pharmacy Guild Conference.
But also, to be here to welcome Minister Greg Hunt – thank you for coming to the Gold Coast – Professor Paul Kelly, the Chief Medical Officer of our country, and of course, Lucy Betone from Chempro at Miami, my family pharmacist, to hear from Greg Hunt, an announcement that he has today.
But before we do that, I would like to just say a couple of thank you’s. The first one is to all of those pharmacists across the Gold Coast, including Lucy who gave me my booster here on the Coast, and my family, their boosters here on the Gold Coast, and thank every pharmacist for the work that they’ve done to roll out our vaccination across the Gold Coast.
Secondly, before I throw to Minister Hunt, I’d like to thank him for the outstanding that he has done as our country’s Health Minister. He has saved 40,000 lives (from COVID-19 death) across our country.
He has worked hard for every Australian during the most difficult time in 100 years. And we thank you, Minister Hunt, for the outstanding job that you have done for our country.
With no further ado, I hand to you, Greg Hunt.
Thanks so much to Angie Bell, the Member for Moncrieff. I’m joined by Professor Paul Kelly, the Chief Medical Officer of Australia, and Lucy from Chempro, one of the 30,000 pharmacists around Australia who has been helping to save lives and protect lives.
I do want to acknowledge all our health professionals today. But today, Lucy, is about our pharmacists, and what they have done during the course of the pandemic. 6.5 million vaccinations, 25 million rapid antigen tests through the concessional program.
We have put in place things such as electronic prescribing with 98 per cent of pharmacies participating. We have seen our pharmacists stay at their posts during the most difficult times, and I just want to thank them and honour them and acknowledge them.
And we have a series of measures today that I want to outline in the speech. But with Professor Kelly, there are some significant next stages as we normalise in Australia, as we move through the process of returning to normal after two years of COVID measures.
In particular, I’ve now received advice from the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, and they’ve worked very closely with Professor Kelly. And they have recommended that there should be a winter dose or second booster, or in some cases that will be known as the fourth dose for particular groups of people.
These are adults 65 years and over; Indigenous Australians, 50 years and over; aged care and disability residents; people aged 16 years and older who are severely immunocompromised. So, those four groups, just to run through them again: 65 years and older; Indigenous Australians, 50 years and older; aged and disability residents; and immunocompromised Australians over the age of 16.
That dosing regime will start in our pharmacies, Lucy, in our general practices, in our state and Commonwealth clinics and our Indigenous medical clinics from the 4th of April, from Monday the 4th of April. And it's for a window for 4 to 6 months after you have had your first booster.
And that's based on medical advice. We gave complete freedom to ATAGI, and Paul and his team have worked very closely with the medical experts and I thank them for their work. They've probably considered this more closely than almost any other decision in reaching those outcomes.
The next thing in particular is related to that. On the same day, on the 4th of April, we will also begin our winter flu program and that is through the National Immunisation Program.
Similar groups actually: adults, 65 years and over; children under five; pregnant women; Indigenous Australians of all ages; and people with particular immunocompromised medical conditions as well.
They're part of the National Immunisation Program where the Government provides that for free. And in addition there is a very significant private market.
We're investing $100 million in those measures. So, those are the two very significant announcements in relation to the vaccination program.
But at the same time. We've been reviewing the emergency state, the biosecurity determination. At this stage, we are down to 24 people on ventilation for COVID in Australia. That's down from 206 who were on ventilation in October.
And cases will rise and they will fall. And at times we will see an increase in the number of people who are either in ICU. As Paul and I were discussing last night, in some cases they come into ICU with COVID, but certainly not because, and our ventilation is a key indicator. Those numbers will rise and fall.
But the fact that the system is strong, the system is robust, every state, every state and territory is prepared. And I want to thank and honour and acknowledge them for that work.
And at the same time, the booster work that Lucy and others have done, the readiness of Paxlovid, Molnupiravir, Sotrovimab, of our different treatments is helping to protect people.
And so the country is ready to move on from the emergency declaration made two years and one month ago, what will be the case by April the 17th. So I will not be renewing the biosecurity emergency determination.
