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Press conference in Canberra about coronavirus (COVID-19)

Read the transcript of a press conference with Minister Hunt and Christine Morgan CEO of the National Mental Health Commission about Coronavirus (COVID-19)

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

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GREG HUNT:         

Thank you everybody for joining us today for the Australian Government's briefing.

I'm joined by Christine Morgan, the Head of the National Mental Health Commission.

We know that during the course of coronavirus and the pandemic, that mental health has been a challenge not just in Australia but around the world.

The stress, the anxiety of the health situation, the economic implications. All of these lead naturally to the situation where for any person anywhere, they may be suffering from anxiety, depression, or other mental health related conditions.

And the first message is that it's okay not to be okay.

It's important to realise that this could be any one of us, at any time who could be having this response.

And that there is help and that it's appropriate to reach out.

So, if you are suffering, or if you think that someone you know is suffering, reach out to help for yourself or reach out to help someone else, please.

But as part of that we have a very important role as the Australian Government.

The Prime Minister and myself commissioned Christine Morgan and the National Mental Health Commission, and the Deputy Chief Medical Officer for Mental Health Dr Ruth Vine, to review the situation in Victoria with the Stage 4 lockdowns.

And Christine will take you through those findings, but in essence, as everybody would expect, so many Victorians are struggling. Service requests are up.

So today, as part of our national response, we will be announcing $31.9 million of additional support, specifically for Victoria.

But if there were further lockdowns in other states and territories, that would be replicated.

In particular, this is life saving and life supporting assistance to help Victorians who are suffering during the course of the lockdown with their mental health.

It will include 15 new adult mental health centres.

These will be set up over the course of the coming weeks.

We will have them last for 12 months as an initial offering.

And what they will do is to provide support to all Victorians.

Nine of those 15 will be in urban metropolitan areas, six will be in rural and regional areas.

In addition to that, a joint Victorian Mental Health Taskforce between the Commonwealth and the State, that will be led on the Commonwealth side by the Deputy Chief Medical Officer Ruth Vine, a former Victorian Chief Psychiatrist, knows the Victorian system well, practices within the Victorian system, as well as her duties with the Commonwealth.

And then there is $5 million for targeted digital and online assistance for groups where there is a particular risk of higher incidents at this moment.

Eating disorders, ED HOPE, the National Eating Disorders Hotline, the work of LBGTI groups.

These are important areas where this additional 24-hour assistance will help save lives and protect lives.

More generally, we know that the world has now passed over 21.6 million cases; 777,000 lives lost, sadly, and always heading towards a million.

So, we're in this great battle: saving lives and supporting lives. That's what we're doing at the moment.

As part of that, we know that in Australia we have had now 23,558 cases, and very sadly 421 lives lost with some tragic figures from Victoria overnight.

And to all of the families, to all of the loved ones, to everybody involved with those that have lost their lives, you have our support and you have our shared grief.

This is a difficult and agonising time. But we go forward with real support.

And as we set out yesterday, also with genuine realistic hope on the vaccination front, as well as on the containment front.

On containment, our first line of defence. The border work continues. Our testing regime has now seen 5.33 million tests carried out.

And tracing, over 400 ADF are involved in assisting the Victorian Government and a virtual network of other states and territories from around the country.

That tracing must achieve the standard of every case, every day in Victoria.

It's solid in doing that around the country in the other seven jurisdictions, and we’ll continue to support Victoria on what is a fundamental task of early identification of cases and contacts.

The distancing is why we're providing these additional supports today.

And then in terms of building our capacity - with regards to primary healthcare, over 25 million telehealth items, which in particular have had a very strong mental health focus.

With regards to aged care, over 400 cases transferred.

We have, within Victoria, to hospital, we've seen a stabilisation on the advice that the Prime Minister and I had on our morning briefing this morning from the Aged Care Response Centre across different centres.

But this work is ongoing each and every day. AUSMAT, ADF, nurses from interstate, Victorian public and private health systems, all participating in one single state-based response.

And so, I want to thank all of those involved.

In terms of the hospitals across the country, what we see is that we've got 674 people in hospital, 51 in ICU, and 37 on ventilation in obviously the most difficult of circumstances.

And more generally, these additional mental health supports today, 15 new centres, a new taskforce and that particular support for groups at risk as part of a $31.9 million package.

But it's not about the money, it's all about these elements bringing additional support.

I'll invite Christine Morgan from the National Mental Health Commission to briefly outline the findings of her review with Professor Ruth Vine, the recommendations and the response.


