Joining me now, the Health Minister Greg Hunt, of course, so much to talk about within this portfolio and he joins me now from his electorate there. Thanks for your time, Greg Hunt.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration head John Skerritt, we’re learning today, has told his team summer is cancelled. It’s not for all Australians. This is so they can get on with important work. What’s happening right now? Is it about analysing the UK data that’s going to come in in a massive sense now in the next few weeks, and seeking what we can learn out of that?
The Therapeutic Goods Administration is Australia’s medical regulator. Their job is to assess medicines and vaccines to determine that they’re safe and that they’re effective. They’ve already given priority assessment to three different vaccines.
They’re going through the process of assessing the information from what are called clinical trials around the world where you have supervised medical processes with a defined group of people. They’re looking at the data, firstly for safety, that’s a non-negotiable in Australia.
Let me repeat: safety is a non-negotiable and the number one priority in our vaccine programs. And they’re looking at effectiveness. And if they deem those tests to have been met and to have been well met, then they’ll provide an approval.
There’ll be more data, more vaccines that come in. We have four in our program but around the world there are over 200 vaccines in development and over 40 in clinical trials.
So, just on that safety emphasis there, the Pfizer vaccine with its January approval, March rollout timeline at the moment. Is the most likely reason to miss that any sort of safety concern that emerges once it’s rolled out on a massive scale in the UK, that’s the most likely reason that timeline might be missed?
Well, at this point I’ve spoken with both our regulator and the head of Pfizer Australia in recent days and the expectation is that we’re on track for a decision before the end of January and we’re on track for, potentially, a number of vaccines to be available by March. That’s important.
We very specifically built in place a range of vaccines and all the different data, whether it’s from the clinical trials or what’s going to occur in the United Kingdom, will be of immense value to Australia. We’ll look to see whether there are any lessons or learnings from the rollout, whether there are any lessons or information with regards to safety or effectiveness.
The world is dealing with, even in the last 24 hours, the highest number of cases on record in a single day. The last three days have been three of the four highest days of lives lost, agonisingly. So this disease continues to spread around the world.
We’re an island sanctuary, and so what we do with vaccines, we want to make sure is about absolute safety, extending the safe Australia concept that we have but doing it in a way that provides absolute confidence to the Australian people.
John Skerritt has also urged people to get vaccinated for the good of the country. There’s getting the vaccine and then there’s people willing to do it are the two elements of this. It’s an important message, isn’t it? I mean, particularly with younger people, it’s impossible not to have some sort of complacency about COVID.
It’s just not a threat right now in Australia. Are they going to be the toughest people to convince, do you think?
Well, we want to work across the community but it’s understandable that some may think the risk isn’t as great as it might be.
But this is a highly contagious disease and, obviously, as we now know with well over 1.5 million lives lost, can be an absolutely deadly disease. And the world has embarked on containment measures the likes of which we’ve never seen, certainly not within the last 100 years, and even with those measures we’ve had huge numbers of cases.
So our message to Australians is: this is still a dangerous, contagious and deadly disease. Your help can help save lives. It can protect your life, but it can protect the life of your mother or father, your grandmother, your grandfather, or any other member of the community.
So vaccination is voluntary but we hope it’s taken up as widely as possible, especially by young Australians in their 20s and 30s.
It’s obvious it’s important this message isn’t undermined. What’s your response then- Craig Kelly has said he won’t rely on a single expert body, seemingly in reference to the TGA, what’s your response to your Liberal colleague?
Well, we have complete confidence in not just the TGA but our medical experts that have helped keep Australia not just safe but helped make Australia the health envy of so much of the world.
We’ve worked with our medical regulators and our medical leaders and people such as the former Chief Medical Officer, now Secretary of Health Professor Brendan Murphy, the current Chief Medical Officer of Australia Professor Paul Kelly, and John Skerritt and so many others.
We’ve had a great balance of advice and leadership and we’ll continue to do that.
Vaccination is safe and nothing will be introduced unless it is shown to be absolutely safe for Australians. We’re a great vaccination nation. One of my surprises, a positive surprise during the course of this most difficult of years is that vaccination rates have actually gone up.
