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Press conference in Melbourne about Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Read the transcript of a press conference in Melbourne about Coronavirus (COVID-19)

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

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Here at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, it is one of the great medical institutions, not just in Australia, but around the world. Victoria's oldest hospital, I think 172 years, and it served the people of Victoria magnificently throughout that time.

Very significantly, we were talking about the preparations for COVID.

And one of Australia's most important developments has been the capacity to deal with outbreaks, and in particular, this hospital, in conjunction with Peter Mac, was able to increase its ventilator capacity from 32 beds to 99 beds.

And that's an example of what's been occurring around Australia.

So I want to start first by thanking you, but also your amazing and extraordinary staff.

Our medical professionals, our doctors, our nurses, our orderlies and our assistants, our pathologists, our cleaners, everybody around the country has helped protect Australia and keep Australians safe.

I also want to acknowledge Professor Mark Hargraves, Professor Peter Mitchell, Professor Nick Opie.

They are associated both with the university, and in Peter and Nick’s case, with the hospital as well.

And they have been doing extraordinary work to give people the possibility of communication, for those who still have high cognitive function, who still have brain activity despite sometimes crippling neurological conditions, literally crippling.

And to be locked within one's brain, whether it's after a traumatic spinal injury, whether it's after motor neurone disease or other neurological conditions, can be agonising, and frightening and one of the most shocking experiences that any individual in any family can face.

And so their brain computer is giving people new hope and new possibility, firstly of communication.

But then extraordinarily in the years to come, of movement, through initially exoskeletons, but then through what we're doing in conjunction with the stem cell mission, again being done here in the Parkville Precinct, led by Professor Melissa Little at the Murdoch Children's Research Institute.

These are opening up the world of recovery and movement and possibility for people with, until now, irrecoverable and untreatable conditions in many ways.

And we are on the cusp of giving people new communication and new mobility.

It will take time, but Australian medical researchers are helping to lead the way.

As part of that, one of the things I've been privileged to be involved with is the development of a national plan for the Medical Research Future Fund.

And working with the medical community, we've structured this around our patients, our Rare Cancers, Rare Diseases, Unmet Needs Program; $614 million of clinical trials.

Our focus on research driven projects, in particular, the frontier science program, and we were talking about the stroke project, the mobile stroke units, which is being done with Melbourne University and Royal Melbourne Hospital at its heart.

The medical translation program, and then the great national missions, which also include neurological conditions such as traumatic brain injury, brain cancer, and Alzheimer's.

Within the clinical trials program.

I'm delighted to announce $21.8 million for 10 projects.

These projects are clinical trials that will give patients with conditions such as spinal damage, stroke, Alzheimer's, potentially with autism, new hope and new pathways.

Particularly for Peter, and Nick and Tom Oxley who's not here today, there is also a $1.48 million brain computer program.

And this brain computer program is to take the electrode, which is implanted in the brain, to allow that to be applied across patients in a range of states, and it will give those patients the potential to communicate, who might otherwise have been locked in.

And imagine being locked in your own brain, with a functioning brain but no ability to communicate with your families, your carers, your friends.

This is extraordinary humane medical technology, with Victoria and Australia leading.

And it has the potential to go on to movement, and exoskeleton, and ultimately to redevelopment of nerves through stem cells over the course of the coming decades.

It won't happen quickly, but for those patients in the trials, there will be new and immediate hope.

And for other patients, whether it's with motor neurone disease, spinal conditions. this is a game changer.

Having said that, I also want to refer to the COVID-19 situation.

I understand that both the Premier and the Prime Minister will be speaking through the course of the morning.

We have responded to Victoria's request for support and the details of the Australian Government's- ADF or military contingent to support Victoria with both the testing and the logistics, will be set out during the course of the morning.

We were doing as we did with other states, making sure that the offer was on the table.

Victoria has considered their needs and requirements, they are working on local containment options, and I think it's very important to say to Australians we have, throughout the course of the pandemic, made it clear that there would be spikes and outbreaks.

At this point the advice from the Chief Medical Officer, only late last evening, is that whilst we expect more cases today - and I think it's very important to be upfront and to set those expectations - the chief medical officer’s view is that the number of cases are contained but there is a risk.

And so the testing, the tracing, the additional support which will be for testing and logistics, and in particular for hotel quarantine by the military – these things will help keep Victoria safe and will help us address this particular outbreak.

But we've assisted with other outbreaks in New South Wales, in Tasmania.

