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Minister Hunt's Press Conference in Canberra on 14 September 2021 with an update on the vaccine rollout, ACT lockdown, Rapid Testing and the new grant programs for NHMRC

Read the transcript of Minister Hunt's Press Conference with an update on the vaccine rollout, ACT lockdown, Rapid Testing and the new grant programs for NHMRC.

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

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Thanks very much. I’m delighted to be joined today by Professor Alison McMillan, the Chief Nursing and Midwifery Officer of Australia. And we have an important milestone in relation to the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. 23 million doses have now been delivered and 276,000 yesterday. We’ll come to that in a minute.

But there is a significant announcement in relation to $472 million for over 290 projects for the National Health and Medical Research Council grants programs.

These grants are about long-term research, about changing lives, but also about rapidly moving to meet specific needs.

The largest area of grants is infectious diseases including COVID-19 and coronavirus more generally with $84 million. There is over $79 million of grants for cancer. We have, very significantly, $50 million for cardiovascular disease and $49 million for mental health. And every state and territory has received awards based on an independent, peer-reviewed program and process. And wonderful projects.

The Doherty Institute and the University of Melbourne, together, $1.5 million to focus on coronavirus and flu vaccines and advancing and bringing forward new technologies. We have the University of Western Australia with over $1 million to focus on children's respiratory vaccines, in particular, cystic fibrosis. Childhood concussion through sport – this is a real personal passion – over $3 million for the Murdoch Children's Research Institute.

And then, very significantly, as an example, the Menzies Research Institute in the Northern Territory, over $600,000 to focus on improving cancer outcomes for Indigenous women with a particular focus on gynaecological cancers. So, these are just fundamentally important programs. The University of Queensland, $1 million, to focus on new models of mental health care for young Indigenous Australians. And literally, virtually every field in medicine is covered.

It’s just a tribute to the Australian researchers. And to be able to support this, in addition to what we’re doing, with the over $600 million a year for the Medical Research Future Fund, is to see research driving solutions to problems in Australia.

In relation to COVID-19 and the vaccine rollout, as I mentioned, 23 million doses have now been delivered in Australia, but we're moving to an additional channel and that is workplace vaccinations.

So today, Operation COVID Shield has opened up workplace vaccinations through what's called a request for tender, a request for applications. And that will now be open on a continuous basis from now until December. And it's looking to have the first of those vaccinations occur in the coming weeks, in the first half of October.

And so, this is an important step forward. It's a request inviting applications, and Operation COVID Shield will move continuously through assessing those and commencing in the coming weeks.

In terms of the rollout, importantly, we've had 276,000 vaccinations in the last 24 hours. That's an increase of 17,000 on last Monday. So, in one week, day to day, an increase of 17,000. And so, very important momentum.

Over 7.4 million vaccinations in the last 28 days. Over 7.4 million in the last 28 days. Very significantly, and in many ways, one of the most important figures is we reached 68.5 per cent of first doses, or more than 14.1 million Australians who came forward to be vaccinated.

What that means is there's less than 400,000 Australians who need to come forward this week to put us beyond the 70 per cent first dose rate. And we know that second doses follow the first doses. And so that's an incredibly important milestone. Less than 400,000 Australians needed to reach the 70 per cent first dose mark, and our hope and our expectation is that they will do that by Saturday, if not earlier.

So a critical thing. But to all those Australians, the doses are coming in. We're seeing the arrival of additional doses. Another shipment has arrived overnight from the UK. All of these are coming together, and they're being distributed and that's about saving lives and protecting lives.

One of the critical things that's happened is that we have now opened the 12 to 15-year-old age group, and I understand there's some very good news on that front. So on that, I’ll turn to Professor Alison McMillan, the Chief Nursing and Midwifery Officer for Australia.


Thank you, Minister. So, yes, as the Minister said, as of yesterday, 12 to 15-year-olds are eligible for vaccination, Pfizer and Moderna, so they can start booking their appointments now, which is of course, I think, very encouraging, particularly for parents concerned about their children.

Alone yesterday, 12,000 doses were administered to the 12 to 15-year-olds and we know that 59,000 have been administered now to 12 to 15-year-olds across the country. As we're seeing, as we call it, the epidemiological curve shift, we know that a large proportion of our older generations, like myself, now have had two doses.

