Date published: 
18 June 2021
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

GREG HUNT:

Good afternoon everybody. I’m joined by the Chief Nursing and Midwifery Office, Alison McMillan, and of course, the Head of Operation COVID Shield, Lieutenant General JJ Frewen.

I’ll speak briefly, just with a little bit of an update and then Alison has a medical message and JJ will give you an update on progress with regards to following up from yesterday's ATAGI decision and the rollout.

This morning, Lieutenant General Frewen and myself and the team from Health briefed the Prime Minister on his return. His first order of business was to have a vaccination briefing. And the critical thing is he will be calling a meeting of the National Cabinet - most probably on Monday, subject to the availability of the premiers and chief ministers - to discuss the rollout.

We are very thankful, very thankful, for the response of the states and territories so far. As an example, Western Australia - and I spoke with the Deputy Premier and Health Minister Roger Cook earlier today - Western Australia is pivoting from 30 to 39-year-olds, to adding 50 to 59-year-olds. They're opening up 42,000 places over the next six weeks for people in that age group, in addition to the 40 to 49-year-olds.

So, an interesting example of an immediate pivot, whilst honouring those who had already booked in. And both the premier and deputy premier are in that category of people who have had a first dose of AstraZeneca but not their second yet, and they reaffirmed that when their time comes to be vaccinated, they'll be stepping up to have that second dose.

And that's the second thing which the Prime Minister particularly focused on today, that message that ATAGI, the medical advisers have set out in what, of course, has been cautious advice, in terms of age ranges by global standards, that message of when your time comes, come forward for your second dose. It will protect you and it will help protect those around you and it will help protect the country. And Alison will have more to say on that.

But in order to do that, one of the things which the Prime Minister has immediately authorised - and I have signed the Medicare instrument today - is to assist our GPs to assist and support those who are coming forward for vaccinations. So, there will be a new Medicare item for over-50s to allow for a general practice consultation.

It will be done by GPs. It will be at what's known as the Level B equivalent, or $38.75, and it will be bulk-billed. And I particularly want to thank the AMA and the RACGP, or the Australian Medical Association led by Dr Omar Khorshid, and the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, led by Karen Price.

They have worked with us on this item. And their goal is very simple: and that is to ensure that everybody in the 50 to 60 category comes forward to have their second dose, and those that haven't had a first dose come forward over the coming weeks and months to have a first dose. And then also to ensure that everybody over 60, either has their second dose or comes forward to have a first dose.

And to have this additional support for people as they are facing a decision around their first dose, or completion of their second dose, is something that the GPs have supported and advocated, and which the Prime Minister readily accepted and authorised immediately today. That item is live and available immediately.

So, one other thing here that the Prime Minister noted from his involvement in the G7 Plus meetings, there's a strong focus in Europe on hospitalisation for critical cases. That, of course, has always been the focus. And his observation is that perhaps we haven't done that enough in Australia.

And so I will say that we have one person in ICU in Australia with COVID. So, any case in ICU could potentially be critical. They are not on ventilation, so there are zero cases in Australia on ventilation. It's a returning traveller of middle age.

So, then I just want to provide a little bit of data. 141,000 people came forward to be vaccinated yesterday. JJ will give views about forward projections, and so as we prepare for those in the 50 to 59 group who are transitioning from likely AstraZeneca vaccination to Pfizer, what that might mean with our expectations.

And we are now at 6,360,000 Australians that have been vaccinated. And over 25.9 per cent who’ve had a first dose. Significantly, I just want to re-emphasise what I began with about the states, and JJ will talk about the plan and working with them.

All the states and territories have stepped up magnificently in the last 24 hours with their plans with regards to the 50 to 59-year-olds. Another example is what Victoria has said today. They will be converting those who have AstraZeneca bookings within their system to have Pfizer bookings as the spaces become available. And what we will see is equivalent actions to this around the country. And so we have in place a plan.

