Australia’s medicine regulator has approved Pfizer booster shots for those over 18. The approval paves the way for the Government now to roll out third doses of vaccine from November, beginning with aged care residents. Booster shots will be administered at least six months after a second dose.
With me now is the Health Minister, Greg Hunt. Thanks so much for your time.
Booster shots approved. You’re confident no supply constraints. Will the rollout be smoother and faster than the first doses now?
Look, we’re very well prepared. We have adequate doses in the country now to make sure that every Australian who wants to be vaccinated with first or second doses could achieve that 100 per cent, on the advice that Lieutenant General Frewen has given.
We have strong suppliers through the coming months and we're in a position to just keep the programme going.
And so those that from 8 November will have been six months since their second dose will be eligible for a booster shot. And a booster shot is, as Professor John Skerritt, the head of the TGA, was saying just that, it increases the immune resistance and immune capability.
So we're freshly vaccinated, we're highly vaccinated and we will be one of the first countries in the world to have a full national whole of population booster programme.
And kids five to 11 should be getting doses soon, you would think. How soon should we expect that parents around the country for young ones under 11, under 12 I should say, to receive a jab?
So three steps on this, and I won't put a time on it respectfully, because that will depend on firstly, the company completing its submission programme, that's Pfizer.
We also know that Moderna may put forward a submission for paediatric doses or children's doses.
Secondly, the TGA or the Therapeutic Goods Administration has to assess it.
And thirdly, the advisory body, the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, or ATAGI, has to make their recommendations.
So it's an important serious task assessing a vaccine, any vaccine, for children. And so they'll do that thoroughly, but as quickly as possible.
But we have the doses, we have the supply and if they recommend, as we did with 12 to 15 year olds, we just continue to roll straight on.
How do you reflect on the argument, I'm sure you've heard it, in relation to developed well off countries, we’re one of the wealthiest nations in the world, that we're going for boosters when a lot of poor countries haven't even had their first doses? How do you reflect on that?
Well, look, I do respect the argument, but our approach has been to ensure that we're sharing doses with the world.
We have 50 million AstraZeneca and pretty much everything from here on in will be shared with the Asia Pacific, in particular, Pacific nations such as Fiji, which has built its programme in large measure off the back of the Australian CSL produced AstraZeneca.
We're supporting PNG and other Pacific nations, Vietnam, Indonesia. And so we're providing over 60 million doses all up to other nations within the region.
If we have spare capacity, we will be of course be assisting them over and above that 60 million and we're contributing over half a billion dollars.
So it's a deep, profound responsibility and Fiji is in a vastly better position today precisely because of that Australian production.
Minister, we have seen rapid antigen testing used widely for some months now in Europe and the United States. We're waiting until 1 November for them to roll out here.
I ask you this in the context of the antigen testing, but it's also relevant, I guess, to the other approvals. Do you think the pandemic has highlighted too much red tape within our health bureaucracy?
Well, I think what we see is we have nine rapid antigen tests approved for home use and over 30 approved for medical supervision.
We've actually moved incredibly quickly. The ordering in relation to masks, gloves, gowns, goggles, the ICU development, the capacity to process the vaccines, to make decisions with regards to the treatments such as molnupiravir and other important medicines.
These are critical and we've been able to do that. We've halved the approvals process for medicines on the PBS, almost halved it in our time, and that's been a really significant achievement.
But Australians also want to know that their medicines and vaccines are safe. That's been a hugely important part of the uptake of vaccines in Australia, that people understood they were safe. They had faith in our regulators.
And so I think we have one of, if not the best regulator in the world in the TGA. And the fact that they are of such high quality, but expeditious gives people confidence and that leads to uptake.
Now, we will be able to travel internationally after November 1, without declarations with Home Affairs and so on, no exemptions needed.
What about the other way around? Are you comfortable with tennis players, no matter how good they are, if they’re unvaccinated, coming to Melbourne for the Australian Open?
Sure. So, two principles here, the re-entry into Australia is for people who are double vaccinated and then there are exemptions, as there have been for people who are not vaccinated who would have to go into hotel quarantine.
And so that would depend on an application from the state. And it's entirely a matter for Victoria if they do that up. If they do that, as a critical workforce or major event, as we've done with other sporting events, then we would be happy to do that.
But they have to have two weeks quarantine. And it's a matter for Victoria whether they impose a no jab, no play rule, that is their call.
But our job is to make sure that it’s only double vaccinated people who are able to enter the country, with Australians prioritised first, without having to quarantine. And if there are those that are deemed by states or territories to be critical for major events or for workforce, but they haven't been vaccinated, then they have to do two weeks quarantine.
Alright. And in terms of the no exemptions for overseas travel, would you urge WA, Tasmania to start reconsidering their own borders, given we will be able to travel to Singapore in early November, but not Perth?
Oh, look, obviously, we're encouraging all of the states and territories to open up as quickly as possible.
The roadmap milestones are about permitting and allowing Australians to return to the free movement, which is our natural human right. And that's the important thing.
The emergency provisions that have been in place are just that. They are emergency provisions. They are against the history, the tone, the tenor of Australia. Necessary under the circumstances, you know, regrettably necessary.
And I say that as somebody who has signed the biosecurity orders for international travel. So I'm not being critical of it, but I do recognise that these are restricted emergency provisions, and as soon as possible, we'd encourage the full, free movement of fully vaccinated people throughout Australia.
Now you are a former Environment Minister, as our viewers would know. What do you say to criticism that the government's plan doesn't have enough detail in it to be credible in terms of emissions reduction?
I respectfully disagree. Firstly, you have in place the existing mechanisms, the Emissions Reduction Fund, the Renewable Energy Target, the Technology Roadmap, and that's seen us drop our emissions by 20 per cent since 2005 to beat Kyoto 1, to beat Kyoto 2, to be on track to well and truly beat the Paris targets that I set along with the then Prime Minister in 2015.
We’re already ahead of where we were going to be in 2030, but almost a decade early. And so we've been able to do that.
And we see the Emissions Reduction Fund is seeing land regeneration, the replenishment of our soils. It's seeing the refurbishment of our land and capturing carbon in there. And that's making a huge difference to the quality of our soils in our land. But above all else, it's bringing emissions down and bringing carbon out of the atmosphere.
So these are real and practical things, and we've done it before. We'll do it again. But the difference is we'll do it without an electricity tax.
And if you want to understand the difference between the two sides, we brought emissions down and took the pressure off electricity prices. They put unemployment up in terms of taking people out of manufacturing jobs, and at the same time, they drove electricity prices up.
So we've said what we'll do, we've done what we've said, and we've brought emissions down, but we'll do it in a way that's safe for the economy, safe for people's electricity bills. And the other side, unfortunately, has a history of pink batts and electricity taxes.
My colleague Andrew Clennell reported this afternoon, there's a view in the senior ranks of the government that there is more on the table for the Nationals than another Cabinet spot and the Productivity Commission review.
You're a senior member of Cabinet, a member of the ERC. Do you know what's on the table for the Nationals?
I'm actually not a member of ERC, I'm now Policy Implementation Committee, so there is nothing that I'm aware of, but we always work together with a focus on rural and regional Australia.
And it is important, one thing that we're unashamed about is we speak across the Liberal Party and the National Party for the people of rural and regional Australia, and we're always looking for things that will allow them to flourish.
Finally, nuclear energy, it's something that we've been reporting on. It's a regular dispatchable energy source, zero emissions, why won't the Government at least look at that?
Look, it's not something we're planning. Again, I respect the views and the integrity of the people that are putting them forward. It's not something that the Government is proposing. We think we can meet the targets that we have without that, and that remains our position.
Okay. Health Minister Greg Hunt, I appreciate your time. Thank you as always, talk to you soon.
Thanks, Kieran. You take care.