Topics: Vaccine roll out, NZ travel bubble
Thank you everybody and I’m delighted to be able to provide an update to both the vaccine rollout and additional protections with regards to COVID-19 for international travellers into Australia.
I think, firstly and most importantly, it’s important to be able to convey that the advice from the National Incident Centre is that today we’ve had the sixth day out of the last seven with zero cases in Australia.
By comparison, sadly, the world has had approximately 675,000 worldwide, less than one case a day on average over the last week – over four million worldwide.
So it puts into perspective the achievements in Australia, but the challenges globally. And those numbers translate to two very different outcomes.
Again, no lives lost in Australia, and agonisingly on the latest advice that I have, over 17.5 thousand lives lost around the world today.
This may potentially be the greatest loss of life on any day, once the final numbers have been reconciled on the advice of the National Incident Centre that we have faced since the commencement of the COVID-19 pandemic.
And so, sadly, whilst we continue to achieve deeply important human protections in Australia, abroad, internationally we are seeing the disease leave the most tragic of human outcomes.
To put it in perspective, the loss of life today is equivalent to more than the population of Yanchep in Western Australia, or Port Lincoln in South Australia, to Bairnsdale here in Victoria, or Warwick in Queensland, or Kempsey in New South Wales, or Ulverstone in Tasmania. Those figures remind us just of the extent and scope of this pandemic globally.
That is why we are taking additional measures, as agreed by the National Cabinet on the recommendation of the Chief Health Officers and the Chief Medical Officer through what’s known as the medical expert panel or AHPPC, and those measures will commence tomorrow.
I have signed the Biosecurity Act orders today, to ensure that as of 22 January PCR tests will be required within the 72 hours prior to departure for international travellers that masks will be required on international flights.
These are difficult, and will be challenging for many people and I am apologetic that we need to put in place these restrictions, but those global comparisons of the success at home, the agonising challenge abroad, the fact that we have new, more virulent strains that are emerging around the world – these remind us of precisely why we have been able to keep Australians safe.
But we have to be ever vigilant in responding to international events as they occur.
At the same time, we’re continuing our planning and preparation for the vaccine roll out. In particular of course, we have been able to secure additional workforce for that vaccine roll out.
To remind, our roll out is in five phases and the first phase will be in our hospitals and that will be involving the minus 70-degree cold chain logistics that are required for distribution of the Pfizer vaccine.
And then, as we move to the broader population and the ability to use the AstraZeneca vaccine we have our general practices as the cornerstone of that distribution roll out, state vaccination clinics, Commonwealth vaccination clinics, Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations; and, from Phase 2, the pharmacies.
In order to assist with those, and in particular, outreach to aged care homes or certain work places such as those with border and quarantine staff, or Indigenous communities where they are not serviced by Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations, we’ve engaged the vaccine workforce that will be provided by Sonic Clinical, Aspen Medical, Healthcare Australia and International SOS.
All of that is the next step, and the next step. It’s part of laying out the program, and these things put Australia in the strongest of positions.
We know the United Kingdom and the United States, for example, are facing challenges and I particularly want to reach out to our friends in the United States today – this is a very important day for them.
It is a new day and I want to warmly congratulate President Biden and Vice-President Harris on their appointment, particularly Vice-President Harris, a historic appointment and achievement, which will echo through the ages.
And it’s going to be a continuingly challenging year – but we are seeing the legacy of 2020. But as 2021 progresses; if we maintain what we’re doing in Australia; if the world is able to continue with containment and vaccination; and, as we continue our preparations for and commencement of the vaccination program it will open up more opportunities, greater freedoms and greater capacity for Australians to do the things that they love.
But all up, when we look at the things that we’ve seen today with the numbers in Australia – zero cases versus 675,000, less than one case a day over the last week, versus 4 million cases, approximately, around the world – we’re reminded of the fortune for which Australians have worked and which they have helped deliver, and I want to thank them for that.
I’d be happy to take questions, firstly from the room.
In terms of the additional vaccine workforce, how many do you think will that be?
We’re expecting that there’re will be well over 500 additional workforce – if they require more than 1000 then that will be required.
So it’s uncapped in terms of the numbers, but it’s the minimum that we expect, will be at least an initial 500.
But this is on top of – and it’s a fair and important question – hospital staff; our cornerstone general practices; state vaccination clinics; the work of, in particular, the Commonwealth vaccination clinics and Indigenous or Aboriginal Community-Controlled Health Organisations; and, our pharmacists.
So, all of those groups are already in place, this is to provide the additional support either with any of those or, in particular, with the outreach to Indigenous communities, aged care centres, and work places such as supporting border control and quarantine staff.
And how much would that additional workforce be expected to cost? And when will training start?
So the training’s expected to start within the next fortnight, if not earlier. The final costs will be released by the Department of Health, in line with what they normally do with regards to overall contracting.
So, there is a process for that release.
Sure. And Pfizer recently announced it would be boosting the number of vaccines that it produces this year. So, has Australia managed to secure any additional doses?
Sure. So we continue to engage with our vaccination program. At the moment we have approximately 140 million doses – one of the highest rates of dosing per population in the world.
We take the advice of the medical expert panel and we respectfully never pre-empt any additional purchases given the highly competitive and commercial global nature of it. So, we’ll keep under review.
We’re engaging with our medical experts and they’re the ones that will advise. Indeed, if they believe that more is required, more will be provided.
But to think of a population of 50 million, knowing that, of course, there are significant numbers- of 25 million, with 50 million doses required to meet the entire population, but knowing that at this stage, children have not been recommended, we’ve enough to provide the whole population three times over. Alright.
The New South Wales Premier has raised the idea of a Pacific travel bubble. What are your thoughts on this?
Look, we’ve always been supportive of the idea of expanding the existing travel bubble with New Zealand – this is based very much on the health advice.
And so we keep countries under review, and as has been set out, we identify them as minimal risk or green, which is New Zealand. Other countries are being considered – they’re currently in the amber or moderate-risk level and some are at the red or high-risk level.
Our goal is, if the Pacific countries are able to be shown to be at the lowest risk level – and they are doing extraordinarily well – and that we’re able to put in the appropriate protections, then we could well expand that bubble.
But that’s evidence based, based on very hard medical data, and the overview of the Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer on the advice of the medical expert panel.
Thanks, Minister. I have a question about the rollout of the vaccination. The Government starting hopefully around 80,000 a week, with the plan to get up to 4 million people by the end of March.
How will you build up that capacity? Because there’s a big jump to go from 80,000 to then be able to have 4 million done within almost six weeks of starting.
And secondly, how will people be told that they are in that first wave, the first priority of getting a vaccine? Will it be through their workplace? Will they be pulled out publicly? How will they know that they’re in that priority group?
Sure. So the first phase, or Phase 1a, is for the Pfizer hubs. So that will be based out of hospitals, and that’s dependent on the likely supply that we have.
We don’t have confirmation yet of the exact numbers or exact dates, but we have no change in our guidance to the country in terms of the second half of February for commencement.
But we’ll confirm those details finally once the TGA has approved the vaccine; if it does approve, but the science remains very positive on that front.
But the TGA will make an independent determination and then an announcement will be made. Then the shipping orders will be confirmed. We’ve already put them in, of course, but they’ll be confirmed by Pfizer.
So those early figures to which you refer, they represent the early weekly doses that are likely and expected from Pfizer on the approximately 80,000 a week basis.
Then subsequently, we expect Pfizer numbers to grow and we expect the numbers of AstraZeneca to commence, and that will be subject to their approval and also the combination of their imports, but also domestic production.
To be honest, our ace in the hole here is the contract for 50 million units of domestic production of AstraZeneca.
There’s immense competition in the world at the moment, and we foresaw that early on. We’re seeing some states being reported as potentially suing some vaccine companies for inadequate delivery. We have the comfort and security of sovereign production here in Australia.
And that’s what allows us to go Clare to the second part, which is where we begin to distribute more broadly, which is precisely about using that existing national vaccination network, which delivers the flu vaccine every year.
Approximately 17 million units last year over a similar period of time to the rollout of the COVID vaccines this year. The general practise is the cornerstone.
Pharmacies from phase two will play an important role. And I want to thank both of those groups for their very constructive action. Very shortly, about to put out the expressions of interest for general practises and pharmacists.
And then on top of that, we have the state vaccination clinics, the Commonwealth vaccination clinics, the Pfizer hospital hubs, which will be between 30 to 50 on current expectations.
And I’ve got discussions with the states this afternoon on their rollout plans and I want to thank and praise all – all – of the states and territories for their very constructive work.
They’re working around the clock. And then the Indigenous or Aboriginal community controlled health organisations. So by expanding to that existing network, we build that capacity rapidly to a network that was only last year able to distribute 17 million vaccinations in a very similar period of time, but supplemented this year by all of those additional elements.
Thanks, Minister. Several European countries have said supplies of the Pfizer vaccine have fallen short of their orders, it’s not receiving enough doses. And Pfizer also said there could be impact to shipments in January and February as a result of the boost in production.
What is the likelihood of this being an issue in Australia as well? And how could this affect our planned vaccine rollout?