Our five-year-old vaccination rates hit a record in the June quarter of 94.8 per cent and they rose again during the Victorian lockdown to 94.9 per cent, 97 per cent in Indigenous Australia. They’re incredible outcomes and I’d say thank you to Australians, there’s more work to be done, it’s your choice but we would very strongly encourage all Australians to consider and take up vaccination to protect themselves, their families and their community.
Again, the danger is that counter message. On Craig Kelly, he says he’ll weigh up the evidence in deciding how to advise his constituents.
We know what he said about hydroxychloroquine and that went against the Government evidence. Would he still be welcome in the Liberal party-room if he actually starts telling people not to take a COVID vaccine approved by the TGA?
I haven’t seen that as his position at this stage. We’ll continue to provide briefings, information, support not just to MPs but to the whole Australian population. Our task is to recognise there’ll be different views but to help the Australian public and to help anybody with questions to have those questions answered and to have the confidence.
That’s what we’ve done pretty successfully this year. There are always people with different views and my hope and my belief is that Australians will help protect other Australians and themselves through the vaccination program.
As you said we’ve got an excellent record on this, so let’s hope it does continue. Just a quick query on the UK vaccine that will be rolled out. When would someone vaccinated next week be able to possibly fly to Australia without quarantine. Is there an assessment of that going on, when that might be allowed?
This is one of the things which the medical expert panel is reviewing. Obviously it’s a two-shot vaccine, the Pfizer vaccine, as have been all of the four candidates which Australia’s acquired.
There will clearly be a period where we consider the outcomes and the science and we’ve indicated that over the course of the coming year.
Firstly we’ll look for what are called green lanes such as the New Zealand agreement, with countries that have effectively zero or very close to zero community transmission.
Secondly, whilst hotel quarantine is the norm, there is the potential, once we have data, once we have evidence of wide scale effectiveness and we have proof that somebody has a verified vaccine, that over the course of the year we may not require hotel quarantine where there is verified vaccination.
But that will take still some time yet. I think it’s important for me to be honest. Because we’re not going to take any risks. We’ll need not just the evidence of vaccine effectiveness but the very clear evidence and proof that somebody has been vaccinated with a verified vaccine.
And on vaccines working in Australia in terms of access to services, so let’s say an airline says no travel unless you’ve had a vaccine, how would they be able to apply that and when?
Presumably they’d have to only be able to apply that with someone that’s been offered a vaccine. If there’s a phase of people, younger people, that aren’t offered it until right back at the end of the year, they wouldn’t be stopped from being able to get on a plane because they haven’t been offered a vaccine? Is that how it would work?
So, this isn’t a government position. There’s no mandatory vaccination in Australia and this won’t be a mandatory vaccine under any government circumstances. We’ve been very clear about that.
The private sector is considering the views and I think they would outline their positions. We’d have to make sure that anything was thoroughly reviewed. We’ve not made a decision. We’ve very clearly said this is something which will be considered.
I think there’s still some significant time before any program such as that would come on board. But from our perspective, it’s free, it’s voluntary, it’s universally available. We have said we will look at the position of different service providers and employers if they put forward their proposals, but we’re not making any decisions and we’ll actually work with the operators very clearly on this.
But would the logic be, I understand it’s not you doing it, but in terms of what you would allow or encourage companies to do, if you’re going to stop someone getting an access if they haven’t had a vaccine, they’d have to have been offered a vaccine and refused it, not just refused a service and not be able to get a vaccine either?
Well, I think this is clearly something for further down the track if and when there has been widespread vaccination and not until there has been widespread vaccination. What you say is exactly right and perfectly reasonable.
To give Australians, just to step back for a second, the process over the course of this year.
Assessment now, the expectation and the advice that I have is that first vaccines will be available for health workers and subject to approval for senior Australians in residential care beginning during the course of March, progressively rolling out. And we’d like to see all Australians have access to and as many as possible take up the vaccine during the course of 2021, and the first round of national vaccination to be completed during the course of 2021.
We’re planning, just as John Skerritt is working with his team, right through the summer. Our vaccination division which is bringing in logisticians and support from Defence, working across government, is just working right through. And I know every day we’re in contact and looking at those plans.