That's on strong advice from Professor Kelly and from our other medical advisers, the unanimous advice that was given to me, discussed with the National Security Committee of Cabinet, and the Prime Minister has also foreshadowed this with the National Cabinet, with the premiers and with the states and territories.
So there are a number of consequences of that. Firstly, as Health Minister, I will lose the plenary powers which are quite extraordinary, and I'm very happy to do that. That's about normalising Australia.
But at the same time, as of April the 17th, two years and one month to the day after those laws will have been put in place, there will be no emergency powers, there will be no pre-flight testing. We will no longer need the price gouging rules in relation to rapid antigen tests. There are over 500 million of those tests in the country now, and we will end the prohibition on cruise lines operating out of Australia. That was foreshadowed last week.
Non-emergency provisions, which will continue through non-emergency measures, will be the requirement to show proof of double vaccination for entry or exit into the country.
Again, very strong medical advice to that effect, and also the continuation of masks on domestic and international flights. Again, strong medical advice to that effect. We've also spoken with the airlines and with the cruise lines, so they are informed.
So that gives you a sense of Australia progressively returning to normal. But the best protection remains vaccination.
And so if you are amongst that approximately 5 million Australians who will qualify for a winter dose on the basis of the medical advice, please come forward. And if you're in the one third of Australians who've yet to have your booster, please come forward. It can protect you.
The last thing I want to do is to announce a PBS listing today. We are at a Pharmacy Guild conference, Lucy, and the PBS underpins the way the pharmacy and medicines operate in Australia, and I'm delighted to announce that Ofev will be made available for, in, particular progressive fibrosis of the lungs. And this can be a catastrophic agonising condition, debilitating condition and ultimately a fatal condition.
And so over 1400 patients will receive access to this medicine, Ofev, for fibrosis of the lungs, and that will be from the 1st of May.
It would otherwise cost $40,000. And it would be as little as $6.80 under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.
And this is what we're focussed on, saving lives and protecting lives and to be able to, on the one hand, make sure that the next round of vaccination, the winter dose for COVID, the flu program, both beginning on the 4th of April, the normalisation and the withdrawal of our emergency laws, but then the listing of new medicines.
That's what we should be doing. And I think, Ange, it's a very positive day for the country.
I'd invite Professor Kelly, and then Lucy will finish off and then I'll take questions from those on the telephone and then those in the room.
Thank you, Minister. So, just to give a little bit more detail, and some of the medical rationale for the announcements that Mr Hunt has made in relation to COVID today.
So the first one, changes to the Biosecurity Act; the second, the winter dose. And I just want to mention also about the AHPPC meeting, they had a face-to-face meeting during the week.
So firstly, all of these things are related to our change in the way we’re dealing with COVID here in Australia.
For two years we’ve been looking to protect Australians with measures at the border, and measures to decrease transmission of the virus around the country.
So, some of those measures are still in place. But mostly we’re moving to a new stance, and that new stance is protecting the most vulnerable – protecting them from harm, minimising harm. That relates very much to all of the announcements today.
So firstly, on the Biosecurity Act: it’s time. We’ve had eight– eight times I’ve had to give very detailed advice to the Minister on the Biosecurity Act emergency determinations. It is, in fact, the law that I do that and that he listens; and he does - and he has done all throughout.
They key elements of that is, it needs to be a proportionate measure, it needs to be effective, it needs to be necessary, and it should only last as long as it is necessary. And so that is why we’re change- making those changes and announcing those changes from 18 April.
We can’t keep an emergency in place just in case - that’s not a thing we can do. Of course, we can always relook at that in the future, but for the moment this is the time to move on and to keep those measures in relation to vaccination in the country, out of the country as an extra protection.
The second thing is about the- what we’re calling the winter dose. As the Minister said, for some people that will be a fourth dose, or a second booster. But for people with severe immuno-compromise, they’re on to their fifth dose.
So, just to stop any confusion in terms of numbers, it’s a winter dose – a pre-winter protection, the same as we do every year for flu vaccine for very similar groups, as the Minister mentioned - particularly that over-65.
Why are we going for that? It fits into that issue of preventing harm for those most vulnerable of severe COVID. It also is where the evidence is at the moment.
