This content relates to a former minister

Interview with Raf Epstein on ABC Radio Melbourne about coronavirus (COVID-19)

Read the transcript of Minister Hunt's interview with Raf Epstein on ABC Radio Melbourne about coronavirus (COVID-19).

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

Media event date:
Date published:
Media type:
General public


Greg Hunt is the Federal Health Minister, part of Scott Morrison’s cabinet of course. Minister, good afternoon.


Good afternoon, Raf.


How do people know if they're covered by the changes you announced today?


So the hospitals will advise, they’ll be determining what's called the clinical need. But essentially today's a big step forward.

What it means is that we'll now have all of what are called Category 1 which are the really urgent cases of surgery which weren't emergency surgery.

We’ll have other forms of surgery such as those that you've mentioned, it could be hips, knees, it could be post cancer reconstruction, cataract, treatments such as IVF, endoscopy screening, critical dental.

So all of these begin the process. It will be cautious first steps.

Another review in two weeks for further expansion if this all goes well.

But because the public's done such a magnificent job of containing the virus, the fear of the hospitals that- the real threat of the hospitals being overwhelmed has receded.

And because we've been able to help with the capacity, both in terms of masks and PPE, with 60 million masks and 100 million more to come, 60 million received 100 million more secured, and the ventilator capacity having gone from 2200 up to 7500.

We are now in a good place and today we begin the road back.


Would everybody who goes to hospital and everybody who operates on them, would they all get tested? How do you make sure that just simple interaction of more human beings with others doesn't lead to an outbreak?


So there is an important part of it.

One of the things that's been put in place here is though- agreed with all of the relevant surgical bodies, with the AMA, the College of Surgeons, the College of Anaesthetists, the Society of Anaesthetists, and the- in other groups, is they would like and we've agreed and strongly support a national study into a COVID-19 in elective surgery.

By definition in the operating theatre they are always prepared and protected against outbreaks whether.


Sorry what does a study mean, Minister? Can you just explain what that means?


So what we’ll be doing is surveying and checking that everybody is safe, the number of patients that might be detected with COVID-19.

But by definition nobody who has symptoms would be coming in unless they've been tested.

Now we're in a position to be able to test people with symptoms with the expansion of our testing program and with the reduction of people presenting.


Can I just clarify that Minister. You know this stuff probably more than me, there are reports, maybe half of the infections transmitted from people who don't display symptoms.

Is every person who would be going into a hospital to be operated on or go through a procedure, is everyone tested or do you survey randomly a group of those and try and assess?


No, the clear medical advice from all of the state and Commonwealth chief health officers and the surgical groups was what they wanted was a testing program which surveyed.

The other thing is that in a surgery by definition, they might be dealing with patients with HIV or Hep C.


Sure, they've got good infection control anyway.


They have the best infection control in the country, in the operating theatre and they are the best people in the country at managing it.

So it's not about the risk to the surgeons now that we have all- or the magnificent nursing staff, we have the equipment to protect them.

It's about making sure that we're not seeing hidden cases coming in and that's a very important testing program, or sentinel testing program for the country.

But what does it mean? It means the things that we've been doing in terms of containment, then reducing the number of cases, are working.

The steps as a government we've been taking in terms of capacity to support our nurses, our doctors, our aged care homes and our hospitals.

They've put us in a position where together we can now begin this recovery.

And it means whether it's hips and knees or IVF or different types of endoscopies and colonoscopies, critical screening, critical dental work.

All of these things can now begin that process of recovery.


We've gone through those categories, if you've been waiting for one of those things it would be good to hear from you.

Just be good to give us all an idea of what it's like to all of a sudden have to wait while those things are put on hold. 

Greg Hunt is the Federal Health Minister. Minister, it is really good news. I know that the hardest question for you to answer is when things are going to go back to normal?

Experts talk about this being a bit like a dance; society is going to open up a little bit, give something a try, make sure it doesn't lead to an outbreak and we might have to wind things back.

But to try and give people a sense of where we might be. After – I’ve chatted to a whole lot of experts - I'm not expecting to go to a packed restaurant or to a big sports event this year.

Are you expecting to do those things this calendar year?


A large sporting event with crowd, I think that that will be difficult.

It's a question of when. That's not the sort of thing that will happen immediately.

Do I think sport itself will come back? Yes, I do. I think that’s not too far away.


And that would be me playing cricket and maybe me watching a football game that doesn’t have a crowd is that what you mean by sport?


Correct. So whether it's community sport or whether it's professional sport, the sports contest is certainly in our thinking.

The sports crowd event, that's further away in terms of mass gatherings obviously.

Mass gatherings and international travel, they're harder. They will take longer. So what we’re doing now.


What about a restaurant where- redoing that for one person per four square meters, when might that become a possibility do you think?