So our job as a government is to do the work behind the scenes and provide the support so Australians can be confident that we’ve got this vaccine program in hand. Nothing will be a straight line because you get different data, you get different outcomes from around the world. But at the end of the day the fundamental task is to make sure that every Australian has access to a vaccine during the course of 2021.
A couple more quick questions before we go. You mentioned the priority for different groups on vaccines. What about high school teachers? Because we’ve seen a lot of schools have to shut down. I know you say children themselves wouldn’t be a priority because of the nature of COVID.
But when they shut down that’s a huge disruption for students and for parents as well. Would teachers be looked at as a priority group?
The medical expert panel, and this is led by Professor Brendan Murphy, is working on an assessment of what are called critical services. So, in fact, you have three broad categories.
You have the health and aged care workers, you have the elderly residents and then your critical services, and they’re identifying any that might require earlier provision.
The UK model, I think, is not dissimilar to what we are proposing, but we’re also looking at weaving within the different stages any critical service workers that are at risk of transmission, in particular, and where that’s the case that could have disruptive impacts.
So that’s an assessment that’s rightly being done. Everything’s being done very sequentially, if you think of it. Vaccine stage one was selection, stage two was acquisition, stage three is assessment, four is distribution and five is the post-vaccination follow-up, monitoring. The first two of those are done. The third is underway and planning for four and five is occurring.
I wanted to ask, as well, about this concerning situation overnight. Two German travellers have managed to land in Sydney and fly straight to Melbourne on a Virgin domestic flight.
It seems staggering, to be frank. Was it a New South Wales, Federal Government stuff up? Which one was it or was it both? Do you know any more about this?
I’ve asked the Border Force Commissioner to work with New South Wales on advice. I’ll await that. There are multiple rings of containment within the quarantine and border system and ultimately these passengers have been picked up within those rings of containment.
They’re there as what you might call failsafe, that if it’s not at the international, it’s not at the New South Wales, then it’s at another state, and those rings of containment have worked. But frankly we want to make sure that every ring is impregnable and so we have asked the Border Force Commissioner to work with New South Wales on understanding the circumstances.
I don’t have that definitively at this time, but I’ll provide more information during the day.
Again, to think of this, we think of it as an inner ring of quarantine, which itself has multiple layers. Then we have the contact tracing and testing, then we have social distancing, which is all of our behaviours. Then the last set is lockdowns and other movement restrictions. That’s how we conceive of protecting Australians and there are multiple layers of protection.
On this occasion it was still contained within that first ring but at one of the outer layers. And I think it’s important just for the public to have that understanding of how we’ve devised and developed this. This is how Australia’s being kept safe.
But there’s always risk when we’re dealing with overseas and our task is to have these different layers or different rings of protection, and it’s worked here but at one of the next steps out within that set of protections for Australia. So, still protecting Australians, multiple failsafes, one of the failsafes was called into action here.
Right, and that’s better than it never getting picked up. But when you talk about rings of containment, Australians might be concerned, and even people on that flight that they were able to get to that process.
That would have to be several failures, would it not, for these two travellers to be getting on a domestic flight after arriving into Australia?
Look, we’ll know more once Border Force has worked with New South Wales and they’ll have the information and they’ll provide that publicly. It’s a fair point, it was my immediate response when I received the messaging on this to contact both the National Incident Centre, but Border Force in particular to ask Border Force to work with New South Wales. They’ll have that information shortly.
But we’re always looking to make sure that every ring is strong and reinforced, but that there are protections because we know that if we have engagement with bringing Australians home, which is so fundamental, sending our wheat or wool overseas, bringing in critical medicines to Australia, we’ll engage with the outside world.
Wherever there’s engagement with the outside world with, yesterday, a record number of cases worldwide, over 680,000 cases, then there is the risk of infection. A touch, a breath, a surface, anything can see this highly infectious disease transmitted.
So there will be outbreaks, as we’ve seen in South Australia and New South Wales. There will be contacts. And in this case the structure, the system, the failsafe mechanisms have worked, that’s why we built them, but at the same time we’re always looking to be better and stronger and more effective.
All right. Well its summer cancelled at the TGA. I suspect yours might be a little bit busier than normal as well. We appreciate your time today, Health Minister Greg Hunt.
Might be a little bit busy but that’s okay, that’s what we do. Take care, Tom.
Talk soon, thank you.