Date published: 
6 October 2021
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

REBECCA LEVINGSTON:     

And it's fair to say that Australia's vaccine rollout was a bit sluggish to start. Confusion over who was eligible, supply shortages, that seems to be sorted now, though. Lieutenant General John Frewen is the National COVID Taskforce Coordinator. General, good morning.

JOHN FREWEN:                   

Hi, Rebecca.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON:     

We have enough supply, is there enough demand?

JOHN FREWEN:                   

Well, we are right at an inflection point in the rollout campaign where we're shifting from a supply-based system to a demand system. So really, from here on in, it is now all about people's willingness to come forward.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON:     

Who's the most hesitant? Like is there a particular age or stage of life? Is it a geographical location, that's sort of, whoop whoop, the alarm, raising the alarm bell for you?

JOHN FREWEN:                   

Yeah look, there's sort of three key concerns for me at the moment. There is hesitancy, but we're really encouraged that almost 90 per cent of people are saying they do tend to get vaccinated. Then there's complacency, and I think complacency is a very significant issue, particularly in some of the states where there just haven't been significant outbreaks. And, I mean, there are some people who still do have difficulty accessing the vaccines, but we're working really hard to make sure that everybody has got good pathways through. And we've got about 10,000 points of presence now. But for some people who have particular difficulties, we're working on that as well.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON:     

10,000 points of what? Sorry.

JOHN FREWEN:                   

Points of presence, where you can get vaccinated. So that's GPs, Commonwealth vaccine clinics, and now the pharmacies as well. We've got almost 3000 pharmacists hammering out Moderna, the other mRNA vaccine now, which has been great to see.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON:     

Okay, so there's 10,000 across Australia?

JOHN FREWEN:                   

Yeah. And so this is- increasing convenience is one of the things that we've really been working on. And that's another, some people, whether they're hesitant or complacent, if we can bring convenience to it, then it's just another reason, why not.?

REBECCA LEVINGSTON:     

And Lieutenant General John Frewen, who is coordinating the national rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, on ABC Radio Brisbane. My name's Rebecca Levingston. A million bucks will be an incentive for some people to go and get their first dose this month. What do you think of the million-dollar vax incentive campaign?

JOHN FREWEN:                   

Well, I don't know how to get a ticket yet, Rebecca. But-

REBECCA LEVINGSTON:     

[Talks over] I think you and I miss out, unfortunately.

JOHN FREWEN:                   

[Laughs] No look, those sorts of things, I think, can be helpful. It's good industry and other sort of private entities are going down that path. For us in the government, we're still focused very much on the choice, convenience and freedoms line, which has really worked so far for us. I mean, we've now got full choice of vaccines. There are no restrictions to any of the age groups over 12 now. People can go and get whichever vaccine they might prefer, even though they're all equally effective and safe. We've just talked about convenience and then really, it's either getting our freedoms back if you're in a state that's in a lockdown, or trying to protect the freedoms you've already got if you haven't been living in lockdown.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON:     

Are you worried about Queensland in particular? Because we're lagging behind, aren't we?

JOHN FREWEN:                   

Yeah, look, there's a couple of areas. I mean, WA, the NT and Queensland, I think are a bit behind at the moment. And I think there's a bit of- complacency will be a part of that in Queensland. But I really encourage people that this Delta, it will find a path. And when it finds a path, it sort of, it hits hard.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON:     

Except that it hasn't, General. Like that's- is that part of the, sort of, ironically, the problem that there've been more than 50 incursions of this virus in Queensland in recent months. And this state hasn't ended up anywhere near what New South Wales and Victoria is dealing with. Is that- is our success, to some extent, the biggest challenge to getting the vaccination done properly?

JOHN FREWEN:                   

Yeah, well, I think, I mean, it's great news it hasn't got a foothold so far. And I know every time, we watch really closely to see what will happen next. But we've seen both New South Wales and Victoria got to that point where they realised they had to go to a different management strategy. I've just been watching on the news in New Zealand, it looks like they're in the same boat now. So the chances are that the thing eventually gets a foothold. And I think as the nation opens up, the risk of that will increase as well. So the message is, I mean, get vaccinated now. You've- there's a period of some weeks between doses. You need to have both doses to get the full protection, and now is the ideal time to do that, not once the outbreak has happened.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON:     

Do you think Queensland should abandon the COVID Zero strategy?

