Topics: COVID-19 response in Victoria; Royal Commission into aged care; COVID-19 vaccine.
I haven’t had yarn to Greg Hunt, the Federal Health Minister, for quite some time but he’s on the line right now. Minister, good morning.
Good morning Ray.
In recent discussions with the Prime Minister, he’s reluctant to apportion blame to anyone, given that no one’s blameless in all of this, but I mean, we’ve had the apology from Gladys Berejiklian but no punishment dished out to any people in health, let alone ministers.
But now, the revelation that the vast majority of cases in Victoria come from the inadequacies of what was happening in hotel quarantine. It must be particularly frustrating.
Look, it is but it’s especially frustrating for the people of Victoria, one because of the heartache and tragedy; and two, this is my city and my state and to see five million people in the Melbourne area in lockdown, where they can’t leave their homes other than for an hour a day, where people are having to wear masks, where there’s a curfew at night, and this is an unprecedented impact on daily life.
And so our focus is to help them get the numbers down, to fix up the contact tracing, which is improving – New South Wales has been arguably one of the world’s leading contact tracing jurisdictions – and to make sure that we just track down the cases.
So, we’re not into blaming. We just want to support each of the states and territories. But I do know for the people of Victoria, this has been the hardest of times.
Look, just on another matter, and I know that the Royal Commission into the Aged Care, Quality and Safety, established back in 2018, is looking at a whole range of issues.
And if we can just put COVID-19 aside for a moment and the dreadful circumstances for people in aged care there and their families.
I had a look at A Current Affair last night about an aged care facility in your home town. Do we really need- I mean, even allowing for the royal commission, do we need to have a confidential inquiry into the fact that some of these leeches are just in the business to make a quid, they don’t care about the consequences, even before COVID-19?
So we did call the inquiry precisely to look at the long-term sustainability and structure of the system.
It actually came out of the Oakden scandal in South Australia, which was a state run facility under a previous Labor government, with catastrophic outcomes.
And so whether it’s public, whether it’s private, whether it’s not for profit, it’s looking at all of those.
I think it is important to say, the overwhelming majority of aged care providers and staff do an incredible job.
There are 200,000 Australians or more than 200,000 who are in aged care, and the vast majority of them have magnificent, loving care.
And I think it’s very important to honour our carers and those that do the right thing, but those that do the wrong thing, no mercy, no forgiveness, no quarter given.
This is absolutely critical that we find those that are not doing the care properly, whether it’s public, private, not for profit.
Well I’m glad you mentioned that because I have many discussions, obviously because of our audience demographic, with people who represent the aged care industry, and I would agree with you – vast majority do a wonderful job – but that doesn’t excuse, in my mind, the criminality involved in some others.
And while there may be a result over the Aged Care Royal Commission into you know sanctions and the like, there are some people in the industry, Minister, who shouldn’t be in the industry because they’re not about looking after old people and making a reasonable living. They’re about wealth. They’re about accumulating wealth at the expensive old people who’ll eventually die in their care.
Well we have- we’ve created a position and appointed the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commissioner.
That’s different to the royal commission. This is a standing tough cop on the beat with powers to remove management, and Janet Anderson, who is that Commissioner, has removed people as managers, has brought in, for example, the Commonwealth where there have been any breaches in standards that reached that level, has overseen reviews of every aged care facility in Australia.
And where there are elements that can be approved, every facility is given that notice.
And so, that’s the approach of making sure that we have clear, high standards but then that they’re assessed and enforced, and if anybody fails to provide the care necessary, they can and have been removed.
And so, we’ll continue to be tough and ruthless on that.
But I do want to emphasise that the vast majority of people, our carers, our nurses, those who are organising or administering, they approach this as if it’s their own family in the overwhelming majority of cases.
Okay. Back to COVID-19, I just want to play some audio from the Prime Minister that I discussed last week.
There have been some suggestions – I’ve read it in pieces that have been written in the outlets that you represent – that somehow our elderly should in some way have been offered up in relation to this virus. That is just a hideous thought, an absolutely amoral hideous thought, one that I’ve had no (inaudible) with from the very first time it was suggested.
And you see, Minister, there are still some mainstream commentators saying: oh they’re old people. They would have died anyway. It’s something that I can’t bear, nor tolerate.
What’s your view on the comments that are attributed to various people about COVID-19 is going to- if that doesn’t get them, something else will? They died with it, not because of it.
Every life matters. Every life matters.
And we said that, the Prime Minister, myself, Brendan Murphy, back in February when we looked at this, that we would fight for every life.
That’s why we had the private hospitals deal, public hospitals deal, to make sure that we had the ability in place, the aged care plan, National Aged Care Plan starting in January and being focused on every day throughout this.
And our death rate in aged care is one-fifteenth of Canada, one-twenty fourth and twenty-fifth of France and Spain and a thirty-second of Italy and Ireland and one-fiftieth of the UK.
And every life lost has been a tragedy. But what we’ve achieved as a nation has been extraordinary by world standards but we’ve got a lot more to do.
I’ve got to say, New South Wales has been magnificent. You could have had multiple major outbreaks in the last two months and yet you fought them back and I want to thank the people of New South Wales.
There’s more to do, precisely to protect those elderly. It’s not just the work in the facilities but it’s being tested as Kerry Chant said in the papers today, if you’ve got symptoms, please be tested. Keep that distancing, especially young people.
We’ve got new ads focusing on young people and these are the things that are going to protect our elderly.
Okay. Now, to more positive things. Stories yesterday about the hope of (inaudible) being a vaccine mid-2021. Now, I’ve stressed to people, we’re not talking about a cure all because even as I have a flu shot every year, it doesn’t mean I won’t get the flu, it just minimises the severity of it.
You know, so we’ve got to be careful about saying oh we’re going to get a shot that’ll cure COVID-19. That may not be the case; it may be something that tempers the level of infection or the level of illness in certain areas.
Given that you’re across all of this and there are trials in the UK, the USA, China, Russia- here in Australia they’re doing, you know, batting way above their weight, punching way above their weight. Where’s the best hope for us do you think?
So there are a series of vaccines around the world.
The Queensland molecular clamp – so this is the University of Queensland in conjunction with CSL. It’s really one of the world’s top half thousand vaccines.
The AstraZeneca vaccine out of Oxford in the UK, the Pfizer vaccine, Moderna’s another one, then there have been vaccines in other countries that you’ve raised.
So we are working right across the world to look at the most prospective vaccines.
We have one particular ace up our sleeve and that is Australian manufacturing capability through CSL’s Parkville plant in Melbourne.
They have an international gold standard vaccine manufacturer called Seqirus in their portfolio and they can manufacture under licence, whether it’s the Australian vaccine or an international one.
And so international companies- no company can meet global demand.
So they need high quality manufacturers under licence and so we could help Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific in the region. And so we’re very well placed on that front.
So I’ve been cautious, very cautious until now. Now, the data science is looking more prospective and we’re in advanced negotiations on a number of those vaccines.
So you’re covering a few bases. Can I say you’re having a bet each way in that, you know, you hope one of three or one of four will come up with the solutions and secondly, the same question – are we looking at a cure or do something to minimise the impact of COVID-19.
So the first one is we are looking at a number, precisely because you don’t know which one is going to be successful.
But we’ve been able to identify the top candidates.
And then the second thing is that it is exactly, as you say, this is where the jury is still out, whether it would be a partial vaccine like the flu which will reduce the likelihood of you getting it and reduce the consequences if you do or a full vaccine such as measles or small part- or smallpox which have effectively helped to eradicate smallpox around the world and that- there’s a lot more science to go.
But you know, I’ve been cautious on the nature of the vaccine but I am now more confidence on the fact of the vaccine. And that’s an important message, a real and genuine.
No. I know that. I know you sincerely mean that but would you be prepared to say middle of next year? I mean, I know you’re not going to be held the timeline. I’m not going to ring you on June 30 and say: Minister, you’re wrong. Nothing’s happened now.
But are you confident that we’ll get there by the middle of next year or maybe even earlier?
Look, our mid-range expectation, meaning our best expectation is middle of 2021.
It could be a little earlier, it could be a bit later but we’ll be right up there with the fastest in the world because we’ve got this manufacturing capability.
And I know from talking with firms and CEOs myself, they are very keen to have Australia as part of that portfolio simply because we can cover a core- portion in a corner of the world to help whoever is successful.
And that’s good news for Australians and it’s good news for the world.
And as you say, we’re punching well above our weight on the research side.
We’ve got a number of prospective candidates and one of them is right up there in the top half dozen in the world.
You know, I don’t know to, in any way, compare what we’re going through for the past eight months with what happened during the Second World War. We had the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in the Pacific on Saturday, but the scenes of jubilation we saw in 1945.
Can you imagine the day that you officially announced that production has started and very shortly people will be able to access a vaccine?
Can you imagine the celebrations that will happen in this country and in many other countries?
I think there’ll be a lot of very happy people around the world and I don’t want to get ahead of myself.
You know, I’m focused on protecting lives and it’s very interesting, the PM leads a meeting of senior ministers and senior officials every morning which goes into granular detail, in particular aged care facilities, the workforce then steps back and look at the structures, the threats and we cover everything on the containment strategy; containment being borders, testing, tracing and distancing and then the capacity being our GPs, our aged care, our hospitals which are well placed and our vaccine.
And so he just works through these things and each day he’s focused.
It’s really- it’s a privilege- you know, it’s a responsibility but it’s a privilege to be part of a country that is so focused and you know, sometimes we can be critical of our country.
But there are a lot of things that Australia is doing that the rest of the world will turn and says: wow, I wish I were in Australia.
Yeah. Well I mean look, even allowing for the deficiencies in New South Wales and the ones we discussed in Victoria, I find it very hard to be critical. I mean I don’t know how Andrews’ stumps up every day. I mean every day he’s there. I don’t know how many consecutive media conferences he’s done. Gladys is the same. Thankfully, Annastacia Palaszczuk hasn’t been under some sort of pressure. No new cases overnight again, up there.
And just one final thing, I wonder where I’ll see the cue of that small number of lunatics called anti-vaxxers when a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available.
I wonder if they’ll be queuing up as well from their tree houses in various parts of Australia.
Well I hope they do queue up. I really do and I will say this, just on Sunday, we put out our immunisation figures and you would imagine that during the lockdowns, immunisation rates may have gone down.
On all six categories, one, two and five-year-olds, general population and Indigenous, we had record numbers of immunisations for the year just ended and that’s- that’s an incredible outcome from our public health workers, our families, our schools and everybody involved.
Well done. Thanks for your time. It’s very good of you to talk to us about it and hopefully, there’ll be some celebrations to talk about early in 2021.
Greg Hunt, the Federal Health Minister.