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Interview with Tom Elliott on 3AW about coronavirus (COVID-19)

Read the transcript of a Minister Hunt's interview on 3AW with Tom Elliott about coronavirus (COVID-19).

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

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Alright, as promised, our next guest is the Federal Health Minister, Greg Hunt.

Mr Hunt, good afternoon.


Good afternoon, Tom.


Well, I know you’re extraordinarily busy, so I do appreciate your time.

Now firstly, how many cases of coronavirus do we now have in Australia?


The last figure I saw was 454 from the National Incident Centre. And so, we’ve had approximately 81,000 tests. So a positive rate of about 0.5 per cent, and a negative rate of about 99.5 per cent of those tested.


I’ve heard a lot of people say it’s quite difficult to get a test at the moment. Is that still true?


Look, what we’re doing is making sure that we’ve got additional testing kit- an extra 97,000 tests arriving in Australia. Half of those arrived overnight and they’re currently being distributed to the pathology providers and the testers.

So, we’re focusing- because you see that 99.5 per cent of people who’ve been tested have been negative, we’re focusing on those most at risk – a combination of medical professionals on the one hand, and then secondly, on those that have been either overseas or in contact with a diagnosed case, and have symptoms.

And that’s what the medical view is to the most significant, so as we’re not testing people that are highly unlikely, and therefore we’re giving ourselves the best chance of finding the vulnerable and the ill.


See, the problem is, Mr Hunt. I mean, I regularly suffer from hay fever, although usually by this time of year it starts to abate, and like anybody I get the odd cold.

I mean, I worry that at the moment if I get a cold or I’ve got a bad case of hay fever, I think: oh my god, do I have coronavirus? So, what do I do?


Well, think of it as two steps here. Firstly, have you been overseas, or have you been in contact who’s been diagnosed? And then, secondly, do you have symptoms?

But there is on the website – website – a self-check test, where you can look to see whether or not your symptoms stack up. And then there’s the capacity to call the doctor or see the doctor, or if you are ill, genuinely ill, to go to the emergency department.

But calling ahead to your doctor or doing telehealth with them – these are things that can make a real difference to the caseload and give you the comfort you need. Or, if they believe that you meet the requirements and should be tested, they’ll make sure you’re tested.


Okay. Now, the number of people who can gather in one place has been lowered. So indoor gatherings of more than 100 people are now banned, and here in Victoria there’s a fine of up to $100,000 on businesses that do this.

We had a call earlier from a young lady called Jane, who’s off to – or thinks she’s off to – a wedding this weekend which is indoors, but has 150 guests invited. What happens there?


Look, I realise this is very difficult for many people. But these rules have been set to save lives and to protect lives; 500 for outdoor gatherings; 100 for indoors. The authorities are not making exceptions, and there’s a reason, and that is: this is a challenge and a crisis that we’ve not seen in our lifetimes. It’s not been seen in 100 years in Australia.

And so, we are having, like much of the rest of the world – and it’s over 160 countries now – we are having to take steps that we would never normally want to take. But this is about protecting the vulnerable, minimising the risk of spread, and therefore minimising the risk to the elderly and to people who have respiratory weaknesses.


Okay. Because I mean I just- I don’t know, do you only invite 50 of the 150 guests? Like, it’s just hard to know what to do there.

Look, another thing the Prime Minister announced this morning was a lift on the restrictions for- the work restrictions for 20,000 student nurses. What exactly does that mean in terms of the sorts of things that they’ll now be allowed to do?


Well, it’s really about the hours that they can work. So it’s about ensuring that, whether it’s in the aged care setting, or whether always under a supervised arrangement, they’re able to perform greater work and have additional roles. What we talked about was surge workforce.

We know that there will be increased presentations. We also know that the medical workforce is not immune. And so, we want to make sure that there’s additional capacity, under supervision, under people who are expert, whether it's in nursing or whether you have doctors who are overseeing, but this just adds additional human capacity to the system at a time of need.


Okay. Now, another issue – and it's a controversial one – schools. A lot of private schools are shutting up shop early ahead of the Easter holidays.

My daughter's school has been shut for almost two weeks now. Yet state schools are open. Do you think this makes sense?


So, the medical experts spent two days considering this, and these are the communicable disease experts.

And then the chief health officers of all of the states and territories, chaired by the Chief Medical Officer of Australia, Professor Brendan Murphy – they came to a very clear view that at this stage, the safest and best course for the nation is, because of the low rate of infection amongst children, because of the low consequences if infected for children, to keep them in school, particularly given that many would otherwise be placed with grandparents who are more vulnerable; that it's highly unlikely that kids would remain locked down, but they would gather, they would be gathering with adults, they would be gathering with seniors.

And then secondly, if you were to lock the kids out of school it's likely that up to 30 per cent of the medical workforce, the health and medical workforce, would be reduced in order to take care of those kids. It’s particularly in that sector where there are a very large number of parents.

It could be a single mum. It could be a single dad. It could be a situation where somebody just has no choice, there are no other arrangements. And so, those things, as is Singapore doing, the similar approach to Australia – those things were considered against all of the global examples and the view was: we're in this for six months.

Let's, as long as we possibly can, keep the kids at school for their safety, but also for the safety of the vulnerable. It’s the elderly, it’s the-


Okay, sorry, but it sounds to me as though you’re saying that the private schools are actually doing the wrong thing.


It's a matter for them, but that is not what has been advised by the medical experts. It is the opposite of what the medical experts have advised and what every Premier and Chief Minister, as well as the Prime Minister, has accepted as the advice.


And finally and very quickly, should the footy proceed tomorrow night, albeit with no spectators in attendance?


Well there's no barrier to it. I spoke with the AFL. I believe it was most of the presidents online as well as the CEO and the Chairman of the AFL today, and the Chief Medical Officer joined me.

From a government perspective, they can manage it within the mass gathering rules and they can manage it within their internal rules. So there were no legal barriers.

Professor Murphy said community sport is also being supported, and they should think of themselves as that, then it's entirely a matter for the players and the clubs. And it's ultimately their decision. But there are no barriers to doing that. And we said we would respect whatever decision they made.

But from our perspective, they had the freedom to proceed and no barriers to proceeding. But of course, ultimately it’s a game and the players must make their own decisions.


Indeed. Thank you so much.

Greg Hunt there, the Federal Health Minister. Obviously a very busy man at the moment.

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