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Press conference about COVID-19

Read the transcript of a press conference with the Minister for Health, Greg Hunt, about coronavirus (COVID-19).

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

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Look, I’m delighted to be here with Andrew Forrest who, of course, has been very successful in business, but his work in the Minderoo Foundation is really profoundly important. Whether it’s with the environment or Indigenous Australia, or in so many areas.

I don't think, however, that the Minderoo Foundation has ever done something of more importance to Australia, and that importance is in terms of helping Australia with our containment strategy of the coronavirus and with our recovery on the way back to normal life for Australians.

The Prime Minister and Christine Morgan, the head of the National Mental Health Commission, have just spoken about the great emotional and human challenge that coronavirus has presented over and above health.

The importance of giving Australians a pathway and a road back to their normal life because of the pressure of mental health, because of the ordinary physical health challenges through isolation, on top of the challenges which come with battling the coronavirus in Australia.

So I am absolutely delighted today to announce a ground-breaking and fundamental partnership for Australia, between the Australian Government and Minderoo and the pathology sector. Andrew, through his work, has been able to secure on behalf of the Australian Government 10 million PCR coronavirus tests.

To put that in context, we have just completed over the last two and a half months, 500,000 tests and a little bit more. So this will multiply our tests, between now and the end of the year, by almost 20 fold. What that says to Australians is we have the supply lines, we have the health capacity and we have the pathway back.

I want to put all of this within the framework of our containment of coronavirus, of our health system capacity, which we've been working to build, and then our recovery process. And what we're doing today is fundamental to our containment, our capacity and our recovery. In terms of the containment, we know that the work on the borders has been fundamental to saving lives and protecting lives.

In terms of our testing, over 500,000 tests so far and with a high degree of accuracy by global standards, as others have attested. But today boosts that capacity significantly and in a sustainable and reliable way. That's the important thing. That the Minderoo Foundation, through Andrew and Nicola Forrest, have been a bridge and a partner with the Australian Government and with private suppliers, and we're really privileged to be able to work with them.

Over and above that, we know that this assists our tracing - and as the Prime Minister has just said, we've been doing incredible work on our tracing around the country, our public health units across the states and territories. They have ramped up what they've been doing. The app assists them in their work and it helps save lives of nurses and doctors and people who are frail and vulnerable.

Now, just over 2.8 million Australians have joined the cause and downloaded the app and I want to thank and honour them. And as the Prime Minister just said, the more people who do that, the more it helps us. It adds to what we're doing with the testing. It's all part of our process of a way back and recovering. And then of course there's the social distancing and the self-isolation.

The most difficult of measures, but what those measures have done is they have been about the partnership between the Australian people, each other, and the Australian Government. As people have made these difficult sacrifices, they have helped save lives, but it does come at a cost. It comes at an economic cost and an emotional cost.

Christine Morgan was just talking about the mental health challenges, and so the faster we can secure our national position of defeating this virus, and in turn, having the security going forward that if one case were to emerge anywhere we can test and find it, then the better for the mental health of Australians, and that's why today is so important.

In terms of our capacity, our primary health has now seen over 6.3 million telehealth consultations, where mental health is a major component. In our aged-care facilities, even though we have seen such tragedies in the Dorothy Henderson Lodge and Newmarch House, and our heart goes out to all of the families that are affected.

Our results have been so far ahead of what we had anticipated in protecting the lives of elderly Australians, that we owe a debt of gratitude to our aged care workers and to our providers and I want to thank them for their courage in turning up each and every day. They have saved lives on a scale which is so far beyond what we had ever anticipated.

Our best expectations had never been where we are, and we can thank our aged care workers and providers and our families for that outcome. And then, of course, in our hospitals where we have 104 cases in hospital, it's dropped to that. 40 in ICUs and 26 that are on ventilators.

All of those at risk but all of those in the best possible care. We now have 6741 cases in Australia and sadly 89 lives lost. There were 13 in the last 24 hours and another day with only one case of unknown origin in terms of the transmission.

Finally, that brings me to the recovery. Now, the recovery, as the Prime Minister and National Cabinet have said, has been built on the tracing and we're making huge progress, but if more people can continue to download the app, you'll help provide us with the national protection that we need.

Our response, our rapid response, is evolving, and then today we are securing perhaps the most critical step in our testing capability. That's why today's important. A fundamental step forward, which wouldn't have been possible, Andrew, without your help, without your extraordinary energy, passion and just ability to make things happen.

