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Interview with Michael Rowland on ABC News Breakfast about COVID-19

Read the transcript of Minister Hunt's interview with Michael Rowland on ABC News Breakfast about coronavirus (COVID-19).

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

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Let's bring in the Federal Health Minister, Greg Hunt. Minister, good morning to you.


Good morning, Michael and Lisa.


I want to start by asking you, as a senior Minister, your reaction to that news just breaking about the standing down of 8000 of Virgin's 10,000-strong air force. It's pretty devastating isn't it, for all concerned?


Look, these are devastating figures and it's devastating news for families, for individuals. This is a hardship like none that we will have faced, not just in our lifetimes, but in a hundred years. And so you have the combination of what we saw in 1919 and 1920 with the Spanish flu and the human and health impacts.

And then we have an economic impact unlike anything we’ve seen obviously since the late 1920s and '30s. But having said that the combination of things that we are doing mean that we are in a much better situation because this is likely on all of our best medical advice to be approximately six months.

It could be more, it could be less, but that's the best medical advice, again, as of yesterday from the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Health Officers around the country based on the communicable disease experts.

So the limited duration is a- is the one critical important fact that will give people that resilience and the resolve to get through what will be the most difficult time in our national and in our individual lives.


Let's go to those measures announced by the Prime Minister last night. He and you are urging people to stay home unless it's absolutely necessary.

But under these new rules people can still go to shopping centres; they can still spend up to 30 minutes in close personal quarters with their hairdresser.

Can you see, Greg Hunt, why a lot of Australians are concerned and confused, about the messages you're trying to get across?


Well, the first thing that has been introduced overnight is this extreme social distancing. It's expecting and saying that people should stay at home unless they're going for essential services and shopping, unless they're going for medical services, or to work, or for exercise, or children to school.

And what we have done is on the medical advice, taking the steps that we think are essential. And it's about limiting the gatherings in public, limiting the gatherings even in the home. And we feel that this is - I mean, it's such a weighty decision, but it is so contrary to who we are as a people, but so fundamental to our future.

So I recognise the challenge in that. In addition, extra measures with regards to services that are regarded as social gatherings, but whilst allowing the underpinnings of food supply, of people obtaining essential services to continue.

And then the travel bans - we had already banned foreigners coming into Australia and required everyone coming in to go- or returning Australians to go into self-isolation.

Now, we're putting in place, as of midday today, a travel ban for Australians going overseas other than for essential travel or compassionate reasons.


We heard from the New South Wales chief health officer just moments ago about the first confirmed cases of coronavirus in kids under the age of 10 - two confirmed cases in New South Wales of children.

Why, on that front, are schools still open?


Well, the medical advice is very, very clear that nobody, nobody, nobody, is immune, but that children are far less likely to catch and far less likely to have significant impact - these are not universals.

And against that background the view of the medical advice is that in many ways, schools are a safer place than mixing kids in shopping centres. As we know, that some of those children who have not been in school have been mixing in shopping centres, milling in groups, or been with grandparents.

So these are difficult choices and I want to understand that, but explain the medical reasoning and so I recognise the challenge. But that's the strongest medical advice from the communicable disease experts of Australia - arguably the best virologists and epidemiologists and communicable disease experts in the world - in conjunction with the Chief Health Officers and Chief Medical Officer of Australia.

And so that's what we're doing. Now all of this, though, above all else is designed to give people the best chance to minimise the spread and then at the same time - for over two months now - we’ve been working on boosting the capacity of the health system to deal with the challenge.

Interestingly, because our testing is now at 162,000 tests - almost the highest per capita rate in the world, but with one of the lowest rates of positive tests - that means that we are capturing a very large number, a much larger number of actual cases than other countries and so we're able to have a very real handle which- which is why it plays out that so few people so far - it won't remain this way - but so few people so far are in intensive care, because we are capturing the cases whilst boosting the capacity at the same time - important measures.


Yeah, okay. I’ve just got a couple more questions to get to you before you leave us.

So given what you said and the schools are still open, you say that's based on medical advice - when we get through this, when the inevitable reports and perhaps inquiries are held, are you completely confident in your current stance of not going for a full-scale lockdown at this stage?

Or indeed in the last week or so, and hanging off making that decision?


Well, what we’ve done is not just follow the medical advice, but always make sure we're implementing everything and then putting in place additional measures where necessary.

And so we're doing things at an earlier stage in the disease progression than other countries and I think that's an important way to view it - at an earlier stage of the disease progression. And Australia has been able to hold that off a lot longer than so many countries around the world.

But we always said, no one was immune which is why in January we declared this to be a disease of pandemic potential long before the World Health Organization or others. In February, we declared this to be an active global pandemic because we could foresee what was happening.

And we- the decisions we’ve taken have all been designed to minimise, but whilst at the same time guaranteeing that the essential underpinnings of our health, our security, our food supply, are able to continue - those things are absolutely critical to be able to fight the disease because if you lose the support for health and food and security, then you won't be in a position to protect and support those that contract the disease and you won't be in a position to enforce and to implement the measures that will prevent the spread.

So that's the difficult balance, and I understand everybody will have questions about that. But that's giving you the thinking and the reasoning of the medical experts and then that's of course combined with the national leaders coming together in a once-in-a-century national unity cabinet.


Okay. Finally, let's end with a glimmer of good news. What do we know about this new drug researchers at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne are working on?

It's not a vaccine but a drug that could help fight this dreadful virus.


That's right. So there's been some promising research so far on hexochloroquine, and many might have known chloroquine, it was a malarial - this is a compound thereof.

University of Queensland is doing research on this as a treatment for people who contract the disease, minimising it and both hastening the recovery. Walter and Eliza Hall Institute is proposing a clinical trial for preventive measures which means you are less likely potentially to contract it and you are more likely to have greater resistance and, therefore, fewer impacts if you do.

The amazing Doug Hilton and his team at Walter and Eliza Hall Institute are putting together this clinical trial proposal and as soon as we have got it I can guarantee we'll be funding it.


Fingers crossed. Greg Hunt, thank you so much for your time this morning.


It is an important glimmer of hope. And the other thing here is we have to view this as a six month thing.

And so in all the difficult times, to know that it is limited, to know that we can get through it, and to know that the measures that each of us takes, these are the things which will allow us to get through this.

Take care, everybody.


Okay. We’ll leave it there.

Greg Hunt, thank you so much.

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