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Press conference in Canberra about Mental health, internal borders and international travel

Read the transcript of a press conference with Minister Hunt about Mental health, internal borders and international travel.

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

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Good morning. I’m joined by Christine Morgan, the head of the National Mental Health Commission today.

And in a world where the virus continues to accelerate, we’re facing a tenth day of over 400,000 cases a day, in Australia there’s hope and there’s help with regards to coronavirus and mental health.

This has been the hardest of years, we know that, arguably the hardest year Australians have faced since the Second World War. But in the last 24 hours we’ve seen one case in the community. Early reports are zero cases from Victoria today. Other states and territories we’ll await their numbers.

But one thing we know is that mental health remains a challenge, but there is real hope as we see the country emerging from the challenges, whether it’s in relation to the low virus numbers, the lifting of lockdowns, the progressive removal of border restrictions and the ability of families to reunite.

But there’s also help. And today is about the Australian Government launching the How’s Your Head Today? mental health campaign. And this is a campaign which will be a $10 million investment, it will be available in 15 languages, it will be across multiple channels: television and radio, online and in venues.

And it’s saying to every Australian, it could be any one of us, anywhere, at any time, who feels the pain, the challenge of anxiety or depression or other mental health conditions. And that’s perfectly normal, and it’s even more normal in this of all years.

So what we want to do is to give people a sense: it’s okay, this is something that everyone in this room will have felt affects their family, could be themselves, could be their friends and colleagues.

And so it’s a part of life, it’s just something where in this year there are even greater pressures. We know the figures, a 31 per cent increase in Medicare mental health presentations year on year in Victoria, a national impact in the rest of the country of 9 per cent.

But wherever you are, the pressures and the challenges, physical health initially, lockdowns and confinement secondly, but also economic anxiety, it could be about your job or your business, all of these things build as a challenge.

So against that we’re launching the How’s Your Head Today? mental health support campaign to say that we all need to check in our mental health and that support is available.

And I’ll ask if we can show an example of the video and then after that I’ll say a little bit more and introduce Christine Morgan.

So you can sense the tone of optimism and there is cause for optimism when you look at the numbers in Australia. We can see a pathway through and that Australia is in many ways an island sanctuary against what is truly a global and accelerating pandemic.

The How’s Your Head Today? Campaign, coupled with, says that there is a pathway through this. And it is worth looking at some of the figures.

The Head to Health website last year had approximately 1000 visits a day, this year it’s over 4000 visits a day, 4,328 visits on average from the 20th of March to the 26th of October. Approximately a million sessions online of support for Australians.

So Australians are learning to reach out, something which a generation ago, even a decade ago was a barrier, is being normalised.

We’re reaching out, we’re seeking support, but we need to recognise within each of us that the signs could be there, the challenge could be there of anxiety or depression emerging. And so that’s why we’d encourage people to go to or beyondblue, 1800-512-348.

And we know there are challenges. For example, youth emergency department presentations for 12- to 17-year-olds have increased by 23 per cent in Victoria over the course of September and October and in New South Wales there has been a 17 per cent increase year on year.

So those are real examples of the challenges we face. The mood, the progress, all give us cause for optimism, and the messages of help.

At the same time there is another very important piece of news today. That is that in the midst of the pandemic, our national vaccination rates have increased. And this, I think, is a very important sign as we progress towards a COVID vaccine during the course of 2021, and with the goal of being on track for first delivery in the first quarter of 2021.

Our five-year-old vaccination rates have increased to 94.9 per cent during the September quarter, and our five-year-old Indigenous vaccination rates have increased to an extraordinary 97%. So record levels of vaccination, in the midst of a pandemic, where there were many, many different potential barriers.

So I want to thank Australians for everything they’ve done with the virus, but for keeping the faith with vaccination, and this puts us in a very strong position for the national COVID vaccine program over the course of the coming year.

So on that hopeful note, I will turn to the head of the National Mental Health commission, Christine Morgan.


Thank you Minister and thank you everyone. How is Your Head Today? I think one of the most important lessons that we have learned coming through all of the challenges of 2020 has been, as I’ve said before, that our mental health is as much a part of us as our physical health.

But I don’t think any of us are as skilled at checking in on our mental health as perhaps we are with our physical health.

