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Melbourne Press Conference on 23 December 2021, on National COVID-19 booster roll out and private health insurance uptake

Read the transcript of Minister Hunt at the Melbourne Press Conference on 23 December 2021, on National COVID-19 booster roll out and private health insurance uptake.

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

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And good afternoon, everybody. I’m pleased to be able to report that Australians are stepping forward in record numbers to have their boosters.

Yesterday was an eighth successive record on weekdays for boosters. So for the eight weekdays since the increase in eligibility was announced, each day we’ve seen an increasing number of Australians coming forward to have their COVID-19 booster shots – 167,000 Australians stepped forward yesterday to have their boosters.

All up, we’re now at over 1.8 million Australians who’ve had their boosters. We’re 500,000 boosters ahead of schedule, compared with where we had hoped and expected to have been at this point in time.

And that’s a tribute to our vaccinators, to our Commonwealth and state clinics, in particular our GPs and our pharmacists. Our pharmacists have gone from 15,000 a day just over 10 days ago, up to 54,000 vaccinations a day.

And we’re supporting them with our additional funding, which commences as of today, to be able to provide that support through the Christmas and New Year period. They’ve worked hard, and we want to support them. And I want to thank all of our vaccinators.

At the National level, we’re now at over 41.8 million vaccinations, with a total of all shots yesterday of 215,000 doses delivered - the highest since October. Of those 215,000, as I mentioned 167,000 were boosters. So the booster program is three-quarters of the national vaccination program.

National rates have now reached an extraordinary 94.1 per cent of the over 16’s, and 90.9 per cent double dosed amongst that aged group. And so I want to thank everybody for their work.

This is a real point of hope for Australians. They’re coming forward for their vaccinations; they’re coming forward for their boosters; and, I’d encourage everybody to do that.

We have heard that the states will be stepping up their effort. Through the course of the program it’s been 60 per cent Commonwealth and primary care, pharmacies and GPs, and 40 per cent states. That has moved to being approximately 75 per cent Commonwealth and 25 per cent states. And in some states, it’s down to 15 per cent.

So what we want to do is, we’re lifting the Commonwealth effort and to see those state numbers rise. And I welcome the announcement by Victoria today, for example, that they’ll be stepping up their support.

I think that’s exactly what National Cabinet was aiming to achieve yesterday. And to see that response immediately, I think, is a very heartening sign, a very responsible sign, and a very welcome sign.

Now, there are two other very important things that have occurred. We have had a bulk billing increase to 89.6 per cent in the July-to-September quarter. So the last quarter is up 0.7 per cent in terms of bulk billing.

And what does bulk billing mean? It means that now, almost nine-in-ten visits to the doctor are completely free for people. And that's a really extraordinary national achievement. Again, thank you to our GPs and our clinicians right across the country.

This is approximately 7.9 per cent, 7.9 per cent higher than for the same period immediately prior to the Coalition coming into Government, so a nearly 8 per cent increase in bulk billing over the life of the Coalition.

It just means more services, more people, more people able to access the doctor without having to dip into their pocket.

At the same time, I'm really pleased that we've just achieved the lowest change in private health insurance fees in 21 years - a 2.7 per cent increase. We've had, progressively, the lowest change during my time in 16, 17, 18, 19, 20 and now 21 years. And so, the lowest change in private health insurance in 21 years - that's good for families; that's good for private health insurance.

And what we've seen as a result is five successive quarters of an increase in private health insurance uptake. It takes the pressure off the public hospitals; it shares the load across the system; and, it means the Australian model of public and private it's not as reliant on the public as the UK system; it's not as reliant on the private as the US system. It means the Australian model is not just being sustained, but it's strengthening.

And with that, I’ll just note that, obviously, the states and territories have begun to implement the measures discussed yesterday in National Cabinet. There are measures in relation to QR codes in New South Wales, in masks in some states and territories, in terms of vaccination clinics in Victoria. That’s matched with the additional $10 for vaccinations by GPs and pharmacists under the Commonwealth system which is being paid immediately as of today.

So I want to thank all of those people for coming forwards. They’re helping themselves, they’re helping their friends, their family, and they’re helping to protect the country.

I’ll start with those online, if I may, and I’ll begin with Steph from the ABC.


Thanks Minister. Keeping in tradition with 2021 questions, I have two questions.

Firstly, if ATAGI does shorten the period between the second vaccine dose and the booster, are governments equipped to roll out those additional doses earlier than anticipated?

And then also on Omicron, we’ve seen rising cases and rising hospitalisations. What advice are you receiving from the Health Department about how equipped hospitals will be in the New Year and whether they will ultimately reach capacity?


Sure. So, look, in terms of ATAGI, we’ve continued to follow the advice. And they are going through what I call continuous review. I’ve requested that ATAGI plans and focuses on continuous review about the booster program.

They’ve already shortened it from six months to five months, as the eligibility period. And in that time, what we’ve seen is 1.15 million doses in a ten-day period delivered, with regards to boosters, and that’s now tracking at over 160,000 a day.

