Interview with Fran Kelly on ABC Radio National
Read the transcript of Minister Hunt's interview with Fran Kelly on ABC Radio National about coronavirus (COVID-19).
The Hon Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health
Greg Hunt, welcome to RN Breakfast.
Good morning, Fran.
The Prime Minister wants the states to get back to business as usual. That’s despite the infection spike we’re seeing in Victoria. Are we just going to have to learn how to live with this coronavirus in the community?
Localised outbreaks will be a fact of life, and so will local shutdowns, like six councils are experiencing in Victoria at the moment.
So, what we've done as a country is an extraordinary job together in flattening that curve. Really, you know, by global standards, the world looks at us and says: we'd like to be in Australia's position.
As we work to the plan – and it's very important to understand that there is an extremely clear plan which we're working on, with all of the states, on progressively reopening the economy in a safe way – there has always been the possibility of spikes or outbreaks. And that's why there is a rapid response program of testing, tracing, and localised containment. And that's been put in place here.
Yesterday, there were 16 cases in Victoria: four in hotels, seven that were linked, and then five more broadly in the community that are now being investigated. So, we're working with authorities in each state on their response plans. It's Victoria at the moment, and they've responded very well, we have to say. We're offering support.
Other states have offered support. So, as a single country people are responding together on this. But the risk of outbreaks, it was something we warned about right the way through. This is an example, but the response has been rapid and has been very, very focused on those local communities.
Okay. But the reality is, as we, quote: run our economy, run our lives, run our communities alongside this virus, as the PM puts it, we will- there will be more infection outbreaks, and the question is how do we avoid a second wave while getting life going on full tilt?
Look, we've been very clear, from- right from the outset, that the potential for new spikes, for new outbreaks, has and will continue to be with us.
That's why we have to maintain the physical distancing practices that have been so important: the one and a half metres, the cough etiquette, the use of hand sanitisers and soap – basic things. Downloading the COVIDSafe app also adds to the safeguards we have.
So, those basic things that individuals can do, and have done magnificently, coupled with the testing, tracing, and the local containment options which are part of our national and government support for the population.
Let's go to the local containment options that we're looking at in Victoria at the moment. There's 125 active cases, I think. Some community transmissions from completely asymptomatic people, which makes it tough.
More than 1000 close contacts have been identified. Are you expecting those infection numbers in those areas to keep rising? And if so, are those six local government areas, the hotspots, likely to be forced into a more complete lockdown? Stay at home orders?
So, what we are expecting is that the testing will no doubt reveal more cases. If there have been community transmissions, then, by definition, they are, at this point, from what are known as sort of unidentified sources.
That's why very high levels of testing are being sought in those areas. There’s a possibility of tighter lockdowns, as we did in North West Tasmania, is on the table, and I think it’s very important to be honest about that. However, we saw a drop in the number of cases between Saturday and Sunday.
I'm looking at this morning's cases – they'll come in during the course of the next few hours – and if we are able to maintain low levels and low numbers – when you think of it as five cases from undiagnosed sources yesterday – then I'm hopeful that we can avoid those lockdowns.
But we have to be absolutely clear; the rings of containment, the local actions are on the table, and they've been part of our response right from the outset.
Can I just, sorry, probe that a bit more with you, Minister? What would that mean? It doesn't mean just those who have been contacted as being in- traced and being in contact with someone quarantined, but whole- people living in these suburbs might be locked down under a stay-at-home order? Might not be able to go to work outside the suburb or go to school? That extreme?
Victoria has certainly set that out as a possibility. It remains what I call a possibility. At this stage, I would not say it's a likelihood, but it's very important that we're honest.
In North West Tasmania, that was the model which was pioneered, where they had a very significant outbreak – far, far greater in numbers than the individual local government areas in Melbourne – and that was a highly effective response.
Difficult for the population, but it achieved the outcome, and Tasmania has now been travelling largely COVID-free and is a model of how we can do this.
The country’s looking on and asking: what’s going on in Melbourne? Do you have a view of why Melbourne? Is it anything beyond just bad luck? Is it not testing enough? Is there anything gone wrong there that you’ve been able to identify?
