Date published: 
21 February 2021
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

DAVID SPEERS:
Minister, welcome to the program.

GREG HUNT:
Morning.

DAVID SPEERS:
Let’s just start with this point about how long it’s taken to get to the point we’re at now. 

Australia did take longer than the US, Europe, Canada, to sign deals with Pfizer. It took longer to approve the drug, and you’ve gone through the reasons why the approval took as long as it did. 

But it’s also taken longer since the approval to get to the point of delivery. Australia’s not exactly leading the pack here, are we?

GREG HUNT:
With respect, I’d disagree. One of the things that is absolutely fundamental to confidence is the belief in safety. And the essence of safety is a full and thorough assessment. 

We know that from all of our research that in order to increase confidence, you need a strong belief in safety. 

If you increase that confidence, then you have a higher take-up, a higher take-up means higher coverage, and all of these things come together to mean that we are in a position, because of our containment, to be able to do a full and thorough assessment in line with the practices in Japan, Korea, New Zealand, and also the jurisdiction of Taiwan, and that’s ultimately about making sure we have the maximum take-up in Australia, and above all else, safety, safety, safety. 

That’s our duty. But it also leads to confidence and take-up.

DAVID SPEERS:
But why, then, the delay after the approval?

GREG HUNT:
Well, what we’ve always said is that we were aiming for a late-February commencement and that’s a combination of the availability of doses, which we’ve set out on a consistent basis, but also the need for what’s called batch testing upon arrival in Australia, to be done by the TGA, and that’s been completed and the doses are rolling out today around Australia with a broad national vaccination program commencing tomorrow.

But today, the first group of people will be vaccinated, commencing with two of our aged-care residents, our critical aged-care staff, front-line workers. 

We also know that the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Nurse and the Prime Minister, in order to provide confidence, the Prime Minister will be the last of that group. 

And so today is the day where the first vaccines will be administered in Australia.

DAVID SPEERS:
So that small group you’ve confirmed there, including the Prime Minister, will get their jabs today. 

GREG HUNT:
Correct.

DAVID SPEERS:
There will be inevitable criticism from some that he’s jumped the queue. What do you say to that?

GREG HUNT:
Oh, look, with great respect, there was a very strong focus on the need for key leaders, not the Parliament, not the Cabinet, not even the leadership group, but a cross-party group, to provide that confidence. 

That’s been a view in many places around the world, and indeed the press gallery was very strongly pushing for this in December, and we announced this in December, an agreement that I struck with Chris Bowen where a very small number of people would do that.

DAVID SPEERS:
But not the Opposition leader today, Anthony Albanese?

GREG HUNT:
He will be this week. I hand-delivered a letter to the now Shadow Minister, Mark Butler, after our discussion confirming this, inviting the Opposition leader and two others from the Opposition to participate during the course of the coming days. And the same, I hand-delivered a letter to Adam Bandt inviting the Greens to participate. 

So this is a cross-parliamentary view where parliamentarians don’t have any special status. The Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet doesn’t, nor even does the leadership. 

But it is about the confidence, and indeed the research shows that people want to see that if we believe it’s safe, then that will give them greater confidence. 

Our task here is not that it was too quick- too slow. Many people are worried, has this been too quick? And we had to show that it’s been full, thorough assessment and that we believe in the safety ourselves.

DAVID SPEERS:
What about, why isn’t the Prime Minister getting the vaccine that most Australians will get, the AstraZeneca jab?

GREG HUNT:
Well, I think it was important that in the first round, and indeed it was the Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly who advised this, that to have the national leader as part of that, along with the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Nursing and Midwifery Officer of Australia, then that helps provide confidence. Professor Brendan Murphy and myself will be part of the first round of AstraZeneca. 

Again, we did weigh it up. We really did worry about this notion, but by having a small group of people across the parties, then that was the approach. The opposite argument was in place, I have to say, David, in our press conferences in December, where we announced that we would be doing this. People were saying, “Well, why aren’t you doing it?” Either way there could be criticism.

DAVID SPEERS:
No, I appreciate that.

GREG HUNT:
But we’ve taken the advice of the medical authorities and confidence and demonstration. But today is the first round of vaccines for Australia, and ultimately that’s about hope and protection for Australians.

DAVID SPEERS:
You’re trying to build confidence in the program. Yesterday we saw thousands of anti-vaccine protesters at marches across the country. 

Perhaps not taking it as far as that, there are, however, still many who are hesitant, a little worried about the vaccine. Can I just talk about that?

GREG HUNT:
Yes, of course.

DAVID SPEERS:
Because there was some ANU research that was released this week. It shows more than one in five are now saying they probably or definitely won’t have the vaccine, and there’s a significant rise in hesitancy amongst young women, those in their 20s and 30s. How will you address that?

GREG HUNT:
You're correct. There are really two groups. There’s a small group of anti-vaxxers, which might be 4 to 5 per cent, and whilst we reject and condemn some of the absolute myths that they perpetrate, our focus is on those people who are hesitant. 

One of the things they were worried about was: this is a new vaccine, has it been done too quickly? Which is why the full, thorough focus on safety, safety, safety, with the full assessment by the Therapeutic Goods Administration and the medical regulator’s very important. 

And then there’s a mixture of public demonstration of information and facts, communication campaigns. This is an advertising campaign with broad support across the Parliament, and then commentary from leading people, such as Professor Sharon Lewin at the Doherty Institute, the work of Professor Brendan Murphy and Professor Paul Kelly and so many others, so it’s building it. 

But also as more Australians take it, as we’ve seen around the world, and it’s shown to be safe, it’s shown to be effective, then that raises confidence across the community.

DAVID SPEERS:
But young women in particular, can you just address their concern, because the Therapeutic Goods Administration did say in relation to AstraZeneca, in approving that this week, that you should, quote, check with your health-care provider if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, think you may be pregnant or are planning to have a baby. 

So what do you say to young women in that category?

GREG HUNT:
What’s called the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, which has always been the body that takes the decisions of the Therapeutic Goods Administration and provides the ultimate, final advice, has said for breastfeeding mums, they should feel free to take the vaccine. 

For women who are considering being pregnant, they should feel free to take the vaccine, and for those women who are pregnant, that’s the appropriate time to consult your doctor, which is generally the case with most vaccines. So that’s the standard situation.

DAVID SPEERS:
So it is safe if you’re just thinking about or planning on becoming pregnant, that’s fine?

GREG HUNT:
That’s the official medical advice which has been published and made available. So part of our job, and I think you’re absolutely at the heart of the issue, part of our job is to provide not only the confidence but also the information, and that’s published information.

But at any time, anybody should feel free to speak with their doctor, speak with their health professionals, or go to one of the government websites. 

They are the best place to get your information, but nothing beats, if you do have any questions, talking with your GP. 

Our GPs are the cornerstone of the national vaccine rollout, but they’re also our trusted source of high-quality information.

DAVID SPEERS:
Look, there’s a lot of debate around requiring employees in various workplaces to have the vaccine. Can I ask you about aged care? This is an area of Commonwealth responsibility. Will aged care workers be required to have the vaccine?

GREG HUNT:
At this stage the answer is no.

DAVID SPEERS:
Why not?

GREG HUNT:
That’s because we’re taking medical advice. 

The Chief Health Officers of Australia who form a group called the AHPPC, or the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, have met, they’ve assessed it, and they have determined that at this point in time they would not be making it mandatory. 

Ultimately it’s done through state public health orders. That’s how the flu vaccination mandatory requirements have been put in place in the past.

DAVID SPEERS:
But what’s the reason they give? Why wouldn’t you have a requirement? I mean, in hospitals, nurses and staff there are required to have the flu jab. In aged care, why shouldn’t you be required to have the COVID jab?

GREG HUNT:
I won’t, respectfully, argue with the advice of the medical professionals. That’s the advice they’ve set out. 

Their reasoning was based around the fact that what they didn’t want to do, given that this is a new vaccine, they had no doubts about its safety or efficacy, but they didn’t want to create a resistance or a backlash, and so they take into account social factors when they do provide their recommendations. It’s their decision.

DAVID SPEERS:
They’re doctors, though. Surely they would look at the medical benefit of a mandate, first and foremost, wouldn’t they?

GREG HUNT:
They do, but they also look at what is likely to deliver the highest net outcome in terms of uptake for Australia, and having confidence in what is a free, universally available, but voluntary vaccine is the critical thing. 

So how do we think about this? It’s always about confidence based on safety, and confidence based on the ability to have ultimate control. We want as many Australians as possible. 

I would like every Australian to take this up, other than those with a medical reason which would prevent them, but we recognise that being voluntary is the best way to do that.

DAVID SPEERS:
What’s the plan here? How many, as a percentage of the population, need to have the vaccine in Australia?

GREG HUNT:
We’d like as many as possible. I respectfully won’t put a figure on it. We’ve provisioned so that every Australian, every Australian has access to vaccines. We’ve secured 150 million doses of a range of vaccines.

DAVID SPEERS:
But surely there must be a number in mind here before we can reach herd immunity, do things like open up the international border and so on. You must have some target?

GREG HUNT:
Well, our first goal is protection. And what we see is with both the two initial vaccines, the Pfizer and the AstraZeneca vaccine, the international evidence is that the safety impact for prevention of serious illness, hospitalisation, death has been determined to be up to 100 per cent. 

There was a Lancet article, which is one of the world’s premiere medical journals, the World Health Organization also put out a finding in the last week of that, of up to 100 per cent protection in the case of AstraZeneca against serious illness, hospitalisation and loss of life.

And so the first goal is protection. The second goal is to have as high as possible a rate, and we will learn more as a world about the impact in terms of preventing transmission, although the evidence is increasingly strong, but also the longevity of the antibody protection, and that’s not known yet, but it will be known over the course of the coming year.

DAVID SPEERS:
So the first goal is trying to protect against the virus coming into Australia, that’s vaccinating the quarantine workers, border workers and so on. The longer-term goal is herd immunity?

GREG HUNT:
Well, obviously that is a long-term goal, but one of the things we’ve been cautious of is that you have three factors. 

You have coverage, you also have the question of the transmission capacity and impact, although the evidence coming out of international studies now, both clinical trials and real-world data, is that the different vaccines are showing a strong transmission impact.

But we always have to be aware of the capacity of the virus to mutate, and we have to look at what is called the longevity of the protection with regards to the antibodies that are developed, and the world doesn’t know that answer. 

The world is engaged in the largest clinical trial, the largest global vaccination trial ever, and we will have enormous amounts of data.

But what’s the message for the public? It’s safe, it’s effective, it will help protect you, but it will also help protect your mum and dad, your grandparents, your nonna, all of Australia.

DAVID SPEERS:
Okay. A couple of other things. Facebook, a new campaign being launched today is urging the federal and state governments, the private sector as well, not to spend money advertising with Facebook given what they’ve done this week. 

You, in fact, called them disgraceful and profoundly shocking. Will your department still advertise on Facebook when it comes to the vaccine?

GREG HUNT:
I spoke to my office to make sure on Thursday that we were not doing that. I will check that my department is not, but on my watch, until this issue is resolved, there will not be Facebook advertising. 

I will reaffirm that with the secretary today, but we’ve already done that with my office, and I reaffirmed yesterday that there has been none commissioned or instituted since this dispute arose. 

I’ve got to say, basically you have corporate titans acting as sovereign bullies and they won’t get away with it. We will stand up as a country, but other countries will.

DAVID SPEERS:
Finally, Minister, on the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins, if this happened in your office, what would you do?

GREG HUNT:
I think the first thing is to make sure that the individual had all of the support, with as much external support as possible, and to be encouraged and assisted to, first and foremost, have independent assistance and immediate access to.

DAVID SPEERS:
Because that independent assistance didn’t happen here.

GREG HUNT:
Now, because it’s a matter before the police and there are a series of inquiries, I won’t reflect on the issue. 

But the deep, profound importance here, firstly is support for Brittany, second is the opportunity for change. 

We, as a country have a journey, but as a Parliament we have an even more important role. 

DAVID SPEERS:
Yeah, I want to ask you that. But it’s not a matter for police what assistance she was given in her office at the time. She wasn’t given that sort of independent, expert advice.

GREG HUNT:
Look, I think that I will let the facts of the individual case be the subject to the reviews, as well as the police inquiry.

DAVID SPEERS:
Yeah, okay.

GREG HUNT:
And indeed, I note that there was a request for privacy and respect from Brittany and it’s my incumbent duty to honour that.

DAVID SPEERS:
But in terms of what needs to change from here, you have been in and around Parliament for many, many years, as a staffer, a backbencher and now senior Cabinet minister. 

Obviously the perspective of a man is different to a woman when it comes to the working environment. But what’s the most important thing, do you think, given your experience, needs to change?

GREG HUNT:
There are two things. One is culture, so there is a total awareness of our impacts on others, and secondly is structure. Culture and structure are the two changes that have to come out.

If there’s a general observation about Parliament, it is that the structures for independent assessment, for personal evolution, whether that’s around training or growth, are not necessarily there. 

So I think that there is a very important role for the independent inquiry, as well as the culture assessment, as well as the Parliamentary assessment to come together.

DAVID SPEERS:
So, an independent body to deal with these complaints?

GREG HUNT:
I think there needs to be a clear external structure which gives people total confidence, total confidence that they can have the support, they can do it in an environment without having to be concerned. 

And we do see this across society, that often young women will have fear or guilt, completely unfairly on them, and that’s what we have to change, and that’s what we’re determined to do, and that’s what we will do.

DAVID SPEERS:
Health Minister Greg Hunt, thank you.

GREG HUNT:
Thanks David.
 

Ministers: