Press conference in Melbourne on 20 July 2021 with an update on the COVID-19 outbreaks in Victoria, SA, NSW and vaccine rollout
Read the transcript of the press conference with Minister Hunt on 20 July 2021 with an update on the COVID-19 outbreaks in Victoria, SA, NSW and vaccine rollout.
The Hon Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care
Well, good afternoon everybody. I am pleased to be able to provide an update with regards to the vaccination rollout, but also the national response to support those states and those people who are facing challenging days. And there are challenging days but there are real signs of hope at the same time.
We’re seeing that both in our vaccination numbers, but also in the containment that’s occurring within New South Wales and Victoria, and we are confident that South Australia will also be able to manage the cases that have appeared in their jurisdiction.
Let me begin with an update on the vaccination program. As we know last week was a record week with the figures that were provided by close of business Sunday, 975,716 vaccinations around Australia, almost a million Australians being vaccinated within one week. And that’s an immensely important step forward, both as a symbol, but in terms of practical protection on a mass scale.
In addition to that, today we have seen a record first day of the week for vaccination figures, 169,911 people were vaccinated yesterday. That’s 15,000 more than on the previous highest Monday. What it shows is as the vaccines come in, people are stepping forward.
Our GPs, our nurses, our states, our Aboriginal community-controlled health organisations, and our pharmacies are all playing their role and I want to thank them.
In particular, what this means is that we now have approximately 60 per cent of over 50s that have been vaccinated. 68 per cent of over 60s, and 75 and a half per cent of over 70s. So the greatest protection to those who are most vulnerable. In terms of our total doses, we’ve now reached almost 10.3 million. 10,295,444 vaccinations, including 2.9 million people who are fully vaccinated, and 7.3 million or 35.7 per cent of the eligible population, who’ve received first doses.
With regards to points of presence, it’s worth noting that these have continue to increase and we now have over five and a half thousand, 5653 Commonwealth points of presence, supported by over 870 state points of presence, which means that there are now 6526 places where you can get the vaccination in Australia.
I will just add another little point, which is related in terms of public health in Australia. That in an average year, over the last five years, at this stage, we would have had 53,000 diagnosed flu cases and sadly 157 lives lost. At this point, there have been 408 cases diagnosed of influenza in Australia, and zero lives lost. It is an important by-product of all of the things we’ve been doing as a nation.
Now with regards specifically to the latest news from South Australia and Victoria today, these are difficult decisions, but understandable and decisions we recognised as necessary. Challenging for so many people, and I know the Chief Medical Officer has been meeting with the medical expert panel of state Chief Health Officers, and he will be considering over the course of the afternoon a Commonwealth hot spot definition within the South Australian context.
He always makes the decision on the basis of the epidemiology. For example, here in Victoria, the Commonwealth hotspot definition applies to Greater Melbourne, the three local government areas in the Geelong region, to the Shire of Moorabool, Bass Coast and the rural city of Mildura.
And so he’ll make that decision in relation to South Australia as he does on his own basis, but we will as well consider mental health support and PPE or personal protective equipment support, as we’ve done in Victoria and New South Wales.
Another important thing is that 137,000 Australians have stepped forward for tests in the last 24 hours and that now takes the figure to over 23.1 million tests around the country. And so I want to thank people, and the critical messages are to be tested if you have symptoms. To step forward, if you are eligible for your vaccinations, particularly do not neglect the second vaccination. And, if you are in an area with restrictions, please stay home.
Now, I also want to make the point, one of the things is not to neglect the ordinary health that we have. To call your doctor with Telehealth. We’ve expanded the range of Telehealth facilities that are available during the declaration of a hotspot. We’ve now had over 60 million Telehealth consultations since it was instituted. But please do not neglect it.
And in the same way, as a government, we’re continuing with our work, and I’m very pleased to be able to announce as an example that Keytruda, a breakthrough in immunotherapy will now be made available from 1 August for 580 Australians with colorectal cancer, a particular form of bowel cancer, It’s a potentially a deadly condition. And this immunotherapy would otherwise cost $150,000 over the course of the year, and would never have been within reach of the vast majority, the overwhelming majority of people with this condition.
And in terms of maintaining our individual health beyond COVID and our work as a nation on maintaining individual health, a listing such as Keytruda for colorectal cancer to save people up to $150,000 a year, but above all else you give them real hope is a very important sign.