And what these 10 million tests will do is allow our state and territory public health units to be able to test right through 2020, to provide us with the capacity to contain and suppress and defeat the virus. But also, if a case were to emerge, to find it and to find everybody around and to protect our healthcare workers, to save lives and protect lives.

We couldn't be more thankful for what we're able to do. I couldn't be more pleased that the Australian Government will be supplying these tests to the state, and thanking Minderoo and Andrew and Nicola for their work. This is a critical part of the building blocks for Australians to return to their ordinary life.



Thank you, Minister. Ladies and gentlemen, I- just give me a moment. If I might just- I won't even look at these notes now I've got them. About a month ago, the Minister and I had a number of, I think, personal and quite high-pressure conversations where it was laid out to me the critical importance of testing.

And being- having an ability to understand statistical science through marine ecology, knowing if we could rapidly test our population, that we would then be able to ensure that we could bring the virus out into the open, that it would no longer be secret, it would no longer be hidden, but it would take incredible leadership at the ministerial level to allow this to happen.

The Minister challenged the Minderoo Foundation to supply an unprecedented level of both testing machines, which are incredibly rare right now. There is sovereign competition like never before for any equipment that I have ever seen in my life as well as the reagents. Every country in the world is searching for these machines and the challenge was laid down by Minister Hunt to acquire these machines.

Now that we have them, I would like to pass that challenge on to each state and territory leader, Premier. This ball is now in your court. Your ability now to see the virus through population scale testing where you can see asymptomatic, you can see negatives and positives in a clarity which has never before been provided to any major country.

And that is now your challenge, Premiers. That is a great federated model where each of you, I think, have the ability now to see the virus, to close it down and not your economy, to isolate the virus and not any longer isolate your population. That’ll take decision and courage and science, and these tests make all of those available to you.

It now needs your courage and science. I want to thank the Minister so much for making that available, through the Commonwealth, to all of the states. I can report that every single machine is here in Australia. Nine are under commissioning and two are in installation, a total of 11 machines, and they are being equipped with, as you've heard from the Minister, 10 million tests. So, the huge reagent challenge is no longer Australia's.

All the reagents are either in the country now or will be delivered easily by the end of May and all machines will be fully ramped up during the end of this month or May. So this capacity is now with us. I am delighted to have played a role in this for the Minderoo Foundation.

We set aside $320 million to assist Australia at any way we could, and this was a business to business relationship, where capital was acquired immediately, deployed immediately and over time will be repaid by the Commonwealth. So, I would just like to thank BGI, Chairman Wang. Your integrity to withstand the attacks on the supply lines between yourself and myself is unimpeachable.

I would like to thank you and all of you at BGI for withstanding the shocks and withstanding the threats to our supply chains, which occurred so many times over the last three weeks and that we can now declare victory and say all machines are here and the reagents are here or on their way.

So thank you, Minister, for your phenomenal leadership, for throwing down that challenge harder than really anyone ever has to me, and- apart from Nicola of course, who throws down a challenge regularly. But I would like to say, ladies and gentlemen, this is, I think, has the possibility for the Premiers to make this a turning point for their states, to elucidate the virus, to show it up and to free your populations and let's get back to work.

Thank you very much. I would like now to introduce a representative of China, our Consul-General for Victoria and a person who obviously is very proud of BGI and the relationship between Australia and China as well. Consul-General.


Honourable Minister Greg Hunt, Minister of Health, Dr Andrew Forrest, Founder and Chairman of the Minderoo Foundation and Mr- Nicola Forrest, Founder and the Co-chair of the Minderoo Foundation, Dr Yang Bicheng, Director of BGI Australia. It is a real delight for me to attend this press conference with the joint efforts of Minderoo Foundation and BGI.

The ground-breaking project, in the words of the Minister, has been initiated. The project of emergency test lab has been initiated and is now progressing fairly well. We are proud of that. This is yet another major step forward between China and Australia with regard to the bilateral relation to jointly fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

Let me, on behalf of the Chinese Ambassador, His Excellency, Ambassador Cheng Jingye and on my own behalf, express our warm congratulations and heartfelt appreciations to Minderoo and BGI for valuable contribution in this regard. As it’s known throughout China has attached great importance to international health cooperation.

The Chinese Government has released information related to the COVID-19 in open, transparent and responsible manner, and we have worked closely with WHO and other countries, including sharing experiences in epidemic prevention and control and providing assistance within our capacity.

China very much appreciates and thankful to the compassion, support and the sympathy of the Australian people to our- to the Chinese people in our fight against the virus and vice versa, we are also doing everything possible to help Australia. This is- this project is another testimony of the friendship and the cooperation between our two countries and the two peoples.

