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Interview with Mark Levy on 2GB about COVID-19 vaccine, vaccination rollout timeline and international travel

Read the transcript of Minister Hunt's interview with Mark Levy on 2GB about COVID-19 vaccine, vaccination rollout timeline and international travel.

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

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Now, Australia’s rollout of the coronavirus vaccine could begin as early as the beginning of March instead of later in the month as originally planned. The vaccination program is expected to be finished by October.

I spoke to the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, yesterday about the calls to fast track the jab, particularly from our Opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, who, while saying the vaccine isn't being delivered fast enough, so far hasn't been to any of the vaccine medical briefings he's been invited to.

The Prime Minister and the Health Minister say Australia has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world for a good reason and that's because people trust the thorough processes that are put in place for every vaccine.

We're in an unenviable position around the world and unlike in places such as the UK, there's no good reason for us to be rushing any vaccine. The Federal Health Minister is Greg Hunt and I'm pleased to say, he joins me on the line right now.

Minister, good morning.


And good morning, Mark.


I understand you've just walked out of a briefing with the Prime Minister. I'm sure the vaccine is one of the top points on the agenda and some good news in the newspapers today, and that is you’re hoping to have the population inoculated and vaccinated by October of this year.


Correct. So as we get the advice and we get the data and we get the safety information, which is the most important thing, safety trumps everything.

Then we've been able to bring our vaccination commencement schedule forward from the middle of the year to the second quarter, to late March and now to early March. And I'm not ruling out further steps.

But what I am saying is that there's a group - Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan, different jurisdictions that are arguably amongst the most successful countries in combating the virus.

All are committed to an expedited assessment process, safety process, but a full safety assessment process. And all of those countries are, in terms of Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Australia and the jurisdiction of Taiwan, they're all looking at a very similar timeframe.

So it puts us in the group of countries that have been highly successful but are absolutely thorough.

And there are some, such as Mr Albanese, that want us to adopt the practices of those countries that have had the greatest challenges, Europe and North America, in terms of the virus. And that's a very odd position, particularly when he’s declined all the briefing opportunities on vaccines so far.

I'm not sure who he's getting his advice from, but we're getting ours from Professor Brendan Murphy, Professor Paul Kelly and Professor John Skerritt.


Well, for that, you should be applauded because, I mean, we obviously have to allow these things to go through the proper testing before people can be lined up to receive the jab.

Just for those people that aren't aware of your comments and the like, so we should just simplify this timeline for them. Once the vaccine, the Pfizer vaccine is made available in March, that will be for frontline workers, is that right?


So there are three groups that will be in the first vaccination round. Firstly, we have the frontline workers, in particular, such as the international facing ones, the hotel quarantine, borders, others that are involved in that. Secondly, health workers and thirdly, residential aged care facility residents, so aged care residents.

That’s the first round and then we'll work through it in terms of age and other priorities, which are currently being finalised by the medical expert panel, but progressively working down in age and where there are other vulnerabilities in terms of disability or certain Indigenous age groups and others, then they’ll all be identified. But that medical advice is still just being finalised. And so we'll share that with the public as we have it.

But it's not a surprising approach. It's a very common sense approach - you simply follow the vulnerability and the risk of either transmission or the consequence of infection.


What I've been saying over the last few weeks while I've been filling in for Ray, Minister, is that it seems a no brainer for mine. If there's a vaccine available against this deadly virus and it gives Australia a chance to get back to some sort of normality, I’ll line up as soon as I'm given the tick of approval that it's my turn to receive the jab.

What do you say as the Minister for Health to these people for some reason, who are anti-getting the vaccine and have some concerns? Can you reassure them today that everything's fine? It's going through the proper process and when it is made available, there'll be no side effects and the like once they do receive the vaccine?


So we have the best regulator in the world, in my view, with what's called the Therapeutic Goods Administration, headed by Professor John Skerritt, who’s the deputy head of the global body of comparable regulators and safety is number one.

And there are some, such as Mr Albanese, who might want us to skip the testing of batches or skip the full approvals process. We’ve seen jurisdictions overseas where they're considering changing the manufacturing advice or even mixing vaccines, for which there's no advice that we have and no evidence.

But we're not doing that in Australia, we're following the full safety processes. And that’s firstly is about protecting Australians. Secondly though, it's about vaccine confidence.

And the biggest threat to a high uptake in Australia would be the lack of confidence. We’re one of the great vaccination nations in the world, almost 95 per cent of five year olds - 94.9 per cent - and that's gone up during the pandemic which is incredible. And so maintaining that confidence is very, very important.

And that means we've been able to expedite and bring forward the vaccine but on a full safety assessment, just as is happening in countries that you trust – you know, Japan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and we see a similar approach in the jurisdiction of Taiwan.

The countries that have been, arguably, amongst the most successful in the world in combating the virus are taking the same approach to the vaccine. And that's exactly what Australians would want from our safety processes.


All right. Minister, let me try and squeeze in a couple of quick ones here. International travel. There's a story today that Qantas is already selling international flights from July of this year.

Are they going off early? Or are you confident that we may have some international travel midway through the year?


So I'm not going to make any predictions on specific timeframes. But we know as there's more vaccination around the world, more vaccination in Australia, and we know whether or not there's a transmission control which comes with the vaccine.

So we're very confident on the safety, we're very confident on the effectiveness. There's still a little bit more international data to make sure that our regulators, as with other comparable countries that I've mentioned, is fully assessed.

But what we don't know is how effective it will be at preventing transmission. So that's what will determine the pace.

But what we're likely to see is a progressive opening up. There won't be just one day where all of a sudden everything's open. The world's going to have to work through this.

And, you know, just today there's likely to be over 600,000 cases again in the UK; 60,000 cases and 800 lives lost. So Australia's an island sanctuary. Outside of our borders, it's a very, very dark winter in so many parts of the world.

And what we're doing is keeping it safe here, and as we believe it’s safe that people can leave and be able to return, then we’ll open those steps progressively.


And I've got 60 seconds here, Minister. Are you happy with the response that you're getting from the states around Australia at the moment, with the way they're dealing with the pandemic?

I know we've got these clusters in New South Wales that are hopefully being brought under control. Are you happy with what the ministers are reporting back to you?


Yes. So the advice from this morning, New South Wales is four cases and the testing continues to be outstanding, and their contact tracing is literally world leading, literally world leading.

The outbreak that occurred in New South Wales - the chief medical officer of Australia, Paul Kelly, has said could well have been significantly larger than that which occurred in Victoria in June, July and August, but for the level of contact tracing and testing.

So people in New South Wales, in Sydney in particular, have done an incredible job. In Victoria, 37,000 tests, one case. So for Australia, this provides a pathway to begin to reopen those domestic borders.

The evidence is strong that we know how to deal with these outbreaks. And we're, by global standards, in an incredibly strong place. But even compared with six months ago, we’re in a much stronger place.

So to give that confidence to people - we've done this, we can do this, and we'll continue to do this.

And just the results, even from today to see what New South Wales has achieved, to see how Victoria's improved, they should be really heartening to, I think, not just people in both those states, but to all Australians.


You’d rather live in Australia than any other country in the world at the moment.

Minister, keep up the good work. Always good to catch up.


Thanks, Mark.


There he is. Greg Hunt, the Federal Health Minister.

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