Thank you very much, Minister. And, yes, I would like to begin by extending, on behalf of all of us, our condolences to those families who have suffered further losses that we've heard about, and indeed to all Victorians who really are doing it tough at the moment.

As the Minister has said, this is a time which is challenging for all of us in terms of our mental health and our wellbeing.

And the thing I hear most frequently is: gosh, do we have to keep going? We are fatigued. It is challenging.

But we do know that if we do take access of all of those services, which is the services that are available, if we do reach out, we will actually get to the other side of this.

As the Minister has said, Dr Ruth Vine and I were asked to have a look at what the Commonwealth could do to assist our colleagues in Victoria and see what we can- so just to make sure we can unlock all of the services and all of the access points that we possibly can.

So, we started with looking at what was actually happening in Victoria.

And not surprisingly, we are seeing with the reimposition of restrictions that even more people are coming forward for help with their mental health; and thank goodness they are.

And we're seeing more severe presentations. And what is happening is that far too many people, without knowing where else to go, are going to the emergency departments of our hospitals, which is really putting stress on a part of the system that we can help.

So, in conjunction and in collaboration with the Victorian Government, we've had a look at what can the Commonwealth do to try and ensure that people can access the mental health services they need in their communities, so they don't have to go to hospitals.

As the Minister has said, the funding here will enable 15 enhanced mental health clinics.

They'll be set in community settings.

So, they’ll be GP clinics, and they’ll be headspace centres, they’ll ACCHO’s set for our Indigenous communities.

They will be accessible to everyone.

And what people will find in those centres is not only access to GPs, but access to an expanded mental health workforce.

So that could include psychologists, social workers, mental health nurses – who are incredibly important – and also those who work with drug and alcohol issues, because we know that for some people their coping mechanisms have led into some challenges in those areas.

And when you go to those centres, you'll be able to not only be assessed as to your level of need and to find those services in that place, but if those services are not in that clinic, you'll be shown where you can find them in our community or through our telehealth services.

And if you need 24/7 care, then you can be referred to the emergency department or to a private hospital where they'll be able to take care of you.

So this is about trying to ensure that we're coming to you, to make available mental health services for the needs that you have.

As the Minister has also said, the additional digital and online services. It was just over a week ago the Prime Minister and the Minister announced $12 million to enhance headspace, Lifeline, Kidsline (Correction – Kids Helpline) and Beyond Blue.

We are also now extending our support to those more specific headlines such as ED HOPE, such those who will help our LBGTIQ community.

So, this is really about, as the Minister has said, us reaching out to you to say make sure our system has to be open.

We're trying to ensure, as a final point, that these services are affordable. So, we will be providing that assistance through our primary health networks, to try and ensure any Australian who needs our mental health support services can afford them and can access them.

Thank you, Minister.


Great. Thank you very much. If we could begin by taking questions from Sarah, please.


Hi, Minister. Sarah here from The West. Thanks for that. I just wanted to ask what (inaudible) concerns about the national economy, that being mental health conditions just more generally.

Are you considering extending the number of Medicare rebate psychology sessions (inaudible) but on a national level?


Sure. So, Christine, the question was about the impact of the economy on mental health.

Very specifically, we do know that unemployment, economic challenges, could be the stress of a mortgage, the stress of a business overdraft, do have a major impact.

We’ve already extended the Better Access Scheme for those within Victoria, and then more broadly there’ll be a proposal that we're anticipating from the Productivity Commission, that will consider that at a general national level.

But in Victoria, we have done that. Christine, you might want to address the economic impacts on mental health?


Certainly. And so, as we would acknowledge, and as the Minister has just said, financial stress is very real stress.

And it is one of the factors that is contributing to the elevated levels of anxiety and distress, and leading to mental health challenges.

It emphasises to me the fact we really do need a whole of government response to this pandemic.

So certainly, there are the measures that we all know very well that the government is putting in place to provide some economic certainty and underpinning for people.

From the mental health perspective, we need to get right alongside that, and to realise as people go through financial stress, we need to support their mental health and wellbeing.

If they are feeling very distressed, and they are finding themselves needing some psychological support, we need to be there and provide it.

So, really, it's not one or the other.

It is to say that whatever impact this is having and financial stress and economic uncertainty, and losing one's, or losing one's business is very stressful.

We come in alongside that to provide the mental health support. It's critical we do it as a whole of government.


Right. Thanks very much. Sue?


Minister, you said yesterday that we were hopeful of getting a vaccine here in Australia towards next year.

The head of the Oxford University’s Jenner Institute Adrian Hill says the Oxford vaccine will be available for emergency use in UK from October and November, and into the general population in December.