The ATAGI group will continue to look at the evidence as it progresses, particularly in countries such as Israel - we’ve met with them several times about their experiences. And that is where the best evidence is, and that’s the evidence-based advice to go for those high-risk groups in the first instance as a pre-winter dose.
And for those people over the age of 65, the good news is that you can get your flu shot and your COVID shot at the same time. And so, anyone who has- will be due for that after having had their previous booster four months ago can do that.
But in the meantime, don’t wait for your flu shot. Go and make that booking with your pharmacist, or with your GP or wherever you’re getting that flu shot in that age group.
The third thing, just to talk about our AHPPC meeting - there was a lot of interest in that during the week. I’d just like to say we have met 516 times during the pandemic, so this was not a unique meeting.
But it was a meeting face-to-face; we’ve only had three of those through that period because of issues with travel and COVID restrictions, and the like. So, it was great to see my colleagues.
The big news from that meeting is an absolute commitment to work to national uniformity. Having been in five different jurisdictions in the last few weeks, there are problems there.
There are issues in terms of that lack of uniformity. So there is a real commitment from my colleagues to work to national uniformity.
We talked about the changed context; there’s been much discussion about the BA.2 variant. It is more transmissible, it is not more severe – as Minister Hunt has pointed out, we have not seen a rise in ventilated patients. We’ve not really seen a rise in ICU patients.
We have seen a rise in hospitalisations in cases over the last two weeks. So, that changed context - as we’ve got familiar with throughout this whole pandemic - is hard to predict, and we need to keep our eyes on the ball all the time.
So we talked about that, we talked about vaccines, treatments and so forth. We talked specifically about the transition to changes in quarantine measures, but these are matters that the National Cabinet needs to take our advice. And they’ve asked for our advice on these matters and we’ll be preparing that advice in the coming days, ready for that process.
Lucy, would you like to just introduce yourself and talk about your role in the vaccination program? Or Angie might introduce Lucy?
I'm very happy to introduce Lucy, Minster Hunt. Lucy’s my local family pharmacist at Nobby's Beach and also at Miami at Chempro.
And I thank Lucy for, gosh, 20 years of looking after my family here on the Gold Coast and so many other families.
So Lucy, if you’d just like to say a few words about your pharmacy, your business, and giving your- the booster shots.
Hi. Thank you Angie. Thank you, everyone.
First of all, I'd like to thank Minister Hunt for his efforts in managing the pandemic so successfully, and making us one of the safest places in the world to be in today.
As he has mentioned, we are providing vaccination shots in every pharmacy- nearly every pharmacy providing vaccination shots.
So don't be shy. Come in, roll up your sleeve and get your booster today.
Lucy came to say hello and she was brought into a press conference. I reckon that's a pretty good job.
So look, I'll just start with those on the floor. Where’s the telephone? Oh, that its? Okay. I'll just see if there's any, Lucy Carol? Lucy, are you there? And then we’ll come to those in the room.
Yes, Minister. I'm here.
Perfect. Right. Two questions. The fourth doses - so at this stage, we're only recommending them for those groups, there's no signs at this stage, it'll be widened out any further?
And then the second question, is there any further information you can provide about household isolation rules? Which I know were discussed this week, and I know Professor Kelly did allude to them. But, is there any further information you can give on that?
Sure. Look, I'll turn to Professor Kelly in a moment. But, the question is about the fourth doses. Is it only recommended for those groups at this point in time?
That's the case, and ATAGI has considered this, possibly, as its most in-depth consideration during the course of the pandemic.
And they've recommended looking at Israel, looking at international evidence, that those particular groups of the adults aged over 65, Indigenous Australians over 50, aged and disability- aged care and disability residents, and immunocompromised over 16 are the groups.
There's always continuous review, but at this stage we're not predicting that that's likely to change.
On household contact rules, at this point, no change is the position. But, it's all about AHPPC or the medical expert panel of chief health and medical officers looking for that moment where they feel that it's safe and appropriate to go to the next steps, as we've done today.
Given the Omicron BA.2 cases at the moment, they are considering it and just holding for this point in time.