We have all the vaccines that we need for the country. Five million out in fridges, as General Frewen said, 20 million vaccines in country. And so what will help lift that capacity, as we see, we’re now at over 215,000 vaccinations a day.

What will help lift that capacity further is the commitment of the states to expand, and I note that Victoria has indicated that early in the New Year, they’ll commence that expansion, and I think that’s welcome and we’d encourage any other states to do so.

We’ve seen an increase in Commonwealth points of presence of approximately 250 since 11 November to over 9000. We’ve seen a decrease in state points of presence of approximately 250 since 11 November.

So it’s understandable because the demand with the program reaching well over 90 per cent had been reducing. Now, with the shortening of time for boosters, the capacity is there, and the states are looking to reinstate it.

Now, with regards to Omicron - the latest figures that I have with regards to the hospitals, I think, are very instructive. This is what was provided to me just before midday. So these figures are continuously being updated by the National Incident Centre. But ventilation a week ago was 54 patients with COVID around Australia. As of yesterday, there were still 54 patients on ventilation with COVID.

So despite the increase in case numbers, there had been zero increase in ventilated patient numbers. ICU - what we see is that a week ago, there were 109 patients in ICU. As of yesterday, the figures provided at midday today by the National Incident Centre, there were 112. So an increase of only three patients in a week.

So the two things that we know: the hospital system is well equipped. It was reaffirmed in National Cabinet yesterday that the surge capacity which had been created is in place across the country. All jurisdictions committed that that was still the case. So they've done a fantastic job.

But then the second thing is, despite an increase in case numbers, we're not seeing an increase in the serious cases of ICU or ventilation in any significant way, with no increase in ventilation on the latest numbers that I have.

Now, these things can change. There can be a lag. So we're fully prepared, and I don't want to make false promises on that. But so far, those signs are very, very heartening.

Rachel, SMH.


Thanks, Minister. Aged care residents are among the most vulnerable to COVID. Do we know how many aged care residents or how many facilities have been visited for booster doses so far? And what’s the plan for getting booster shots to those aged care facilities in the new year?


Sure. So we've had over 1500 aged care facilities receive their boosters. Every aged care facility

that has been able and willing to receive because they were eligible and they were ready has had their deliveries done so far. Those that are still to be done are on the basis of their own timing.

And so, we're well ahead of schedule. We're about 300 facilities ahead of where we'd anticipated and expected to have been. We have hastened forward and really worked to make sure those facilities that were eligible were offered and delivered.

And so, that program is way ahead of where we'd anticipated. But we're still working with facilities to make sure that as they become eligible, they are ready on their terms to do this at the earliest possible time.

This has been one of the primary focuses of the Operation COVID Shield, and they maintain a standing team which is working right through, focusing on aged care.



Thank you for taking our questions, Minister. Just a follow-up on the aged care question, actually. I think that all aged care homes in the country had been visited for second doses by early July, which means sort of by early December, they would have all been eligible for booster shots.

Obviously, as you say, you’ve made quite strong progress on getting through about 1,500 of them but I think there's about 130 places in Victoria that have decided to delay visits for boosters until the new year.

Does that concern you, given obviously, the earlier, the better with boosters and if some of those residents are now sort of well after five months or six months without getting a booster shot, is that a worry? And should we be trying to rush through those before the end of the year, if we can, rather than waiting another couple of weeks?


Sure. So, from our perspective, all have been offered, all that have accepted, have delivered, and COVID Shield is encouraging all of them to accept at the earliest possible time.

But I have to say, we're well ahead of schedule and well ahead of anticipation. And so, that's the very positive thing and then every facility is on track with a plan to ensure that they are completed at the earliest possible time.

So, the aged care facilities and the aged care sector have been great. As I say, over 300 are ahead of expectations and anticipation at this point in time. But we'll keep going forward and we look to complete this program probably two months earlier than scheduled.



Thanks, Minister. I wanted to ask you about the Labor leader’s comments this morning. He called for booster doses to be brought forward, citing the wait times are much shorter in places like the United Kingdom. What's your response to that?

And also, Labor MP Josh Burns wants the Government to rule out that there’s be no pressure placed off ATAGI to remain with the booster delay where it is?


Well, the first thing is Josh Burns talks about pressure on ATAGI. The second thing is the Labor leader is doing precisely the very thing that Josh Burns says shouldn't happen, and that's politicians interfering with the medical process.

So, I have to say that Labor is all over the shop on this. Our approach has been very simple right throughout. We follow the advice of TGA and we follow the advice of ATAGI. And that's what we do.

At the moment, on the one hand, you have one person in Labor saying don't interfere with ATAGI, then you have the leader trying to do precisely the opposite.

Utterly irresponsible. Utterly inappropriate. Utterly unworthy of somebody who wants to be a PM.



