Date published: 
16 August 2020
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

KIERAN GILBERT:

Let’s go live now to the Health Minister Greg Hunt who joins us via Zoom. He’s still in quarantine ahead of Parliament sitting. Minister, thank you very much for your time. We’ve got some good news today, The Sunday Telegraph reporting on a vaccine. Is the Government within days of locking in a deal to potentially produce a COVID-19 vaccine in Australia?

GREG HUNT:

We are in advanced negotiations with a range of different companies with regards to a vaccine. I have been very cautious in the past about the prospect of a vaccine. I am now on the basis of our best medical advice genuinely more optimistic. I think the world is moving closer to a vaccine, and it’s unlikely that it will be just one, it’s likely that it will be many. There are lead Australian candidates as well as international candidates, so we’re making very significant process across a comprehensive vaccine strategy. Research, direct negotiations, the international facility which is a multi-country investment in multiple potential vaccines, and then Australian contract productions through CSL which can produce the vast majority of vaccines under licence if that’s allowed, and we’re very confident that that will come through. So, multiple channels, highly advanced.

KIERAN GILBERT:

Well, that is great news. Researchers at Oxford University are reporting back next month on their final phase trials. You’re optimistic broadly. How optimistic are you that we’ll see a vaccine on the market within months?

GREG HUNT:

Look, all our advice has been 2021 is the most likely. If anything occurs before then, then that would be an outstanding result not just for Australia but for the world. We are very fortunately placed due to years and years of preparation with regards to having the national reserve facility which CSL operates. That means it has a capacity through a vaccine [indistinct] based in Melbourne to produce vaccines under contract from around the world. That is an exceptionally important national asset, which means that we can have whole of population vaccine-production if there is a vaccine, and we are well placed, highly advanced in our negotiations. And for the first time, I feel cautiously but genuinely optimistic about the prospect of a vaccine.

KIERAN GILBERT:

And in terms of how close you are in those negotiations, are you able to tell us what companies you’re working with or have you signed non-disclosure agreements at this point ahead of final contractual agreements?

GREG HUNT:

We have signed two non-disclosure agreements, so by definition that means that they’re pre-contractual and we’re precluded from referring to individual companies. But we are working with the most advanced vaccines around Australia and around the world. That’s good news for Australia, but it’s also good news for the world, a world with over 21 million cases, with over three quarters of a million agonising lives lost. This is a genuine ray of hope, and we’re advanced, we’re prepared, and we’re in a position to produce.

KIERAN GILBERT:

We’ll talk about some other good news a bit later in our interview on immunisation rates, but I’ve got a few other issues I want to get across first. Ruby Princess, that inquiry report handed down. Do you think the New South Wales Health Minister or someone at New South Wales Health should lose their job over this?

GREG HUNT:

I’ll obviously leave the Ruby Princess response to New South Wales. The report is very clear in its findings. I have confidence in my colleague, in New South Wales. What they’ve done with the contact tracing with multiple incursions from Victoria has prevented multiple chances for an outbreak the scale of outbreak. So, this is an immensely difficult global pandemic. Significant, their contact tracing system under the public health unit, under the state health department, is arguably one of the most advanced contact tracing systems in the world, that has saved lives, it's protected lives, it's prevented the extension of the outbreak. And that's been in the most difficult of circumstances. So, this is a global pandemic, a hidden disease. Clearly there were errors which the Commission of Inquiry has found. That's for New South Wales, but what their public health unit and what their health department is doing under their minister is world leading with contact tracing.

KIERAN GILBERT:

But can you understand why passengers and their families from that ship would want to see someone held accountable for that debacle?

GREG HUNT:

Absolutely and this is an agonising disease. As we warned in January, that it is indiscriminate, it has a particular focus on the elderly but we know from around the world and sadly from Australia that people of any age can be affected. And that's why it's so important that we have in place both our containment and our capacity strategies. What we've seen here is that New South Wales has done an extraordinary job at containment. This was clearly an agonising and tragic case; I'll leave that to New South Wales. But what I am emphasising is the strength of the public health unit which is- has been vital in protecting people across New South Wales and Australia.

KIERAN GILBERT:

On aged care, the counsel assisting the Royal Commission said the mistakes that have led to many lives lost out of aged care were foreseeable. Do you accept that?

GREG HUNT:

What I accept is that right from January we set up a national plan for protection against COVID in aged care. That involved actions in January, the National Pandemic Health Plan in February, the National Aged Care Pandemic Plan in March and multiple actions along the way. Community transmission around the world drives cases and drives cases into aged care which come in asymptomatically with staff. And so, the strongest defence is containment against community transmission. Seven out of eight states are in an extraordinarily strong position in Victoria where- in particular in the northern and western suburbs there has been a high level of community transmission outbreak. That is where- exactly as we warned, exactly as we prepared. What we've seen is the cases follow the staff into the facilities. We've set up the Victorian Aged Care Response Centre, we’ve brought in AUSMAT nurses from Western Australia, South Australia, the Australian Defence Force and the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission. So, every day we're fighting against the community transmission and every day we're fighting to bring more resources and to provide additional support to these facilities.

KIERAN GILBERT:

The Royal Commission said the Commonwealth still doesn't have a sufficient plan. In fact, the counsel assisting said the Commonwealth had a degree of self-congratulation and even hubris. What do you say to that assessment by the Royal Commission?

GREG HUNT:

That was one particular perspective not of the commissioners, of one legal officer. I won't comment on that specifically. What I will say is that right from the outset and right through we've warned that this disease could strike anywhere, that no one is immune, no state. And what we've seen is one state badly affected with tragic human results and of course an entire Melbourne region locked down, locked in their homes other than an hour a day or for work or for one visit for shopping. So, the most stringent conditions in a hundred years, and that's because of a mass outbreak. Our task is to support Victoria in fighting that outbreak and to support the facilities. And there hasn't been a day or a moment where we haven't been fighting to provide resources, support. And always, every day it’s about the additional and the extra that we can do to help protect Australians.

KIERAN GILBERT:

And there is a suitable plan in place now? The best possible plan to deal with any further outbreaks?

GREG HUNT:

Every day we're working to expand and improve upon what's occurred in a global pandemic. We know that it's one state in particular, one city in particular, one region of that city which has been stricken by a mass community outbreak. And where that community outbreak, that community transmission exists, then that finds its way through all elements of the population. And the most vulnerable are of course the most elderly.

KIERAN GILBERT:

The Victorian health authorities have released modelling that suggests that the reproduction rate is now below 1, effectively past its peak. Do you share that assessment? Are you confident it is past its peak and that flattening of the curve will continue?

GREG HUNT:

We are seeing early signs of a second flattening of the curve in Victoria. Eight states and territories did it once. Victoria is now on our best advice on a path to progressive recovery. There’s a long way to go. There’ll be good days Kieran, there'll be bad days, there will be days when the numbers are up and days when the numbers are down. But the signs now are that the trend is of progressive reduction. The most important thing in Victoria now is to contact trace, to make sure that each case is followed up. When we hear of mystery cases, that means they haven't been contact traced. So, a mystery case means there's been no effective contact tracing. It's absolutely critical that the system in Victoria works and that's why we've pumped over 400 ADF members specifically into contact tracing in Victoria to assist the Victorian Government, to make sure that they deal not just with the contact tracing, but immediately the moment a positive is known, to have a system in place, and that's what we're supporting Victoria with. Helping to provide that rigour because if you can act early, you can prevent the transmission to family, to friends, to workplace, as well as in the broader general community. That's what's happened in New South Wales and that's what needs to continue occurring to defeat this in Victoria.

KIERAN GILBERT:

Given how well most of the other states have done, are some of these state border closures and reclosures disproportionate?

GREG HUNT:

Well, we believe that the Victorian borders obviously as a matter of precaution need the current situation, but with the facility for health workers and patients to cross. Other border closures, there's no federal medical advice, there's no medical expert panel advice to that effect. So, it's only that one set of borders in relation to Victoria. Beyond that, there are low levels of community transmission or effectively no community transmission, and that's been our medical advice throughout.

KIERAN GILBERT:

The Australian reported yesterday the story of two-year-old Mabel Dyer. She lives on a farm with her family 20 k's east of the South Australian border. She was born with hip dysplasia which has kept her in a brace for most of her life, her short life. Now the Dyer’s have been told they can't go to Adelaide to see her specialist, instead they've got to go 400 kilometres to Melbourne to find a new specialist. That's ridiculous, isn't it?

GREG HUNT:

So, we've already taken up- I took up with the Premier and the South Australian Health Minister a series of cases on Friday morning. They responded within a matter of hours including young children with cardiac and very sadly cancer conditions; similar situations which they've resolved. The Prime Minister has written to the South Australian Premier specifically about young Mabel's case and so we're quietly hopeful that they'll be able to assist with that. They were very generous. The Premier responded directly to me about the previous three cases and they were- we were able to help them, from similar border communities where they had an ongoing relationship with Adelaide Hospital. So, very, very important human concern. PM himself has picked this up and we're quietly hopeful that Mabel’s case can be similarly resolved along with the cancer and cardiology cases that we've been able to help with.

KIERAN GILBERT:

That's good news. Happy to hear that. And on a couple of other matters before we wrap up – Parliament, the way it's operating at the moment, does the government need to be more flexible and sit in a virtual sense? Because you're in quarantine now for two weeks. Surely you can't do that every time parliaments sits. You've got pregnant Labor MPs saying they need more flexibility to be able to dial in remotely. Does the government need to be more flexible on that?

GREG HUNT:

Prime Minister indicated that he was open minded on that. I'm certainly very open to the idea. It's one of the evolutions that if the Victorian border is not open, then that will depend on the numbers. Might well be possible. So, I won't make a decision which is for the Speaker and the President of the House; they'll work across party lines on those matters.

KIERAN GILBERT:

And finally, let's finish where we began, on the immunisation and vaccine issue because we've got some new data out today again which is very positive. This is in terms of immunisation rates up over 90- well, nearly 95 per cent I believe.

GREG HUNT:

Correct. So, despite the pandemic, we’ve seen an increase in general population childhood immunisation rates for one, two and five year olds, and Indigenous population immunisation rates for one, two and five year olds. So, all six categories have increased during the pandemic which is an incredible national result. And I want to thank our health workers, our community health leaders, all the families, the schools. We could have easily seen a drop, but instead we've seen record rates for all six categories with our national five year old immunisation rate at 94.77 per cent, and our Indigenous immunisation rates at 96.7 per cent. So, to have our Indigenous rates above our general population is just a really positive thing. And to maintain that through a pandemic has been an extraordinary national health achievement. And you know, these are difficult days but there are real moments of light and optimism. This is one, and the vaccine pathway is increasingly a point of light and hope and optimism for Australians.

KIERAN GILBERT:

And you've made the point that while we're chasing down a cure and a vaccine for COVID, it is more vital than ever that preventable diseases are dealt with properly.

GREG HUNT:

Absolutely. That's why we have Telehealth. We brought in a system that was going to take 10 years in 10 days of frenetic activity in March. I have to say, I learned something about just the capacity(*) of the government, the public service, the medical profession to bring in radical change almost overnight if we plan it properly. But that's seen over 22 million consultations, so many Australians have used it, and it's a system that we want to make permanent. But it comes with this very simple message. Don't ignore your ordinary health as we fight infection against COVID because that health is what we've always lived with, whether it's heart, lung, whether it's orthopaedic, whether it's screening for oncology; all of these things are critical. Our doctors, our nurses, our GPs are all there. We need to keep drawing on them.

KIERAN GILBERT:

Minister, I appreciate your time. And also nice to hear some optimism on this issue for a change. Some cautious optimism, but some hope. Thank you very much. Appreciate it.

GREG HUNT:

Take care Kieran.

Ministers: