Topics: Border restrictions in Australia; Cross border travel exemptions; Oxford vaccine; UQ vaccine
Let’s talk to our Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt. Greg, thanks for coming on this morning.
Good morning, Leon.
Over recent months, there’s been a real focus on mental health making sure there is enough support in place for people struggling during COVID-19. How much mental anguish do you think can be attributed to harsh border closures?
Well I think the general COVID situation and restrictions have come together.
The border closures have a particular impact on obviously border communities or as we saw in the case of Sarah, the young ACT woman yesterday, coming from a territory which has gone more than 60 days without a case, being prevented from going to their father’s funeral. She was prevented from seeing her father in his dying days.
So that’s a real world case study of somebody who, I think every Australian other than just a few of the most hard hearted, would say deserves compassionate support. Unfortunately, the Queensland Premier was one who didn’t think she deserved compassion.
So I know these cases because we deal with them. You mentioned that South Australia have been better. I think that’s absolutely true. There were three cases that were put to me recently; well documented cases of people needing support from border communities on the Victorian side who have a history of medical treatment in South Australia.
I sent an informed text with the details to the Premier. He was back to me within 10 minutes saying let’s make sure we review. He was back within an hour to say it will be granted. Stephen Wade made it happen within 24 hours.
Well that’s good. You see that’s.
That’s been very different to what we’ve seen in Queensland.
That is highly commendable of Mr Wade and the Premier. They’ve got to be shouted out for that. But listen, there’s another issue here, Minister, and that is that more broadly, there would be a sense of despair amongst others thinking that there’s no end in sight.
How do you combat that given that sportspeople and celebrities appear to be able to sail into Queensland and quarantine in luxury?
Well this is very much a Queensland issue where the famous and the footballers are allowed in but the families and the farmers aren’t.
And those border communities have seen real hardship and so we have supported obviously, the ring of containment around Victoria whilst Victoria’s had a genuine second wave outbreak.
That was needed to protect the rest of the country. We haven’t supported any of the other border restrictions where, for example, Western Australia is keeping out South Australians – South Australia’s record’s extraordinary; Queensland’s keeping out people from the ACT or New South Wales.
The risk is to mental health of those rules rather than the risk being to health of not having them. And I think that’s a really important framework to put in place.
In Melbourne, at the moment, there was just an almost an audible state wide sigh of shock and disappointment on Sunday when the road map came out with triggers such as zero cases across the state over 14 or 28 days to move to different levels.
And in that situation, there’s an extraordinary amount of chance of is there one case which has emerged, you know, on day 12.
There one case which emerges on day 24. And the epidemiologists have responded very strongly and very broadly saying that they are deeply concerned and that these thresholds don’t reflect their views.
And so I know in my home state, the mental health challenges are huge. And you know, this- we’re fortunately in a position where we are much better talking about it, exactly as you’ve just done, across the country, now than 20 years ago.
But we recognise therefore that there are huge pressures this year which are over and above anything this country’s faced since the Second World War.
But there’s another issue, Minister, that we need to address now and that is that the medical advice seems to be different in each state. So one then asks the question, why is it so hard to come up with a national set of guidelines?
You’d think, you’d expect that the chief medical officers of each state would meet on a regular basis. So what’s the problem here?
Well they do meet and they’ve been meeting throughout the pandemic.
But they can’t agree.
Well we developed a national road map and South Australia followed that road map where we went through the three stages. That was developed by the medical officers. It was tasked by the National Cabinet. It was adopted by every state and territory.
We got down to zero cases in Victoria in early June and it helped everybody get to the right place. The subsequent imposition of borders or the strengthening has been at odds with that in some states. But South Australia of course is open to a number of states now.
Effectively you’ve created a safe travel bubble but it’s not necessarily reciprocated. And in addition to that, where we’re at now is Victoria did its own road map, we’ve urged them to consider the national road map.
The response on the ground has been deep despair and for the first time, the population which has been so great, I mean, Australians have been amazing. Victorians have been incredible; they’ve accepted the lock down but they should hang on.
This is not necessarily medically driven when we hear that curfew doesn’t have either police or medical support, but clearly it came from within the political class.
So in that situation, we need to protect the mental health and we do that by protecting the liberties that our natural ordinary state in a democracy is for people to be able to express themselves, to have their liberty, to be able to move.
Well if a premier turns around and says, well, I don’t care what you think and I don’t care what those doctors say in public letters; this is my opinion and this is what’s going to happen. You’re at a dead end then, aren’t you?
Well no, I don’t agree with that.
And that’s because never underestimate the power of the public, and the prime minister and a federal government working in concert.
I know for example that the Victorian public, the medical community, the epidemiologists, the federal government, the business community, they’ve been speaking out about these thresholds and targets and triggers.
And it’s my hope that Victoria will review those. We think- we want to give them a way through. We would much prefer to solve it. But the Prime Minister being able to step up as he does, take up cases as exemplars of systems which are not balanced.
We, as I say, farmers and families are prevented from crossing the border into Queensland, famous and the footballers are allowed in. That doesn’t sit well with the public.
And if it doesn’t sit well with the public, it will catch up with the- with those premiers that are adopting decisions that are not in line with medically justifiable requirement.
I just want to bring up something that’s come up in the last 24 hours or so, where we’ve got revelations of a United Kingdom patient taking part in a trial vaccine.
How much of a setback do you think this is and are you confident that a vaccine will be available by next year?
Look, I am increasingly confident, and I am confident there will be vaccines available next year. We’ve selected what we think are the two leading candidates from around the world.
One is Australian, which is the University of Queensland-CSL molecular clamp. The other one is the Oxford University-AstraZeneca. It’s what’s known as viral vector vaccine, and that one has a clinical trial; all up they’re aiming to enrol about 30,000 people – this is what’s known as Phase 3.
The advice I had yesterday morning from the Australian head of AstraZeneca is that there’s a patient who’s had an adverse event. The event hadn’t been fully diagnosed, nor has it been linked to the vaccine.
But as an automatic safeguard, wherever there is an unknown event, they will suspend the trial for a period whilst an independent medical expert panel assesses.
The patient was, as of yesterday, improving very significantly and was expected to be discharged – I haven’t had a briefing on it this morning. And they- the formal advice to the Australian Government from a very cautious global medical leader in AstraZeneca is that they don’t see any change in the prospects or the timeframe for delivery of vaccines to Australia, but they’ll await the independent medical advice.
And earlier on, they had a case of one of their trial participants having an adverse event – trial was suspended, turned out it was completely unrelated to the trial.
So we don’t know. We won’t pre-empt, but their view is that the antibody and T-cell responses which are coming through the trials are stronger than they’d hoped, and that’s the sort of heart of the vaccine.
The other key element is the safety side and they’re following every step. But at this stage, their view is that there’s no change on the advice.
Now just quickly, Minister. We’ve got a guy here at Flinders University, Professor Nick Petrovsky, had him on the air yesterday, spoke to him a couple times. I think it’s fair to say that he’s a little disappointed that he’s had no Federal Government support. Have you got a comment on that?
No, we’ve actually provided a million dollars to that program and that was done through a competitive program. I think he’s been a bidder in three different programs and was successful in one of them.
And they’re competitive, they’re what’s known as peer reviewed, which means you have independent medical review bodies that assess all of the projects. And we announced just over a week ago that there was a million dollars for that particular vaccine program.
Alright. Look, thanks for coming on this morning, Minister, good to talk to you and we’ll keep the lines as we do, of communication open. That’s the Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt, answering some very important questions.