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

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

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

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Our next guest is the Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt. Minister Hunt, good afternoon.


Hi Tom. Good afternoon.


Now, I know you don't know when a vaccine will be created. But given that medicos agree that it's probably a minimum of 18 months, does that mean that the current restrictions on activity also last for 18 months.


Look, our best guidance as a country, the Chief Medical Officer, the Prime Minister, myself, is that we see this as a six-month period.

It's probably going to be the toughest period as a nation and then for so many individuals that we’ll go through in our lives.

That guidance has just been reaffirmed by the Prime Minister in the last hour.

And so that's on the basis of us beginning to, as you say, make a real progress on reducing the rate of infection, that we've come down from over 25 per cent, nearly 30 per cent a few weeks ago, on a daily basis to the lower teens, to then below 10 and now below 5 per cent.

So we're not there yet, but we are making huge strides as a nation, and that gives us the chance to start to make our way out earlier.

But right now at the time, we've got to consolidate because we’ve still got a lot of unknown cases in terms of their origin, and until we track them down, until we eradicate them, then what we could see is a breakout where hundreds if not thousands of people had a spike and that could lead to just immense pain and tragedy.


Okay, but I mean, again, let's say we do do this for six months – and it will do a lot of damage to the economy. I mean, it really will, and I know Josh Frydenberg has got the money printing press going in the basement somewhere in Canberra but even that won't be enough.

I mean, we won’t have a vaccine, well, it’s highly unlikely we'll have a vaccine within six months.

What do you do then? Do you extend the lockdown? Do you say well, look, we've got the increases or we flatten the curve, let's let people out again. What happens?


So, think of it in three stages; there was coming in, the road in.

Then there's the drive along the bottom of the valley, and we're in a far more stable position now than we were three weeks ago, two weeks ago, even one week ago.

Now it's about patience and maintaining that distancing because that allows us to track down all the cases to literally protect what could have blown out to be, as the modelling shows today, some millions and billions of Australians (inaudible).

And then we’d chart our way out.

Now, our best advice continues to be six months. There may be phases in this. It may be that the borders are a much longer-term proposition, to give an honest answer, because other countries will be at different points.


Right. So, might make Australians move around more internally but not open the borders to people from overseas?


That is one of the options, yes.

We don't have all the answers yet because our first task was to do two things: to contain the virus and to increase our capacity to deal with it on the health side and we’ve been able to do that.

We’ve got a long way to go to make sure it consolidates, because one person could easily think it's all fine and have a beach party or a house party, and all of a sudden 30 people, and those 30 people could infect, you know, turn it into 1000.


Sure, I understand. Now can I ask you something else. I mean, I know you're the Health Minister, not the Finance Minister or the Treasurer, but I mean, is there concern amongst your colleagues about the economic damage that’s being done, because every day I encounter someone who's either lost their job or they have a business and turnover has fallen through the floor, they’re laying people off.

And that's multiplied by hundreds of thousands if not millions of people around Australia. Are the alarm bells starting to ring?


Right from the outset we've said this is about saving lives and saving livelihoods.

That's why tomorrow the parliament convenes to pass a JobKeeper package which is about $130 billion of support for individuals and businesses.

I mean, the alternative of course is what we've seen from overseas with the tragedy of Italy, Spain, and France, and what we're seeing even in New York, and that’s human tragedy.

And it's also an economic tragedy on an even greater scale.

So, both health-wise and economically-wise I think the vast majority of the world would prefer to be in Australia than almost anywhere else.


Well, that's probably true. Now, just while I’ve got you, very quickly, going back to school- I mean, the current Easter holidays last for about another week and a day or thereabouts, depending on what school go to and what state you're in.

Should kids be going back to school or not?


So, what we've said nationally, we think school is immensely important and the National Cabinet has just reaffirmed that.

For Victoria, the Premier has given guidance that for essential service workers, they will make sure that there’s an in-school option.

It's safe for the children, is the overview, but for work health and safety reasons, particularly for the teachers who are more vulnerable, they have made the decision at the Victorian level that they would prefer distance learning or online learning wherever possible.


Right. I’ve had three weeks experience with it and can I tell you it hasn’t been very well thought out. Are you confident that the various state education departments have online learning, have programs in place?


Look, they are moving into a world which- 10 years earlier than anybody expected and they've done it within a matter of weeks.

So, I think we're all adapting, and that's an honest answer.

We transformed the whole of Medicare, the whole of what was going to be a 10-year program for Telehealth in 10 days. 

Education is going through a similar thing.

We brought the hospitals into a national partnership with public and private again in under two weeks.

So people are doing things on a scale and a speed that had never been imagined. Incredible thing though is it is generally working.

I know our kids are at home as well because the school moved to online learning, and that there are some challenges, particularly for my 10-year-old, and it’s even harder for younger kids, but people are adapting.

So, there is a patience and a can-do spirit that I think it's coming through, but they’re the values that we also have to practice, the discipline but also the practice and the can-do spirit.

And then the support for those in particular who are isolated who are doing it tough, people who are alone, people who might have challenges with their abilities or they might be elderly.

If we can look out for them, get on the phone, do the shopping, then these are the things that are going to make us better still as a nation.


Finally, and very quickly. There’s a lot of people who might own a second home like perhaps a place in the country or a place down at the beach and they will probably want to go there over the Easter holidays. Are they permitted- should they be permitted to do so?


So, the Victorian government has made a ruling on this.

And that is that they are not encouraging people to do it but they are not preventing it.

But I’ll just give you- because each state has a different approach under the National Cabinet rules, their view is that it is not illegal but they are not encouraging people from doing it.


Greg Hunt, I know you’re extraordinarily busy. Thank you so much for your time.

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