We've assisted with quarantine operations in the Northern Territory and Christmas Island, with the management of the Artania ship in Western Australia.

And so, it's one country working together and we've done extraordinary things.

We've seen the results. We've seen the IMF upgrade Australia's economic forecasts - I believe it was the only developed economy to be upgraded overnight.

We are projected to have the second best result of any of the economies in the developed world by the IMF.

But nevertheless, Australians have done it hard.

So by protecting Australians, by flattening that curve locally as well as nationally, then we will be able to continue that progress of getting people back to their work and keeping Australians safe.

Peter, I think you'd like to say something. You could tell us about the project. Thank you.


Thank you, Minister Hunt. It's an absolute pleasure to be here and to receive this award.

I think to acknowledge that this was very much work that Tom Oxley, along with Nick and a huge team of people, that (inaudible) at the University of Melbourne - the Howard Florey Institute.

We've been involved from the start and we're in the clinical phase now where we're doing the first in human study here at Royal Melbourne Hospital.

The team involved myself as a neuro interventionist; we've got Andrew Morokoff, one of the neurosurgeons involved in the project; Christine Bird - we've got a whole team of people that have been involved in this.

In short, the brain computer interface is a minimally invasive way of allowing a signal from the brain to be taken out from the brain, along a lead, and then externally accessed.

And there almost no limits on what can be done with that once it starts to work.

So the early phase is to allow people to use a computer that's not limited by anything really.

And mobility and other aspects and smart homes and all of these things are going to be on the cards.

To date, we've done the first in human studies, which have- are the process of showing that this can safely be implanted and whether it can obtain a signal.

This grant will allow us to expand that project to move to two other sites - one in Queensland and one in New South Wales.

Aiming to get 15 subjects implanted with the device and hopefully to allow that to be used in the way we've talked about with the computer interface.


There we go. Happy to take any questions, either on the project or more generally.


Do you have any specifics on how the military roll-out will work? Like how many personnel will be involved? What would be the.


Sure. So we're expecting just over a thousand military personnel.

That would include between 800 and 850 for the hotel quarantine, and approximately 200 for logistics and medical personnel to assist with the expanded testing regime.

I should say, in terms of testing, that we have seen 48,000 tests in the last 24 hours, and that includes 20,000 in Victoria - so, Victoria’s doing the right thing.

And in messaging to the community - it can be concerning and each person can play a role.

If you do feel ill, please be tested. If you do feel ill, other than being tested, please stay at home.

And keep that distance, it's very important to keep that 1.5 meters, to practice the hand hygiene.

And also, if you haven't downloaded the COVIDSafe app. If you would join the 6.44 million Australians that have downloaded the COVIDSafe app, it will help protect you, it will help protect your family, it will help protect our magnificent medical personnel.


Is sending in the ADF kind of a recognition that Victoria failed in its COVID quarantine? Or bungled the process?


Look, we’re responding to need and so the last thing we want to be is judgemental.

I think all of the states and territories have done a magnificent job.

When you look at that curve that's been flattened- extraordinary countries such as Singapore that have had very significant outbreaks; Germany with 1500 workers in a meatworks that had outbreaks; in the United States we've seen one of the highest days in the last 48 hours up since coronavirus began its spread.

And yet in Australia, in every state and territory, we've had enormous success.

We did warn though that there would be outbreaks.

And where there are outbreaks, everybody's pitching in - South Australia, New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania - they've all supplied contact tracing support.

The Commonwealth is supporting with the military.

And this is what we do as a country, this is Australia at its best.

And so, we have to not be judgmental, but to recognise if something can be improved.

Clearly, the hotel quarantine structure in Victoria could be improved.

We're stepping in at Victoria's request – I think it's very important to note – at Victoria's request, to assist them as we would with any other state.


Do you support Tony Bartone’s call for an Australian infectious disease centre?

And there has been some sort of commentary from infectious disease experts that hotels are high risk areas - there’s not the right air pressure control and that type of thing.

Would you support- if we're going to see future pandemics - do we need to change the way we’re quarantining travellers returning back to Australia?


Well as I understand it, we- on the latest figures I had there were 53,000 people that had travelled through hotel quarantine - those figures need to be updated but as of the most recent ones - of those, just over 400 had had been diagnosed as positive or about 0.77 per cent.

And then they've been a very small number which did leak through the hotel quarantine staff.

So that's clearly, you know, a weakness in the training or the practice of a small number of staff.

But as a consequence, Victoria, with the support of the Commonwealth, will be taking very strong action.

Around the country, the hotel quarantine system has worked exceptionally well and it built on what we did with the three evacuations in February with regards to the two from Wuhan and the one from the Diamond Princess - all of which were carried out by AUSMAT and done to the highest levels.

So, overall we have done extraordinarily well.

But there- wherever there are gaps then the states and territories address them and we address them.

With regards to the US model, I respect the view that's been put forward but I would respectfully say though that the vast majority of Australians would probably prefer the Australian outcome to the American outcome.


The AMA, I mean they are experts in that field, they’ve been calling for a Centre for Infectious Disease Control for some time. Australia is the only OECD country without one.

Why not listen to the medical experts? Why not look at doing one now?


Well the medical experts that I’ve been working with are the medical expert panel, the chief health officers and the chief medical officer.

Australia's results are arguably as good as any in the world when you look at both the health and the economic together.

As we've seen overnight from the IMF, as we've seen right throughout the course of this that we've actually saved lives and protected lives with the Australian system.

So I understand there are some that may prefer the American model to the Australian model.

The World Health Organization said before this pandemic that Australia was one of the best prepared countries in the world.

The evidence is very clear that we are one of the best prepared.

What’s particular about the Australian model is that you have had the chief medical officer embedded within the National Cabinet, and the chief medical officer has the national incident centre which actually functions as a stood up Centre for Disease Control but being able to draw on the resources of the whole country and the states.

And so, that Australian model has served Australia magnificently.

And as I say, I suspect that the vast majority of Australians would say that the Australian model, as opposed to the American model, has been very successful.


The state government has declared six hotspots (inaudible) and nobody really knows how at risk they are.


Look, my understanding is that that's the Victorian Government's intention.

They are working through those figures and I think they've done the right thing in identifying the local government areas where they had the figures.

Now, they're going to a more granular level and they are working through that on the advice that I had last night.

So as soon as they're able, they'll release those figures and I think that's the right path.

They've brought it down from state-wide to local government area, and now they are on the path to identifying suburban.


On liquid nicotine. How hard will it be to get a prescription? And are you worried that the push for a domestic industry is big tobacco led?


Well I- it's absolutely clear that behind the vaping industry is old tobacco.

There's no question that old tobacco has played a very significant role in the push for vaping - that was when I visited the Texas Medical Centre, met with some of the leaders in oncology and lung cancer prevention - they talked about what they saw as the risk of an epidemic of addiction.

The US FDA, which is their medical regulator equivalent to the TGA, at the level of President Trump's appointed FDA Chief said it was an epidemic of addiction of young people.

But what we've done here is quite simple.

One, we've aligned our import laws with our domestic laws. Our domestic laws ban the sale of nicotine vaping products in Australia.

People can still buy domestically non nicotine vaping products, and they can still import where there is a prescription.

But the prescription is a matter for doctors, that's not one for me to interfere with.

But the advice is very clear from the World Health Organization, to the FDA, to Australian medical authorities that have expressed deep concern about, not only the on ramp up capacity for vaping to bring young people in - I think a 78 per cent increase in US teen uptake of vaping products in one year.

But secondly, that the actual vaping products themselves may have real health risks.


What do you think the motivations of people like George Christensen and Matt Canavan?


I deeply respect, in a democracy, in a party room that values the diversity of views, the rights and motivations of people to express those views.


The World Health Organisation today mentioned there’s been an oxygen tank shortage. Have you heard anything about that, and is that something that’s impacting Australia at all? A global shortage?


It’s not been something that’s been an Australian issue. We worked right from the outset of the pandemic to deal with the potential risk to ventilators, and Australia has done magnificently. We’ve gone from 2200, to seven-and-a-half thousand ventilator beds. This hospital, this precinct being one example. I’ve not had (inaudible) my attention an oxygen shortage which could affect Australia, but I’ll make inquiries today.


One from our absent colleagues at Nine – the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has told parliament that no country currently has a functioning track and trace app.

Is he right, and if not, what has the COVIDSafe app (inaudible)?


I can’t speak to those comments. What I can say is that Australia has 6.44 million downloads of the app. And in fact there’s been an increase in downloads in the last few days, which I welcome.

Secondly, we have been able to use the app.

There have been very few cases in Australia. That’s the starting point, very few cases. And a large number of them have been in hotel quarantine.

But for those in the community, what we’ve found is Victoria has used the app on approximately thirty occasions, New South Wales in the order of ten, on the latest figures that I have.

And that’s off a very small base of cases. It’s there and in Australia its operating.

Thank-you very much.

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