The testing rates, to be fair, have been outstanding in Victoria; the comprehensiveness of the testing and the tracing have both been first class. Brendan Murphy, as the Chief Medical Officer, has always said that Victoria has continued to have some low levels of community transmission.
That, I think, coupled with the fact that as, Jason Wood, Member for La Trobe, former - a very senior policeman said: once the protests occurred, there was a certain relaxation in the broader population.
On the basis of, well, gosh, if it's okay for 10,000 people to get together then surely we can't be a risk if we’re 10 people and unfortunately that’s not -
Do you agree with that? I mean, because those protests happened in every state, they didn't just happen in Melbourne. So, why would that have changed attitudes and behaviour in Melbourne, to a point of danger rather than in other places?
I think what we saw is that because we have that continued low level of community transmission in Victoria, where the authorities have been doing a great job in progressively mopping it up. But once there was a relaxation of the standards in the minds of some - not all - but in the minds of some, then that meant that there was the potential outside of the protests.
We know have four cases linked to the protests so far. We don't know of any secondary infections, but four linked to the protest. Others may well have looked on and said: well we certainly don't think there should be a double standard.
Therefore, we must be safe, if that's a safe activity. And the truth is, the protests weren’t a safe activity, nor is anything which breaches the very careful social and physical distancing rules, which we've put in place to protect lives.
So, it's all of our task now to say we have to maintain those disciplines and I am confident that we will get there and we will get through this. But, this is a critical juncture and it's the individual actions, coupled with the testing and the tracing and the local containment.
Is there a communication problem too, Minister? We know that, unlike the Black Lives Matter, the four protests have been found to be positive, there have been no transmissions linked to them.
But half the new cases have come from families to family transmission; one cluster, more than a dozen people infected. Some of these clusters are within certain ethnic communities.
Is there a problem with the messaging getting through to non-English speakers about the need to socially distance? Do we need a better effort or a different effort there?
So, we are, in conjunction with Victoria, stepping up on that front. We've been working with SBS; Home Affairs has translated messages into 63 languages. But particularly throughout these culturally and linguistically diverse communities, in parts of Melbourne where- with a base of community transmission, therefore, both Victoria and the Commonwealth, are working together to increase the resources going directly into the families and the communities.
Okay, Minister I know your time is tight. Two quick questions; the border with New South Wales is still open, but the Deputy Premier, John Barilaro, says he doesn't want Victorians travelling to New South Wales during the upcoming school holidays.
He's particularly worried about the snow fields, where you’ll have people from Victoria mixing with people from New South Wales he says. Is he right to be worried or is that kind of language unnecessary?
The Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, ruled out border closures yesterday. The medical advice is that if you are from any of the six local government areas in Melbourne, then please do not travel. It's advice, it's not a rule, but it's a very clear advice. Beyond that, there's no advice at the medical level urging people not to travel.
And more broadly, Minister, the WHO has said overnight it’s likely to be two and a half years before we see a vaccine for this virus. Are we going to be effectively isolated in Australia, cut off from the rest of the world, until we get that vaccine? Is that how you see the future?
I do think that the border- the international border closures will remain in place for a very significant time. The-
Two and a half years?
I won't put a timeframe on it, because there are differing views as to vaccines. For example, the University of Queensland molecular clamp is one of the world's leading vaccine candidates, it's progressing.
There are others out of Oxford, the United States, Europe, Asia that are all progressing. However, we have to adapt to this new situation, which is very difficult for businesses, for workers, for families.
One, that's the physical distancing. Two, we have to be using the hotel quarantine system as our defence against importing cases from around the world, unless- until we have travel bubble arrangements, potentially with countries such as New Zealand.
So, it is a two-step process - the hotel quarantine and selected bubble arrangements. But then it will take a while before the borders open, because around the world, the virus is accelerating not decelerating and that's going to lead to a lot of hardship, a lot of tragedy and we are, for the time being, an island sanctuary.
Minister, thank you very much for joining us on Breakfast.
Greg Hunt is the Federal Health Minister and he’s right about this virus accelerating around the world.