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Interview with David Speers on ABC Insiders about coronavirus (COVID-19)

Read the transcript of Minister Hunt's interview with David Speers on ABC Insiders with a update on coronavirus (COVID-19).

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

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Minister, welcome to the program.


Morning, David.


Let’s just start on this point. We know of one case, a man who went to last weekend’s protest in Melbourne is confirmed to have coronavirus.

It will be, as the Chief Medical Officer says, another week before we can be definitive about this. But have there been any more linked to any protests?


At this stage I am only aware of the one case.

As the Chief Medical Officer said, we have a potentially infectious case in the middle of a mass gathering.

That’s our biggest concern for the country at the moment. Australians have done an amazing job.

What we have achieved is held up internationally as one of the great global successes, and it is Australians that have done that.

So the importance of maintaining the distancing rules, of maintaining the practices, is about saving lives and protecting lives, and that’s why we’re concerned about any breach of the approaches which have protected Australians and kept them safe.

At the same time, it’s fundamental that people are able to express themselves about an absolutely noble cause of racial equality, but there are appropriate ways at this moment to do it, and that’s the distinction.


I want to come back to tackling the pandemic, but just on the matter of Indigenous health.

A lot of focus on Indigenous incarceration rates, but can I ask you about, as Health Minister, another Close the Gap target, an area of Indigenous disadvantage, and that is infant mortality rates.

The target set in 2008 was to halve the gap on infant mortality deaths within 10 years. That wasn’t met, in fact in the last few years the gap widened.

Indigenous infants now die at twice the rate of non-Indigenous infants. Why wasn't that target met? And what should be the process going forward on that area?


You’re right. We haven’t closed the gap yet. We have been able to reduce infant mortality rates, but until there is parity we will not be whole as a nation. Today.


Just to be clear, they haven’t fallen as much as the non-Indigenous infant mortality rate. So the gap is the issue, it’s not been halved.


Correct, we’re in agreement here.

What we’re seeing are two things occurring, that we have had a significant improvement in the infant survival rates, reduction in infant mortality rates in Indigenous Australia and that should be celebrated, but the job is not done.

The nation is not whole until we have achieved genuine parity.

Now, today, I’m really pleased to say that we will be investing almost $35 million in 42 major national Indigenous health projects.

These include a focus on avoidable Indigenous blindness, avoidable Indigenous deafness, kidney disease.

We are working across the nation in particular helping to eradicate rheumatic heart fever which in turn can lead to the ending of rheumatic heart disease.

These are all things which go to Indigenous health, which go to educational attainment, community development.

And therefore they take away over time, not as quickly as we would want, but over time some of the fundamental inequalities which lead to, sadly, violence and therefore the incarceration.


Okay, so the funding you’ve just announced or you are announcing today for the research projects I’m sure will be worthwhile.


Just announced via you.


There you go. And dealing with some important issues there of deafness and kidney disease and so on.

When it comes to infant mortality, though, do we need a new target? I’m just trying to get to- we failed to hit the target that was set in 2008, do we now set a new target when it comes to this? Or is that approach not working?


No, I think we are making progress, but we are not making it fast enough.

I know that Ken Wyatt and myself, we’re working together on this. I met not long ago with leaders such as Pat Turner and others from the National Aboriginal and Community Controlled Health Organisations.

What we are focusing on now is really applying these practical actions in the community. That is twofold. One of the things we want to do.


But do you need a new target, is what I’m getting to?




Do you need a new target, is what I’m asking here. Because the target was set for 2018, wasn’t met, things actually got worse in the last few years. Do you need a new target?


We actually need to hit our target. The goal.


Sorry, the target was for 2018 and it wasn’t hit. That one’s expired. Do you need a new one?


David, I have one goal, and that one goal is nothing less than parity for Indigenous outcomes on health with non-Indigenous Australians.

That’s the only real goal that matters. It’s a moral goal and it’s a practical goal.

So these announcements today, over 40 projects to address Indigenous health including mental health, particularly including youth in incarceration, but all of the physical elements as well, are about producing outcomes that will help save lives and protect lives and give hope and aspiration and the opportunity for young Indigenous Australians to achieve their full lives.

That’s what matters.


Okay. Let’s come back to the coronavirus. Australia has had great success compared to the rest of the world in tackling the virus. New Zealand too. We had slightly different approaches.

We went for suppression, they went for elimination or eradication, which involved stricter lockdowns and so on.

Reflecting on how the two countries have gone, what have been the keys to success?


Both counties have done very well.

For us, we have focused on four key elements of containment: closing the borders, our testing regime which is the at the absolute global forefront, our tracing regime including the COVIDSafe app, but an extraordinary work by our public health units in tracing down every case, and in particular the social lockdowns which have meant the physical distancing which have had such an impact on people’s livelihoods as well as the isolation.

All of those things have come together.

Yes, there have been slightly different approaches. Both countries have done well. New Zealand has a slightly higher fatality rate on a per capita basis and slightly higher case rate across the country.

Economically, there’s quite different outcomes. We’ve had the difficult 5 per cent decrease in GDP. I think it’s likely to be the third-best of 37 OECD countries.

New Zealand’s had about an 8.9 per cent expected GDP loss or about a 78 per cent greater impact on GDP, on jobs and livelihoods than Australia.

So we respect their choices. We’ve made a path for Australia which we think protects lives and livelihoods.


You mentioned the COVIDSafe app there. We don’t generally hear as much, or certainly from the Prime Minister on Friday, he announced a lot of further easing of restrictions, didn’t mention the app.