So there are challenges. We know that. Everyone in Australia sees this, and in a world which has seen the number of cases on a 7-day basis increase to over 500,000 again, sadly. The number of lives lost increased to over 7800 on a rolling weekly average, these are issues that are not confined to Australia.
There is a global pandemic, and whilst we have deep challenges, these challenges are vastly less than are seen in so many other countries. So I want to thank all the Australians and finished with the message we know how to do this. We’ve done this before; we’ll do it again.
A year ago we went through the agony and ravages of the Victorian second wave. We’re vastly better placed time, both through vaccinations and the lessons learned from that period. And we can do it and we’ll do it again.
Happy to take questions, I’ll start I think with Jade.
Thanks, Minister. There is concern about fleeting COVID-19 transmission at the AFL and AAMI Park in Melbourne. Once every Australian has had a chance to be vaccinated, would you like to see measures such as this rapid test, vaccine certificates, or time slots to enter venues, to enable major events to go ahead next year with crowds at capacity? And do you expect that teachers will be prioritised for vaccines at any point in the rollout?
Sure. So on both those fronts, firstly, we know that the virus continues to evolve, the Delta variant is more communicable, that’s a sad fact that has been evidenced around the world. We see in the United Kingdom now a 7-day average of approximately 40,000 cases a day and 40 lives lost.
And so we will have to adapt. We have already indicated, so there’s no news in this, that vaccination certificates are made available to all Australians through the Medicare Plus app. That is available and so through the Medicare app, the vaccination certificates will be available for all.
Right now, the National Cabinet, in conjunction with the Doherty Institute, is doing the work on the four stages to proceed as we complete that vaccination program and allow for ourselves to make sure that every Australian who wants to be vaccinated, and we encourage every Australian to take that opportunity if given that chance this year. And so what that means is that we’ll continue to adapt.
And as I said earlier on in the year, that means that we have to make sure that not only are there vaccinations, but why is it that our results in Australia are so different to elsewhere, even where there are very significant vaccination levels? It’s because we’ve got all of the measures that we’ve put in place. Borders, testing, tracing, distancing, those first four rings of containment, and vaccinations. So they all come together.
Sorry, the second question?
Will teachers be prioritised for vaccines at any point in the rollout?
So that’s a matter for ATAGI. What they do is that they focus on the age groups. There are many groups that have raised cases. They are assessed by the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation.
Around the world and in Australia, what we have done is follow the greatest risk, which has been about age-based vaccinations, and that has led, I would say, to very important results. What we see is that the number of people over 70 in Sydney who have suffered is vastly less than might have been the case when you compare it with the Victorian outbreak from a year ago.
Where vaccinations have been in place, they protected people. And so that vulnerability has been the principal guide overseas and in Australia. But we’ll continue to follow that medical advice.
On rapid antigen testing, we’ve used it in India. We have used it in Howard Springs at Commonwealth level. And we are using it in a trial now in an aged care facility in New South Wales.
That will, I think, play an increasingly important role. The TGA’s approved a series of rapid antigen tests and they’ll continue to do that, and then it will be up to the particular health authorities as to whether they do it. But as the Commonwealth, there are three examples where we’ve used it.
Can I just follow on from those questions before you go to the next three?
Just really quickly. But with the schools, we’ve had 11 Victorian schools exposed to an outbreak, and now you’ve got the Australian Education Union wanting teachers to be prioritised for vaccinations.
Look, we understand that, and that’s why it should be a medical decision around the country. And I did note the words of the Premier today where he recognised that there are many worthy groups that are seeking priority.
What we’ve done is focus on the risk to the vulnerable in terms of saving lives, and that has been the advice of the Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation. And we’ll continue to refer questions to them and follow their medical advice.
Yeah, thank you, Minister. I'd like to ask you about some comments from Victorian CHO Brett Sutton yesterday.
He said there is no absolute guarantee we can win against Delta. Do you agree with those comments? Does this strain require a re-evaluation on how we think about social restrictions, contact tracing, government support, that sort of thing?
And I guess more broadly, what does the next few months look like until we get enough vaccine doses in the country? Are we going to be seeing these lockdowns over small number of cases? Will we be seeing these continuing lockdowns as we’re seeing now in three different states?
So look, I think it’s important to step back and to understand where the world is heading, as well as Australia. The world is dealing with something that we haven't seen in a 100 years.
The difference is whilst we’ve had agonising losses around the world, and tragic losses, tragic losses here in Australia, the scope and scale between the rest of the world and Australia are immeasurably different, and we shouldn't lose sight of what has been achieved on an extraordinary level in Australia.
Now, what does that mean going forward? With over 4 million lives; 4.1 million lives lost worldwide, and sadly, tragically, 915 here in Australia. What it means is that we’ll continue to use the different rings of containment which have led to the vastly different results here in Australia, both first and foremost the health results in the lives saved; 30,000 lives saved compared with the OECD average, 45,000 lives saved compared with the US or the UK by comparison.
Increasingly, as vaccinations expand across the country, and they are expanding at a very rapid rate. What we see is that there is greater protection, and that will mean that we will increasingly focus on hospitalisation and preventing loss of life.
And we recognise that as we’re seeing in parts of Europe, that there’s a much stronger focus not on case numbers but on loss of life. Right now, we are going through the process of completing that vaccination program, and we passed 10 million this week. We’ll pass 11 million over the course of the coming week, and 12 million not long after that. And so those vaccination rates are increasing.
So it means we won't just strip away all of the protections at once. That was something that I said some months ago, and there was some disagreement or criticism at the time, I think, but that is very much now and understood position, that borders, testing, tracing, distancing, it’s a progressive step down in measures as we have the increase in vaccination rates.
Thanks, Minister. I just wanted to ask if you saw any merit in a ring of steel around Sydney until this outbreak is contained? And just to your point just now, will vaccines play a new role in us clawing our way out of these particular lockdowns through, for example, prioritising vaccines to certain hotspots?
So, just in terms of that, we were able to provide 150,000 Pfizer to Victoria, and indeed it was a total result of increase of almost 500,000 vaccines on offer to Victoria. And with New South Wales we’ve matched that with regards to Pfizer, 150,000. So that is an important resource that they have which is deployable.
The strongest most immediate protection where there is an outbreak, of course, is the combination of testing, tracing, and distancing. That’s what’s occurring.
The New South Wales outbreak now is, I think, making real progress. We saw it reach 100 cases. On this day, a year ago, where I’m standing in Victoria, there were 275 cases, and not long afterwards, only a couple of weeks later, there were approximately 700 cases in one day.
The difference now is that New South Wales has stabilised. And that is the most important real sign of hope in Australia today. There’s more work to do, as the Premier said today, with regards to the infectious cases in the community. They are stable, they’re in no significant way either decreasing or increasing at this point in time. So that process of mopping up is underway now.
And what they’ve done is put in place, arguably, some of the hardest restrictions Australia’s ever had, and they’ve done it at a very early time. I think the advice I have is that the lockdown measures in New South Wales came in on, I think, day 11.
We’ve learnt from a year ago, here in Victoria, and the whole country has learnt. I think the lockdown measures there were day 29, day 39, day 45.
And so by acting early, by taking that knowledge, but also by putting in place some of the hardest restrictions – I’m not aware that construction has been halted – but anywhere else during the course of the lockdowns over the last 18 months, that gives us the best chance.
So we saw runaway growth a year ago once cases hit 100. Now they’ve stabilised and we know that there’s a lot more work to do, and there’ll be good days and there will be bad days. We need to be honest. Good days and bad days, but they’ve stabilised and now they are working on those challenging cases of community transmission. They won’t go away overnight, but they’ll get there. And that’s I think the important point on my best advice and my best judgement.
Thanks, Minister. Given half the population’s now basically under lockdown, are you willing to consider a revival of the JobKeeper system? Wouldn’t that be simpler rather than the disaster payment with so many people not eligible and confusion over when it kicks in?
If not, would you be willing to at least grade that rate, the original JobKeeper rate of 750 a week?
I would- look, I respect the question. The rates of 600 and 375 are higher than the point at which JobKeeper finished. And we have two measures here, of course, the disaster relief payments as well as the cash flow boost for business.
The latest advice – and I spoke with the Minister, Linda Reynolds, just before joining you – already 388,000 people in New South Wales have received disaster relief payments for COVID. I think that’s about 186 million in money in the bank. And here in Victoria, even though it's very early days, 58,000 people have access, $26 million in payments.
