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Press conference in Canberra about coronavirus (COVID-19) and endometriosis research

Read the transcript of a press conference with the Alison McMillan, Chief Nursing and Midwifery Officer, about coronavirus (COVID-19) and $9.5 million in funding for endometriosis research.

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

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Good afternoon and thank you for joining us for today’s coronavirus briefing. I’m joined by the Chief Nurse and Midwifery Officer, Alison McMillan. As we go through what has been the most challenging of health issues for Australia, we must remember not to neglect our general health.

So we’ve had an extraordinary period in Australian history, the isolation, the distancing, all of these elements have helped keep us safe. And we have to continue to protect ourselves and each other against COVID-19. At the same time, it's very important not to neglect our general health. And our general health is something that is fundamentally important.

And so today, I am really pleased to be able to announce $9.5 million for five university projects under the Medical Research Future Fund to deal with endometriosis. This is a condition which affects approximately a million Australian girls and women.

It can be agonising, debilitating, it can have health and mental health effects. It can be profound in the way that a young woman's life can be changed and altered. It can impact their fertility. It can impact their general day-to-day existence, with chronic and agonising pain and debilitating conditions. So, all of these things are immensely important.

The particular projects will include the University of Melbourne, $3.9 million for advanced diagnostic and treatment research, finding the prevalence of endometriosis which, in some cases, has taken up to seven years to diagnose. And that’s time lost in a woman’s life. That’s pain continued in a woman’s life.

And then to look for treatment, finding pathways to manage, to treat, or to cure. Equally, the University of Queensland will have over $1.5 million for genetic research to find early markers and early signs, as well as particular genetic causes of endometriosis. And these could help unlock the keys to significant new treatments and the potential for recovery, and that will make a profound difference to a woman’s life.

So today, we have two very important messages. One, do not neglect your ordinary health, but to continue to protect against COVID-19 with our basic actions. Our hand hygiene, the cough etiquette, and seeking testing and staying away from others if you are ill. They’re very important.

That brings me to our update on COVID-19 and coronavirus in Australia. As of 6:30am this morning, we’re at 7,140 cases, and very sadly yesterday, we have the agonising reminder with the loss of a 30-year-old Queensland male that this disease is a deadly disease.

It can strike anybody, and particularly where people have comorbidities, or other chronic conditions, it’s far more dangerous. And so we provide our sympathy to the family of the young man from Blackwater, a young man who lost his life. And it does remind us that this condition will be with us going forwards.

That we have to expect spikes and outbreaks. That means our behaviours going forward are more important than ever. Australians have saved and protected each other with what we’ve done in terms of containment. Our border control measures where in two days earlier this week, 23 cases across Australia, 18 of them from hotel quarantine or on foreign ships.

So, whilst we are controlling it domestically, those continued to our border protection measures will be with us for a long while. Secondly, testing remains so important. If you have symptoms, please seek out that testing. We’ve now reached 1.35 million tests, and we will continue to test in Australia to protect Australians.

And that leads to the tracing, where wherever cases have been found, that contact tracing is going at a very, very strong pace. The COVIDSafe app has now reached 6.1 million downloads, and it's assisting in the contact tracing process. So, I'd encourage Australians to continue to download and register for the app.

Significantly, we've seen in Victoria today, cases where they were able to identify the source, generally of all of them, and that's a real tribute to the public health units right around Australia. And then we have the isolation, and as we lift the restrictions, those practices that we are maintaining of physical distancing, remain not just important but become even more important.

Keeping the distance, the physical distance, will save lives and protect lives and it's a gift within the power of each and every one of us. It's particularly important for young Australians in their 20s and 30s, in their teens, to realise that they are not immune, and we are not immune, and that if they keep that distance, they can protect themselves and their families.

This then brings me to the fact that, as we've flattened the curve, and now we've reached 40 days at less than 0.5 per cent growth, with 10 cases in the period to 6:30am this morning, in the previous 24 hours, at the same time we've built the capacity. And our telehealth numbers have now reached 12 million. That's an extraordinary achievement by our medical community.

They've helped provide our general health support, but they can't replace some things, such as pathology tests. In April, pathology tests dropped by 40 per cent. They're now back up to being 3 per cent below the normal rate for this time of year.

