And a new announcement that elective surgeries are being cancelled in hospitals around the country. I spoke with the Federal Health Minister, Greg Hunt.
Minister, thank you for joining The Latest.
I would like to ask you first to talk to parents tonight. Against early messaging, some very young children have now been tested positive, infected, and there’s been a spoke in young people aged in their 20s.
Your message to parents, and perhaps to those younger people who may think that they’re invincible.
Firstly, thank you for having me on, Michael.
The very clear message is this is a global pandemic. No country is immune. No person's immune.
To young people, it may seem that this is an old person's disease. It will affect them the most, but it can affect and lead to tragedy anywhere.
Fortunately, our youngest people are less likely to catch it, even less likely to catch than the flu, and less likely to be affected, sometimes less likely than the flu.
But for people in their 20s, whether they are at a wedding, whether they are at a gathering, they can pass the infection easily, which is why we have taken these hardest of decisions to close down and stop the mass gatherings and the cafes and the restaurants, with all of the impacts on our magnificent lifestyle and all of the impacts on the livelihoods of business owners.
And so these are the hardest of decisions, but they’ve been taken because the disease can spread, and young people can be a vector for spreading to older people unwittingly.
And we would put our grandparents or parents at risk, and nobody would want to do that.
I know the numbers are very low, but just hearing that there are some babies and toddlers infected today, parents are going to be concerned, aren't they?
Every parent will be concerned, and every parent will be concerned because these are their children and their loved ones.
And our job as a mum or a dad is to raise these beautiful kids and to give them a full life, and we’re now living together, together through something that none of us had ever lived through before, nor even imagined in our lives.
This is something that is once in a century.
So the things that parents can do to keep our kids at home, to keep everybody at arm’s length, not to go out to public- into the public unless you really have to.
Obviously for essential shopping, for medical, those that are working to do their work, and to exercise – that’s appropriate, but not to gather, not to do the things we do.
This is a six-month period, we believe, on our best medical advice.
But if we do these things, we can save lives, protect lives, protect our children, and protect our elderly and our vulnerable.
Just a brief question on elective surgeries. Today the PM announced that non-urgent elective surgeries will be suspended, very understandable.
What’s the modelling though on the backlog that that will cause? Is it your advice to those needing those sorts of surgery that may not happen until next year now? And do people need to get their head around that?
So, we are still allowing what are called Category 1 elective surgery, and absolutely necessary Category 2 surgeries.
I’ve been speaking just before coming to the air with the major private hospitals, and indeed the heads of both the day and the overnight hospital networks.
We are going to work with them on a national coronavirus hospitals partnership.
What does that mean? We guarantee their viability, in turn they guarantee their capacity of keeping on the jobs, keeping on the capacity. And then thirdly, integrating into the state’s systems.
And so that will allow surgery to continue, that will allow other items to continue. Some surgeries will have to be put back, and I am deeply sorry and apologetic about that.
But that is what everybody recognises is necessary. But what we are doing is allowing an integrated system where some private hospitals might become coronavirus hospitals.
Some might in fact become coronavirus-free hospitals with a focus on the vulnerable.
Some might take general patients from hospitals, and some might have an additional intensive care capacity.
So by bringing these two systems together, we are creating a boost in the Australian capacity. It’s a six-month process, as the way we see all of these things.
Viability, maintaining the capacity and the jobs of all of these magnificent nurses and doctors and orderlies and attendants, and in turn, an integrated system between the state public health systems and the existing private to operate as one unit.
Just to sharpen that point briefly. You’re talking about there being a segregation, which would make sense, of having hospitals geared up segregation of hospitals geared up specifically to treat coronavirus specifically to treat coronavirus and some being, I guess, immune from treating coronavirus patients.
Look, that is absolutely one of the possibilities. But the good thing here is that the states themselves are going to work directly with the private hospitals.
In many cases, as so many viewers will know, they will be co-located at present.
That, say, for example, my home city of Melbourne, you’ll have St Vincent’s public and St Vincent’s private, and to be able to break down these barriers, to operate as a single system, where the health ministers and the chief health officers are able to work directly with the private sector.
They can then arrange their system in a way to give maximum support. Not just for coronavirus patients, but for all patients.
So instead of operating hospital-to-hospital, one single national coronavirus hospital partnership.
A great Australia, the Nobel Prize-winning Immunologist Professor Peter Doherty told me today he believes that we may flatten the curve, flatten the mass infection rate within two weeks, given the measures that you’ve put in as a government.
Do you share that optimism?
I am hopeful, and more importantly than that, the chief medical officers are hopeful that these extreme social distancing measures that we’ve taken of such difficult decisions, with regards to pubs and clubs and sporting activities, gyms, things that are so important to so many people.
They’re the things which will slow the rapid infection amongst groups.
Would you agree with Professor Doherty – who we’re going to talk to later in the program – that a flattening of the curve could happen in two weeks given the measures that are in place now?
Well, the Chief Medical Officer, Brendan Murphy, who has been drawing on the finest epidemiologists and contagious disease experts, including from the Doherty Institute – named after the great Peter Doherty – believes that these measures will have an effect.
And whether it's two weeks or three or four, I am not going to make that prediction.
But we are going to continue to take these measures until that infection slows.
They will continue to grow; I have to steel all Australians for that reality.
This is a global epidemic in more than 190 countries.
What is interesting is because our testing rate is on a per capita basis, close to the highest in the world, if not the highest in the world, we are picking up a much higher percentage of cases than others.
That’s- the evidence of that is that for this number of recognised cases, we have almost the lowest death rate.
It’s not a different disease, it just means we’re more accurate in our figures.
Therefore, that testing regime – perhaps the broadest and widest in the world – is giving us the chance to get people early, to protect them, to get them into treatment, to give them the support that they need.
So, the country has been magnificent.
If coronavirus is an approaching tsunami, are we on the high ground now, or still down on the beach?
No, I would say we are moving towards the high ground.
What’s- what are my days comprised of? My days are comprised of making sure that we have the measures in place to keep waters at bay, and making sure that we have the capacity to get us to the higher ground.
Okay. And last question – can we expect further lockdowns over the next few days?
Look, I’ll leave that to the premiers who are following the advice. Those are the decisions that they’re making.
But the more we do, the more each of us does to follow the rules of hygiene, of self-isolation if you’ve been in contact or you’re in quarantine for one of the reasons, and then of social distancing.
Each of us can have an impact on the great national outcome here.
Health Minister, Greg Hunt, thank you so much for joining us tonight.
Look, it’s been a real privilege Michael. And to everybody, it will be tough, but you can make that difference. I want to thank you and honour you and help you believe we will get through this.
The Health Minister there.