So the money is actually flowing out the door faster than it would have under JobKeeper, and I think that that is a very important point, rapid payments responding to the circumstances.
Thanks, Minister. Today, the Victorian Government described the outbreak in Sydney as being out of control, whereas Gladys said that the numbers were slightly promising given the curve is being flattened. Have we reached a point where the states are completely unable to reconcile their differences?
There’s no consistency on when we go into a lockdown or not, as we’ve seen with South Australia today. Is it time to rethink how the states interact and work together when dealing with these outbreaks, given that they don't seem to be properly communicating anymore?
Look, I suspect there will be differences in views. So I think probably the best thing for me to do is focus on the facts. On the facts, as I mentioned just briefly earlier, this day, a year ago, they were 275 cases in Victoria, which became 700 two weeks later.
The lockdowns, New South Wales primary lockdown was day 11 in Victoria a year ago. They were days 29, 39 and 45 on the advice that I have since after the cases emerged. And so we have learnt a lot. And actually each state learns from each other, and the National Cabinet acts as a clearinghouse on this.
We're still a federation. That's one of the great features of Australia and it comes with its challenges. But the National Cabinet has meant that we learnt from our history. We look back 100 years and we saw the fractures that occurred. And the Prime Minister was deeply, deeply aware of this when he established the National Cabinet.
He saw the fractures that occurred in the Spanish flu. And we've avoided those. And yes, there’ll be differences. And yes, there'll be perhaps some of the rivalries that have played out over more than 100 years in terms of different states.
But the truth of it is, when it comes to real co-operation on tracing, testing, testing, distancing, that's the reality of Australia's spirit. And the fact that this year, in a world of over 2.25 million lives lost, we’ve tragically lost five. But that world has seen 2.25 million lives lost, 7800 a day on average over the last seven days and 500,000 cases a day on average, with those case numbers sadly climbing again worldwide. It puts everything we've done as a federation into perspective.
So, yes, we are, as ever, an imperfect nation, but we are, I think, still one of the finest nations and the rest of the world looks at us. And I know health ministers have said to me, we wish we were in Australia's position. And that's the truth of it.
Thanks, Minister. Considering the outbreaks in Victoria and New South Wales and now South Australia, and vaccines being our best defence against COVID-19, is there any movement for the government's approach Pfizer for another bring forward of supplies? Or to ensure that Moderna is ready to ship the moment the TGA gives it the green light, even if that isn’t in quarter 4?
So we're always working, always working to bring forward supplies. I speak with Pfizer every week, formally, and in addition to that, often on multiple occasions during the course of the week.
We didn't talk about it, but it's now been released publicly. The Prime Minister and myself approached the head of Pfizer in May and we were able to secure the bringing forward of 3 million doses from the fourth quarter to the third, which is playing itself out this week. That's actually represented in additional doses in arms.
And we are always working on that. Because of the commercial nature, I apologise we don't necessarily talk about these things publicly, but every week, every week, we are fighting to bring forward additional vaccines and additional doses. And the fact that we were able to do that quietly behind the scenes and then to prepare for it through the National Horizons document and then to announce at once we were in a position to make the public announcement is evidence of that.
And that same work is going on all of the time. And I would note, as those vaccines come in, there may have been one statement which was incorrect. They're being distributed on a per capita basis. The vaccines are being distributed to all of the states and territories on a per capita basis, those uplifts.
Thanks, Minister. Do you have the vaccinations states for Fairfield, Canterbury-Bankstown, Liverpool at the centre of the New South Wales cluster? And is the Federal Health Department concerned about contact tracing in New South Wales?
So, on those, I’ll ask the Department to provide them to you.
The second thing is, in terms of contact tracing, look, we think that New South Wales contact tracing has been one of the reasons that they haven’t increased to that figure of 700 that we saw from a similar base a year ago. And that’s been a very important part of saving lives and protecting lives.
So you’ve really got three things that are occurring in New South Wales: you’ve got the lockdown, which occurred on a tougher scale than anything we’ve seen in Australia with the construction rules; secondly, you have the combination of high levels of testing and tracing, and that tracing is standing out; and then thirdly, the vaccinations are clearly playing a part, particularly with the older population and particularly in protecting our aged care facilities with 100 per cent of facilities in Australia having had first and second doses.