Thanks, Minister. So firstly, on why those vulnerable groups, so as I mentioned, this fits very clearly and carefully considered into our change in policy.
We are protecting the vulnerable. We are reducing harm. That is a change from our previous posture – that relates to vaccines, it relates to treatments.
It relates to the way one of the other discussions at the AHPPC meeting on Wednesday, which was about changes to our testing arrangements. These were the matters that were discussed and agreed at National Cabinet two weeks ago.
So, all of those things are happening. I can say that there was agreement, unanimous agreement to transition towards changes in those quarantine rules.
But no change at the moment because of the current situation in terms of BA.2. But, a very strong commitment to do that and to work through that over the coming weeks.
Great. Now, I'll just check, I'm not sure if Tom from the AFR is online?
I am, Minister. Thank you very much. A question for both you and Professor Kelly. If we have 150 million vaccine doses in the country, or available to the country, and something like two thirds of the population are eager to get a booster shot, why can't all Australians get their pre-winter shots?
I understand why these groups are being prioritised. When will it be considered? And, is there any possibility that it could be before winter for body of the population?
Yeah. So Tom is right. We have sufficient vaccines to boost everybody, but this is actually nothing to do with supply, nothing to do with availability. It was an open question that was put to ATAGI that their job was to recommend who should get it.
We have sufficient vaccines to dose all Australians, not just four times but five times. But their strong, clear, absolute medical recommendation was that the appropriate groups to get it were these four groups.
So, it's not as if they're waiting for additional information. They've considered expressly that question at my request and concluded that the four groups for whom it is recommended and they're therefore available for the over 65s, Indigenous Australians over 50, immunocompromised over 16, and aged and disability residents.
I'll come to those in the room, if you have questions here?
Mark Butler was here yesterday and one of the things he said quite a few times is how fabulous you are as a Health Minister and how much he was happy that you were in the job. How confident are you that Mark Butler will do a good job if Labor is elected?
Look, I respect my counterpart, and I think that's one of the ways I've tried to approach parliamentary life. And I think that we've actually developed a mutual respect.
But my hope is that it's a Coalition Minister that is running health in Australia. My hope and my belief is that a Coalition Government will lead Australia.
But it's a challenge and it's a fight and it's always hard. But the reason why I say that is because of what we've done in the pandemic, where we have now one of the highest rates of vaccination in the world, 96.7 per cent first and 95 per cent double dosed.
We have one of the lowest rates of loss of life, as Lucy said, and we have a four per cent unemployment rate.
And so, that's why I hope and believe that we'll be doing this. And in particular I'm setting out today the five-year vision for pharmacy built on the five years of what we have done in transforming the viability of pharmacy so as they can support the community.
So, I respect my opponent, but my hope and my belief is that it will be a member of our team that is taking care of health.
A few questions, Minister, sorry. So we've got is Novavax being considered for a fourth booster or for a booster in general?
Paul, did you want to add something?
Yes. So, just for the boosters, both mRNA vaccines, the Moderna, and the Pfizer are the recommended vaccines. AstraZeneca can be used as well for those that cannot take an mRNA vaccine.
ATAGI previously advised that Novavax, in certain circumstances, can be used as a booster. And so, that's the same for this dose as it was for the previous booster announcement.
So, it's currently available to do that for those that are uncomfortable with taking mRNA for whatever reason.
And people are asking how many of these boosters are they going to have to get. Do you expect this to be started as a single annual seasonal booster?
So, that's actually a very important question. There's no final decision or advice, but our presumption and our planning is to be able to provide a whole of population annual booster.
It may be that the future evidence going forward is that it might only be older groups or immunocompromised groups but we're planning.
And only yesterday, the reason I apologise I wasn't here yesterday, but I'm here today, is because I was with the Prime Minister, Ange, and we were announcing the creation of the Moderna mRNA Plant in Australia to provide annual flu and annual COVID mRNA vaccines and hopefully a single shot in coming years.
So, we're planning for whole of population annual support going forwards.
Do you back calls by the Queensland Government to enforce a mandate on booster shots?
Look, the Prime Minister was very clear yesterday and this has been our position throughout. We support voluntary vaccination.