Ladies and gentlemen, the virus has- knows no ideology, border or race and in face of the epidemic the testings of all countries are closely interlinked – we’re all in this together. Solidarity and cooperation is the only way to overcome the public health challenge and all countries should unite as one in this undertaking. And only by working together can we secure the ultimate victory against COVID-19.

Views have been expressed that COVID-19 pandemic is the biggest crisis faced by mankind since World War II. If that is the case, we have no choice but to work together to transform the crisis, the challenges into new opportunities of cooperation. There is also a view expressed that this pandemic will certainly change the world as whole.

If that is the case we have no choice but to work together to make the world a safer, more harmonious and a better world. In this regard, all of us, no matter who we are – whether we are philanthropists, or politicians, or government representatives, or medical people, scientists or media people – we all have roles to play.

Thank you so much.


Happy to take any questions from those in the room and then over the phone. We’ll be brief. I apologise.


Would you be able to- Mr Forrest, you mentioned the huge supply chain challenges. Could you walk us through some of the things that you’ve faced to get this to happen?




Look, with respect I won’t name the countries but we- the Minderoo Foundation and BGI received sophisticated coercion to interrupt the relationship. We also had offers from other countries, much higher than I had agreed with Chairman Wang of BGI in US dollars and I’m talking much, much higher.

And Chairman Wang and BGI kept to their word and resisted that very clear temptation of a businessman to make a much bigger profit and maintain the integrity of my relationship and I’m very grateful for that. It’s made, I think, the world of difference back at home.




What do you think of the Federal Government’s call to bring an inquiry into the origin of COVID-19?


I think I’m going to leave that to our political leaders and I’ve got one right here who’s very capable of answering that.


But what’s your message? You’ve obviously got a lot of contacts.


He said on radio this morning.


Okay. But for the camera’s, what would be your message. I mean trade sanctions are now being threatened by some Chinese officials.


No look, I don’t- Look, as far as I know, they aren’t. The relationship I see between the Australian people and the Chinese people is really one of a common heart. Each of us would like to leave this world a better, kinder, more environmentally sustainable one than we have now – that is the motive behind the Chinese people and as I know all my mates behind the Australian people.

So I see a commonality of cause here. There will be flashpoints in any good relationship. Just speak to Nicola, there’s ups and downs, but this is a solid and long term relationship which has existed since prior to World War I. They’ve been on our side in World War I, in World War II and that should not change.

Specifically, a call for an inquiry – my priority is to see this pandemic come to an end. So I will be putting everything I can, personally and as the Foundation and as my businesses, to remove the fear of this pandemic from the Australian people as quickly as possible.


Andrew, do you, for example, think if Australia doesn’t back off on China, that Fortescue’s exports could be effected?


No. Look, the question itself is interesting but doesn’t go to the huge depth of the relationship which exists between the business community upon on both sides and the trust and the friendship. When I speak of the friendship between Dr Wang of BGI – a major shareholder – and myself as a major shareholder for Fortescue – these run very deep now.

We’ve taken a huge risk on each other, we’ve not been bullied by forces much bigger than us and we’ve delivered for the Australian and Chinese people, and I don’t see that being interrupted.


The Government says the virus likely began in a Wuhan wet market. Do you share that view?


No. Can I respond to that? That’s not the Government’s position. We know that it was spread early – that’s a universal view. We have said that it is most likely that it came from what are called zoonotic sources – so from animal to human. As to the original source, that’s not been determined.

We do know, and all have agreed, that it was early spread within a wet market and we’ve expressed our views on that. But more importantly, today is actually an example of cooperation and success.

The work that Andrew and Nicola and Minderoo have done with their counterparts, the very welcome and appreciated message from the Consul-General – and I thank you for the partnership that we have struck between our two countries on this health cause today, and the partnership that we have struck at the human level.

And at the end of the day, today’s about recognising that as one world we are working towards health outcomes. And there couldn’t be a stronger, real world example of that partnership than what’s occurring today where we’ve been able to help in one direction, we’ve also had help coming in our direction and that’s a great way to work.


Minister, apart from a low number of cases, what does success look like in terms of Australia getting on top of this virus? Is there three concrete examples you might be able to give us?


Yeah. So success is firstly, continued suppression of the virus with a sustained RF, or effective transmission rate of below one – we are continuing to see that. We have not got to where we want to be, we’re working towards the (inaudible) assessment of the National Cabinet.

But that continued suppression of the virus is proceeding - the rest of the world want to be us. One case again in the community with unknown origin in the last 24 hours - an immensely important outcome for Australia.