We’re taught from being little toddlers what to look out for if we’re not physically well, but not so much for our mental health.

And yet we have learned this year not only that our mental health is part of us, our mental health will be impacted by life, and the cataclysmic challenges of this year have impacted on our mental health. We have learned the importance of reaching out for help.

So now, as the Minister has said, as we’re going into a time which looks to be more hopeful, one of the most important things we can do is to learn and imbed that lesson that we really must not only be aware of our mental health, but work out what are our particular signs.

It may be that we feel moody, it may be that we’re not sleeping well. It may be that our eating habits have just gone out the window. It may be that we feel more stressed or we just sense something’s not right. We may indeed be cutting ourselves off from people and not going out so far.

You will have your own individual signs and one of the most important things we can do as we continue to look after our mental health is to be aware that the effects, the mental health effects of challenges and of issues in life don’t follow the same pattern as our physical health. They can emerge at different times. Be alert for that.

Most importantly, realise that it is actually okay to reach out for help. In fact, probably the thing that’s not okay is to think: I can just get over this on my own.

So How is Your Head Today? is really critical. If there’s one thing for us to take forward it is that. Recognise that mental health issues may continue for some of us for quite some time, learn what those lessons and signs are for ourselves, and some of those key tips that are in the campaign are so important.

Being active, keeping busy and probably the single most important thing we have learned through this whole time over and above reaching out for help, which is critical and thankfully we are seeing increased rates of help-seeking, is: stay connected.

We learned early on that, whilst we had to be physically distant, we had to stay socially connected with each other.

So, stay connected with each other, but stay connected with yourself and ask yourself: How’s my head? Because if it’s not okay, then take the time, invest in your mental health and wellbeing. That’s where the future lies, that’s where the hope really lies. So, How’s Your Head?


Happy to take any questions.


Minister, in terms of messaging, we know during the pandemic certain communities weren’t reached and that there were even errors in messaging.

How are you making sure people from culturally and linguistically diverse communities are being reached and that those same errors aren’t going to be made?


Sure. Well, firstly this campaign is in 15 different languages and so that’s been a very important part of it. So we’ve been working with community members from culturally and linguistically diverse communities.

Secondly, with pandemic and coronavirus messaging more generally, we’ve worked very closely not only with SBS but right across the spectrum with the communities.

We’ve had factsheets in over 60 languages. We’ve had electronic advertising about COVID-safe practices in over 20 languages.

There’s also been many, many meetings, literally hundreds and hundreds of meetings which Minister Tudge, Assistant Minister Wood and others have helped oversee in relation to culturally and linguistically diverse communities.

So I want to thank those communities, they have been great and they have been a very, very important part of our national defence.

In February when there were people returning from China and those that had come back in the first round of isolations, that community of Australians who were returning from China and the vast majority of whom were of ethnically Chinese background, they were incredible in their compliance at something which was completely new to Australia.


Minister, one of the many things that’s impacting the mental health of Victorians at the moment is the fact that they’re cut off from the rest of the country.

Given that the rolling case for the whole state for 14 days is now 2.21, would you expect other states to start welcoming Victorians back so they can see their family and friends again?


We’ve seen a very important set of moves over the course of this week. Tasmania has significantly opened its borders, Western Australia has moved from a hard to a soft border. Queensland has expanded their border openings.

But there’s more to go, and as confidence is built we want to see those borders opened as quickly as possible. I think there are no Commonwealth decisions and no AHPPC or the medical expert decisions as to the closure of internal borders in Australia.

What we’re seeing is with continued low numbers in Victoria and New South Wales, the case for one single internal national bubble is growing. I understand, for example, that New South Wales would want to see that the contact tracing holds up in Victoria, and that has also been, I understand, a concern for Queensland.

But we’re now, I think, in a position where we would like to see New South Wales and Queensland be able as soon as possible to have free movement between the jurisdictions and once everybody is comfortable that Victoria does have its contact tracing to gold standard levels, then I think we’ll see a single national bubble in due course.


How can there be a single national bubble if you can’t even agree on a single national definition of a hot spot?


Well, we do have a Commonwealth definition and that’s been put in place.

