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Interview with Tom Elliott on 3AW about 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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Well, as we know, the governments, state and federal, have taken some pretty tough measures in the past 24 hours to try and limit and contain the spread of the coronavirus.

We’ve had schools that’ll be shut down here in Victoria as of tomorrow. Many schools are shutting today.

We've had bans on social gatherings indoors, above 100 people. Pubs, clubs, restaurants, all being shut down.

But there's a lot of unanswered questions too. Like for example, what is an essential business and what is not.

Like this morning, I dropped into an office supplies shop because I needed some stuff because I'm working from home. And I thought: well, is that essential or is it not?

Apparently, shopping centres are allowed to remain open. Supermarkets are considered essential but what about bottle shops? Many of which were attached to supermarkets.

And how about this one of the big ones is schools are being shut down but child childcare centres are being kept open.

Someone with the answers hopefully to these questions is the Federal Health Minister. He joins us right now. Greg Hunt, good afternoon.


Good afternoon Tom.


Look, I know you're ordinarily busy and I do appreciate your time. Firstly, why shut down schools but not shut down childcare centres?


Sure. The general position of the National Cabinet, and this is a cabinet of national unity of premiers and prime ministers, is that – and I'm quoting from the statement from last night – children should go to school tomorrow.

Leaders agreed that they did not want to see children lose a year.

In Victoria, what they have done is, in order to prepare for online learning, they've brought forward the holidays slightly.

And so, that's why they have made those decisions.

Obviously, it’s very unlikely that any childcare centres would be able to conduct online learning.

Just the nature of kids that age. You and I have both been there. And so, that is, I believe, the basis for the Victorian decision.

It’s consistent with the unified National Cabinet position.


Okay. But I mean, so we get online learning sorted out after- during the holidays, which are coming up, but does that mean that kids do or don't go back to school when the Easter holidays are officially over?


No. The statement at the moment is – and again I'll quote because it's very important to see the common position of all of the leaders; all leaders have committed to re-open schools at the end of the school break, subject to the advice of the medical expert panel.

And so, we know that that is a possibility and so we're being upfront about that.

Individual states, depending on what time needs they have, are preparing for it.

The plan is if the medical advice says yes, they go back.

We are being upfront and honest that the medical advice during that time may continue to evolve.

But there is a desire for very simple reasons to keep kids in school because they have low rates of infection and low rates of impact.

If they are in the very small percentage that might be infected and therefore, keeping them away from grandparents, keeping their parents who are working at work, particularly given that we have advice that up to 30 per cent of health workers may be put at risk of being taken out of the system.

So they’re are the reasons. But above all else, it’s the health of the kids that matters most.


Of course. Now, can I ask you about the various businesses that are affected of being shut down as of today.

So we got gyms being shut down, restaurants, cafes, bars, pubs, cinemas. You name it. Anywhere where people might gather under a roof, they’re effectively being shut down.

Why are shopping centres immune? Why is Chadstone allowed to stay open but Village Cinemas is forced to close?


Sure. So, again, this followed the medical advice, and what it was is places of social gathering.

And they established a negative list of places that can't stay open.

So as to make it clear and that is, as you say, pubs and clubs, hotels, excluding accommodation, gyms, into sporting venues, cinemas, entertainment venues, casinos, which I happen to agree very strongly with.

There were a lot of people in Victoria who were uncomfortable with Crown staying open and I think the right decision was taken.

Nightclubs, restaurants, cafes but with take away capacity and religious gatherings and places of worship.

That's the group which are deemed at risk of bringing people together, where they associate very closely.

Shopping centres, of course, because the purchase of food, of goods, of equipment, to continue life was deemed essential.

Also because they are non-static.

People are standing together but the shopping centres are requested to enforce the 1.5 meter rule for people to have 1.5 meters between them and others.

And I have had reports today that that is that generally being done very well.

I want to thank everybody who is doing that.

I obviously can't speak for every shopping centre right across the nation, but there has been a sea change in understanding of that and the application of it.

I think that's been a huge national step.

This is hard, but people are overwhelmingly doing the right thing to protect each other.

And if you give each other that space, literally, that is what’s going to help save lives and protect lives.


In general, are shops- are they to stay open? I mean, for example, I had to visit an office supply store this morning to get a couple of things for my home office from which I’m now broadcasting. I mean, does that sort of business get to stay open?


Yes. So, it’s only a negative list, and that is the ones that I went through before, the pubs and the clubs, the gyms, the cinemas, the casinos and nightclubs, sadly the restaurants and cafes, but they can do takeaway or home delivery.

That group which is very specifically defined.

And so, that’s what’s been decided by the National Cabinet last night.

There was a sort of- there was some ideas floated, I think, by some, at different levels of a much broader shutdown, but the National Cabinet made a decision last night to focus on the places of social gathering, and then to define them so as people can go to work.

And I think that’s an extremely important thing. People can get the goods and services, whether it’s the mechanic or the electrician, whether it’s an accountant or somebody who's working with- helping you to withdraw super funds if you’re needed to do that, or all of the different services and goods right across the economy.

What about unusual jobs like being a beautician or a dentist or a barber or a hairdresser, which requires close physical contact, sometimes over a protracted period. Should they continue in business?


So, it’s the general social gathering. People are expected wherever possible to keep that distance.

Obviously the dentists routinely use masks, and then other items would be considered if there were deemed to be issues or problems, but at this stage - and I am honest about the at this stage - there's one very, very clear defined list of what isn’t allowed, and that's because there was very strong evidence of close social gatherings being a- what’s called a vector, or basically a source, of high transmission - of some weddings, other gatherings, and that makes common sense that that’s the case and it’s backed by the very strong clear medical advice.


Now speaking of vectors, what about public transport? I mean, that could also be a vector. You know, hundreds of people even on quiet days jumping in and out of trams and trains and buses. Should that be kept running?


So, public transport is continuing to run, and we are encouraging it to continue to run as an essential service. On that, what we're doing is also encouraging people to avoid non-essential travel.

If you have to shop, if you have to get to work via public transport, then by all means and of course, but wherever possible in those situations, try to keep that distance of one-and-a-half metres. Why? Because that's what the medical experts recommend as being the safe distance to minimise the possibility of transmission.

And if you minimise that transmission, then- this is when we refer to flattening the curve. It means reducing the number of people who are ultimately going to contract the coronavirus, reducing the impact on the vulnerable and spreading that load, and making sure that our hospitals, which are working to more than double their intensive care unit capacity and their ventilator capacity, are able, at the peak of this, to manage and to make sure that every life is protected.

Finally, what about a vaccine? I know that extra funding has been set up to the team at the University in Queensland which is researching a vaccine.

Are we- well, I assume we’re getting closer, but how’s that going?


So, there's a global race on where people around the world – and Australia is right at the forefront of that – we've pumped money in along with the Queensland Government to the University of Queensland vaccine work.

But there are also two other really important areas. These are what are called antivirals, so medicines that can help improve and potentially provide a cure.

They won't prevent, but they can potentially provide either a mitigation or a cure, and respiratory medicines.

And respiratory medicines are those medicines that can help reduce the impact on the lungs of coronavirus.

And that is really about those people who are most ill and saving their lives.

So, we’ve pumped money into all of those. There’s $30 million going in.

Proposals coming in today for a round which has been opened. I am quietly hopeful that some of those will allow us to bring forward approaches.

There’s a variation of chloroquine which I think will be well-known to many people, an old anti-malarial which was always horrific to try- to take.

But there's a version of chloroquine which is associated with the potential to reduce the impact of coronavirus and speed the body's capacity to recover from it.

And so that's being tested by the University of Queensland.

The Doherty Institute is doing incredible work, and around the country, private and public organisations.


Greg Hunt, I know you’re extraordinarily busy. I do appreciate your time.


Look, the last message is to thank everybody. I know this is like nothing we’ve ever experienced, but people are playing their part. Look out for others, obviously take care of yourselves, but if you can take care of a senior or someone else, these are the things that will help us get through it.

It's a six month – we believe – period, and we'll get there. We'll get through it. Take care everybody.


Thank you. That was Greg Hunt, the Federal Health Minister.

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