JOHN FREWEN:                   

Well, that's a matter for government. I mean, what they should be pursuing is a high rate of vaccination, and- which I know the government is encouraging there. But it's up to Queenslanders to make the decision to come forward and get vaccinated. And I know many have already, but we've just got to keep encouraging people, and we've just got to keep making it as available as possible. So, it's a big place, Queensland. I've lived up in North Queensland, Far North Queensland. So I know there are a very different sort of motivations across the state as well, but I really do encourage all Queenslanders to get yourself booked in and to encourage your friends and family to do the same.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON:     

General Frewen, would incentives, be it donuts a day or for money, actually help your campaign as well? Do you want to see those sorts of things rolled out?

JOHN FREWEN:                   

Yeah look, right now, we still think that the choice, convenience and freedoms have been what has been bringing people forward. Getting vaccinated is the right thing to do, and people in the main can see the logic for it. I mean, it's fantastic we've hit 80 per cent first dose across the nation. We're almost at 60 per cent fully vaccinated now. So that's many, many millions of Australians who have had stepped forward and got vaccinated. Of course, we've got millions more to go. I think those sorts of incentives that are starting to appear through industry and other sort of forums will help, but yeah, we'll keep reviewing. I've always said, we'll keep sort of other incentives on the table. But we're now, from here on in, we're going to really have to focus in on specific groups and try and figure out exactly either why they are hesitant, why they're complacent, and what might move them best. Because these things will never be a one-size-fits-all, and just sort of one- you know, we won't be able to come up with one sort of solution that will shift every single group.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON:     

Just a couple of quick questions, because I know you've got to go. Which country is the model that you're looking at, the strategy that you think Australia could emulate?

JOHN FREWEN:                   

Yeah, so, look, I've- we looked into this pretty broadly when I first came to the role and we did our review of how the rollout was going. Of course, we went to nations like- we didn't physically go there, but we looked at and we spoke to- I spoke to Israelis about what they had done there, I've spoken to the Canadians, I've spoken to the Americans, I've spoken to the Brits. And there were aspects of all of those rollouts that, you know, I either learnt from in things to try and do or not do. So of course, our national rollout now has got a very distinctly Australian feel to it.

But, you know, we're getting up there now in those daily rates of vaccination. I mean, just yesterday, we had a 350,856 doses. That's another record day for the rollout. More than 50,000 doses were done in Queensland, which is great to see. So, we're hitting the sort of rates that are among world best now. It's really just a matter of keeping that up. And as I said, the key variable now isn't about supply or the ability to get the vaccines into people. It's just people coming forward now. So that's why this is all about just encouraging everybody to get it done.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON:     

In a couple of those countries like the UK, Boris Johnson has backed booster shots for people over 50. In the US, Oprah Winfrey's best friend, Gayle, just got her booster shot. General Frewen, when will Australians be getting booster shots?

JOHN FREWEN:                   

Department of Health is working on a strategy for that now. The science is actually still a bit out on, you know, the necessity for booster shots. I think we'll probably see-

REBECCA LEVINGSTON:     

[Interrupts] Really?

JOHN FREWEN:                   

Yeah, yeah, there's still- you know, I mean, there's- we've [indistinct] vaccinate the world, first dose and second dose. So, you know, where should these vaccines be getting prioritised right now? That's an ethical question on a global scale. The- there is, certainly, from my understanding, and I'm not the medical guy, but there are some people who've got very specific immune deficiencies that mean the first two doses haven't sort of triggered the sort of response, so they will need a third dose. So, I think we might see some people very specifically (*) getting a third dose, probably through the course of this year. But that's different to the booster program.

And then when the booster program is implemented, I think it will be prioritised for those who are most vulnerable. But at the moment, all of that policy is still being resolved, but we might see it later this year. But certainly, I think through the course of next year, vaccines have already been purchased for the very- for a booster program. And the intent is we're sort of trying to put things in place now that mean we can transition from vaccine roll out to booster programs like your annual flu shot, through the course of next year. So I think people should be able to expect to pick up booster shots, of course, through the course of next year.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON:     

Is there a stockpile of AstraZeneca in Australia at the moment? Either that's filling your medicine cabinet or that you're shipping off overseas?

JOHN FREWEN:   

We've been pushing the AstraZeneca out into the- initially into the Pacific, and now into the Indo-Pacific. So we've moved about 3.5 million doses out to our friends and partners around the region. It's been going to places like Indonesia, Timor-Leste, Fiji, and it's been very, very well received by our friends and partners out there. So- and it'll be a bit the same with the mRNA vaccines. We're expecting 12 million doses of mRNA vaccines this month, and then again next month. But we're now getting to that stage where we've got enough vaccines in the country to vaccinate the entire population. So as quickly as we can, we will be shifting both AstraZeneca and mRNA vaccines out into our- into a new region to help our friends and partners get vaccinated as well.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON:     

Yeah, but as you say, you're getting to the pointy end of things where, whether it's complacency or hesitancy, or indeed, sort of an anti-vaxxer sentiment, that will be the big challenge then.

If Queensland doesn't hit 80 per cent double dose vaccination, will we be left behind in terms of borders reopening?

JOHN FREWEN:                   

Well, I mean, that's- you know, I think I've seen the Prime Minister speaking about opening up international travel sometime. I think, you know, New South Wales now, their rates are getting sort of right up there. Victoria is not far behind. So, I think there will be- I think there'll be political pressure in both those places to start opening up. But that's, you know, they're decisions for governments. That's not what I'm doing, but I'll be continuing to try and drive vaccines out to all parts of the country. And again, I just say to Queensland, golden opportunity now to get vaccinated. It's never been easier to get vaccinated. Just about everywhere across the state, there is ready access to vaccines, and there are appointments available. So please, please step forward and get it done.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON:     

Really appreciate your time this morning. Just one last sort of parochial question. You said you lived in Far North Queensland. Where did you live?

JOHN FREWEN:                   

Oh, I had about nine years in Townsville. And of course, with the army up there, and of course, we worked all up through the cape. And so I had a great time up in Townsville. Really loved- love the place, got good friends there. Used to get over to Maggie Island.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON:     

Wonder when you'll next get over to Magnetic Island. I grew up in Townsville, JJ, since we're being casual. Yeah, what years did you live there?

JOHN FREWEN:                   

Oh, I was there in the- the first time I was there in the late '80s, and then I was back there through the mid-'90s. And my daughter was actually born there. She turned 18 a couple of weeks ago, so she's a- the North Queenslander.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON:     

Well, happy birthday to your daughter. And I reckon there would've been some North Queensland crossover between you and me. Let's hope you do get to Magnetic Island at some point. Although is- what's the endpoint for you as the taskforce coordinator?

JOHN FREWEN:                   

Well, that's an excellent question, Rebecca. That will be decided by others, but I'll keep driving on trying to get these vaccine rates up as high as we can. You know, we've got fantastic opportunity to- I think we'll see a national rate in the 70s this month. We've got a really good chance of getting our national rate up into the 80s through November. But it's hard work from here on in. It's talking about international experience. We've watched overseas, and once you get up past 70, the experience does seem to be that- you know, you have to start just incrementally sort of ratcheting up every per cent after that. So we'll just keep at it until such time as the government decides it's done and I'll be returned back to the defence department.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON:     

Hopefully a stint in flamingo board shorts on Magnetic Island before that.

JOHN FREWEN:                   

Indeed. That would be nice.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON:     

Appreciate your time as always. Thanks so much.

JOHN FREWEN:                   

Alright. Cheers Rebecca.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON:     

Lieutenant General John Frewen, the National COVID Taskforce Coordinator.

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