So, for example, where in Summit Care we had an incursion, the fact that it didn’t spread, that it- we have five residents who were fully vaccinated in April, full vaccinated in April who have it, who are stable in hospital, and one resident of a very small number that wasn’t vaccinated fortunately at this stage stable as well.
What we are seeing is that the learnings of the last year and the exceptional level of tracing in New South Wales are helping to keep the cases where they are, and then that is the source of what I referred to as real signs of hope – the fact that this hasn’t run away.
Every day we focus, every day we watch. But we are seeing clear signs of a flattening of the curve in New South Wales.
And Tom? And then I’ll come to those in the room who’ve been very patient.
Thanks for taking our questions, Minister. I was hoping to ask you about what Kerry Chant said yesterday in New South Wales, that vaccinating children was- would have a key role in the vaccination strategy.
Of course you’ll take their advice from ATAGI as you’ve said many times. What is the conversations going on the Federal level about vaccinating children? For example, do you think next year, 2022, is a possibility for kids in Australia to be vaccinated?
Sure. So, at this point in time, the Therapeutic Goods Administration has an application from Pfizer which matches what they have done with their FDA approvals in America. So they have an application to expand the age range for vaccination with the Pfizer vaccine in Australia from 16-plus to 12-plus.
That’s going through the processes. They’ll make their conclusions and publicise them, I think in the relatively near future. And we’ll respond to it and refer that to ATAGI if that’s a positive recommendation. And if there are two green lights, then we will plan that out, and we’ll take advice on the timing and the implementation of that.
But if there are two green lights, then we will proceed. But it’s very much a medical decision, and- being considered first by the TGA. If that’s a green light, then it will be considered by the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation. And if we have two green lights, then we’ll talk with the public, talk with the states, and plan out the rollout for the relevant group.
To those in the room, who’ve been very patient.
Given that there’s now people under 40 who’ve been hospitalised in New South Wales, should the Government be rolling out Pfizer to that age group?
Well, what we're doing at the moment is following the advice because there are a finite number of vaccines. And so at this point in time, we're working through the 40 to 59 age group. We’ll continue to engage with the Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation as to when's the appropriate time to extend that.
But if there's a set number of vaccines and we were to expand it, whilst not having given an adequate chance, then it means that somebody who's older and more vulnerable would not have the chance if their bookings were taken away by somebody who's younger. So right from the outset, around the world, overwhelmingly, and in Australia, it has been an age-base graduation plus other vulnerable groups.
And we do know that those who are most at risk are the older. But our program here – and I think this is really important – it's been about 2021, and we're going to do that. And that means we have to work through with an absolute ferocity of intent to get there as quickly as possible, as quickly as possible. But we continue to follow that advice on the prioritisation
What do you make of Freedom Day? We’ve got scenes of Britain and Israel opening up, returning to life as normal. What else can we do to get back, Victorians especially, I think we’re feeling it, I think, the most?
Sure. Well, look, I understand in the UK they've had almost six months of restrictions continuously, but I've spoken to friends, and that has been the darkest winter in the UK. So it's understandable. They now have, I would know, very, very high levels of vaccination. But they also have 40,000 cases a day. They have 40 lives lost today.
And so we will watch with great interest what happens over the coming weeks. And we hope desperately that it is successful, because it will be an important market for the world. But we've had 94 days of zero, 96 days, I apologise, of zero cases of community transmission in Australia this year.
For the vast bulk of the time, the vast majority of Australians have lived with full freedom in Australia. At this point in time, there are challenges. There are steps that we're taking to keep Australians safe and to save lives in Australia. And so we hope desperately that it's successful overseas.
But I note that right now the highest caseload in the world in terms of official numbers – may be higher in other countries – is in the UK and that they will, you know, go through the process now of seeing how they are able to live with the virus, and that will be an important lesson for the world.
Our task now is to keep Australians safe but to give them that hope and to give them that sense that New South Wales is stabilising, vaccinations are increasing with a record weekly total last week, with a million Pfizer this week, with a record day yesterday for the first day of the week.
And so what I say to Australians – and I will finish here, respectfully – is thank you. Thank you for your patience. Thank you for your resilience. This is our challenge. But this resilience is what has kept us safe in the last year and will keep us safe as we go forward: saving lives, saving livelihoods, and stepping forward to be vaccinated.
Thank you very much.