Secondly, to have the testing capability and today is about that testing capability - building on the extraordinary success we've had but this takes it to a whole new quantum level and we couldn't have done that without the people who are in this room.

And then thirdly, our tracing capability and rapid response - the ability to respond immediately and tracing is part of that, and the assisted tracing in terms of the app are part of that. So the Prime Minister said today, the app is like sunscreen, it provides Australians with protection when we go out into sun.

And as we recover and as we open our schools, and our businesses, and our communities carefully, gradually, all of these things provide us with that protection to be, we hope, out of this the most investable nation in the world in terms of our health protection and health response.


Minister, Taiwan wants to rejoin the WHO. Taiwan wants Australia to back its push to rejoin the WHO. Should Taiwan return either as an observer or full member and will Australia lobby for it?


I will completely leave those questions to the Foreign Minister - it's not one within my remit. It was a nice try.


Could I ask about Newmarch House?


Yes. Yes.


Obviously (inaudible) it's awful what's happening there. Is there any need to review operations if and when there's another outbreak at aged-care facilities? Perhaps split patients up so they're separated a bit more?  Is there anything else the Federal Government’s looking at?

GREG HUNT:         

So we've been working very, very closely with New South Wales public health, as the Prime Minister has said. Obviously the Commonwealth has responsibility for aged care across Australia. In any coronavirus outbreak, the state public health authorities make sure that they are overseeing the clinical care.

So there's been very close cooperation. This has been, as we’ve always warned, an example that aged-care facilities and the frail aged are our most vulnerable Australians. In all of our expectations, we had feared that because of the silent nature of the virus, it could creep through into numerous aged care homes.

As it is, we've had two significant outbreaks, which is so far below our best case of expectation, that I say a prayer of thanks virtually every day. But each one of these is, nevertheless, an agonising outbreak, and for the families involved. So we're always looking to improve.

The- we're always looking from any event, you know, what we can do as a country or as a world to improve the outcomes.


Should facilities, like Newmarch, communicate better with families?

GREG HUNT:         

Well we have stepped in, precisely because of that reason. We stepped in and provided staff. The Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck has stepped in and made it absolutely clear that there has to be clear, consistent and ongoing communication with the families.

I did speak with the local member, Melissa McIntosh this morning. One of the things that she said was hardest for the families is that because there was an outbreak, they can't visit their loved ones, and that is - you know, deeply, deeply hard for them. That has to be the case because there's an outbreak and the facility has to be safe.

But our message to the providers is that on our watch, in our time, we will make sure that they are communicating with all of the families. Now, I will take I think I have two questions on the telephone from Dana and Richard, thank you for being patient. Dana.


Thanks Minister. Yeah, just on the aged care issue. Operators say that they can't leave the lockdown safely unless they get additional Federal funding, they want $1.3 billion. Is there going to be a federal aged care rescue package announced at the end of the week?

GREG HUNT:         

We’ve actually provided over half a billion dollars to support aged care through the coronavirus program, and through the challenge that we are facing so. So we provided very, very significant fund to ensure continuity at work and I think that was a pre-existing claim that was before the COVID-19 and coronavirus.

So I don't- that figure has a certain familiarity, which was put out there long before this virus had an impact. But that's why we’ve invested over half a billion dollars, specifically in aged care support and particularly providing retention bonuses for the aged care workers that have done such a good job. Richard.


Thank you, minister. What is your advice Minister, on a potential second wave of infections, as we have seen in other countries? Are we prepared for that? And also, would you consider setting up a permanent pandemic response body once this crisis is over?

GREG HUNT:         

So, on the second question we already have a permanent pandemic body, in terms of the National Incident Centre and the advice from the Communicable Diseases Network of Australia. The World Health Organization, two years ago I think declared Australia to be at the global forefront of preparedness and they were right.

And I say they were right, because the evidence is that we acted early, we acted on our own initiative. We didn't wait for the advice of others and as a result of that we were able to save lives and protect lives and the result in Australia is the envy of the world.

But because of today, we can now go even further and be one of the first countries to emerge from this. So, in terms of the second wave, today is also a critical part of that. When the Prime Minister set out the three areas of action - tracing, rapid response and testing, we said that we would work to put those capabilities in place and indeed they were developed, with the anticipation that this day would come. This day has come.

Thank you to Nicola and to Andrew and to Minderoo and what they have put in place, the protections against a second wave. We can never make a false promise but we can prepare, which has allowed us to be where we are and we can prepare for the future, which will allow us to return to the life which we so much love and value as Australians, and today is a hugely important step on that road.

Thank you very much.

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