Press conference in Melbourne on the update on COVID-19 cases and vaccination rollout
Read the transcript of the press conference with Minister Hunt in Melbourne on the update on COVID-19 cases and vaccination rollout.
The Hon Greg Hunt MP
Former Minister for Health and Aged Care
Thank you everyone for joining us today. It’s a privilege to host the honourable Minister for Health, Minister Greg Hunt and Lucas De Toca, First Assistant Secretary in the Department, who is leading the COVID-19 response and the COVID-19 vaccination program.
Here we are in the beautiful Melbourne suburb of Lalor, where we have a large demographic of culturally and linguistically diverse Australians who have built and become part of our practice.
So as I said, I am going to introduce the Minister first and he’ll come up and speak, then Lucas de Toca will speak, then I would like to also address very briefly and will make some comments.
Thanks very much to Dr Tony Bartone, who is actually one of Australia’s great general practice leaders. Obviously a former head of the Australian Medical Association, but as also a co-architect, a co-architect of Australia’s telehealth plan.
And without Tony, we would not have had it, it was your support, it was your guidance at the height of the pandemic when we were able to make a change which meant patients were protected, doctors and nurses were protected right through the height of the pandemic and right through the second wave here in Victoria, but which has also become an embedded part of our system.
I’m also joined by Dominic Barbaro, Dr Dominic Barbaro, was the founder of the Lalor Medical Centre, I think coming up soon enough to 50 years, and so that’ll be a pretty significant achievement going back to the 1970s. And he’s been serving our culturally and linguistically diverse community right throughout that time.
And we heard most of the consultations today were done in Italian, and it’s just great to see the diversity of Australians coming forward to be vaccinated. And in particular, Maddy and Nicola, who brought themselves forward to be vaccinated today.
I’m also joined by Dr Lucas de Toca, and Lucas is the head of the COVID-19 Primary Care and Vaccination Response Program within the Department.
Today, I have a very simple announcement, and that is that from deliveries next week, the Australian Government will triple the number of doses from 50 to 150 per week for the lower volume general practices, and we will double the number of doses per week from 100 to 200 per week for the medium-volume general practices around the country.
And we always said that as suppliers became available and as we had confidence in those suppliers and sufficient contingency then we would make that available, and that’s exactly what we’ve done. And we’ve worked with the GPs, and Lucas and his team have done that.
We’ve worked with the suppliers and we’re confident in the supply and we’re now able to do that. And we also thank the states and territories for the fact that many of those have moved more broadly to Pfizer. They’re continuing to vaccinate with AstraZeneca, but where they have spare supplies, they’ve also made that available. So that's much appreciated.
Then in addition to that, in terms of cases, you may be aware that in New South Wales today, one case has been identified. Contact tracing is already underway. We know the strength of the New South Wales system, the absolute global gold standard. And that case will appear in tomorrow's figures.
Today, importantly, zero cases around Australia, 77 days, at the same time as we’re seeing over 775,000 cases around the world and agonisingly over 14,000 lives lost. Almost half of those cases, over 350,000 of those cases, are in India, and we feel for and we su
pport what's happening in terms of the actions that are occurring in India to help with this.
As part of that, I’m pleased to be able to announce that within the next 24 hours, the first shipment of Australian medical supplies will be going to India and that includes, in particular, 1056 ventilators and 42 oxygen compressors, so 1056 ventilators and 42 oxygen compressors.
This is the first shipment. It's not the last. And we're getting great support from around the states and from the general community on that front. With regards to testing, we’ve just passed 17 million tests and 53,000 in the last 24 hours, but in New South Wales, obviously, if you are in one of the affected areas, as outlined by the Chief Health Officer there, we would encourage you to come forward for testing.
In relation to vaccinations, Lucas will give more detail, but we’ve now reached almost 2.4 million vaccinations nationally – 2,396,314 vaccinations, including over 79,000 vaccinations in the last 24 hours. And that is 858,000 at state level and 1.5 million at Commonwealth level, 1.538 million to be more precise, and that is overwhelmingly led by our GPs.
So, I'm delighted that we're able to support our GPs today with a tripling of doses to the lower volume general practices. That will give them more capacity as we move into the over 50s phase.
We’ve seen obviously Maddie, who was vaccinated today, in the over 50s phase. And around the country, people are coming forward to be vaccinated. We’ll continue to urge them to be vaccinated.
This supports our GPs, with a tripling for the lower dose, a doubling for those who have medium volumes, and it will ensure that we have supplies around the country as we see more and more over 50s coming in.
LUCAS DE TOCA:
Thank you, Minister. Grazie Donnie and Dominic for having us here today.