We've achieved 95 per cent double dosing through voluntary vaccination other than in critical healthcare areas such as aged care and our hospitals.
Would you back the mandate on school-aged children?
Just in relation to [indistinct] for the price gouging in terms of rapid antigen tests. So, you're confident that if we do have a particularly nasty winter, that we won't be in the same situation as we were, you know, only a few months ago?
Yes. So, our pharmacists have done an amazing job in the rapid antigen test program.
We now have 500 million rapid antigen tests in Australia and the pharmacists, just through the concessional program, have delivered 25 million and we've now extended that to the end of July, and they're delivering over three million a week just through the concessional programme, which I think is an outstanding achievement.
And so we have very high volumes that are available, which was always going to be the case and that's helping to diagnose and it's helping to protect Australians.
Just on the ending of the emergency biosecurity declaration. When you say no more pre-flight testing, can you expand on what that means?
Is that for all people travelling to Australia, for Australians and non-Australians? What does that mean?
Correct. So, what that means is, and Paul might want to add something, is currently, at the moment, for somebody to enter into Australia, they need to have a pre-flight test.
Given that the vaccination requirements remain and the masking requirements. The strong medical advice is that that would no longer be required, particularly as there are some challenges in some jurisdictions in having access to those tests or improving those tests.
So, I spoke with the CEOs of both Virgin Airlines, Jayne Hrdlicka and Qantas, Alan Joyce. But we also took the medical advice of the Chief Medical Officer on this, and that was the view that we progressively take away those items which are no longer required and both medical advice and the strong view of the airlines.
Are there changes to non-vaccinated travellers under those rules?
So they'll still need to use the certificates?
Sorry. No. They're not being uploaded by the airlines, and they have to show proof of double vaccination on a continuing basis. So, no change on the capacity to fly.
Just on another topic, are you worried about the draft proposals for China to have military personnel in the Solomon Islands?
Look, I'd like to answer, but I'll respectfully leave that to both the Defence Minister, Peter Dutton, and the Foreign Minister, Marise Payne. All right.
Minister, the Pharmacy Guild only started this week showing that around one in five Australians have considered or had already resumed fulfilling prescriptions because of affordability issues.
Mark Butler said yesterday that a Labor Government would be prepared to work with the Guild and talk to them about that. Just wondered if the Government have had a response to that.
Yeah. No. I think medicines affordability is a very important thing. I'll have a little bit more to say now, and I think you'll find that the Government may have some more to say over the coming weeks.
And of those that receive a script where there is a co-payment, about 94 per cent are concessional, about six per cent of non-concessional, and so both of those elements have to be taken into account.
But we've got really strong history on this. Not only have we been listing all of the medicines that have been proposed, including Ofev today, the other side stop listing the medicines.
That's a pretty important thing to know. They stopped listing the medicines. That won't happen on our watch. The second thing is we have already, in the course of this Government, reduced the cost of medicines by reducing the number of prescriptions, both the concessional and non-concessional patients in order to qualify for the safety net.
And so, we'll continue to work with all parties and we're very strongly considering additional measures in this space.
So, I'll take a last question.
[indistinct] has announced that you've now funded direct Commonwealth and state funding with [indistinct] which is our first gene therapy to be funded [indistinct].
How important is that and how difficult and challenging is it going forward to fund these sorts of high-cost, low patient number therapy?
So, the history of medicine in Australia to come over the next decade is about precision medicine and that is gene therapy, stem cell therapy, genomic treatment.
And I was in Brisbane two days ago where we launched a clinical trial for ataxia-telangiectasia and- AT.
And it has 40 beautiful kids who are alive in Australia, all of whom have a short term. But because of the genomic treatment which we're able to develop, they may well all have a strong future. And it's the same with this gene therapy.
And so, when I think back in years to come, possibly the thing I'll be most pleased about, apart from what we've done with mental health, is these individual treatments for people who could never have afforded them.
And there'll be more medicines in the coming days. But Ofev today, for 1400 patients, is another example.
I will finish with that because I am due on stage and I wouldn't want to keep the Guild waiting. But I thank and honour all of our pharmacists. Thank you.