Topics: COVID-19 modelling; Ventilator beds; CSIRO funding; Younger people in ICU.
Joining me now, Federal Minister for Health Greg Hunt.
Minister, thank you very much for your time, I know you’re the busiest man in Australia and I feel terrible to trespass on you tonight, but I think hearing it straight from the horse’s mouth so to speak is incredibly valuable.
When will we see some modelling released?
The expectation is that it goes to National Cabinet tomorrow, which is the Prime Minister and the Premiers.
And they are likely- and that’s my expectation to release it after that.
But already there’s been a first round that was given out by the Prime Minister and Professor Paul Kelly, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer a few weeks ago.
And the key thing here is that we know that were there to have been no actions by the Government, we could have had a catastrophic death rate and death toll and these things will be updated tomorrow.
But we can see in our real-world data now, that from 25 per cent to 30 per cent growth two weeks ago, we’ve managed to get it down into the low teens, below 10, and now we’re just below 5 per cent.
And potentially we’ll see over the next week or two whether it consolidates.
That means fewer cases, better contact tracing, fewer hospitalisations, the capacity to really get on top of this. And that’s the best way through the virus.
All the things we said we’d do, reducing or flattening the curve, reducing the rate of new cases and increasing the capacity with our Telehealth for our GPs, with our mental health, our aged care, and above all else what we’ve done with the ventilator capacity.
And the unique, once in a century, really, partnership with our public and private hospitals, to bring our private hospitals into that partnership, with all their nurses and their beds in the fight against the coronavirus.
Alright, I’m not going to embarrass you here but I’ll tell you what I’ve said before.
I’ve known you for 20 years, I think we can all be thankful that you and not some of the idiots going around have actually got this job at this time.
You’re one of the smartest people I’ve known in government.
Go back to the start when you (inaudible) out of Wuhan. When you knew how many ventilators we had in Australia, when you went looking for masks and PPE and other equipment that you knew would be needed in the fight, and found it either wasn’t here, wasn’t made in Australia or was being shipped back to China.
How worried were you that we would be able to do what was needed to get to the position we’re in? And I’m not calling it over yet, but we are starting to see some results from the shutdown.
Look, early on we were worried, because we could see predictions of a globally catastrophic virus, and sadly we are seeing that play out in some countries.
There’s no hiding from the agony in Spain and Italy, and countries such as France, and the UK and the United States.
Countries that we know and we love and they’re incredibly developed, and so that scenario was before us.
And what we set out to do from day one, the PM said we have to do everything we can do to two things: bring this virus down and improve our capacity on the health side, and then make sure that we protect our population economically through what is going to be an agonising time.
And he had a National Security Committee meeting every second day as we planned our way through this from the outset.
The immensely difficult decision to close the borders with China – many criticised that at the time because countries such as the UK and Canada kept those borders open for international students.
And there was a real debate in Australia which I think has already been forgotten.
But that decision bought us at least an extra month and that’s what allowed us to do all of that preparation.
We’ve now brought over 30 million masks into Australia. I can disclose this evening that we have contracts for either domestic production or international procurement of over half a billion masks in the period between now until the end of the year.
We don’t count them until they’ve landed or they’ve been made, but the fact that we’ve brought them in, distributed 11 million already, another 10 million can go out.
These are things that are really going to make a difference and it’s given us the time to prepare our hospitals and the intensive care units and the ventilator beds and to almost quadruple our capacity on that front.
On the ventilator beds, Minister – when I spoke at the start of year saying Australia had 2200 ventilators only, and you’ve now set a target of 7500- so 7500.
One of the things coming out of this has got to be, doesn’t it, a rethink of what we designate as essential industries to keep and to build up here in Australia, and things that don’t sound very sophisticated like ventilator manufacturing, when you look at it compared to, say, defence scale ups in Australia.
Surely that’s got to be some of the things now we have and keep in Australia.
Look, not everything will be the same after this. And one of the things which the Prime Minister and the Treasurer and myself have all flagged is we will be looking at what are critical industries.
We are fortunate because we have ResMed, a great Australian company which is manufacturing in Sydney, which is able to manufacture ventilators.
And they have been able to tool up, to take what they do, to expand production at lightning speed.
But other things such as masks, we’ve got the army working with a small Shepparton company which has become a big Shepparton company.
But we have had to bring them in internationally, and they are the worries.
Things such test kits, we are going to have to look at what are the critical elements, whilst we have building a national medical stockpile, but what are the critical elements that we need as baseline for any future pandemics.
Because in a highly mobile world – and it will return to being a highly mobile world – these pandemics could be more frequent. Therefore, we have to steel and prepare ourselves.
So, there will be more things to do after we get through the virus and we’re already planning the road out and the road beyond.
Well, just on that point, and I’m not going to drag you into all the sort of conspiracy theories about how this emanated from Wuhan, but even if it is completely benign, the release of this virus, it does show you that rogue states can see how quickly the world can be disabled, markets can be shut down, economies can be damaged by something as simple as a very, very tough and difficult strain of an influenza-type virus.
You made some big announcements today in relation to the CSIRO.
I want to touch on those because Professor Trevor Drew – we’ve had him on this show a couple of times to talk about pretty amazing work he does down at that Geelong facility.
It’s an animal health laboratory, but you’ve given them a multimillion-dollar upgrade, and thankfully a name-change too.
So, over $200 million to the CSIRO. And they’ll be focusing in particular on epidemic preparedness.
And whilst I don’t have responsibility for them – that’s with the Industry Minister – together we’ve been working on this idea that we can be prepared for viral changes, for epidemics, pandemics.
It’s one of the highest-grade facilities in the world. And along with the Doherty Institute in Melbourne, these are real backbones.
They are doing work now, and they are doing work in terms of the vaccines, understanding the virus, and possible treatments as well.
So, I think a vaccine is a little further away. I think the treatments are looking very prospective, and we’ve secured over 2000 courses for our patients in our hospitals of hydroxychloroquine from an international maker, more likely to come.
But that will be now for the doctors to determine – will this help our patient?
Will this mitigate, because there’s some promising – I’ll say it cautiously – some promising international evidence, disputed by some.
But we want to be in a position, and we will be in a position, so as if the doctors believe it’s safe and likely to be effective, they can do those trials and give those patients the best chance at a real shot of life.
Alright Minister, bust the myth that it’s only older Australians who end up in hospital by this, because I saw some numbers today, and 96 Australians are in ICU, and some of them are in their 30s and 40s.
We know overseas in Britain a five-year-old child with no known comorbidities also passed away yesterday from this disease.
So, this is a disease that’s greatest impact on the elderly, but it’s not confined.
This idea that young people might be immune is wrong. And I say this to so many young Australians who might feel: look, the worst that would happen is that I would have the equivalent of a mild flu.
It may take your life, and that’s why these very difficult counter-intuitive, counter to our nature social distancing rules are, for the time being, so important.
It can save your life, or it can save your grandmother’s life.
These are the very reasons that we’re doing these most unnatural and most counter-intuitive of things, and we want to make sure that we can get through this as quickly as possible.
And the more we practice the distancing and the isolation now, the more we protect young people and their relatives from the threat of what we see overseas.
Now, I think we are going to avoid the worst of what we’ve seen overseas, but only if we continue to maintain the practices that we currently have.
Right. We know from the graphs – we put them up at the start of the show – that the curve would appear to be flattening. It is very early days.
How worried are you that we see these sorts of graphs out there at night, on the nightly news, and we all get a bit relaxed and comfortable.
We think we’re- you know, beaten the worst of it. When are we going to hit the peak? What’s your sort of projection?
I’ve been told around Anzac Day we should see how we’re really going, and able to then judge when we might wind back into business as usual. Is that true?
Look, I’ll wait for some of the modelling tomorrow. But we have always said May to June has been our prediction, but as we progress with the results, we are doing, I have to say, better than my best hope and our best expectation.
And so that’s a really important thing to understand.
Now, some would say, look, don’t get ahead of yourself – and I absolutely agree with that.
We shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. These are early positive signs, but they have been more successful than our best anticipations. And so I think this is an important thing to say.
Australians need to have hope, to see that this is something that we will pass through.
It’s not a permanent state. We’ve talked about a six-month period. Maybe less, it may be more. And as we go through this, we’ll know.
But what I am increasingly confident of is that we will not be Italy or Spain or others – and I don’t say that with any criticism, they are living the agony of agonies for a nation.
But what Australians have done together, they’ve maintained the disciplines. They’ve been more disciplined than many presumed, although they’ve lived up to what I had absolutely hoped they would do.
And our health workers are doing their work, the public are doing their work.
Yes, there are a few people that do the wrong thing.
But overwhelmingly, the public is rising to this in a most Australian way, with a bit of sense of humour, but with a lot of compassion and commitment. And that’s actually, literally, saving lives.
Minister, I have to leave it there, and I know you’ve got plenty of other commitments tonight. I really appreciate you coming on the show. Thank you very much.
Minister Greg Hunt. As I said, we are very lucky that he’s in the job and not some others.