I think the important thing here is the direction, and we went in together and progressively, as there’s been success, what we’ve seen is that borders are opening up around the country.

There are really still some restrictions to come in relation to New South Wales and Queensland, WA, and then other states and Victoria.

But the fact that we are having continually low, and I think today is another zero case in Victoria which is just fantastic news for people in Victoria, but fantastic news for the whole country, means that we are on track to the Prime Minister’s goal of a country which is internally open before Christmas.


Minister, we saw the returning Queensland Labor Government as part of its huge campaign push health, safety, borders, keeping the borders closed, Annastacia Palaszczuk was essential to keeping Queenslanders safe.

One Nation vote collapsed, Clive Palmer’s vote all but dissipated. Was it wrong for the Federal Government to attack Queensland Labor over its stance on borders during the election campaign?


Firstly, congratulations to Annastacia Palaszczuk and Queensland Labor, and also thank you to Deb Frecklington and all of her team, the volunteers and those within the party.

So congratulations and thank you, respectively. And we of course look forward to working with the Queensland Government.

What we have seen, I think very importantly was, firstly, an expansion of the border zone. Secondly, allowing in people with medical needs, and that was so important.

I know from my discussions with yourself and others that those cases of people who were excluded from Queensland even though there was medical need were agonising. And of course we have to stand up for the free movement of people to have access to medical treatment.

Now we’ve seen only in the last 48 hours progress from Queensland with regards to all of regional New South Wales.

And I am confident that the medical case will be clearly made out in the very near future, and Queensland has indicated that it will be a medical, not a political decision, and I welcome that.


But should Queensland now open up to Sydney? Is that what you’re saying?


We would encourage them to continue to review, and I am very hopeful that now that the election is over that this will continue to be a medical decision and that if it is a medical decision, the very low case numbers, negligible case numbers, some days zero some days less than a handful, will provide the strongest possible basis for moving to the next step.


On the vaccine strategy, we’re hearing some detail today about who could get it first and when. Can you outline who would be priority when Australians, if there is a vaccine, when all Australians might be able to be vaccinated?


Sure. So, 2021 is obviously the year of COVID vaccines in Australia.


If there is one.


Well, I’ll come to that. We have two vaccine contracts already in place: Oxford-AstraZeneca for 33.8 million, University of Queensland-CSL for 51 million units.

The results from both of those have actually been positive, more positive than we had expected. T-cell and antibody response rates are very positive.

We’ve seen from Oxford this week new data which has emerged which has shown that the protective capabilities for older participants in the vaccine programs has been exceptionally good.

So all of that is, I think, heartening. We are now close to additional contracts and there are two further ones on the advice of the medical expert panel which are being pursued and which I am confident will be completed within the coming weeks if not earlier.

Then in terms of the rollout the Prime Minister will take to National Cabinet the final rollout in the coming weeks. That will include the formal early priorities. But it’s no surprise that the medical expert advice is that health workers and the elderly are the top of those priorities.

That will then lead to a second stage of the strategy which will come in December, which will give greater detail on the rollout and also the general population priorities.

But what we want to do is give every Australian who seeks to be vaccinated that capacity over the course of the coming 12 months.


What does the collapse of the One Nation vote in Queensland last night tell you from a federal perspective about the chances of the Federal Coalition at the next federal election?


We never, ever take anything for granted. We always believe that we have to earn the right, earn the trust, earn the confidence of the Australian people.

What we have seen, I believe, is arguably the most united Federal Cabinet since the mid-1960s. It’s been just an absolute privilege to work in this cabinet in this term.

Obviously the protection of Australians has been the number one priority that we’ve had, the health and the economic protection. Protecting lives and protecting livelihoods, saving lives and saving livelihoods, this has been the heart of what we’ve been doing.

And the Prime Minister has set arguably one of the clearest trajectories of any country in the world and that process has kept the country united and kept the country safe. The Australian people will make that judgment.

But working within it I’ve never seen this degree of unity and common purpose. It will be for the Australian people to judge on that and also to judge on our ability to continue to deliver in the medium term future.


You said you’re confident all the borders will open by Christmas. What makes you so sure?


What I’m saying there is that I’m confident there’ll be significant progress and that Australians will be able to visit their families for Christmas. So that’s our goal. We won’t make a false pledge on what Western Australia will do.