The UK and US governments signed contracts for this vaccine back in May.

Why does Australia not yet have a deal, and the fact that we don’t- is that why Australians will be waiting six months longer to get a vaccine?


No. With respect, we're anticipating that we'll be able to deliver in Australia on a commensurate timetable to those of other countries.

We've been cautious in our projections, and I've always followed the best available medical advice on those projections.

So, our delivery will be dependent on the science and the progress of the particular vaccines, the safety trials, the effectiveness work, the Stage 3 progress, and we'll be in a very strong position to be able to deliver for Australia when vaccines are shown to be safe and effective.

Production and contracting is not a barrier for delivery in Australia.

We're very fortunate because we have that reserve national capacity in terms of the CSL production facilities within Victoria, particularly in Melbourne.

And that gives us the capacity to be able to make sure that we have the best available vaccines and that we can then scale up and deliver very quickly. Tamsin?


Thanks Minister. Just a question about the borders for Victoria. We’ve found that the Prime Minister’s written to the state premier to (inaudible) this issue out, but given the dire implications it could have for some Victorians unable to access healthcare, what more can be done and are you confident that we’ll see a result for this soon?


So the Prime Minister has approached the states on two particular and very important fronts.

One of course is cross-border healthcare, and that's both the movement of workers and the services for patients.

For example, there are a series of patients who have been able to assist with services in South Australia thanks to the work at the South Australian Premier and Health Minister and Chief Health Officer, more that we're working on.

And so the Prime Minister has approached states individually on that front, similarly with regards to agricultural workforce to make sure that the production and the preparation of crops or the harvesting of crops – depending on which crops in which cycle – can all be done in a way that will guarantee the continuity of food and fibre supply for Australians.

So the PM is engaged, we have what's called the National Co-ordination Mechanism, which works between states and territories and the Commonwealth, to assist with any of the issues that may result from border closures, and we're seeking flexibility from the individual states to make sure basically that people's lives are protected, and that where there are any anomalies they are addressed and addressed very quickly.

We engaged on that this morning, for example, the Prime Minister's morning briefing, where the Prime Minister, myself and other ministers such as the Treasurer, as well as health and national co-ordination mechanism officials; we’re all part of it.

So, this is a daily engagement and the PM has been taking it up on behalf of the nation with the respective state authorities. Clare?


Thanks Minister. At the start of the pandemic, the Government relied on the aged care sector completing a self-assessment (inaudible) survey of what they felt their preparedness for COVID was.

Now that we are potentially approaching another suppressed wave and there is time to reassess, will the Government consider conducting more (inaudible) and more assessments to ascertain exactly what the capacity of the aged care sector in each state is? Or will that be (inaudible) will that be a self-assessment again?


No. We have a variety of different mechanisms which the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commissioner oversees, and they actually involve unannounced site visits which have been going on during the course of the situation in Victoria.

We have announced visits, we have the assessments which are reviewed.

They were done to make sure that every facility in the country was assessed.

Many of them early on didn't pass those assessments.

And that's not a criticism, that's a recognition of the standards that are required to provide that safety.

So, Clare, in response there are a mix of different activities. There are the assessments, there is the engagement directly. And then there are site visits including unannounced site visits by the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission.

So, all of those things are occurring, so there are multiple channels and multiple defences and multiple ways of assisting, as well as the additional support which AUSMAT, the ADF, interstate nurses have been providing where there are workforce challenges, where many workforce, many staff have had to be furloughed because they may have been contacts of a particular case.

I’ll go to Jonathan, please.


Can I ask you, why do Australians need to have exemptions to leave the country? Particularly in a time when the Government is looking at trying to bring in international students in.

And secondly, why are there incidences in Victoria when as recently as the last two weeks, where you have cases of contact with positive cases not being contacted at all, and people being released from isolation without undergoing a negative, or receiving a negative test result.


Sure. Firstly, with regards to international travel, we've followed the advice of the medical expert panel, and that's really been based not only on the specific risk to Australians travelling overseas, but also the pressures on returning Australians and the fact of the capacity of the hotel quarantine system in order to address that.

And as we know, some of the states requested a reduction in terms of the numbers of returning people.

And so what we want to do is make sure that there's not an additional burden on that front.

But nevertheless, on the latest figures that I've seen, I believe over 22,000 Australians have been given exemptions for reasons of movement to their primary place of residency, (inaudible) they’re Australian citizens, for compassionate access, for reasons of national interest or fundamental economic interest.

So, 22,000 Australians and above, that figure will be updated for you by Home Affairs, had been given that support.