Thanks, Minister. Two questions. What do you make of the restrictions re-imposed by Victoria today, particularly when it comes to mandating masks for over 8, for people over the age of 8? And the second question, why are we seeing private health providers delay their premiums?


Well, two elements there. In terms of private health providers, one of the things we have done is encourage them to have as low a premium as possible, and where they can give people no change for longer, then that's even better.

And I'm pleased that they've responded – the lowest change in 21 years. And if some of them have deferred that change, that means people are paying lower premiums for longer. And so, I think that that is a really good outcome.

How has this come about? This has come about precisely because we've made structural reforms which have taken the pressure off. We've halved the rate of change in private health insurance, which was running at over 6 per cent a year under Labor, and now it's down to 2.7 per cent – the lowest in 21 years.

And whether that's been prosthesis reform, which means lower prices for devices, better access for patients, whether it's the ability for young people to stay on family programs for longer. All of this has meant that private health is more affordable and more accessible, and therefore, we've seen five consecutive quarters of growth in private health insurance numbers.

Apologies Simon, there was a second question?


Yes, Minister. I just wanted to get your reaction to the restrictions that have been reimposed in Victoria this morning after the National Cabinet meeting. So, James Merlino, you may be aware, and Martin Foley.




Issued a pandemic order where the masks are now required from 11.59pm tonight for all above eight years of age in an indoor setting, and also in major events.


Look, we are encouraging people, as a result of the advice to National Cabinet, to use masks in an indoor setting, and it’s a matter for states and territories.

But states and territories with their public health orders, whether it's the QR codes in New South Wales, whether it’s the masks in Victoria, have responded well. And I think it’s important for me to acknowledge that.

And where National Cabinet has led to a positive approach with regards to what are called public health and social measures, or basically the way in which people interact with each other so as they are safer, but they’re still able to get on with their lives, then I think that’s a very important show that National Cabinet is delivering safer outcomes, but without constraining people's lives.

So, across the board, I welcome the actions of the different states.


Apologies, Minister. Do you believe it was prudent for Victoria to go beyond what National Cabinet was recommending?


It's entirely a matter for Victoria.

And Jonathan from Channel Nine.


Thanks, Minister. Just in relation to some remarks Anthony Albanese made this morning. He claimed the Federal Government had shut down testing sites. Does the Federal Government operate the testing sites?

And secondly, the Pfizer vaccine vials for children were about 18 days or so away from that program starting. Are the vaccines part of the 20 million in country or are they not here yet?


So, just in terms of Pfizer, the first of the Pfizer doses for children have now arrived. There are more to come. We should have approximately three million in hand by the time the program commences.

But the first of those vials and children's doses have arrived. They’ll now go through that TGA batch testing process, so I'm really pleased about that.

Important news for parents, important confidence for the country, and during January, we'll be running two primary programs, the children's program and the booster program.

We also want to encourage those that haven't come forward for their first or second doses to continue to come forward.

Now, in relation to Mr Albanese, the Opposition Leader’s had a very bad day. Firstly, he's effectively been called out by his own MP, Josh Burns, for pressuring ATAGI. Completely inappropriate, completely the wrong thing to do for somebody who wants to aspire to national leadership. That’s not how it’s done, Albo.

The second thing is that he is flat, plain wrong on Commonwealth testing. So, we have 137 Commonwealth vaccination clinics, and they do a mixture of vaccinations and testing. No change in Commonwealth testing.

In fact, December is on track to be a higher month for Commonwealth testing under the MBS, or under the Medicare Scheme, than November. And so, Mr Albanese's statement is flat, plain wrong.

The generous interpretation is that, to quote Mark Twain, Albo: it's better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak up and remove all doubt. Just to repeat, Albo: it's better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak up and remove all doubt.

The ungenerous, and I hope the incorrect interpretation is, he lied. Either way, he was wrong.

And for somebody to try to run cover, to try to take attention away from the fact that there are some states, against the views of the Chief Medical Officer, who are requiring PCR tests for asymptomatic travellers rather than using rapid antigen tests as we have seen the Northern Territory move to.

So a Labor government, in the Northern Territory, is now providing rapid antigen tests for travellers on arrival. I really welcome that. I think that Natasha Fyles and Chief Minister Gunner have done exactly the right thing in the Northern Territory – that’s what should happen.

For Mr Albanese to make a false, untrue, incorrect, inaccurate statement, either without thinking, or deliberate knowing that it was a lie, is the act of somebody who is not fit to be Prime Minister.

Having said that, I want to thank Australians for coming forward to be vaccinated. Thank Australians for coming forward in record numbers to be boosted. 167,000 boosters yesterday, 54,000 of those in pharmacies.

The states have indicated that they will be stepping up and restoring the capacity which had understandably been wound down as the first and second doses were being completed.

We can do this. We know how to do this as a country. We have done this before, we'll do it again, no change in ventilation numbers on the latest advice that I have over the last week. We'll keep Australians safe, but Australians are doing their part as well.

Thank you very much.

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