Sure. So the latest advice that we have, and I spoke with Pfizer only yesterday, is that we are still on track for first vaccines to be received in February. The final date hasn’t been confirmed, but that was the advice as of yesterday from the country head in Australia.
And then the final doses, and the pace of those will receive information on that in the coming weeks.
So that start date for the latter half of February was advised again to us yesterday. And so there’s no change in that.
But if there are changes, then of course we would share them immediately. And what we don’t control is the shipping times for different countries and for different companies and vaccines.
But the timing and volume of subsequent distributions, that will be confirmed to us over the coming weeks.
Hello, Minister. I have a couple of questions about different topics. If you don’t mind, I’ll just start with vaccines. Can you tell us what will this training entail and how different is it to administering other vaccines?
And do you think they’ll be ready here? When do you think those approvals will be granted?
Well, the TGA approvals will be independently done. Our guidance has been that the most likely timeframe for Pfizer is before the end of January.
And once the TGA is ready, then they’ll provide that advice. And for AstraZeneca, towards the end of February or potentially early March, although, they’re certainly working on an end of February approval.
I again say that all of this is provisional. We don’t presume, but we plan as if, which is our task and our responsibility. And they’ll set out any conditions.
But again, the TGA provided some public guidance and advice, I believe, on Sunday, and has followed up in relation to Norway, and has been, I think, reassured by what they’ve heard from Norway and the European Medical Agency.
And I think that’s been a very important development on their front, as well as what they’ve heard from the Centres for Disease Control in the United States.
Then with regards to the training timeframes, modules are being developed now and they’ll be rolled out shortly.
We were able to do this this year, we did an extraordinary job as a nation in providing well over a million training units for COVID infection control, COVID related practises. We were able to train new nurses. We were in respiratory needs. We were able to bring back retired nurses into the workforce.
None of that is required at the moment, because we had the surge workforce. We have the existing workforce. And they’ll all have a module and a verification of that for their training. What’s different is at this stage, there are what are called multi-dose vials.
So the primary process of vaccination is not significantly different in any way, shape or form. The one major difference is simply in terms of using what are called multi-dose files, where on average I think it’s about five doses per vial.
And so that will mean that they’ll have to draw it out rather than being what’s called preloaded. And that’s that makes it slightly more difficult.
But the nurses, the doctors, the pharmacists, the states are all very confident that this is absolutely within the skill set subject to providing the additional training of their workforce.
Thank you, Minister. Sorry. I’ve just got another one, just on another topic. How significant is it that an Australian producer has cracked the EU medicinal cannabis market? And what potential does it have at a local industry here going forward?
Look, I’m delighted at the success of an Australian producer to enter the European medicinal cannabis- European medicinal cannabis market.
In particular, the importance is that we set very high standards in Australia. And Australia is one of the only jurisdictions which will be accepted within Europe.
And that’s a tribute to our regulatory standards, which should give confidence on other regulatory approvals. But also to our producers in Australia, and we opened up that export market.
It was something I discussed with the sector, with the medical regulators, because we believed in the quality of Australian product and it will help underpin the Australian market.
Thanks. Minister, I have another issue to ask you about that. Firstly, on COVID and international travel, what are the specific countries that are currently amber? Is there a target date a broader Pacific bubble?
So at the moment, there are a number of countries in the South Pacific that are being viewed through that.
The final advice will be provided by the medical expert panel. So, I’ll respectfully not pre-empt that. I hope you don’t mind. That’s always a matter for the medical expert panel to review and to release.
But the South Pacific is right at the front of the next phase of international travel bubbles. There’s not a timeframe at the moment. It’s when we believe that the evidence is there and we’re working constructively with the medical expert panel. And they have ultimately, the oversight over that process.
And I think you have another question, Tess?
I do. Thanks, Minister. There’s a developing situation in Perth.
Police are investigating five alleged assaults at a Nedlands aged care home. What’s your reaction to this? And will you consider changing the act to require providers have a registered nurse on site 24/7?
So, firstly, the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission – and this is something that I have reaffirmed today – is investigating, is on site.
And if there are allegations that are confirmed, A) I would find them horrifying and absolutely, utterly unacceptable. B) the commission would take and will take the strongest steps. There’s zero tolerance, zero tolerance for any abuse in aged care. And I think that’s a very important message.
On policy reform, we will shortly have the Royal Commission so we’ll respond to the Royal Commission. But right now, we’ve got a tough cop on the beat.
That cop is on the site and investigating. And if there are confirmed allegations, then they will be absolutely rigorous in enforcing the law, in implementing sanctions, in protecting the residents and in holding people to account.
Just a brief follow-up, if I may. Can reform wait another month for the Royal Commission report?