So, as the Minister has indicated, out of the doses administered in Australia, just over 1.5 million, 1,538,000 doses have been administered by the Commonwealth vaccination program, including 243,000 doses in aged and disability care facilities.
But the biggest contributor, as outlined by the Minister, is the primary care system that has now contributed to more than half of all the vaccines that have been administered in Australia, nearly 1.3 million vaccine doses administered by general practitioners, by Aboriginal community controlled health services, by GP and respiratory clinics, and by the registered nurses all around the country who are contributing to this effort.
So 1,294,713 doses administered by primary care. And that is across more than 4600 practices all across- around Australia. More than 1500 of those are in the regions, in regional, rural and remote Australia. This is not just an urban rollout. So there’s more than 4300 GPs, 136 Commonwealth vaccination clinics, and 152 Aboriginal community controlled health services that are providing this culturally safe access to First Nations people.
As the Minister outlined, we've commenced, following the National Cabinet decision, the opening up of the program for those 50 years and over. From Monday this week, state and territory clinics, the Commonwealth vaccination clinics, and a number of general practices have opened up so that people 50 years and over can commence to receive the vaccine.
From the 17th of May, everyone 50 years and over will be eligible to receive that vaccine. And as a reminder, everyone means everyone, and the vaccines are for free, regardless of your visa status or your Medicare eligibility.
To facilitate this, we have increased, as the Minister said, the availability of doses in general practices. The idea of this is that the system will have flexibility, so those practices that are capable and have a demand that allows them to increase the vaccinations that they’re doing every week, can do that.
And the practices that are tripling- they’re receiving a triple allocation from deliveries next week are more than 3000. So we’re talking about 3000 practices that will be able to increase their capacity very significantly, and over 1000 practices will be able to double their capacity and offer the vaccine to the expanded cohort from the week of the 17th of May.
There’s just over 700 practices that are currently listed in the clinic service finder that are opened up for people 50 years an over from now and they’re not waiting until 17 May. And that number keeps growing every day.
There’s more than 4 million people that have access to that Eligibility Checker, and 2 million people have accessed the clinic service finder that you can find on health.gov.au if you go to the Health Department's website.
Our final message is that, while it's really important that we open up this eligibility to people 50 years and over to continue to accelerate the vaccination program, the absolute priority remains people in Phase 1.
That is of course our quarantine, aged care residents, disability residents, but also anyone 70 years and over, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people 50 years and over, and people in critical and high risk emergency professions, and of course, all our health care workers and people with underlying conditions, including people with significant disability.
And they will remain the priority. But any available doses, any available additional appointments will be made available for people 50 years and over, and this increase of doses will allow for that to happen. Thank you.
Thank you, Minister. Thank you, Lucas. It will not surprise you that when I say that general practice is the backbone of immunisation delivery in this country. We’ve done it every year for the past number of decades.
Last year, during the influenza season, we delivered 6 million vaccines in six weeks during the peak of that really required rollout to get that vaccination happening. Part of the 17 million-strong vaccination program of influenza vaccines that were delivered in primary care in three months.
So general practice is really committed very strongly to ensuring that its population of patients, of people that they look after for the various different conditions and ailments are supported and managed as appropriately and protected against COVID-19.
So, we were at the table right at the beginning of this year, looking at how to ensure the rollout could take place. And it's not surprising that already, it’s only after about five or six weeks of beginning that slow, stepped phased rollout through general practice, that indeed general practice is already by far the- by more than half, the delivery medium for those vaccines.
And we will continue to ensure that we play our part in rolling up our sleeves to ensure that our patients are fully protected. Those doses that the Minister has just announced, and extra doses, will ensure that we continue to avail more and more of our patients for this very, very safe and very, very important vaccine, which is very important as we continue to see what is happening in many places around the world.
The vaccination is another important line of defence. We’ve done all the hard yards in this country. Everything from social distancing, mask-wearing, hand washing, cough etiquette. Vaccine is the next important phase.
So, it's no secret that people want to speak to their doctor when they’ve got concerns. So, in this really very heightened awareness media landscape, where vaccine is being reported daily, patients have got concerns, they’ve got questions, they want to talk to their doctor.
So it makes sense to increase the supply into general practice so that we can do even more about ensuring that that vulnerable group of population, that Phase 1B, in particular, and of course all the other patients over 50 are fully protected against COVID-19.
So vaccine hesitancy and vaccine concerns is what that underlying trust and importance of the relationship between patient and doctor will be really most accurately addressed. And this announcement will go a long way to ensuring that more Australians are going to be protected.
And I thank you for that. And thank you again, Minister, for that announcement.
Thanks very much, Tony. I’ll start with those on the phone and then come to those outside here.
Thanks, Minister. I’m just wondering about this report in The Australian today that revealed hundreds of breaches in Victoria’s hotel quarantine system this year alone, and particularly egregious issues with one member of the senior leadership in that system.
What assurances have you received from Victoria today to know that the state is acting upon this and improving the system? And how shocked were you, I guess, to hear that this is happening after the issues that we've seen in the past, that this is supposed to be an entirely overhauled system?
Sure. Look, I understand the individual in question has been stood down. And so my observation is that Victoria has taken swift action.
And I think where we've had disagreements over the last year, we've always tried to do that publicly and politely. But they've taken swift action.
And therefore, I think it's important where we agree and support the actions they've taken to underline and to emphasise that. And so we have confidence in the quarantine system right around the country.
It's been 99.99 per cent effective in preventing breaches, 100 per percent effective in terms of Howard Springs under the AUSMAT led program. But all of the states and territories are doing a good job and they've taken a pretty swift response today on this front.
Thank you, Minister. Overnight, US President Joe Biden said the American Government is looking at giving incentives for people to get vaccinated like discounts at sporting games. Is the Australian Government considering anything like that to incentivise people to get vaccinated?
And on a related one, I realised were still focusing on the first stage of vaccination now, but countries like Canada and Israel are locking in long term deals for next term, sorry, for next generation vaccines several years into the future.
What work is Australia doing on supply deals for vaccines beyond this year?
Sure. So at this stage, we're not proposing any incentives per se, other than that the vaccine keeps you safe and it can help save your life, and it can help save the life of your mother or grandmother, your father or grandfather, your community.
And Australians are stepping forward and we really thank them for that. America is at a different point, and so they're obviously dealing with those that might be more hesitant. Our job is to encourage as many people to come forward as possible.
And today is actually about giving more opportunity for more people to come forward to be vaccinated earlier. With regards to the long term, we're continuing to take the medical advice. We respectfully don't pre-empt contracts or agreements before they're signed.
But I will say this, we are deeply involved in looking beyond this year at booster or variant strategies, and that is a very important part of our consideration. So an entirely reasonable question.
Thanks, Minister. The PM today said that the India travel pause was working, because cases of COVID in quarantine, like Howard Springs, was coming down, and that meant that once we’ve gone pass 15 May, we could have a lot more repatriation flights.
Presumably, when we start taking travellers from India again though, there will be another surge in cases in quarantine. So what exactly is being done now to make that more manageable for 15 May? And why weren’t we prepared for that before this?
Oh, it's always about caseload. And I think that's the important point to understand is what we have seen is, of course, one-in-eight, more than one-in-eight passengers on the most recent flights were testing positive. That's a level beyond anything that we had seen before.
And our job is to protect Australia against a third wave. Our job is to protect our health system. And so we have to manage the balance and the caseload.
And we’re aware, obviously, of the potential for cases, which is precisely why we took the difficult temporary measures, difficult but temporary measures.
And then in terms of forwards, as the PM says, the pause is working. What we've seen is on the advice that I have from the Border and of DFAT authorities, in the last seven days, over 23,000 arrivals with 80 cases or positivity rate across the country of 0.3 per cent. So we have dropped from 13 per cent to 0.3 per cent; 13 per cent to nought point three per cent.
With respect, Minister. Sorry, but is anything being done, because presumably, within a month’s time, we could be back up in having one-in-eight cases on a flight testing positive. So that means we’d have to pause travel again?
Well, I think there are a number of things that are occurring. One, of course, is where you have a challenge, it's very important to address the challenge. Not only have we brought on board the National Resilience Centre in Howard Springs, we are tripling the capacity of Howard Springs, and that's occurring as we speak.
Secondly, there are provisions being put in place to assist better testing in country at the point of departure. And I think that's a very important part of it, to make sure that we have that better testing in place. And then thirdly, we're looking at systems capacity right across the country.
So all of those things are occurring. But the first job was to bring down that caseload. And when that's a reality, right through the pandemic, we've adapted and responded to the realities.
And we're seeing the pause working. The positivity load has dropped. Therefore, we're seeing greater capacity provisionally emerging within Howard Springs. At the same time, we're tripling the capabilities of Howard Springs going forward.
Thanks, Minister. CSL say they’re now delivering a million doses a week. Aren’t the numbers your announcing today still relatively small for GPs?
When do you expect the rollout to hit a pace closer to what we were expecting earlier in the year going past, I don’t know, three or four million, and getting into the bulk of the population?
Well, I think what you're seeing is that acceleration right now, with 79,000 vaccinations in the last 24 hours.
With regards to going forwards, it’s precisely because we will go from- remember, these are first dose distributions and we have to provision for second doses. And somehow, that is sometimes lost, so it’s an important thing for Lucas and myself to emphasise that.
That we’ll go from 330,000 AstraZeneca doses being delivered this week to 450,000 next week, to over 600,000 made available in the following week.
But then, of course, in week 17, we're moving to second doses. And so at that point, of course, we'll be doing first and second doses, and Pfizer. So all of those elements come together. In terms of the supply, CSL is moving now from three to four batches.
The first week where there was four batches- although previously, they had indicated that may have been available earlier. Now we know that the week of 17 May is when we will receive the first of those four batch weeks, which is over the million. There is some chance it may be earlier, but at this stage, we're banking on the week of 17 May. And so that's where the supply comes.
But we always have to provision for second doses, and that is absolutely an important part of it.
Minister, thanks very much for your time. It’s almost a year to the day that you stood alongside Twiggy Forest and announced 10 million COVID testing kits will come to Australia thanks to the mining magnate. Can you update where is that at now?
So ultimately, we ordered and received 4.8 million doses, just over three million have been used so far. And others are continuing to be used.
So that was critical. The advice of Helios, one of the providers, is they would not have got through the full testing for Victoria during the second wave here without those supplies.
And the world was facing a supply shortage back in April and May of last year, and that has been absolutely vital.
So we're already over 3 million used, out of 4.8 million that have been acquired. We've always had the option for more if we need them, but global supplies are now strong. And it's also provided a very important contingency reserve if something else were to be a problem globally.
So we have strong supplies globally, but every day, whether it's with regards to masks, vaccines, ventilators, test kits, we're always looking at the risk and making sure there’s contingency. So it's been a critical part of our national testing program and it's helped save lives and protect lives.
Thank you Minister. We’ve just heard from Ita Buttrose at the National Press Club, and she gave a very passionate address about Age-related Macular Degeneration, and she’s calling on the Federal Government to reject a recommendation to cut the rebate for eye injections.
Will the Government reject that recommendation? And will it use next week’s budget to increase access to treatment in the public health system?
So, firstly, I thank and respect Ita for her work on Macular Degeneration. It’s been very important.
Secondly, we are, through our indigenous health futures missions, expanding access around the country for indigenous Australians with regards to a single goal, and that is by 2025, ending avoidable indigenous blindness. And Macular Degeneration is a critical part of that, so there is investment on that front.
Then this a report to Government. There are many reports to Government, and it’s not one which we have considered and determined yet. So I won’t pre-empt it. But our job is very clear, to make sure that every Australian has access to eye care as early as possible.
Minister Hunt, sorry, can I just jump in there. Can I get your reaction to an application that’s been lodged with the Federal Court just moments against your powers on the biosecurity measure? Do you think, are you confident, that your measure can withstand a legal challenge?
Look, I won’t comment on specific cases before the courts. More generally, that’s asking me to comment on a specific case before the court. I’ve actually spoken about this earlier on in the week, before there was a case. So I’d refer you to those comments, now that there is a case, the advice I have, as always, is not to comment on a specific case.
But I think I made a statement two days ago which was crystal clear in relation to that. And we also, we always exercise these with the absolute caution, and with the full processes and that’s what we’ve done right throughout.
Now you’ve been very patient those who are here. Louisa?
Yes. Overnight, we’ve seen an Australian cricketer test positive to COVID. If Australian great Mike Hussey did require medical treatment, would you relax the India ban to bring him home to be treated here, or would you leave him over in India to be cared for by their collapsing healthcare system?
Well, I think one of the very important things that we’ve focused on is ensuring, all of the discussions have been about making sure that we are only bringing people to Australia who are COVID negative.
That has been one of the principles that oppositions, governments, the medical fraternity have been talking about. Ensuring that we have pre-flight testing. And that pre-flight testing is to ensure that those who are on the flight are safe and that we are minimising the import of cases into the country.
And so obviously the deepest focus and sympathy for anybody who has been tested. My understanding is that the particular circumstances of the IPL are such that they have access to excellent medical care within the IPL bubble and so our care and our sympathy is with any individual.
I wouldn’t comment on an individual case, but the national principle has been to ensure that people are treated in the country where they are positive. And within the IPL, as a general rule, my advice is that they have excellent access and excellent quality medical care.
Minister, Australia is one of the only countries producing the vaccine, but we don’t have very many infections. India do, do you think there’s a case for us to send some of the local production to India?
And the second question, Victoria have been asking to reallocate its max vaccine proportion to GPs. Will you allow them to do that?