Yesterday we accepted the advice but immediately set out the response plan, and we have very significant supplies coming forward of Pfizer. They’ve been a remarkably reliable partner. I spoke again with the Australian Managing Director last night, in addition to yesterday morning, and Anne Harris has reaffirmed their strong, clear guidance on forward supplies.

And as I said yesterday, they’ve been able to provide us with more supply in July than we had previously anticipated.

Alison?

ALISON MCMILLAN:

Thanks, Minister. So, three key points, I think, for everyone today as a consequence of the recommendations from ATAGI yesterday.

If you're over 60, please don't hesitate to go ahead and get that booking for your vaccine. Although that we do know there are side effects from the AstraZeneca vaccine, if you contract COVID-19, you are much, much more likely to get unwell or die than if you have a side effect from the vaccine.

Current data in Australia says that the over-60s, of those who contract COVID, 14 per cent of those die. So, it's a really important message that this vaccine will protect you from this virus, but you do need to get the vaccine.

If you've had your first dose of AstraZeneca, please don't hesitate to get your second dose. Make that booking and get your vaccine. That's because the second dose is important to make sure that you're completely covered and that you get the full protection the vaccine provides to you.

If you're concerned or you're not sure, you've got questions around the vaccine, as you've heard, you can talk to a health professional, talk to your general practitioner about your questions. There are lots of places where you can get answers to your questions, including at health.gov.au.

Thirdly, now, if you're between 50 and 59, now you can make a booking to get the Pfizer vaccine, but we do ask you to be patient. There is enough for everyone, but there are obviously booking times.

You need to make those bookings so that you can get that vaccine. So, importantly, if you're over 60, please don't hesitate, make that booking for the vaccine. If you've had your first AstraZeneca, go ahead with your second. If you have questions, seek health professional advice. And if you're between 50 and 59, now you can access Pfizer, make that appointment, but we do ask for patience.

GREG HUNT:

Thank you. Lieutenant General Frewen?

JOHN FREWEN:

Thanks, Minister. And good afternoon, everybody. Yesterday, I gave you an operational update on the immediate impacts we perceived from the ATAGI announcement. Now I'd like to give you a further update on our thinking around the impacts, what we're doing about it, and what we need from the Australian public in support.

So, what we assessed yesterday remains extant, but we also now think that what is likely to happen in the near term is that we will see a likely temporary reduction in daily vaccination rates, as people make informed decisions around what they want to do in light of the ATAGI announcement, they then change their bookings and they then get access to a Pfizer provision point.

But this potential reduction should be short-term and then we would see a return to the more regular daily vaccination rates.

Yesterday, I described to you that we are increasing GP access to Pfizer, we are increasing Commonwealth vaccination clinics' access to Pfizer, we're working with the states and territories about access for their clinics to Pfizer.

You've heard the Minister now speak about the additional support to GPs, because they will be, remain central and essential to helping people make informed choices around this. And we are, of course, reviewing all of our available Pfizer supplies as they come online, and we’ll be working to get those out to the Commonwealth and state clinics as quickly as we can.

What we need from the Australian public is some patience, particularly in the 50 to 59 cohort, across the next couple of weeks as we get the bookings in place and we get those additional points of Pfizer availability in place.

And I also urge everybody as well to listen to the medical advice, and those of us who have had first dose of AstraZeneca, please go and get the second dose of AstraZeneca, as I will be.

I also want to extend my appreciation to the states and territories for all of their cooperation and flexibility in helping us adapt to the announcement yesterday. And I also wish to thank all of those Australians who have already come forward for vaccination to protect themselves and their communities, and I urge all of those Australians still yet to do so, to please do so at the earliest opportunity.

GREG HUNT:

I'll start over here with Jono.

JOURNALIST:        

Minister, if I could ask you, Anthony Albanese a short time ago, I just wanted to go back to a meeting you had mid-last year with regards to purchasing Pfizer doses. He said that there could have been more than 10 million purchased at that time, and that junior staff members were at that meeting. Is that accurate? Could you have purchased more than 10 million doses?

