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Interview with Katie Woolf from MIX 104.9 Darwin, on 22 November 2021, on Outbreak in the Northern Territory

Read the transcript of Minister Hunt's interview with Katie Woolf from MIX 104.9 Darwin, on 22 November 2021, on Outbreak in the Northern Territory.

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

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A lot of you still wondering exactly what the rules are when it comes to these changes that are set to come into play- have come into play, around those travelling into the Northern Territory, as of today, who are vaccinated and, well, those who aren’t. So we’ll talk more about that throughout the morning.

But as we know, nine new cases of COVID over the weekend, all of the nine new cases are in the Binjari community on the outskirts of Katherine. Binjari and the nearby Rockhole community have been immediately sent into a hard lockdown following the announcement of those cases.

Now, we know the Federal Government is understood to be deploying resources to assist in the outbreak after the Chief Minister yesterday said at a press conference, there is a real risk that the virus has seeded into other connected communities.

Now, joining me on the line is the Federal Health Minister, Greg Hunt. Good morning to you.


And good morning, Katie.


Minister, the situation that we’re experiencing in the Northern Territory is one which we’d all hoped wouldn’t happen, COVID in a remote Indigenous community. What support is the Federal Government going to provide at this point?


So across the Territory, we now have 105 defence personnel who are supporting COVID-19 efforts. That's 40 in Howard Springs and Bladin Village.

And then we've now deployed at 40 personnel and vehicles to support NT Health in the Katherine area and that's- in particular with food and other critical supplies, and another 25 people with vehicles to support transport for isolated personnel from regional communities in and around Katherine with testing and other health issues.

And if more is needed, more will be required. We're also providing PPE, assisting in the vaccination program.

And I have to say, the NT vaccination rate is, is, and has been growing for some weeks now, at the fastest rate in the nation.

So it's now 86 per cent all up, 73.3 per cent second dose. And importantly, the Indigenous rate has increased quite significantly to 76.1 per cent.

We want that to go higher, but we'll continue to work with the NT Government and communities and Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations.


And I will go into those vax rates in a little bit more detail in just a moment. But Minister, can I just confirm? So, 40 ADF personnel in the Katherine area. And then did you say, 25 in the remote communities?


Twenty-five to help with transport of isolated personnel from regional communities to COVID-19 testing in and around Katherine to assist with the needs and movements of those communities.

So if you think of it as 40 supporting the Howard Springs and Bladin Village, and another 65 supporting Katherine and remote communities.

And that's based on the needs assessment from the NT Government. And we see this is an absolute priority. We operate in joint planning. I'm engaged with my counterpart, Minister Natasha Fyles, every day.


Now, on those vaccination rates. We know that it's being reported that the vaccination rates in Binjari and Rockhole are very low. It's been reported that it's lower than 40 per cent.

Do you know what the vaccination rate is in Binjari and also in nearby Rockhole community?

GREG HUNT:         

So across Katherine, Binjari, and Rockhole, I have in front of me the, the broader numbers, it's 64.6 per cent and 42.9 per cent Indigenous rates for second dose. In Robinson River, as we know, it was 87 per cent first dose before the outbreak, and it's near full vaccination now.

And one of the challenges that we faced is you can have extremely high community numbers, such as those in Robinson River, which were, you know, at a really high level before the outbreak, and lower ones, such as Binjari and Rockhole.

And it's been very much a question of not access, as all of the Indigenous leaders have said, but the position within communities. And so building that confidence in communities is absolutely critical.

We're working with Indigenous leaders, and working with, whether its land councils, working with the elders on the ground, the NT’s been doing a very good job on that front.

So that is the main challenge, that you can have very high or very low rates of identical access. But we are seeing significant increases in Indigenous community uptake right across the NT.


So I suppose, you know, to really break it down here, in Binjari and in Rockhole, are those vaccination rates lower than 40 per cent?


I'll leave that to the NT, which is releasing those, and they'll be providing an update today. Across the region, which covers Katherine, Binjari, and Rockhole, which I apologise is their specific figure I have in front of me now.

It's 64.6 per cent Indigenous vax rate across that broader area, which is, it's just how the figures have been presented to me today.


Minister, do you feel that enough has been done to ensure that Indigenous Territorians, where those health services are delivered by the ACCHOs - has enough being done to ensure that they are vaccinated?


I don't think anybody could have done any more. When you see an 87 per cent rate in one community, and a figure, you know, below 40 per cent at another with entirely comparable access, you'll see that there are very different responses.

I know of some communities where there have been multiple visits, multiple visits, prior to outbreaks. And you will have some external influences and we know that there are some religious groups from the United States that I would regard as extreme and fringe and utterly reprehensible, who've been preaching an anti-vax message.

Occasionally that will have an impact in a community, as has been relayed to me by Pat Turner, the Head of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations, by Ken Wyatt, the Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs.

So we fight though does anti-vax sentiments, then we continue to build the confidence and to see the numbers increasing around the country. And NT, to their credit, has a higher Indigenous vaccination rate, first vaccination rate, than the national average.


There was a real- there was a real, sort of, you know, emotional plea, I think you'd call it, last week from the Chief Minister, Michael Gunner, about these vaccination numbers - almost sort of accusing the Federal Government of not providing them in those different communities that are managed, or their health services are managed by the ACCHOs.

Is there, are the figures being withheld here, Minister?




Why do you think the Chief Minister said that last week?


You'd have to ask him, because that claim, I think, they drop that within 24 hours.

Everything that we've had, we've provided. And we have, you know, a very good cooperation. I work magnificently with Natasha Fyles. I've got to say, you know, we're obviously on different sides of the political fence, but we've operated as a single team.

And all credit to the way Minister Fyles has approached both the rollout, but also the responsibility of being a national and territory leader.


Minister, here in the Northern Territory today, we are moving to a no-vax, no travel into the Northern Territory policy. The Prime Minister has previously said that people shouldn't be discriminated against based on their vaccination status.

What do you think of this stance which has been taken by the Northern Territory Government?


Sure. So all states and territories signed up to the national plan. And as we move to the higher rates of vaccination, that means both an opening up and the return to greater freedoms.

And one of the things, just listening to this discussion and being part of it with you, of course, where you are imposing rules like that, it will have a disproportionate impact on Indigenous communities. It will have a disproportionate impact on people of lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and in some cases, non-English-speaking backgrounds, who’ve not taken up the vaccination option in the same way.

As a country, we’re at over 91 per cent. An incredible, unbelievable national achievement. But within that, even though there has been massive access, we know that for historical, cultural or other reasons, some groups may not have taken it up, and so we have to be very careful not to create a permanent marginalisation of Indigenous Australians, or of those of non-English speaking background, or of those of lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

That would be a deeply concerning moment if we were providing fewer rights to Indigenous Australian.


Well, we know today Pauline Hanson is claiming that she's going to cause havoc unless Scott Morrison backs her legislation making it unlawful to discriminate against unvaccinated Aussies.

It could affect the Northern Territory more than anywhere else, as we are one of the only places where the Federal Government could obviously overrule our Government.

Would the Government support the- will the Government be supporting that legislation?


No. And the reason is we are a nation which is based on a federal compact.

So whilst we want to see the country opening up, we recognise that the laws of states and territories are, nevertheless, the matter and province of those states and territories.

A, there's a significant constitutional question as to whether the Parliament could pass such legislation. B, it centralises almost all power in the Commonwealth. It almost completely denudes the states. And we want to separate out the issues.

Where we have a respectful disagreement about a matter, we'll deal with that matter on its own merits. But tying enormous amounts of operational funding for the basic duties, cares and responsibilities of the states is not something that we would, we would do.

Our approach is to be balanced, to encourage Australians, all Australians to take up the vaccine, but to give them the confidence to do that. And we've been one of the safest countries in the world with one of the lowest losses of life in the world, with one of the highest vaccination rates and one of the strongest economic outcomes.

And we've done that by focusing on health and believing in Australian. That just means we may not agree with some of the things that some of the states and territories are doing, we may not agree with some of the things that Senator Hanson is proposing.

Our job is to chart that middle course of lives and livelihoods.


So it doesn't sound as though the Government would overturn the Northern Territory’s vaccine mandate, particularly when you talk about the travel and allowing people who are vaccinated in, but not allowing those who haven't been vaccinated.


No, there are no plans to try to legislate to, to do that. Where we disagree, because of the impact on marginalising Indigenous Australians, or marginalising people of particular cultural and non-English speaking backgrounds, I think many of our state and territory governments might have to think very carefully as to, are they inadvertently imposing a form of exclusion on groups which already have great challenges? Are they inadvertently leading to those that might be less connected, being even less connected?

And those are the consequences of laws which would block out unvaccinated Indigenous Australians, which would lock out people from lower socioeconomic or different cultural backgrounds.

That’s, that's the reality. That despite equal access, indeed, despite massively focused campaigns, there hasn't been that same uptake.

There’s been magnificent uptake. And those laws, those rules, have a disproportionate impact, as you would see, on Indigenous Territorians, on other indigenous Australians where there's a difference in the uptake.


Minister, before I let you go this morning, I know you're pressed for or time, as are we. But finally, we have had quite a lot of stress on the Northern Territory health system. Four code yellows in recent months, staff shortages at Royal Darwin hospital.

Do you think the Northern Territory is equipped to handle a wider outbreak of COVID? Or is the Federal Government prepared to step in whenever required?


So firstly, the Territory has to have responsibility for their own hospital system. But they, they have managed well, is my observation.

Whilst there may be some issues in terms of the general preparation, all states and territories are equipped, and have undertaken to the National Cabinet that they are equipped to deal with COVID outbreaks. That's been the express clear statement of the Territory Government to the National Cabinet and we trust them on that.

But we've also verified - through the work of the, the Doherty Institute, the work of professor Brendan Murphy, the former Chief Medical Officer and esteemed Secretary of Health for Australia - that all states and territories have used to last 20 months to put in place preparations.

And we're actually seeing that now in the response, whether it's in Katherine or Robinson River, whether it's the support which is occurring in Binjari and elsewhere.

So, there have been, and there will be outbreaks. We need to be very honest about it. This is now a global problem. And Europe's experiencing a fourth wave. Australia has been mercifully spared from so much of the pain that the world has had. Our outcome is one which almost any country would have chosen over their own.

That doesn't mean we're free of the challenges and they'll still be more, but we're as well prepared as anybody in the world.


Well, Minister for Health, the Federal Minister for Health, Greg Hunt, we really appreciate your time this morning. Thanks so much for speaking with us.


Thanks Katie, and thanks to the Territorians who are coming forward to be vaccinated.

And there’s 14 per cent still to go. If you're one of those, to echo the Chief Minister in a show of bipartisanship, being vaccinated can save your life and can save the life of your family.


Thanks so much for your time this morning, Minister.


Take care. Cheers.


Thank you. That is the Federal Health Minister there, Greg Hunt.


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