But you seem certain about Queensland.


I think the signs are that, as you see, progressive opening out of Queensland so long as the medical facts on the ground in Victoria and New South Wales remain with low to very low cases.


But Queensland’s definition of a hot spot is no community transmission for 28 days. Have you been told that they might change their definition?


No, I have no specific advice on that, but what we’ve seen is that many states have had an initial position and then progressively moved their position.

For example when Victoria put down the 14 and 28 day zero case definitions we said that we thought that they would not be sustainable as definitions, and Victoria has now dropped those.

I won’t predict what individual states do. What I will make the statement on is the general direction of continued opening of borders in Australia.

And our goal is to give all Australians the opportunity to visit their families by Christmas to have a COVID safe but COVID normal Australia by Christmas.

Now there may be some elements here or there, and it will depend on people’s confidence above all else in the contact tracing in Victoria, but things are improving and there’s real and genuine hope for a sustained and open Australia.


Minister, we saw earlier this morning the announcement from the UK Government that the entire country will have to go into lockdown again for a period of about a month or so.

Obviously Australia and the UK are in vastly different circumstances at the moment. But when you see a country like that, a first world country with a top-rate healthcare system having to go to that sort of length, does that send a shiver up the collective spine of the Government?

And what do you think that means for the possibility of Australia’s international borders reopening any time next year?


So, our goal on international borders is to make sure that we maintain the safe corridor, the safety of the Australian bubble. And the reason is because we’re seeing two to two-and-a-half per cent of positive cases amongst people who are returning to Australia.

But what we’re looking to do is to expand the means by which people can return to Australia safely, expanding the hotel quarantine program and to bring Victoria online I think would be a very positive step when they’re confident that they have the systems in place to expand the capacity in states and territories.

The travel bubble with New Zealand. But we’ll consider very cautiously and very carefully any expansion of that process. But New Zealand is obviously an exceptionally strong start.

And then the use of Howard Springs and Howard Springs is the Northern Territory quarantine system. I’ve met with the Northern Territory Health Minister Natasha Fyles this week, and they’re doing a fantastic job.

We have high confidence. All of those are expanding capacity. So there’s not going to be any change in the border arrangements generally for Australia.

It is keeping us safe in a world which has had now 10 days of over 400,000 cases, not one case in the community in the last day in Australia.

I spoke with a friend, one of my long term close friends, a friend of 30 years, only yesterday who’s in the UK, and his message was really simple. He said: I wish I were in Australia, I wish our family was in Australia.

And he said: You guys have been amazing, he said, we’re going into hard times. There’s been a lot of heartache, there’s going to be a lot more heartache. And so we feel for people right across Europe and the United States and around the world.

But we’re thankful that as a country we have achieved something that is almost miraculous. There’s been heartache here and there’s been tragedy and loss, but this is a day where we can look as a country at what we’ve achieved, and we say thank you to every Australian who’s been part of that.

I’ll take two more.


If you anticipate that it’ll be the end of next year that the general population of Australia will have access to a vaccine.


No, no, that’s not correct. I saw that line in the paper today.

We’re looking to have the first vaccines in the first quarter of 2021 and that guidance has been reaffirmed in recent days, and then it will be progressively rolled out throughout the course of the year.

We would like to see everyone who seeks to be vaccinated on what would be a voluntary program completed during the course of 2021 with the middle of the year seeing the vast bulk of the population given that access.


What would that then mean for our international borders? Can we wait until the middle of next year or the end of next year to really open it up without all those restrictions around quarantining and Howard Springs?


Well it of course will make it much easier for Australians to travel overseas and to return. We still have to see the full effect of the vaccine.

So the best guidance we’ve got is, if you think of it this way, on the one end you have the flu, that vaccine is given every year and it reduces but doesn’t necessarily prevent both transmission and the impact.

Secondly, you have vaccines for conditions such as polio and measles where it’s overwhelmingly a lifetime impact and it prevents both contracting and transmission of the disease.

The best advice that I have for example from Professor Sarah Gilbert who’s the head of the program for the Oxford vaccine, we spoke and she said it’s likely to be but we can’t say definitively a multi-year defence in the order of five years as a guidance.