And in regards to the vaccine hesitancy issue, doctors are already seeing cancellations today. How concerned are you that in some clinics, 50 per cent have dropped away and said today they will not be vaccinated?

GREG HUNT:

So, two things. Firstly, that claim by Mr Albanese is false, and Pfizer has already rejected it. I think their phrase is that the claims raised in the media reports are incorrect, and that meeting was, in fact, held at a very high level, the head of the vaccine program. I guess you’d say the equivalent of a 2-star General within the public service context.

And so it's a shame that he hasn't checked his facts because we could have corrected it for him very, very easily. And we've secured all of the available doses at the earliest possible time, that could’ve been done, and Pfizer's confirmed that.

In terms of hesitancy, what we will have seen, of course, is those that are 50 to 59, who would otherwise have gone for their AstraZeneca, as the Lieutenant General’s set out, obviously we're expecting them not to proceed at this point in time. But now we go through that process of rebooking.

We've seen the work of the different states and territories. And our task, because we’ve been through this before. When we had the first set of ATAGI advice, there was a period of hesitancy, and it's very understandable.

But what we've done today, we've put in place the item for consultation with general practitioners, working with the AMA, working with the College of GPs, and we've also made sure that the states are working alongside the 1300 GP clinics that will come on board to provide options for people to come forward. And there is, of course, the opportunity that, within the 50 to 59 bracket, there may be many people who might not have taken the AstraZeneca who will come forward for the Pfizer.

So we'll work through this. We've done this before. And we saw significant vaccinations yesterday. But I think Lieutenant General Frewen was honest that there may be a period of temporary reduction, but yesterday's results were heartening.

Rachel?

JOURNALIST:        

You said just then that there was quite a bit of hesitancy among that age group, and I think there's government research that shows about a million of that 2.1 million people were looking to delay their vaccine because they didn't want the AstraZeneca. So, what does this news mean for them?

Do you expect that 1 million people to now come forward and get Pfizer? And should you have changed the advice earlier, given that level of hesitancy?

GREG HUNT:         

Well, it was very much medical advice. So we are driven by the medical advice. That's what's kept Australia safe. And, again, to step back, in a world of 2 million lives lost this year to COVID, but no lives lost for COVID caught in Australia, by following that medical advice, that's kept us safe.

That's what we're doing now. And what this will do is it will mean, for those potentially, you know, up to a million people who were AstraZeneca-hesitant within that age group, they will have access to Pfizer. So, it will give them that opportunity.

We want everybody, everybody under every circumstance, to come forward for vaccination. For some, this will mean that they will be more likely to be vaccinated now.

Andrew?

JOURNALIST:

Minister, and perhaps also to Alison McMillan - Gladys Berejiklian, a short time ago, was saying that COVID normality won't be achieved until at least 80 per cent of the population is vaccinated.

I know targets are a sensitive subject. But do you agree with at least the theory and perhaps also, if we could get the view from Alison on that?

GREG HUNT:         

Yeah, so a conversation I had with Professor Jodie McVernon, who’s one of the leading epidemiological modellers in Australia recently, was very informative. Jodie said there's no single point. Sometimes people say, you reach herd immunity.

It's a progressive process. The more people who are vaccinated, the safer we are. And I think that's the very clear message. The more people who are vaccinated, the safer each of us is, but the safer all of us are together.

Alison?

ALISON MCMILLAN:

I would echo the same. There is no magic number because we continue to see the disease evolve as well.

So, again, our focus is to get everyone who wishes to get vaccinated, vaccinated as quickly as we can, and that will help return us to whatever the future COVID-normal will be.

JOURNALIST:        

But that's a bit of a non-answer, though, isn't it? I mean, because she wears your political stripe, Mr Hunt, and Gladys Berejiklian is clearly picking that number from somewhere. She's invited her own health officer to interrupt her if she tells the public anything that's wrong.

There are epidemiologists who are also saying that it might be even higher, 83.5 per cent from one epidemiologist. This 70, 80 per cent is about right, is it?