In relation to the second question, that’s already happened and that’s part of the reason that we are able to make this announcement today.
We’ve got the increased supply. The increased confidence in supply. Increased contingency. But also, the reallocation from the states which I acknowledged at the outset.
So we do thank them for that, and as we increase from 330 to 450, to approximately 600,000 doses of AstraZeneca a week before we get to the second doses, all those elements have helped. So, they’re doing a great job and we appreciate that.
Now then, in relation to international vaccines. We’ve been a huge sponsor and supporter of international vaccine access. Obviously, we’ve made a million of our doses available for PNG. And we have previously provided approximately 10,000 doses to PNG.
I’m able to announce today that another 10,000 doses are travelling to Timor-Leste. And I would leave it for the Foreign Minister as to whether or not there have been any requests from India for vaccines. I apologise, that hasn’t come to me if there are.
One of the things we do have is capacity with our AstraZeneca. Because it’s now over-50s in Australia, that does create a flexibility for Australia to provide extra assistance to our friends and neighbours who may be facing vaccine shortage.
So it’s actually something I’ve been thinking about in the last 24 hours, exactly that question. So I think it’s a good question. We have that capacity with AstraZeneca, I’m just aware of whether the Foreign Minister or the Prime Minister have received any requests from India.
You’ve been very patient.
I couldn’t quite hear what was being asked over the phone, so I just wanted to check. That last question, was that about the Biosecurity Act?
I’ll leave that one. When do you expect the first repatriation to depart India to Australia, and have you received advice yet on the case load level Howard Springs needs to reach before you’re comfortable allowing Australians to return from India.
So, two very related questions. The advice we’ve received from the Northern Territory is that they are increasingly comfortable with the capabilities and the caseload levels in Howard Springs. That still has more days to run. But we’ll be considering that on a continuous basis.
I think that’s the position that the Prime Minister has already set out. Continuous review. But we’ve received, in the last 24 hours, advice from the Northern Territory that they are thankful for and appreciative of the pause. But the pause is doing its job.
What does that mean? That means that I hope we’ll be able to resume repatriation flights from India to Australia to recommence the air bridge as soon as possible after 15 May.
We still have to review that, but I think the signs are good. And I think the signs are good for Australians returning. We’ve got one more question, and then everybody’s been very patient.
Just two quick questions if that’s okay. What’s your message to other premiers who may be considering closing their borders as a response to the New South Wales case?
And secondly, a QANTAS flight is bound for India with those medical supplies. Will it be returning empty, or is that a chance to repatriate some of the most vulnerable Australians over there?
Sure. Firstly, in relation to the states, I think we saw a very measured response to Western Australia over the weekend. A very measured response from Western Australia, and a very measured response to Western Australia.
So the Chief Health Officers are all meeting through what’s known as the medical expert panel, or the Australian Health Protection Principle Committee today. And they will exchange information. They’re well used to managing these situations, so I- they’ll make- or they’ll provide their advice, but I think the measured response to Western Australia, from Western Australia and from around the country over the weekend, might well provide a model.
But they are based, of course, on the case risk in terms of any particular outbreak. And there will be cases, we know that. 77 days of zero Australia wide, but not every day zero. And so of any country in the world, we know how to manage this. And we’ll get through this.
In terms of India, this is a supply run only. And the reason is because there is that pause on individuals for case load management. The signs are positive, though, that the cases are coming. 0.3 per cent positivity over 20,000 people, over the last seven days. I think that should give confidence and hope to every Australian.
Ultimately, our job has been to protect against a third wave. There are difficult decisions. But these are decisions which, whether it’s been the decisions on China, or the decisions on all of the international borders, all the decisions on external travel or indigenous communities, have ultimately saved lives and protected lives.
How is it that we can have almost a full MCG in Australia whilst so much of the world is in agony? It’s because of the decisions we’ve taken. And we’ll make them. But we try to keep them as brief, as temporary and as light as possible.
Thank you very much.
Tony, can I ask you a quick question? Tony, you’ve had a long association with the AMA, they’ve been sharply critical of the Government this week on the India travel ban. Do you support their position?
The AMA is obviously the association that I was very privileged and honoured to lead for a period of time. The current leadership has consulted with the vast extent of its membership and made that assessment.
Today’s announcement here was about ensuring that we continue to have the confidence in the society that has done all the hard yards in protecting its community and ensuring that we can continue to have the confidence going forward that we are doing our part to protect the Australian public.
But also coming back to Australia have the right to come back and also have the safety and the protection of those quarantine facilities at their best, where they were being at a stage where they were really struggling to keep pace with the increasing load.
So that pause was an appropriate pause, pending a review and pending an ability to get that load off those facilities