We're actually seeing the cases increasingly in the younger age groups and this brings into that then the 12 to 15-year-olds now, as I say, eligible to book. It is of course the parents who need to make that booking on behalf of the children, and we encourage them to do that as soon as possible.

So thank you, Minister.


Thanks very much to Alison. Happy to take questions. If I can start with Dan, please.


Minister, just a question about the announcement today from the ACT Government about the lockdown here in Canberra. So the decision has been made to extend that for another four weeks. So what was initially a seven-day lockdown will now extend beyond eight.

Given the high rates of vaccination here in the ACT, do you think the ACT Government has struck the right balance between meeting public health objectives and also balancing that with mental health considerations, community wellbeing, and economic imperatives?


It is a difficult day for people in the ACT. I know how hard these lockdowns are, and particularly for families with children, but really for everybody. And so, we would urge people to take up the Head to Health opportunities or the beyondblue Coronavirus Hotline opportunities that are there. We have recently provided additional support in Victoria.

We’d be very willing to work with the ACT Government, indeed, keen to work with the ACT Government on additional support for the ACT.

I respect completely the decision of the ACT. Their vaccination rate is now well into the mid-70s and increasing at a very rapid pace. It's continued right through the 60 per cent and 70 per cent range at a fast pace. And so that will provide protection. What it will mean is that they'll reach the 70 and 80 per cent double dose rates in a relatively short period.

So it's a difficult decision. We do respect it. And we’d urge everybody, if they do have challenges, to seek help for themselves or their families through beyondblue, headspace, Head to Health, or other forms of mental health support.



Question to you both, if I may, just broadly on rapid testing. I know there's been some advice that's gone out I think in the last week from the TGA to businesses on how to implement rapid testing. It's formed such a big part of the sort of path out of lockdowns, in Europe in particular. Where are we at on that now?

And what is the advice to the AHPPC that you're giving on things like rapid testing? And what role do you see that playing I guess at the 70 and at the 80 per cent intervals?


Sure. So look, I'll start briefly, and then Alison may wish to add something. We now have 28 rapid antigen tests approved in Australia on my latest advice.

Rapid antigen testing will play a big part in Australia's pathway out of lockdown, and so I have asked the TGA to rapidly consider the role of antigen tests or rapid antigen tests, and they will be going through that process.

They are already assessing and approving the rapid antigen tests themselves, and now on the basis of their medical advice, I'm hopeful that these tests will be available at the earliest possible time for workplaces and then subsequently, once we have the support of AHPPC, within the home.

But rapid antigen tests will be available in workplaces and soon enough in the home environment.



Thanks, Minister. Yes. Just to add to that, certainly we know and have relied here on what we call the gold standard. As you know, the PCR testing. Rapid antigen testing is an addition or an adjunct to that. And we know that we will continue to rely on PCR as our mainstay of testing.

Importantly, I think one of the things that we're doing, and we're certainly trialling it in aged care at the moment, is it's as much about what do you do when you get a positive and what are the actions that are taken then to address that through PCR to make sure those pathways are safe and that we're not causing any harm as a result of that.

And so both the tests to make sure that they reach the requirements of the TGA and their reliability, and then how you actually use them, whether it's in aged care or other workplaces, to ensure that then you can prevent any further transmission.

So that's the work that's underway. And as Minister says, we will expect to see it increasingly used across the community in the coming months.




Just on WA, Minister, today WA announced that it's going to open up Pfizer jabs for over 60s. It follows the Northern Territory and South Australia doing this. Do you welcome that, or do you have any concerns about it sending a message? Sort of if you just wait, you can have a different jab.

And are there any concerns about AstraZeneca doses going to waste now that Pfizer’s being made available to some of those older age groups as well?


No, I welcome each state as they feel that they're in a position to ensure that everybody who does require a Pfizer in the under-60 age group can access that Pfizer. That's the very important thing.

Our job is to ensure that no person between 12 and 59 is denied a vaccine, because we want to make sure that they have access to that. And if those states believe in their state system that they have that capacity, then that's entirely reasonable.

We keep it under constant review around the country. We do know that in some other parts of the country, there remains very high demand for the mRNA vaccines from those that are under 59. So we want to make sure that they have that.

I would note that what we've done is seen now well over 90 per cent of over-70s have had their first vaccine, their first dose. Over 90 per cent of over-70s have had a first dose. That's been overwhelmingly driven by AstraZeneca. We've passed 6.5 million Australians who've had AstraZeneca. We're now well over 10.5 million total doses.

And so all of the vaccines are good. All of the vaccines protect you, and all of the vaccines save lives.

And if I may, I'll go to Rachel.


Thanks, Minister. A couple of related questions, if I can. What has the response been to the Prime Minister's calls for states and territories to come up with a plan for home quarantine? Are they likely to use the same app that SA is currently trialling?

And how quickly would you like to see those home quarantine plans in place?


So, the first thing is we're all very familiar with home quarantine. I have to say, you're in the ACT now, and I have done home quarantine twice there, and it was an outstanding model.

I was receiving texts daily, random visits from the police to the door to check that, you know, whoever was in home quarantine was there – in my case, me. And that, I think, was an absolute gold standard.

I haven't experienced that in other states and territories other than Victoria, of course. But that's an example that we know how to do home quarantine and do it well. And Rachel Stephen-Smith and Andrew Barr have shown us the way.

The second thing is AHPPC, and Alison might address this, will be looking and are, in fact, in ongoing assessment of home quarantine standards, and I think we're seeing through what we've done domestically a pathway for that action internationally.



Yes. As the Minister said, AHPPC, we continue to look at the variable options of quarantine, and I too have done home quarantine. We just need to look at how we keep ourselves safe and keep those in home quarantine safe.

And what we will see, I think, in the coming times is a move towards that. And we know that some jurisdictions have done it solely for domestic home quarantine between states.

We may see it, I think, moving into the international market into the future.


Will you be looking at things like the app being trialled in South Australia for a more broad application in that instance?


Yes, I think technology will be an important part. The resource amount, the amount of work required to maintain home quarantine, I, like, as I say, the Minister did home quarantine here in ACT. Visited every day by police. That's a lot of resource.

If we can find ways to effectively do that through an app – and I think there are a number of them that are a potential to be used – they use, place checking the way you actually are, then yes, I think we'll see the increased use of technology, as we've seen with things like the COVID app and the check-ins.


I’d just add that the South Australian home quarantine app is a real breakthrough, and it does provide a pathway forward.

Now, if I can go please to Shuba.


Thanks, Minister. Can you just give us a bit more detail on how the business vaccination program will actually work? Will there be any cost to the business or employees? And what kind of businesses can actually take part?

Like, will there be any limit on the size of the business or the employee number?


So the details are being provided by Operation COVID Shield. But essentially, what we're looking for is businesses that are seeking to vaccinate their workforce, either on their premises or in another central point, to do it in a COVID-safe way: in a way which is going to ensure that we lift the ultimate number of jabs that are given.

And in particular, there’s no cost. It’ll be up to businesses to show that they can do it but we’ll be providing the vaccines and they’ll be working to ensure that the vaccination providers are put there. So it’s free to all employees.

One of the rules is in fact that wherever you are in Australia, if you are receiving a vaccine, it should come at no cost to you and indeed it’s not allowed for a fee to be levied for any person to receive their COVID jab.

So whether you’re in a meatworks, whether you’re in a Bunnings, whether you are in a restaurant or you’re in a distribution warehouse, this is something that can make it easier to get the jab.



Minister, and I’ve got also a question for the Professor as well. Crown Resorts says it wants to mandate vaccinations for its staff and also for its visitors. I’m noting that the Government doesn’t support mandatory, a broad mandatory vaccination policy. Would you at least encourage other public facing companies to pursue such a policy?

And on a related subject, given that Crown Resorts, professor, is pursuing mandatory vaccinations, as a health professional, are you surprised that some states and territories are dragging their heels when it comes to mandating vaccinations for health workers, hospitals with cleaners or doctors or whatever, given that that seems to be immanent common sense?


Just in terms of Crown, we are not mandating other than in the circumstance of exceptional cases such as the protection of residents in aged care. But it is a matter for them as to whether or not they wish to apply it to their workforce or their clientele.



So Andrew, firstly, we do know that health professionals are taking up the vaccine in huge numbers. We know that they know how important it is for them, their patients and their families.

We are seeing some jurisdictions have already mandated and I think we will see other jurisdictions follow suit very, very quickly. We've in some ways, perhaps we've seen the success in aged care and we can learn a lot of lessons from what we've achieved in aged care.

At now, I think 92 per cent of aged care workers have had their first dose, which is, you know, a real credit to our aged care workers and now it's our health care workers.


But can I press you on that because there are some jurisdictions that cite, for example, human rights legislation for not pursuing mandatory vaccinations when it only takes one person to have COVID for a whole hospital to be in lockdown.


I think that my position is we are strongly encouraging. Ultimately, those jurisdictions need to make the choices themselves about what means or mechanism through a legislation they might choose to mandate. Certainly, we've made access to the vaccine available to all health care workers for quite some significant time now.

My position is that we continue to strongly encourage, but how a jurisdiction ultimately chooses to do that is up to them.

And all I can say is I really do strongly encourage all health care workers to do it as soon as they can if they haven't, and that includes the important people that support the clinical staff. All of those are just as important to delivering health care across the system.

The other thing probably, Andrew, just to let you know is we've continue to review and look at the policies around how frequently you furlough staff in what is now a highly vaccinated population. So we're constantly adapting our frameworks and policies, and that includes learning, particularly from our colleagues in Victoria, about how you can safely manage furloughed staff, protecting staff and patients, but also being able to maintain services, critical services, to the community.


Can I just ask about the Digital Border Declaration Pass? Is that going to be primarily for international arrivals or will it be rolled for state, international- state border travel as well?


No, this is primarily focussed on international arrivals, but we want to see Australians be able to travel overseas at the earliest possible time.

And all of these steps that we're taking in terms of vaccinations, of driving to the 70 and the 80 per cent mark, of ensuring that there's the digital vaccination certificate that's available, the capacity to have effectively the digital arrivals card.

These things bring Australians closer to travelling and reuniting with their loved ones.


Minister, Clare, just a couple of quick questions. Picking up on mandatory vaccination, there is concern from the hospitality sector that once public health orders fall away, they'll be the target of legal action from anti-vaxxers who don't want to have to get vaccinated to enter the premises.

Is it inevitable, even though those protections exist for them under property law, that we will see test cases taken to court where these private businesses are bearing the burden of what is strongly encouraged by medical professionals and the government?

And just if I may pick up on what Dan asked about the ACT. If you have a population that is well over 70 per cent first dose vaccinated, including that if you take into account 12 to 15 year olds but they're only experiencing 20 odd cases a day, and you say that you are respecting completely the decision to in no way indicate a reopening at 70 and even 80 per cent vaccination. What message does that send to the rest of the country that isn't in as good a position as that?


Well, the first thing is that we are absolutely committed to the national plan, and my understanding is that all of the states and territories are committed to the national plan with the 70 per cent and 80 per cent double dose thresholds. And the fact that the ACT does have such a high first dose rate means that it is not too far away, from the 70 and 80 per cent second dose rate. So I'll let the ACT Government speak to their decision.

But I'd rather be upfront that we do respect their decision not to engage in a debate, and I think that is a very important part of the national cabinet. They've committed to the national plan and we've committed to respecting their decisions en route to that.

Then in terms of businesses such as hospitality and others, equally, we've been very clear, as was the case with the previous question, that we have in place a legal framework. It allows businesses to make their own decisions.

We're not proposing to change that legal framework, and they're able to make decisions in relation to the safety of their employees, and they're able to make decisions in relation to the safety of their patrons and customers. So there's no proposal to change that on behalf of the Government.

So with that, what I want to do is finish by saying today we've passed 23 million vaccinations. We are at 68.5 per cent first doses and less than 400,000 Australians from achieving that first major milestone of 70 per cent whole of Australia first dose rates.

And so I urge everybody to keep coming forward. New vaccines are coming in. New bookings are opening up. Australians are coming forward in record numbers and I want to thank everybody, urge them to keep going and say to our researchers, it's been an important day for you.

Your research will help save lives and protect lives. And we have our vaccines because of international research and will continue to play our part in the search for vaccines, treatments, cures for not just COVID, but for all of the diseases.

Thank you very much.

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