ALISON MCMILLAN:

Well, I'm not going to tie to a figure, because I do rely on the advice from Jodie, and Jodie tells us that there's no golden number.

JOURNALIST:

But it's not 5 per cent, is it?

ALISON MCMILLAN:

No. no.

GREG HUNT:         

As high as possible is our answer.

ALISON MCMILLAN:

As high as possible.

GREG HUNT:         

Tom?

JOURNALIST:        

Thanks, Minister. Canada is telling people who have had a first AstraZeneca shot to have a different vaccine for their second shot - Moderna or Pfizer, I believe. Why is Australia's advice different?

And General Frewen, if I may, briefly, what was the top line of your advice to the PM? Is the rollout facing a significant slowdown because of this changed advice?

GREG HUNT:         

So, I’ll ask Alison on the medical advice, this notion of mixing of vaccines, and then JJ.

ALISON MCMILLAN:

So, throughout the pandemic we've relied on the advice from ATAGI and from the TGA. And at this point, they have made no assertions on the mixing of vaccines. We've got sufficient to vaccinate the population over the coming weeks and months.

So, at this point in time, there's no intent, nor plan, as I understand it, to consider mixing one vaccine with another. The evidence is very low at this point in time on the efficacy of that.

GREG HUNT:

Okay. JJ?

JOHN FREWEN:

I said yesterday I have confidence that all Australians who wish to get vaccinated will have access to a first vaccination by the end of this year. And in relation to the weeks and months ahead, because of this change in cohort, I also think we have sufficient AstraZeneca – pardon me – sufficient Pfizer stocks that we will be able to adjust to meet the new cohort coming in.

GREG HUNT:

Okay. Greg?

JOURNALIST:

Minister Hunt, the National Cabinet meeting on Monday - what will be Commonwealth be proposing at that meeting? In other words, what's the point of it?

And as for the vaccine rollout, I mean, we've just been told new information that you're expecting a temporary reduction in daily doses. How can the advice.

GREG HUNT:

That’s not supply. That is, as the General was talking about.

JOURNALIST:

How can the advice then be the same, that you expect no delay to the rollout? Like, how is that logical?

GREG HUNT:         

Sure. Let me speak to that first. In terms of National Cabinet, the PM’s focusing on the vaccine rollout. Firstly, to thank the states and territories for the way in which they’ve been able to pivot - I've given a couple of examples - but secondly, to make sure that everybody is fully informed and coordinated.

And then, with regards to the overall target, the volume of vaccines coming into Australia hasn't changed, and, you know, it's important to understand we have 40 million Pfizer, we have over 50 million AstraZeneca that we're expecting to be made available, 10 million Moderna and then the potential for Novavax. That means that we will have, you know, a very large number of vaccines that are available in Australia.

And what the Lieutenant General set out here is the honest fact that, of course, if you were having 50 to 59-year-olds being vaccinated immediately with AstraZeneca, that may take a little bit of time for them to be rebooked.

The interesting point here, which Rachel raised, was that some in that group, who were not intending to be vaccinated in the near term, may well choose to be vaccinated.

JJ?

JOHN FREWEN:

Yeah, no, look, there is a practical implementation issue that I've discussed. People changing bookings, people getting a slot to get the Pfizer.

But we are increasing the points of presence. We are increasing the ability of people to get informed advice. And we will push as much of the Pfizer as we can out.

JOURNALIST:

So, how long will the reduction last for, do you expect, before it goes back up to the?

JOHN FREWEN:

I think it will be a short-run thing.

JOURNALIST:

Are we talking weeks or months or?

JOHN FREWEN:

Near term.

JOURNALIST:

Well what does that mean, exactly?

GREG HUNT:

Just that.

JOURNALIST:

Minister Hunt and Lieutenant General Frewen, there are concerns that the increased presence of the ADF within the rollout is taking away, perhaps, from some of their ability to train for other crises or conflicts. What would you say to that?