And it’s likely to give significant protection, but we can’t say yet whether it will be an absolute protection. So some of those things, I think it’s important for us to say, are still yet to be determined through the clinical trials.

But the initial and then the progressive results with immunity in T-cells, antibodies, are positive and in many ways more positive. So what we’ll see is progressive capacity to bring people home, progressive capacity to travel as more and more people are vaccinated.


Just on the vaccine, the biotech mRNA vaccine is a global frontrunner at the moment. Is that likely to be part of one of the two other ones that are considered?


Important question. I, respectfully, won’t speculate on particular vaccines. But I can say that our goal has been to make sure that we have protein, molecular clamp and mRNA within that portfolio.

So an mRNA vaccine which has never been produced anywhere in the world previously but which is emerging as a very positive class of vaccine, will be part of our portfolio.


Christine, have you noticed an increase in suicides this year, particularly due to lockdowns? And is there a mental health reason for all of the domestic borders to reopen?


Thank you for those questions. So firstly with respect to suicides, we have certainly acknowledged that there is an increased risk of suicide and we have seen increased expressions of what we call suicide ideation.

So we have been monitoring so carefully to make sure that that does not translate into losing an Australian to a suicide death.

Now, we have too many suicides in Australia. I will say that immediately. So the issue around suicide is real.

What we have done, particularly through our suicide registers, which enable us to track pretty much in real time where they exist whether a probable suicide has happened, those are not showing any increased deaths from suicide during COVID, they’re not showing that.

So, are we still losing Australians to suicide? Unfortunately, yes. But we’re not seeing that particular increase.

But we are keeping our foot very much on the pedal, and this is a whole of government commitment. When you’re looking at suicide prevention you don’t actually want to have to intervene to save someone’s life.

You want to really look at how can we have touch points at points of distress and points of stress where we can really try and alleviate that. So we as a whole of government are looking at that.

In terms of borders opening as a consequence of mental health, what I will say is this and I said it before: staying connected is incredibly important and those connections are critical to all of us. So as the Minister has said those border issues are predominantly around medical decisions.

Not for me to make a comment on a medical decision, but in terms of actually finding any and every means we can to stay connected with our loved ones, that’s been critical, that has been absolutely critical.

That to me is more the issue: what are we doing individually, as a family, as a community to make sure that we can maintain those social networks. That is really important.


Ms Morgan, just one for you. The Minister mentioned an increase in youth presentations in Victoria and New South Wales. How concerned are you about that? Is that where the mental health crisis looms largest, with the younger people at the moment?


I won’t choose that word crisis. What I will choose is that I think every group, if you like, has been impacted in different ways.

For our young people we have, in New South Wales and Victoria, seen increased rates of some pretty serious conditions.

That is of concern and I think our young people in particular felt not just the disruptions and the disconnections but, in a sense almost a sense of: what does our future hold? Where is the hope?

Which I think is where it’s behoven on all of us to really help them reposition, if you like, what that future may be. I think that’s critical for all of us to do.

Are we concerned about young our people? Yes. But we’re concerned about any Australian who’s been impacted.

So for our older Australians, for Australians living on their own who’ve really seen the impact of loneliness, we know that’s a precursor to depression. That’s what we need to look at there.

For those who are suffering very severe mental illness and who went into the pandemic with severe mental illness, we are particularly concerned about them.

So we are concerned about our young people but actually our concern spreads across whatever the individual or presenting need is.


So just to finish off, firstly, thank you to Christine and thank you to everybody for joining us. At the start of the pandemic we said we’d get through this and as a country we are getting through this perhaps as well as anyone in the world now.

And in an uncertain world, Australia is a certain and a safe place. We’re not through it though because the risk of the virus is still there and so our COVID-safe behaviours matter.

But the consequences of the virus are certainly there in terms of the mental health impacts. And all of us can play a role in helping to look out for ourselves and all of us can play a role in helping to look out for others.

In many ways this has been Australia’s hardest year but finest year since the war. And there’s more to be done but looking out for each other and saying to somebody, that if you think that they’re struggling, now is the time to reach out and now is the time to look for help, that’s something that we can all do to give Australians even more hope at this time.

Thank you.

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