But that emphasises that we also should feel confident in seeing our doctors and our pathology services, getting our screening, getting our blood tests, getting our X-rays and our diagnostic tests. Those tests can also help save your life. And they're equally important.

So, we'd encourage Australians to continue to go back, to see the doctor, to see the pathologist, to see the X-ray or MRI providers face-to-face. They are fundamental and can't be replaced by telehealth.

So, all of this brings me to my final point, that as we focus on our general health, of protecting against COVID but not neglecting our general health, the support for women through endometriosis funding, $9.5 million, five major projects, including as I mentioned the University of Queensland and their genetic work, the University of Melbourne and their diagnostic work, the Murdoch Children's Research Institute and their focus on management of endometriosis. The particular techniques and practices that can help a woman deal with chronic and agonising pain, and minimise that pain - these are immensely important parts to say, we're managing coronavirus.

The world looks to Australia, and as we look outside of our borders and see the rapid growth in Latin America, the Middle East, South Asia, and other parts of the world, particularly Eastern Europe, we realise that the world is facing this problem.

We have to be able to manage coronavirus and we have to be able to manage our general health. So, today's the day to say, for women's health, we are looking out for you, but for everybody, please don't neglect your own health. And if you need to see the doctor, feel confident to see the doctor or other service provider at the earliest time, face to face.



So thank you, Minister. The important message, really, is that reminding everyone firstly, as the Minister has already said, that if you have any symptoms at all, please do seek to speak to your doctor and get tested. We can't emphasise that enough.

And the sad case of the gentleman who passed away yesterday in Queensland is a reminder to everyone that this is not just a disease of the older age group. So, if you've got any symptoms – that scratchy throat, that sniffly nose – we have the capacity to test you. Please do get tested.

And for everyone else, for all of us that are particularly in the age groups where we are more susceptible to those chronic diseases, now is the time to return to your GP or to your service provider for those testing things, those screening things.

So, whether it's a pap smear, whether it's your mammogram, or whether it's that special parcel you get in the mail every so often if you're over 50, all of these things are so important to our general health and wellbeing, and people can have confidence that our health system is safe and that you can go there with confidence and make sure you're keeping your general health and wellbeing up to date.

And we won't see an increase in chronic disease as a consequence of neglecting our general health. Thank you, Minister.


Okay. Happy to take questions.


Minister, do you think that the National Cabinet should continue indefinitely and should we seize that momentum now? And how has that new process helped you coordinate with your state counterparts during this crisis?


Firstly, I think that the National Cabinet has been an extraordinarily important part of the way that Australia has operated successfully as a country in helping to manage and contain coronavirus. We do know that the history of, not just the Spanish flu, but also the Depression was that, in times of extreme stress, the Federation splintered.

And the Prime Minister came into this very aware of that history. We’d talked about it and discussed it, and he set out to have not just a single, unified medical voice, but to have the unity with the states. And I believe that that National Cabinet process has been extremely valuable.

I hope that there is support for it from States and the Premiers and the Chief Ministers going forward. My personal view, looking at what's happened with health, it's allowed us to strike the private hospitals agreement. It's allowed us to strike the public hospitals agreement.

It's allowed us to work with the public health units on the contact tracing. So, it's actually facilitated Australia's response, and it's been an immensely important, and I hope, abiding feature.



Minister, one of the topics that the industrial relations reforms will look at is the casualisation of the workforce. In particular, this crisis has shown us that in the health sector, when there are casuals who feel perhaps that they need to go to work to earn an income, could be directly putting the most at-risk people in the path of the virus.

We've seen this on several occasions, in aged care in particular. Is that, I guess, that couple of examples that we've seen already, cause of concern for you? And would you like to see casualisation specifically in the health sector as a focus of one of those working group topics?


Look, firstly, let me say about the health sector, I think our health and medical workforce has done an extraordinary job. The number of infections within that sector has been, by global standards, incredibly low. And so, I just want to thank and congratulate our health workers. They are really the envy of the world, and they're just a source of immense national pride.

Secondly, with regards to the partnerships which the Prime Minister is seeking to form between employers, employees, unions and the government, I won't pre-empt that. We go into it with one simple goal, and that is to help create jobs. And that's the fundamental task. So, I'll respectfully leave that to Christian Porter and to the Prime Minister.