GREG HUNT:

Well, I'll speak from the Cabinet perspective and JJ can speak from the military perspective. We think they're an enormous asset. Over the- an enormous national asset. The military has been involved in the response to COVID right from the outset.

Very early on, we recruited military personnel to work in the National Incident Centre. They’ve been engaged right throughout the logistics in terms of the acquisition and the purchasing to make sure that we had masks and ventilators.

JJ was deeply involved in the ventilator program from the earliest time; just the logistical capacity, as well as what they were able to do on the ground in Victoria and in other states.

We are so privileged to have this ADF in this country and to be able to deploy them in this role, it shows, as they do- whether it's floods, bushfires, natural disasters, they're here to protect us in terms of any threat abroad, but they're here to support Australians in times of need.

JOHN FREWEN:

I mean, COVID is a massive global challenge, and this rollout is a massive national undertaking. As the Minister's described, we have been involved through large-scale domestic operations consistently now over the last year or more.

I've spent 15 months heading up Defence's COVID Response Task Force. Now I'm deeply involved in the national vaccine rollout. All ADF members are absolutely delighted to provide direct support to our fellow Australians wherever we can.

As to whether this is taking us away from more important things, all of these domestic challenges involve planning and coordination and working with people and problem solving. All of those are really central to the key skill sets of the ADF.

You know, yes, we have the war fighting skills on top of that, but we are always learning and getting better at all of those other types of things while we are helping out our fellow Australians.

JOURNALIST:

Minister, should people who’ve had their first AstraZeneca dose but then defy medical advice by not getting the second AstraZeneca dose go to the back of the queue – that is, no Pfizer until everyone else has had theirs? And, if not, why not?

GREG HUNT:

The critical thing is for people to come forward for their second dose. And we know that the RACGP and the AMA are supporting the strong, clear medical advice of the Chief Nursing and Midwifery Officer of Australia, the Chief Medical Officer, the head of SITAG, Professor Murphy, the Australian Technical and Advisory Group on Immunisation.

And our goal here is not to be punitive, to be supportive of Australians, and to say that we want everybody to be vaccinated. And if you've had the first dose, the medical advice set out by ATAGI in writing yesterday was absolutely clear: that the risk of an adverse incident after having had the first dose is absolutely rare, and that's global experience as well as Australian.

JOURNALIST:

We've signed two contracts with McKinsey worth over 4 million to assess domestic mRNA manufacturing capacity. What's the advice been there and do we have any timeline for how that’s going to play out?

GREG HUNT:

Sure. Look, I’ll respectfully leave that to Christian Porter, who's overseeing that program. But we're very keen. You know, we know that there's interest from overseas. That's why we're running an expression-of-interest program.

And that approach is about ensuring that we have not just access to mRNA, which we do have now, but that we have the long-term capacity to be producing here in Australia. And Christian, I know, is moving incredibly fast. He said to me, it's his number one focus within the portfolio.

Sarah?

JOURNALIST:

Are you expecting a sustained hesitancy for people in their 60s for the AstraZeneca jab? Obviously, people in their 50s, up until Thursday, were sort of a bit concerned. Now, someone who's maybe

60 might be thinking: what's the difference between 59 and 60? Are you expecting a sustained level of hesitancy in that particular cohort?

GREG HUNT:

Look, I understand that there will be people who ask the question and raise the question. That's why we've introduced the GP item today, and the advice from both Karen Price at the RACGP and Omar Khorshid at the AMA is that this will help.

They're very keen to give that reassurance to people who are over 60 that it is absolutely in their health interests to come forward and be vaccinated. I think the number we have at this stage, just to update, it's 64 per cent of the over 70s and 47 per cent of the over 50s that have been vaccinated so far, and those numbers are continuing to increase every day.

David?

JOURNALIST:

Minister, as well as the debate about vaccination, we've got one about quarantine. I've seen proposals to improve hotel quarantine, or calls to improve hotel quarantine, by doing things like tougher federal standards on aerosol spread, stricter standards on testing people when they've come out of hotel quarantine. Are you looking at any measures like that to improve hotel quarantine?