Is it still as important for people to download it? Given, you can update me on the figure but I think, what is it? Around 25 or 30 per cent of the population have downloaded it, only?


So, it’s about 6.31 million as of this morning.

That’s just about 40 per cent of the adult population with smartphones.

It’s more important than ever, because as we increase our freedoms because of our health success, as we bring people back to work, what this means is that it provides an additional protection.

We have seen sports figures, we have got entertainment figures.

There is a community-driven movement, the Let Us Play Movement, I saw the great Nathan Buckley, the Collingwood coach advocating this yesterday.

So for young Australians, none of us are immune. What the COVIDSafe app does is it helps provision protections because it means we can be notified if we’ve been near somebody who has the disease.

We may not know their name. We may not have been in contact with them in any direct sense, but we could have been standing near somebody on public transport or sitting near them. That’s why it’s important.


Well, how well is it working? I note the Government’s own Digital Transformation Agency still points out that it only works about 25, 50 per cent of the time between an Android and an IOS phone when one of them is locked. Is that still the case?


So, what we’re doing is constantly strengthening it.

We see that around the world the Australian app is looked at as one of the great global success stories. In particular, it has already been used for tracing, New South Wales, Victoria.

We are in the fortunate situation where we have flattened the curve so far, where we have reduced cases and therefore the number of cases that might apply is literally a handful in any one day.


That’s good. I’m just asking how the tech works here though.


But the fact that there’ve been approximately 30 cases where it’s been used means there are 30 chances where we could have found unknown contacts.

And that’s a pathway to saving lives and protecting lives.


Indeed, but I’m just wondering how it works. Is it still the case if someone’s phone is locked it may only work less than half the time?


Well, I will leave that to the Digital Transformation Agency to provide the figures on that.

What we do know is that we’ve taken the best available technology. We learnt from the Singapore experience.

It’s, as I understand it, the fastest downloaded app in Australian history.

We are ahead of where we expected to be and it’s already been used in contact tracing in approximately 30 cases, but most importantly, it’s part of the broader four pillars: borders, testing, tracing, distancing.

And so we’ve still got more work to do as a country, but we are giving ourselves that platform to open up, of saving lives and protecting lives and then giving people their livelihoods back and that’s what’s our extraordinary achievement.

And I want to say thank you to Australians for what they have done in enabling us and allowing us to be in a position that the rest of the world envies.


On international borders, I mentioned Annika’s story today that there are talks about a faster process for allowing business travellers to come in, a shorter quarantine period, perhaps.

Is that something you are aware of?


Well, we’ll overwhelmingly be guided by the medical advice, and there are two pathways on international.

One is to use our quarantine system with international students and appropriately with people who are delivering national benefit, whether it’s in business or other areas.

Secondly is where we can have a safe relationship with another country, and you mentioned New Zealand before and New Zealand’s at the top of the list, having a non-quarantine approach which will open up borders.

Now, there is a bit more work to be done, but both of those pathways: using our quarantine system to bring back people safely and then where there is a COVID-safe country such as New Zealand, the capacity to open up those borders once our domestic borders are opened up.


Minister, can I ask you about preparations for a second wave or indeed another terrible pandemic coming along.

Before this one came, Australia had a limited range of personal protective equipment in the national stockpile: some masks, but apparently no gloves, gowns or goggles.

Has that has been addressed?


We do have significant stores of gloves, gowns and goggles.

The agreement previously had been that they would be supplied by the states, but we’ve actually provided additional volumes of those over and above what had been the agreement.

One of our real success stories has been in the midst of an enormous global spike in demand and collapse in supply, particularly in terms of masks, we were able to keep that air bridge going, we were able to develop domestic supply.

So we are always dealing with new initiatives and the supply of masks, the supply of gloves and gowns, that’s been one of the things we have been able to deliver.

It’s been challenging and I want to thank our doctors and nurses for the careful way they’ve managed the situation.

Our pathologists have been part of our heroic Australian medical workforce. But we’ve got very strong supplies.

And then, from every event, you look to say: how do you make the nation better and stronger still?

We went into it ranked and assessed by the World Health Organization as being one of the best prepared nations in the world for a pandemic.

We’ve come out of it with that reputation enhanced.

One thing we can do, because we’re COVID-safe, because our health system is seen so well, I think we have a golden opportunity to be a global leader in attracting new medical research, technology and clinical trials to Australia.

And we want to work with the state to simplify the clinical trial process to really give Australians better access to medicines and better access to new medical jobs.


Speaking of medicines, just finally, European nations have now signed a deal with a British drug maker, AstraZeneca, for about 400 million doses of a potential coronavirus vaccine that’s in trials at the moment.

Is that something that Australia is doing or should be doing?


We already have in the relationship between CSL and the University of Queensland, the potential for access to the molecular clamp vaccine if that’s successful.

More broadly, with CSL and with other partners, we have discussed Australian manufacturing.

So I think what is likely to occur, no matter where the world a vaccine is successful if, and I say if one is successful, then that will be licensed because it will be in the interest of the manufacturer as well.

And Australia, with one of the world’s leading medical companies in CSL, has the capacity to manufacture on a large scale and if it’s an Australian production, that would be a wonderful outcome.

If it’s a global production, we have the capacity under licence to produce in Australia for Australians and the Pacific region.


Okay. Health Minister Greg Hunt, thanks for joining us.


Thanks David.


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