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Interview with Peter Stefanovic on Sky News First Edition

Read the transcript of Minister Hunt's interview with Peter Stefanovic on Sky News First Edition about coronavirus (COVID-19) and the appointment of the first Deputy Chief Medical Officer for mental health, Dr Ruth Vine.

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

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And joining me now is the Health Minister, Greg Hunt. Minister, good morning to you. Thank you so much for joining us.


Good morning, Peter.


So, first of all, how will the Deputy Chief Medical Health Officer for mental health, will work with Brendan Murphy?


So, the first Deputy Chief Medical Officer for mental health, Dr Ruth Vine, will be appointed.

She’s a former chief psychiatry, distinguished and extremely capable person.

Her role is two-fold; one, obviously, during the course of the pandemic to add to the support that we have for mental health.

And then secondly, beyond that, to look at the role of mental health in coordinating with the states and territories and the Commonwealth.

One of the things that, you know, on our watch, both the Prime Minister and myself have identified is not just the importance of mental health, but the importance of integrating what we do with the states. And so, we’re working very constructively.

The Prime Minister's requested and there will be a pandemic mental health plan taken before the National Cabinet on Friday.

But, we've been working very constructively with the states, in particular New South Wales and Victoria have helped take the lead at the state level.

They've worked with Christine Morgan the National Mental Health Commissioner. Everybody's been very constructive during any economic crisis.

There's a long history that this can have a demonstrated impact on mental health.

When you add that to the uncertainty of a health crisis as well, it's completely understandable that there is a risk and that's why we're getting ahead of the curve, just as we've done with health. Now, on mental health.


What’s the data on the number of people who have committed suicide during the pandemic as opposed to the number of people who have died from COVID-19?


I don't have anything on that yet and what we often see is that there is, through the coronial process, a period where they have to determine the cause of loss of life.

But, we are establishing as part of our work, something which was in place and being developed before the pandemic; a real time, data process - $15 million dollars going into that so as we can have early warning.

At this stage, we don't have any indication of a spike, but we have certainly not ruled it out.

We are planning, preparing, to try to get ahead, to provide the support.

Support for Headspace, Beyondblue, Lifeline, Kids line.

All of these things are very, very important. The Black Dog Institute to help with our medical professionals, who've had heightened stress, heightened conditions.

They've done an amazing job on all of those fronts, we're acting early, just as we've done with the virus, but to make sure that we do everything we can to give people the support.

Because whether it's isolation, whether it's health, whether it's economic anxiety; all of these things can understandably have a huge impact on people's mental health.

So, this is an important step forward.

It's for the first time in Australian history raising mental health to that level of the officer’s unit and I want to thank the Chief Medical Officer but also people such as Pat McGorry and Ian Hickie and so many others who have advocated for this position.


I guess, is it realistic to be realistic to expect that, you know, that the severe ramifications of mental health, being suicide, that the numbers may well end up being more than those people who die from COVID-19? Which at the moment is about 97, right?


98 as of this morning, very sadly.

I won't make any predictions here. Our job is to look at the risk and we do know there's a risk and then to try to get ahead of that curve, which is why we've invested in all of those services.

But, the other really important thing that we've done is provide telehealth.

And so, now, we're at approximately 9 million telehealth consultations, since it was introduced.

A very significant proportion of those, on the reports of our GPs, are for mental health.

And so, it’s providing that service to people in their own home, when they are potentially isolated, when they might be lonely, when they might have anxiety or pressure.

All the things that are completely understandable and saying: it's okay, we really want you to reach out. We really want you to get that help.

And this has been a huge development - Telehealth and it's been one of the things which the pandemic has allowed us to bring forward.

What was going to be a 10-year migration plan, we were able to do in 10 days and it's taught us the speed with which we can make systemic change; but, much more importantly, still, it's given those that are at risk the additional support at the time they most need it.


Is this all in anticipation of a second wave?


Well our job is to work to try to prevent that but we have never ruled that out.

We have to be careful not to think that this is over. We haven't beaten the virus. We are winning but we have not won.

And so we always have to be vigilant, this is an ongoing crisis and although we have flattened the curve, we are looking every day for new outbreaks, to use the contact tracing, which is why we're encouraging as many people as possible to join the 5.6 million Australians who’ve downloaded the COVIDSafe app, because it can help protect you, because it can help protect others.

It can help protect our nurses, so we're not out of the woods. We are doing exceptionally well as a country, but we have to be ever, ever vigilant.


I know that you want to keep the infection rate below 1; but how much above one, how much above one can our health system cope with? If that makes sense.


Well if there were a sustained reinfection rate on a large scale of below one, that would be a risk, but we have no signs of that at this stage.

As an example, we ramped up our ventilator capacity.

So across the country we had two roles - containment to reduce the rate of infection, which we have done very, very successfully.

But, as I say, we maintain our vigilance, and capacity to obviously increase the ability of the system.

Our ventilators have gone from 2200 capacity to 7500.

We currently have 14 Australians, all of whom would be are in the most significant health situation, currently on ventilators and so what that says is that there's a very clear capacity within the system.

But our job is to try to continue to bring the infections down and all of us can play that role with our physical distancing, our hygiene, the way in which we maintain distance from each other.

These things are just as important today, as they were in April and as they were in March.

Each of us can help protect others and protect our own families, by following the basic rules of the one and a half metres, of the approach to being tested, just as Josh did, if you have symptoms.

They’re all the things that we should be doing as a country and Australians have been magnificent. There's just more work to do.


Okay. Well you just brought up the Treasurer. I'm sure you're relieved that he's been cleared of COVID-19.

But as Health Minister, will you be having a quiet word to him this morning about coughing into his hand and not into his elbow?


He's already spoken to me about that himself. It was the first thing he raised.

I had a chat with him this morning. He said I should have coughed into my elbow, sorry about that.

So- but look, he did exactly the right thing. He sought medical advice out of an abundance of caution. He had a test, he self-isolated and now that it's a negative result, he's coming back to work today, you can't keep him down. He's as energetic and is as enthusiastic as ever.


So you don't need to scold him?


No, he was right onto it himself. And most importantly, he sought the medical advice and followed the medical advice, both in terms of the test and the self-isolation.

So, it's a good example for all of us - anything can happen and any one of us can inadvertently catch an illness or pass it on.

And so, we don't ever, ever, ever want to be judgmental; we want to make sure that we're encouraging people to get those tests. Now over 880,000 tests conducted in Australia.

These are the things that are catching the virus early lives, they’re saving lives.

They're protecting those people that have been infected and they're protecting against other infections and that's why the testing and the tracing, the downloading of the COVIDSafe app, is all so important to protecting Australians against a second wave.

Now, we're doing well, but we have to be vigilant.


Okay. Health Minister, Greg Hunt, appreciate your time this morning. Thank you so much for joining us.


No, it’s a pleasure.

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