But what's our goal? Help create more jobs. And, in particular, we do know that those that have been affected by this are younger and predominantly female. It's unlike other economic downturns, where it's had more of an impact on older, particularly male workers.

This, because of the special nature of it, has had an impact. And so, if we can strike agreements and partnerships and- last time I believe I was in this room with Alison, we had Annie Butler from the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation.

We're really privileged to be able to work with such an extraordinary group of people, to have such a productive relationship with the Federation. And I am hopeful that what we're seeing, with the very positive response of the unions, employers, and different groups, is that all the ideology of the past is being stripped away.

We want to create more jobs. And if we create more jobs, we'll give more economic security to the very people you're talking about.



Minister, you've ordered an investigation into how counterfeit masks came to be allowed into Australia and made their way into our hospitals. How concerned are you about masks being sold here that don't meet the standard? And has the TGA dropped the ball here?


Well, firstly, what we need is to see the evidence, but I did instruct and order an investigation immediately. The Secretary of the Department, Caroline Edwards, has given very clear advice to the Senate that, in terms of the National Medical Stockpile, there have been no issues so far, as far as she is aware and we are aware.

Secondly, the TGA has not changed on the advice that I have, the requirements for masks outside of the National Medical Stockpile. So, where there was a change, there's no sign or evidence of any issue.

In relation to the general distribution and sale of product outside of government, we have yet to see the evidence, but we have issued an immediate instruction, and there's been no change in the standards. So, if somebody has breached those standards, they will be prosecuted. One, then Phil?


I’ll just go to the test around the Blackwater bloke, so has the second test been conducted? Do you know the result?


No, I apologise. I don't have the details. I know that the Queensland Public Health Unit will provide those. I do have to say this: I think Queensland has responded rapidly and appropriately. One of the things we all have to be prepared for is there will be cases in unexpected places.

This one is a case which is especially tragic because it's not just a death, it's the death of a young man with a whole life ahead of him. But what they have done is respond in the way that Tasmania did in Burnie and with the northwest region, where they've reacted quickly, they're testing broadly, and they're seeking the outcomes and they're doing all of the contact tracing.

So, at this point, I don't have any additional information, but Queensland will be briefing the public as soon as they have it.


Sorry, just going off that, so could it have been a false positive? Just reading some of the circumstances around this death, so could it have been a false positive test?


I genuinely don't have any additional information on that. Phil?


JobKeeper - the Reserve Bank Governor has said that the Government might need to extend the JobKeeper program if the economy isn't recovering as we all hope it will. Is that something that the Government will consider? And I've got a dental question after that.


In terms of JobKeeper, the Prime Minister, the Treasurer, have been absolutely clear there's a review in June. And beyond that, I'm not going to try to foretell or foresee the future.

But the Prime Minister has said that all of these measures are temporary measures to get Australia through. That principle remains the case. The review is something where he’ll be looking at the needs. And a dental question?


Yeah. The National- Dental National Partnership Agreement’s due to expire in a month's time. Your office said decisions around that funding depended on the Budget. That's been pushed out to October. So, will you- will that be funded? Will there be interim funding until October?


I'm very confident that there will be continuing funding and we are making very good progress.  Thank you.


Minister, what's your message to businesses struggling with the post-COVID physical distancing rules and all the changes to our daily lives? One example raised this week was inconsistency about number of people who can attend funerals, and a further inconsistency about the number of people who could attend a wake after a funeral. Is there a period of bumpy transition for us all?


Well, what the National Cabinet does - and this goes to the very first question we had - is it sets baselines, and then the states and the territories are adopting those baselines when they feel that they are ready to do that. They have actually adopted them more quickly than we had expected. And that's really pleasing.

That’s because the epidemiology, the actual case numbers, are lower than had been anticipated. So, we're well ahead of that schedule. What that may mean is that sometimes people are bringing forward the lifting of restrictions. That should be celebrated. The Prime Minister is convening National Cabinet tomorrow.

One of the things they'll be looking at is the speed and consistency of adoption of those baselines. But, frankly, I've got to say the good work that Australians have done is yielding a health benefit, an economic benefit, and a social benefit, with an earlier release of those restrictions.


Can I ask you, we've seen the Catholic archdiocese in Sydney today say that there are double standards imposed when it comes to religious institutions in New South Wales - being allowed 10 people, but bars and restaurants allowed 50.

What is the National Cabinet medical advice that would make that difference allowable? And are religious groups being discriminated against here?


So, I apologise, I haven't heard or seen those comments today. Generally, what the National Cabinet has done is to allow the freedoms to be adopted with regards to weddings and funerals, and each of the states are going at their own pace in terms of what they believe is appropriate.

I'll leave that to the New South Wales Premier. And our goal, though, is consistent with the health advice and the safety to give people the best chance to lead their normal lives in the safest way possible going forwards.


Is it fair that churches are allowed less people indoors than restaurants or cafes, given they're both indoor venues. Can you see the discrepancy there?


Look, I'll respectfully leave it because I haven't heard the comments today. I understand the importance of the question, but I know that New South Wales will respond on that. And I'll take one last from Clare and Dana, and then I better keep going.


Just on Australians who might have not sought regular medical attention, scans, check-ups, cancers that have been missed in the last few months, is the Government putting any thought into, or attention to, collecting that data?

When would you expect to see potentially the negative health effects of those conditions not being caught as early as they might otherwise have been?


I'll let Alison first, and then I'll also follow up.


Well, what we're promoting today is encouraging people to get back to those tests so we don't see that negative impact. The time has been short so far, in where people have not gone for those things. But if that's sustained, then we would be concerned that there will be cancers missed and diagnoses missed. And we will see those, but it will take significant time.

The emphasis here is please get back to doing those things, please get back to all of those important tests, including the chronic management health plans and asthma management plans - all of those things that we know make such a difference to people's wellbeing. We want them to be back with their GP, making sure they're covering off on their general wellbeing.


So what you ask is a very important question. There's a period of about six weeks where we saw a dip and then a recovery in MBS or Medicare items. Medicare is now back to about normal, pathology is about three per cent below normal but our pathology dropped to 40 per cent below.

And so as long as people go to the doctor, and it's not just that they wait until they're due next time, if they have missed an important appointment, now is the time to catch up. And if we catch up, then we think we'll be able to avoid any significant or prolonged general health effects.

But if people skip critical tests, scans, diagnoses, they're the ones that are the risk. So, today our message is - do not neglect your general health. If you have missed a test, if you have missed a scan, please go and get it. Final question, Dana?


Thanks, Minister. The Health Department has been auditing private hospital activity during the elective surgery ban, just to check that they've been complying with the restrictions during that four-week shutdown period. Have any private hospitals had to repay Commonwealth viability payments?


Not to the best of my knowledge, but I would have to check that. At this point, I'm not aware of any payments. But the way it's structured, of course, is that if we achieve certain benchmarks, then where we've paid for would then, not as a consequence of any inadvertence on their behalf, but as a consequence of the contract, there's the capacity for us to equalise over different months.

So, in other words, we've built in protections and stabilisers for commonwealth funding, but I'm not aware of any malfeasance or inappropriate behaviour at this time. Okay. Thank you. Oh, Phil, go on?


Newscorp have announced some significant closures and changes to the way they do business in regional areas, including your electorate. What's your view of that? Is this a bad day for journalism?


Look, it's a very hard day for the country. We know that many, many businesses, whether they're large businesses or small businesses, have done it hard. That's why we've put in place the business supports in the health sector, with which I'm most familiar.

Obviously, the private hospitals viability guarantee that Dana was talking about, the JobKeeper and others. But, nevertheless, there are some transitions which are now being hastened by these events. Every economic downturn hastens trends which were otherwise under way.

But for the particular employees, for journalists, whether it's people who are involved in any element of that business, I really want to express just my personal sense that we know these are hard times, we know that the best thing we can do to provide jobs is the flexibility of the work which Christian Porter and the Prime Minister are now leading, in changing the inflexibilities in the system.

The more flexibility we can build in through a partnership, through peace, not conflict, the more chance we have of building economic activity, of giving people jobs, and of not just having protected their lives but of protecting their livelihoods.

Thank you very much.

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