Are residents there today safe?
Well, the advice that we have is that they are. But also, we have actually made profound, sweeping, deep reforms already.
And those deep reforms include precisely the propose- the structure of having created an Aged Care Quality and Safety Commissioner with significant and sweeping powers, the capacity to impose sanctions, the capacity to hold individuals to account.
So on our watch, in our time, on my watch, in my time, that’s a reform which we have made.
If there are additional reforms that are required and proposed, then we will approach those with a strong intent to implement. And so right now, we called the Royal Commission because we wanted to hear their proposals.
The Commission has provided two interim reports and we have accepted all of the recommendations of those interim reports, including further safety measures over and above the Quality and Safety Commission, and will continue to act immediately, but also to look at any recommendations which that Commission may bring down.
Thanks, Minister. I’ve got three questions, if I may. So, is Australia still trying to order more doses of Pfizer and if so, how likely is that looking?
Sure. So, we keep any review of medicines as an ongoing process. And that’s- it’s a very simple concept that the medical expert panel led by Professor Brendan Murphy, but we have people such as Professor Allen Cheng and the Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly involved.
They review and provide advice on any additional vaccines that may be required. And so, that’s just an ongoing process and we have been very heartened by the results of our purchasing to date, and I reaffirm we have approximately 140 million doses available for 25 million Australians.
And that puts us in a very strong position. But if they recommend more, we’ll procure more. I would respectfully note that what we don’t do because of the commercial and competitive global nature is to indicate any future purchasing intentions.
And I think that hopefully is understandable, particularly in that highly competitive environment. We haven’t done that in the past, but then we produced the results. But we’ll be guided by the medical expert panel and if they recommend, we’ll enact.
The second question, Fiona?
Oh, yes. So, my second one is once most Australians are vaccinated, are we still going to have to social distance and avoid things like handshakes or are they just the way of life from now on?
Look, for the time being, continuing our COVID-Safe practises is immensely important.
And what Paul Kelly and Brendan Murphy has indicated this week is the world does not know the longevity of immunity conferred by vaccines or its impact on transmission.
That’s a global evolution that we will know during the course of this year. That will determine the speed with which different restrictions can be changed, with which different practises can be moderated.
But it won’t happen overnight and it’s not a silver bullet. There’s not one moment where suddenly everything will change.
We’ve seen the restrictions put in place and then reduced. On occasion, they’ve had to be increased, but then reduced. And again, more good news coming in terms of the actions of different states and territories this week, and I welcome that.
So, it’s a progressive return to normal rather than a sudden single moment. And what we’ve been careful not to do is to overpromise or to set dates where we still have evidence to come.
And as the world rolls out its vaccination programme, as Australia rolls out its vaccination programme, and as we have evidence on the longevity and the transmission effect of the vaccines, that will put us in a better place to know.
But what we’re doing is working in Australia. And then I think our final question, please, Fiona.
Yes. Thank you. And just on the Pfizer situation in Norway, are you still confident that this vaccine will be rolled out to a very old and frail people?
So, the allocation of the vaccines, the conditions for use are absolutely within the control of the TGA and they’ll make their approvals if that’s what they do, and provide any conditions on which populations should or may not be included. So that’s their job.
One of the things which I think has come through in the last week as a result of the international evidence is I think it has reaffirmed absolutely why Australia, on medical advice, took the position of going with New Zealand, Japan, Korea, Taiwan on a rapid but full, thorough and absolute assessment process.
And to me, the reasoning, the rationale and the concern and focus on the safety of Australians as number one, number two and number three has been reaffirmed by what we’ve seen internationally.
It does appear on the basis of the advice of the TGA is that they are more heartened by what they’ve now heard out of Norway, Europe and the United States with regards to safety. But specific conditions will be set.
They are the safety regulator above all else. Their job is to assess, ensure that safety is there and if they are confident about safety, to provide approvals and the conditions for those approval. So that’s a fundamental part of their job.
And so, I’ll just finish with this message, that as we see a world of zero cases of community transmission in Australia and 675,000 globally, of zero lives lost in Australia and agonisingly over 17,500 lives lost globally, we know that the global challenge is with us, but the Australian response remains at the global forefront in terms of what the world sees and looks at.
And in my engagement with people overseas, they say of Australia that Australia has been a global model and it’s the Australian people and medical community, the partnership between the Commonwealth and the states, our doctors and nurses, our pathologists, that’s- additional vaccination workforce that we’ve engaged today.
They’re the sorts of people that have helped deliver Australia to a position which honestly means we are an island sanctuary in a difficult world. But it’s a safe place to be and it’s a great place to be.
Thank you very much.