Topics: COVID-19 update; Infection rates; Regional Australia; PEP stocks in Australia; Flu vaccines; Bringing health workers out of retirement; Social distancing restrictions.
Queensland’s growth is also pretty steady. Another 38 cases reported. The total – 781.
WA has had a bit of a rise, three times as many new cases as yesterday – now 392.
And South Australia steady – 367 people there now confirmed to have coronavirus.
Now, for more on these crucial numbers I spoke with the Health Minister, Greg Hunt, just before coming on air.
Minister, thank you once again for joining The Latest.
Let me ask you first, infection rates are gradually falling. But as that happens there’s a risk of Australians being a little complacent. I know it’s too early to celebrate.
Where is the line here? How do we interpret those numbers?
So, what we have seen is a drop in the daily rate of infection.
So, it’s gone from two weeks ago, 25 to 30 per cent down to low teens, in the last week.
And in the last few days we have just slipped below 10 per cent.
It’s too early to say that that’s stabilised but it’s promising early signs of flattening the curve.
That means a reduction in infection rates in terms of the daily growth.
And that’s what all these measures have been about.
Testing, the largest testing program in the world, we believe, on a per capita basis.
The ability to contact trace, to follow down, the isolation, the quarantine and then the agonisingly difficult request for Australians to stay at home, to minimise their contact with others.
These are, you know, so unnatural for us but so critical.
And they are beginning to yield results.
We have to see it stabilise, but this is one huge half of the equation, reducing the rates of infection and the growth, whilst increasing the capacity with our doctors and our hospitals.
In among the numbers though, there are still alarming spikes and concerns. We have seen a death in Orange, regional New South Wales. Always concerning that it was going to head into regional areas and the facilities there that can cope with it or otherwise.
Are you worried that the virus has infiltrated country areas?
This is one of the things we are most concerned about.
With the consent of Indigenous Australia, I put in place a biosecurity order which actually put a ring of containment around those areas which prevented movement in and out, other than for essential workers.
In regional Australia we are following this assiduously because they are, in some cases, by definition, further from the major hospitals and intensive care units and the ventilators in the very worst of cases.
So we continue to be below the one per cent mortality rate or loss of life.
We’re in fact below half a percent of cases, which is one of the best in the world, which indicates that our actual numbers are very indicative.
But each of those lives lost is an agony.
Let me ask you about the supplies though for those hospitals and for those nurses and medical staff. There’s a global shortage of general supplies, we know that, masks, hand sanitisers.
Do we have any good news about those supplies for here?
We do. We’ve just had 15 million masks arrive in Australia in recent days, including seven million today.
It’s been the most important day in our supplies.
We are going to be making sure through the national medical stock pile that they’re shared with the states, with the hospitals, with aged care and with our general practices as well as other medical professionals.
It will still be tight. But we have over 30 million more that I’m looking to receive on top of that.
So, we’re ahead of our timetables and ahead of our expectations.
But that extra 30 million we’re looking at over the coming two weeks and then we have more than 400 million on order.
I don’t count them until they’re here.
But we are also producing in Australia. The army is working with a Shepparton firm on tripling and then quadrupling their production with more to come.
And so all of these things are beginning to come together as Australians just rise magnificently to this challenge.
But the 15 million we can count because they are here, that’s new news. And are they being distributed immediately?
They will be distributed by the National Medical Stockpile.
We have pledged five million masks in particular to the general practice community. Because whilst Telehealth is real, there are so many things which have to be done face-to-face.
Just briefly minister, what’s your advice about the flu vaccine and people getting it at the moment?
We would encourage as many Australians as possible to get the flu vaccine, particularly people over 65 who are covered on the National Immunisation Program, particularly children aged six months to five with their parents’ support and consent who are covered on the National Immunisation Program.
But we have 13.5 million units, the capacity to expand that if there’s more demand.
And the flu, in its own right, can take between 100 and 1000 lives a year.
So, it can be an agonising contagious disease in its own right.
But what we want to do is minimise its impact which will also help us fight the impacts of coronavirus.
The vaccine doesn’t work for coronavirus as well, but it does mean that people’s immunity systems will be stronger if they’re not also battling flu.
And also just can I touch on bringing health workers out of retirement to try and help with staffing numbers. Is that a feasible plan and is it possible, and can it be enacted quickly enough?
Yes. We’re already seeing doctors begin to come back.
I signed an order this week which would protect the status of those doctors coming back in terms of historic liabilities and any other questions.
We are seeing very good work with nurses.
I think in the coming days we will have a lot more to say on nurses.
A lot of nurses might be mums who are in their, you know, mid 30s, 40s, 50s, taken time off for kids. They’re still hyper skilled, and to be able to bring them back is immensely important.
And then in the private hospitals agreement, there are 57,000 active, trained, highly skilled nurses that are now available to the national cause.
They get to keep their jobs, which is so important for them and their families. We get to keep those hospitals running, which is so critical for our mainstream health as well as our coronavirus health needs.
But above all else, it’s now one single unified national health system which is about bringing all these extra beds, an extra third ICU beds on top of what we have, to the cause and that will mean lives will be saved and every day I am seeing a few more positive signs.
Now is the time where we have to make the most difficult choices on isolation but it’s also where we’re going to make the most difference.
Is there any discussion within Cabinet or within your advice that allows for some hope that the social distancing measures, which are necessary and required, may not last for as long as we think?
These are causing incredible strains on family units, in particular. You know how important it is to get home to your kids and see them.
Is there any possibility that they may be loosened? And I know that might be against the messaging at the moment.
Look, our ability to do that depends on our success in controlling the virus.
But right now, we will have to go through the most difficult phase of these social isolation measures, and I am sorry for that, but it is absolutely necessary.
Each one of us could inadvertently pass on the virus.
And if that’s a senior or even somebody who is not older, that could be catastrophic for them and their families.
And we’ve seen the stories from Italy and Spain, France, the United Kingdom, the United States, and these are some of the great, most modern countries in the world that are suffering agonising social dislocation and health crises, and we want to make sure that’s not us.
Okay. Health Minister, Greg Hunt, always good to talk to you. Thank you.