And the reason why is to allow those who are overseas who do have to return to Australia through the hotel quarantine system to be able to do that.


Minister, sorry, I’m talking about Australian (inaudible). Why are they being expected to leave their own country?


Because at some stage they will have to return.

And that's- we're working within the medical advice on the capacity and the availability provided by the states through the hotel quarantine system.

Then in relation to testing, I know that the Victorians have been working on improving their contact tracing.

This has been perhaps the most important of all tasks in Victoria along with the aged care support, and that is to help Victoria strengthen the standards of the contact tracing.

It's been exceptionally strong in New South Wales.

That is a world leading contact tracing system that has helped protect New South Wales from the spread of the disease, despite multiple incursions.

In Victoria we sought the permission to bring the ADF in and that was granted by Victoria.

The over 400 members of the ADF are assisting Victoria now, so that contact tracing is absolutely critical. I'll let Victoria speak to their particular testing and isolation regime but for us our task is to help them get back to the very simple standard of every case, every day.



Thanks Minister. Following on from Jono’s question about the travel restrictions. (Inaudible) people coming back into the country (inaudible).


Look, I think your analysis is essentially correct. And so, there are a couple of things here.

Firstly, of course, the numbers were reduced once the Victorian hotel quarantine system was closed down by the Victorian Government.

Our hope is that they are able to recommence that at some stage soon with very secure standards to the level of those of the other states and territories.

A great example was the way in which the Howard Springs and Christmas Island facilities were run by AUSMAT, Border Force and the ADF, just the exemplary levels and standards of those facilities for returning passengers from Wuhan and the Diamond Princess.

And so those examples are available to Victoria.

And if they resume, then that will take pressure off the system.

And that is also allied to the fact that other states and territories may well be in a capacity to lift- have the capacity to lift the numbers that they take. But I'll leave that to them.

They've been very careful in their assessments and I think it's important that they are careful, and we’ll be guided by their honest judgement as to their safe capacity.

And that is critical because we know when there have been breaches, obviously that’s led to human tragedy and mass lockdown in Victoria; something that is beyond the conception of what any one of us would ever have imagined for our country.

Those lockdowns, the very reason we’re providing these mental health packages follow from that.

Go on Andrew?


(Inaudible) in terms of the hotel quarantine. There’s no other way- looking at maybe doing some really (inaudible) of home quarantine for people to get (inaudible).


The very strong medical advice, and we do have the AHPPC or the medical expert panel review this monthly, is that a formal quarantine system is the recommended safe return mechanism for Australians at this point in time.

And so, we’ve followed that medical expert advice and we’ve done it because that’s what’s kept Australians safe and will keep Australians safe.

And then finally, Jade?


Minister, 22 of the 25 deaths reported in Victoria today were linked to aged care. How can Australians have confidence in our response to COVID-19 with figures like that? And can you elaborate on the advice received this morning about a stabilisation of the situation?


So, obviously these agonising figures reflect the high community transmission numbers from seven, 10, 14 days ago.

The very, very sad outcome here is that once you have high community transmission numbers, at a period some days later there are likely to be people who are very sick and then those that lose their lives.

Secondly, what we also know is that the best defence for any aged care system anywhere in the world is low community transmission.

Seven out of eight states and territories have extraordinary outcomes now in terms of community transmission and protection in aged care.

Similarly, what we see is that we have one of the lowest rates of death in aged care in the world, but any loss of life is an agonising loss. Any loss of life is a tragedy.

For example, Canada is 15 times higher on a per resident ratio than Australia. We know that Ireland and Italy are over 20 times higher, that we have Belgium 49 times higher. We have France 24 times higher, we have the UK over 50 times higher on a per capita basis.

And so each life matters, and we’re going to fight to do that.

And so we have two great defences. One is to beat the numbers on community transmission, and those trends are coming day on the seven day rolling average in Victoria. Seven out of eight states and territories, very strong. Victoria, we’ve still got work to do.

And then secondly, the specific defences that are applied in each and every aged care home around the country. And they are what is helping to protect, but without community transmission being controlled, we won’t ultimately be able to defeat this.

But I do want to finish on this note, and that is we are beginning to win that battle of community transmission.

We are seeing the seven day average come down in Victoria.

The other states and territories are doing a herculean job in controlling it, but at the same time, we need to give Australians the hope of the future, and the support through our mental health additional levels of assistance which we’ve announced today.

And my message to everybody is: as difficult as it is, there is extraordinary Australian resilience.

But that resilience still has to be backed by the fact of support for mental health, and these additional measures today will help protect each and every person.

I want to thank you and we will leave you here. Take care.

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