So what we're doing right now is assessing all of those elements and we're in a four-week period of maintaining the difficult, but absolutely life-saving distancing and isolation measures. The first dividend is today. And as we do this now, we’re then planning out the coming weeks and months beyond that four-week period. We’re- the way we're assessing it is, what's the highest benefit either social or economic, lowest risk set of activities? And exactly as you’ve said, taking gradual steps to do that. So you can imagine the things such as- where somebody might be isolated, being able to have a visitor would be immensely important in terms of their mental health and their social interaction. But with low risk of building out other economic activities. And we- I can see a pathway to cafes and restaurants probably a little further down the track but not as early as we want-


But this year?


Oh, absolutely for cafes and restaurants, practising appropriately distanced service. Not as much as everybody would ideally like, but certainly part of that recovery.

So we’re now looking in the period from four weeks from now, to a whole series of steps.

We’re just looking at what’s low-risk, high-benefit, and it’s low-risk in terms of health but either high social or economic benefit.

And you can imagine how something which brings morale to the community is a very important benefit.


As well as something which is economic.


Yeah. And a vaccine – I know these questions are difficult to answer. I was a little perturbed to see that the fastest ever developed vaccine was for mumps.

It took them four years to go from collecting viral samples to licencing a drug in 1967. It took four years. How long do you think it’s going to take to get a vaccine for this?


Yeah. So look, our best estimate is if there were to be a successful vaccine - and there's no guarantee because there's never been a successful vaccine for a coronavirus before – but if there were, 12 to 18 months.

And I've had the privilege of speaking with the global head of Australia's amazing CSL.

I've spoken with the global head of vaccines for Johnson and Johnson.

They are both pressing ahead along with 70 candidates around the world for vaccines.

So, there's never been, at the same time, a search like this for any vaccine, let alone for a coronavirus vaccine.

So it's not certain there will be one, but we are certain that if it's possible to have one, they will find one.

And the timeframe for that is 12 to 18 months.

For example, they looking at repurposing an Ebola vaccine. The Johnson and Johnson- it's quite public there. They're considering that.

They know that it's safe in humans so they don't have to do that side of it, that they are now working through – can it be repurposed, and can it have an impact on this particular virus?

And so these are the great global questions.

Australia's right in the forefront of this, we have work being done by the University of Queensland, we're putting funds in the Queensland Government, the philanthropic centre- sector.

There's work being done out of Western Australia, Victoria.

The different types of trials on either vaccines, preventives - which means they're not a vaccine, but they can help reduce the impact - or treatments which can protect those who are most ill.

All of those are occurring and I think there is a very good chance on either the prevention or treatment, and a good chance but no guarantee on the vaccine.


I do want to know if you’ve been waiting for some of that elective surgery that the Minister has been speaking about. Would be great to give us an insight into just how annoying and painful and difficult that can be.

One thing I didn’t ask you about, Minister. The Prime Minister made a big point about aged care homes. He was very concerned that maybe some of those homes had taken the advice too strongly and was shutting residents off from people.

What do you want those aged care homes to do?


So- but the Prime Minister- but all of the premiers together were very clear that they didn't want to see frail elderly people who are often either scared or very lonely, completely isolated.

If there's a health reason to close off a facility such as an outbreak, of course.

But what they want to do is make sure there are very strong protections, but the ability for those people to receive in one carefully controlled visit, up to two visitors at a time once per day.

And that's about- well, I can say it’s about mental health, but ultimately it's about our humanity and caring for those that are vulnerable, lonely, isolated, and to give them that human support.

If you ask what matters, it’s supporting people in that situation.

At the same time, we are offering all aged care workers who might have any symptoms immediate access to testing.

So, we're boosting support for our incredible nurses and carers, and boosting the emotional and human support for our residents.


When are people going to be able to join up maybe two households, Minister? I know tons of people are not seeing their grandchildren.




When do you think that's going to be a possibility? Is that one of the things that might lift in four weeks’ time- three weeks’ time?


I won't put a date. I will say that as a general principle that's unlikely to be, and I'm sorry to say this, in the next four weeks.

But that is one of the first items to be considered for the road out after that.

So, today, support for aged care and for elective surgery.

That isolation for people that may be alone, that's a very important social goal so we really want to look at that.

But social distancing -there will be some measure of that for quite some time.

That's literally what has helped Australia, of all the different measures, the borders, the testing which has been really world leading, the tracing, the social distancing has probably been the most important.

It’s what's helped really stop that spread and break that chain of the viral spread in Australia, and it's why we're in a strong position.


Before I let you go, do you care about Malcolm Turnbull's book? He's going to join us after five. Do you care about the impact of that book or what he says about you and others in Cabinet?


Look, truly, I'm only focused on the virus. I actually haven't read any of the books from that period. I've only been focused on work and even more focused. What I care about-


It’s scathing, though. Everyone cares about what people say about them, don’t they?


Actually, far less so than you would imagine. For me, I haven’t bothered reading any of the books from that period. I haven't had the time.

And what’s my focus? My focus is big enough at the moment in terms of getting people to the other side of this, their safety, their health, their jobs.

These things are deep and powerful and they're far more important than any one of us. They're the things that really matter.


Appreciate your time. Thank you.


Thanks a lot.

Help us improve

If you would like a response please use the enquiries form instead.