Greg Hunt

Federal Member for Flinders | Minister for Health

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Transcript - ABC Ballarat interview with Nicole Chvastek

Tuesday, 5 September 2017


Topics: Flu deaths, compulsory flu vaccination for aged care workers

Greg Hunt is the Health Minister. Greg Hunt, good afternoon.

Good afternoon Nicole.

What’s the Federal Government’s response to this? Seven people have died in this facility in Wangaratta.

So this is obviously just a terrible tragedy for those involved and for the family of those involved. There are two immediate things we’ve done.

The first is that the Minister for Aged Care Ken Wyatt has, after consultation with myself and the Prime Minister’s Office, launched an investigation through what’s called the Aged Care Quality Agency into the situation both in St Johns Retirement Village in Wangaratta, but also Strathdevon Aged Care in Tasmania.

The second is after talking to the Chief Medical Officer of the Commonwealth as well as the Council of the Aging and the Royal Australian College of GPs and others, we’ve indicated that we will work towards a compulsory vaccination program for aged care workers.

The Chief Medical Officer was indicating that there was a very strong case for this. We would work collaboratively with all of the different parts of the sector, and it’s been welcomed by the Council of the Aged, by the College of GPs, and by the National Centre for Immunisation Research.

When will this be implemented?

So, we’ll work now and the aim is to have it in place for next year’s flu season. It’s never happened in Australia before.
This is obviously early days in my time in the role, but my view is that ultimately our job is to protect those who need our care, and that is the fundamental and critical thing that we need to do.

Why has the situation at St Johns in Wangaratta been so acute?

So clearly there’s been a contagion through the retirement village in St Johns as well as in Strathdevon.

The best advice that I have is that the state was notified I think on 11 August, and then they only notified the Commonwealth late last week on 31 August.

So, that’s precisely why we have launched the inquiry, why Ken Wyatt has called it, to make sure that we get the full details on the spread, the immunisation rate, quarantine procedures, but also the gap in notification.

Is that good enough? That seems an inordinate amount of time.

Well, I am concerned about it. I’m deeply concerned about it, that one level would know and then not pass on those details for 20 days at a critical time.

You say that you are deeply concerned about it. On what basis do you think that there has been a cover-up, a stuff-up …

I don’t want to make any accusations. I do think that the fact there’s a 20 day delay is a matter of very deep concern to me, from the state being notified as I’m advised on 11 August, and then the state not notifying the Commonwealth until 31 August.

At the moment, our number one task is to make sure that the support is there within the retirement village for the health workers, for the nursing staff, and above all else for those who are at risk of flu or have contracted the flu.

And then the second thing is we then double back and look through the review of the actions of the home and of the state, and any other action which could be taken.

But frankly, I’m not waiting for the outcome in terms of the national need to do for the first time what’s never occurred before, to move towards a broad-based vaccination regime for aged care workers, simply because as the Chief Medical Officer was saying to me with some of these strains of flu they particularly have an impact on the vulnerable and frail-aged.

Minister, how many deaths had occurred when the first notification was received by the state on the eleventh?

I’m not aware of whether or not there had been any deaths at that stage. We will get the figures, because of course the Commonwealth has had minimal information prior to the thirty-first.

So, those are exactly the sorts of reasons why this has been called to receive that information.

What things could the Federal Government have done? What sort of interventions could you have implemented, had you been told earlier?

Well, there’s the potential for moving immediately to a quarantine regime, to ensuring that there are procedures which will separate anybody who has the influenza.

So, there are a series of possibilities which can be taken in a situation where there is a breakout. Primary responsibility is the state authorities to take those actions, which is why the state was notified, and this inquiry will indicate what actions were taken by whom and when.

So are you saying that lives could have been saved had you been able to intervene earlier?

Well, I want to be cautious on that. I don’t want to approach this in any way which is accusatory, but we will ask all of the questions without fear or favour, because frankly these are senior Australians who have given an enormous amount to the country, and the risks to them, because many of them are frail, are significant and great, and my view is that we just have to continue to do more.

Are you confident that the appropriate infection control and quarantine procedures were followed when the state was notified on the eleventh?

Look, I don’t want to speculate on that. I don’t want to make reflections until I have full information.

The challenge here is that it’s been such a delay in passing the information through to the Commonwealth that in terms of the situation on the ground, we are gathering the information that we need. But that is again precisely why Ken Wyatt has I think very humanely, but also very swiftly, taken this action.

What was your reaction when you discovered this had been going on for 20 days and you hadn’t been notified?

Oh, when Ken and I spoke about it, it was in less than a minute that we agreed that there should and there will be an urgent immediate inquiry which doesn’t pull any punches, it finds out the facts.

What will the form of that inquiry be?

So, it’s the Australian Aged Care Quality Agency will conduct the review.

Minister, are you expecting the death toll in this incident to rise?

Look, I will leave that to the authorities on the ground. We know that there were a number of people who were very sick, and I always hope for the best, but I wouldn’t make a prediction because some of the very frail, if they have been exposed to more, to influenza, it can be in a very precarious position.

Is there a message you would like to give to the Victorian Andrews Government if they are notified of another incident of this nature.

Look, the best thing to do is to take immediate steps within any nursing home environment to ensure that there are full and appropriate quarantine and protection measures, and to contact the Commonwealth as soon as possible.

Minister, we’re just getting reports through from North Korea that the regime is preparing to launch a new missile. It may fire, the breaking news is coming through now, an intercontinental ballistic missile towards the Pacific.

This is a report coming out of Seoul. I know that you haven’t been briefed on this matter, but clearly the region, in fact the world, has been on high alert all weekend following the launch by Kim Jong Un of the H-bomb, or the nuclear test, at the weekend and the subsequent earthquake.

What’s your reaction to these reports that are coming through now that North Korea may fire an intercontinental ballistic missile towards the Pacific?

Well obviously, that would be a dangerous and retrograde step, and we would urge them not to take any action which is provocative. We know that it is a slave state.

We know that they have treated their own people in a fashion which is genocidal, and it is really the moment where China and the United States need to work together.

China, in particular, has a critical role in helping to persuade North Korea from any actions because this is a very serious moment in geopolitical developments, and we will work with the United States. But equally the United States and the Prime Minister have made it clear that now is a fundamental moment for China to do all that it can to try to bring North Korea into line.

Minister, thank you.

Thanks very much.


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