And secondly, we've just come from a Labor press conference where Anthony Albanese said build the purpose-built quarantine centre at Toowoomba. You know, you got the Howard Springs camp up and running, so do you think there's any merit in that Toowoomba proposal?

GREG HUNT:

Sure. So, two things there. One, in terms of quarantine, there's a program of what's called continuous improvement. So, we've had the Halton review, which has been adopted by the medical expert panel, the AHPPC, in terms of the standards, and also the National Cabinet. And so those standards have gone around the country in different states and territories. They've been adopting and implementing in their way.

Secondly, in terms of Howard Springs, what we see is a system which has been very successful, but it's the clinical guidance; and Alison was one of the leaders who actually set it up. It's the clinical guidance that sets it apart, above all else, the way in which you've had the AUSMAT leadership now transition to the Northern Territory.

And we've already struck a heads of agreement, a memorandum of understanding with Victoria. In terms of the Queensland Toowoomba proposal, the strong advice both from the Coates Inquiry in Victoria and the Halton Review is that it was very important to be near to workforce and tertiary hospitals, so as you're not moving large numbers of people and increasing the risk of transmission.

The point that Anthony Albanese is missing is: he's proposing to increase the risk of transmission in defiance of two reports. And it may be that he wants to look at that- I might ask Alison just to speak about the way in which AUSMAT oversaw clinical governance and how that's helped.

JOURNALIST:

Quickly, are you saying that Toowoomba Hospital is basically not a major hospital sufficient for that task in Toowoomba?

GREG HUNT:

Well, the guidance we have is that you want to have major tertiary capacity with workforce that doesn't have to travel large distances, because otherwise you are at risk.

If you increase the transmission risk in rural or remote areas – obviously, this is a rural one. But in addition to that, part of it was always that it would be a state-run facility which was in additional capacity. So, on those grounds, it hasn't met that test.

ALISON MCMILLAN:

Do you want me to answer the question about?

GREG HUNT:

Alison, was literally the person, I will say the Chief Medical Officer, with Alison's assistance, reached a very strong agreement right across the country on additional infection control standards only in the last week. You might fill them in on that.

ALISON MCMILLAN:

So, I co-chair the Infection Control Expert Group. And with the assistance of 32 organisations, medical nursing, specialists in ventilation, a whole range of groups, we came together and have updated guidance on the use of infection prevention control, which is applicable in hospitals and aged care, and in hotel quarantine.

They were endorsed by AHPPC last week and are now the new way forward. This was a really great achievement to get everyone to agree on the position that we took. It does recognise that aerosol is a part of the spread, it's not necessarily the predominant means of spread.

And we'll continue to look at that evidence and update the guidance as required. But that's applicable now in hotel quarantine, in managed quarantine such as Howard Springs, and in hospitals.

JOURNALIST:

Are you saying- sorry, is there new national infection control standards for hotel quarantine and ?

ALISON MCMILLAN:

There's national infection control standards in relation to COVID-19. And they would be applicable in hotel quarantine.

JOURNALIST:

And the states agree to use those?

ALISON MCMILLAN:

So it was approved through AHPPC last week.

GREG HUNT:

I'll finish there and I thank all of you. I just say to everybody in Australia, to those that have come forward again in the last 24 hours, over 141,000 Australians, thank you.

And to anybody who is looking at the advice, the simple change is that for 50-59-year-olds, instead of AstraZeneca you'll now have access to Pfizer as the recommended vaccine.

And if you have had a first dose, as the West Australian Premier and Deputy Premier have said, they'll be coming forward for their second dose, please do that.

And I can say this that my 89-year-old mother-in-law, Elsa, who lives with us, at some point during today, she's off to the Rosebud Commonwealth vaccination clinic. She's getting her second dose. She said: I'm determined to do it. It's the right thing to do. It's going to protect me and it's going to protect my family. And I like that.

Former ministers: