Topics: COVID-19 vaccine rollout, Vaccine administration training; COVID-19 cases; hotel quarantine; ADF support
Well, good afternoon everybody. I’m delighted to be joined today by the Chief Nursing and Midwifery Officer for Australia, Professor Alison McMillan, and we’re here to announce the next step in preparation for Australia’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout.
In particular, as of today, COVID training modules for vaccinators will be made available. This is an electronic learning or e-learning process available online. It follows the process which we’ve taken with infection control.
I should say, it’s an extraordinary result to date with infection control. Over 1.4 million Australians have undertaken infection control training courses online and that includes over 3.6 million modules, which have been uploaded and which have been completed. So Australians have really stepped up to the task of keeping other Australians safe, and I want to say thank you and to offer our profound appreciation.
The next step is preparation for the vaccines. And these modules, which have been developed in conjunction with the Australian College of Nursing and an expert panel, which they have helped oversee and led in particular by Alison McMillan as Chief Nursing and Midwifery Officer, have been created so as all vaccinators must be fully qualified in order to carry out the vaccinations.
It’s not difficult, but it’s an important step, and that includes content which is relevant to the vaccines that Australia will be using, in particular the use of what are called multi-dose vial. So instead of a single shot from one vial, what we’ll see is that there will be multiple doses, six in the case of Pfizer, 10 in the case of AstraZeneca on provisional advice, subject to TGA approval.
Handling and storage, safety and surveillance, all of the elements which will be critical to ensuring that vaccination occurs in a safe and effective way. It’s available either from health.gov.au or from www.COVID19vaccinationtraining.org.au. They are the next step in our vaccine rollout.
In relation to cases, the advice that I have from the National Incident Centre, is that there have been two cases of community transmission in the last 24 hours reported. That’s obviously one in New South Wales of a person who has left hotel quarantine but tested positive on the 16th day. I think it’s a very important sign that the new procedures which have been put in place did detect this case.
And there’ll be a bell curve. There’ll be a range of times and impacts in a world of 106 million cases which will show, and what this has done is detected a case, and New South Wales is investigating the circumstances of the case and now they’re following up with extensive, immediate, comprehensive contact tracing.
But it’s a very important sign that even with a case in a very unusual circumstance, that was able to be detected. Similarly, with Victoria, a hotel quarantine worker, Victoria is outlining the circumstances, but their testing has found that worker, found that worker early and allowed for the immediate process of contact tracing.
So both systems worked in the detection and both are working in the tracing, the identification of contacts, the isolation. And this is part of what Australia will face going forward, as we always said. We’ve now have had 17 out of 20 days of zero cases. Today is one of the three days that hasn’t been. But we’ve been tested over the course of the summer. South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australia, and all of those mainland states which have had those tests, have successfully managed the outbreaks and contained them.
Our belief, and the advice I had from Professor Murphy shortly before joining you, is that the states have responded quickly and comprehensively, and we have no reason to believe that the pattern of control, which has been in place through the summer, will break in any way. In other words, we have full confidence in both states and their responses.
Globally, of course, now, as I mentioned, 106 million cases, 2.3 million lives lost. And our comparison, just in speaking with colleagues from overseas in recent days, in the United States and in the United Kingdom, they look at Australia and they, frankly, are astonished at the achievement and envious of the position. And we are very humble in what we put to other countries, knowing that we’re both fortunate and prepared. But others look at what’s occurring in Australia and, frankly, they just wish they’re in our position.
Our testing regime, 13.3 million cases in Australia, and our telehealth regime has seen over 47 million telehealth consultations occurring, an extraordinary revolution brought about by COVID, but a profound change. Arguably, the largest change in the delivery of Medicare services since Medicare was created. Done by Australians for Australians. Zero lives lost, and importantly, zero Australians on ventilation or in ICU due to COVID-19.
Just with regard to the vaccine rollout, I’ve also spoken to, either today or on the weekend, with the heads of Pfizer and AstraZeneca for Australia, and both have confirmed that we remain on track for our guidance of late February commencement for Pfizer, early March commencement for AstraZeneca, subject to the TGA assessment and approvals.
And I would, on that, add a small point in relation to some of the variants of concern. So these are- the fact that the virus does mutate. There are variants. There have been a very high number reported globally. The South African and the UK are the best known of those.
And the advice I received, both from the Chief Medical Officer in writing and in discussion with the head of the vaccine’s task force, Professor Brendan Murphy, this morning is preliminary. There is currently no evidence to indicate a reduction in the effectiveness of the AstraZeneca or Pfizer vaccines in preventing severe disease or death. The world, however, is reviewing data with regards to the impact on transmission of mild to moderate symptoms, and we’ll be looking at the latest data coming out of trials and tests and research programs around the world.
And we will see, during the course of this pandemic, not just every week, not just every day, but sometimes multiple times a day, different pieces of news. Some of them heartening, some of them challenging, but the broad direction is positive.
The vaccination programs around the world are making a difference. The vaccination program in Australia continues to be on track, and I think that’s heartening, important news, but we will follow the evidence. We will follow the advice of our Therapeutic Goods Administration and our Scientific and Industry Technical Advisory Group and our Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, the three medical expert panels which oversee vaccination and oversee vaccine approvals in Australia, but we continue to be in a strong position.
Thank you, Minister. So, as you’ve heard, we’ve launched the training this morning. The training is focused on staff who will be administering the vaccine.
As a health professional, we live a life of learning. We continuously have to update ourselves on whatever information is important to protecting all Australians. So the training is online. It’s a set of module learning set that people can process through over time, and it will produce a certificate at the end.
The training is quite broad because it needs to meet the needs of quite a broad range of health professionals, and it will, as I say, particularly focus, as the Minister has said, on those areas we know for some will be new, particularly multi-dose vials, which needs some special techniques in order to ensure patient safety, and learning and understanding about the management and handling of the new vaccines, how to manage any adverse environments, and how to record all of this information so it can be uploaded and provided to the public.
So we’re pleased to say that this training is now available. Obviously our focus in the first component of this will be health professionals working in the Pfizer hubs and those delivering the vaccine on an in-reach program to aged care.
So, first step. The training will continue to be updated as potentially more vaccines may be approved through the TGA, and that will remain contemporary information for all health professionals.
Thank you, Minister.
Thanks very much. So, I’ll take a question from in the room, Priyanka first, and then come to those that are on the telephone.
Yes, thank you, Minister. So, starting with hearing about the news out of South Africa where they have decided to halt the AstraZeneca vaccine because of concerns that it’s ineffective against the strain there, should that be a concern for Australia and Australians, considering it’s such a key part, the AstraZeneca vaccine, in terms of the vaccination (inaudible)?
Look, on the one hand, we have outstanding results coming out of the UK.
I spoke with the UK Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, that’s the equivalent of the Health Minister for the United Kingdom, only a few days ago. And they’re very, very pleased with strong evidence which has been presented by Oxford University about the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine. There are particular studies which are being done in South Africa, so we’ll continue to follow that.
But the advice as of this morning from the Chief Medical Officer of Australia, Professor Paul Kelly, and the head of the vaccines taskforce, Professor Brendan Murphy, is very, very clear. And that is there’s currently no evidence to indicate a reduction in the effectiveness of either the AstraZeneca or Pfizer vaccines in preventing severe disease and death.
And of course, that’s the fundamental task to protect the health of, not just Australians, but people all around the world. At the same time, where there is new evidence being presented with regards to either the transmission or mild to moderate, that’s important for everybody.
But we’ve put our faith in the TGA, and the TGA will operate as a free, fearless, independent agency, and they’ll continue to provide the advice, and they’ll be providing further advice shortly. But I’m giving you the update as given to us only shortly before coming to you by both the Chief Medical Officer and Professor Murphy.
Thanks, Minister. I have two questions if that’s alright. The first which is about hotel quarantine, (inaudible) outbreaks (inaudible) potentially the quarantine (inaudible) bit of a look at because it may not be entirely fit for purpose now. What are some changes that the Government (inaudible) go to from here?
Tamsin’s question is about hotel quarantine. So the first thing is we’d had over 211,000 people come home to Australia through hotel quarantine. And one of the things that the UK was doing in our discussion was looking at what they regard as the global gold standard of quarantine, which is the Australian hotel quarantine system.
So I think there are two things here. Firstly, we’ve always said that hotel quarantine is the inner ring of containment, followed by testing, followed by tracing, followed by distancing. So I think where anybody indicates that there’s only one line of defence, that would be inaccurate.
And for people to rely solely on that isn’t about adequate protection of Australians. We’ve got multiple layers of protection, multiple rings of containment. Borders, testing, tracing and distancing.
Related to that, of course, is that wherever we’re engaged with the world, Australians coming home for births or to say goodbye to loved ones who are in palliative care, whether we are exchanging our goods and our services, selling our food or our fibre, if we’re bringing in critical medicines, then of course we’re engaging with the outside world.
And so we have said right since the earliest days a year ago that there would be cases and that we have to be able to prepare with the public health responses. As we’ve seen this summer, magnificent public health responses across the jurisdictions.
So then that brings me specifically to hotel quarantine. We’re always learning, and what we see now is that we’ve put in place additional testing, additional requirements with regards to the PPE through the advice of Jane Halton, the distinguished former secretary of health and of finance.
We’ve seen saliva test introductions, and we’ll continue to look at actions that can be taken.
We’re providing additional ADF support for example in Victoria, doubling the number of Australian Defence Force personnel that will be available. Victoria requested, I think my advice is on 29 January. Our response was on 3 February. The first 50 of those ADF personnel arrived in Victoria last night to more than double the number of Australian Defence Force personnel to assist with that hotel quarantine program.
So continuous infection learning, continuous upgrade, AUSMAT remains perhaps the international leader, along with a small number of other countries, in providing infection control. And I think Alison, you are an AUSMAT leader in this phase. You actually went to Japan, is that correct? Alison was part of the team that staged the air lift of those that needed to be lifted from Japan and brought back to Australia.
Thanks, Minister. I’ve got two questions relating to the new case in New South Wales. Firstly, can you clarify if this new case is (inaudible) community transmission? Because as early as this morning, the New South Wales authority (inaudible) case likely acquired the infection overseas before testing positive on day 16.
And to that, from your perspective as the Federal Health Minister, was there any specific health advice that has led to New South Wales implementing this day 16 test, testing people two days after they leave hotel quarantine on day 14?
Sure. Look, firstly, with regards to the New South Wales case, we’ll let New South Wales outline the epidemiology, the likely source, the likely origin.
We’ve included it because it’s a case which has been within the community, outside of the hotel quarantine system. It’s included in the National Incident Centre list and register. Our national approach is to be as comprehensive as possible, and we’re following the advice of the National Incident Centre reporting rules on that front.
Secondly, with regards to the New South Wales testing regime, they work in conjunction, and they’re magnificently led by Kerry Chant, honestly just an extraordinary leader. They work in conjunction with what’s known as the AHPPC or the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, which involves all of the Chief Medical Officers.
Yeah on that, was it a masterstroke then by the New South Wales health authorities to introduce this day 16 test? And do you think it should be rolled out right across the country?
I think New South Wales had been ahead of the curve. They have carried it out magnificently, and I think they’ve provided a model for the rest of the country.
Hello. A question in relation to the South African strain (inaudible) if it doesn’t protect against mild to moderate disease, in the South African strain it may not protect against severe disease either?
And would this be a reason that Australia might shift to Novavax as a priority, considering it has shown efficacy against the strain?
Look, I think one of the very important things here is that we follow the medical advice. What we’re seeing in the United Kingdom is very strong medical evidence, obviously with material being published by Oxford University. There is a real-world experience of some millions of vaccinations that’s occurring. And we’re seeing very positive results.
I’d also note on the advice I have received, South Africa has dropped from about 18,000 cases per day on a rolling seven day average in mid-January, to approximately 4,000 cases per day at the moment on a rolling seven day average. Now the causes and the reasons, we’ll leave that to the South African authorities to outline. But South Africa’s made great progress.
So then in terms of how we assess the vaccines, the simple, ironclad rule for Australia is that we have three medical expert committees, two which are advising on vaccine selection or vaccine rollout, that’s the Scientific and Industry Technical Advisory led by Professor Brendan Murphy; and the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation which always determines the conditions under which any vaccine is implemented; and the Therapeutic Goods Administration which is the medical regulator and they determine which medicines and which vaccinations are safe and effective for use in Australia on the basis of arguably, as rigorous a process as any in the world.
And if the TGA gives it the tick, then it’s safe and effective and we’ll follow their advice.
Thanks, Minister. The Prime Minister today and on Friday was talking a lot about COVID-19 becoming like any other virus in the community (inaudible) appears it’s not dangerous. That’s why there’s shifts away from the fact that (inaudible) elimination depending on what stage (inaudible) something else. I wonder if you could provide a bit more detail about what that shift looks like? When it could happen? What the market (inaudible) for that shift? And (inaudible) with that?
So, there are two trends here. Firstly, we are seeing a decrease in global numbers in total daily cases and I think that’s early. It could be reversed, but it is a clear trend now over a course of about three weeks.
As global numbers continue to come down through a variety of reasons over the course of the next year, whether it’s vaccines, whether it’s containment measures, whether it’s any change in the nature of the virus itself, whether it’s the fact that there have been enormous numbers of people, sadly, that have been infected. And then, at the same time, as we have an increase in vaccination here in Australia, what that means is that the risk to the community of lives lost, of serious illness, of hospitals being overwhelmed, plummets.
Now, we’re already managing that risk through a containment strategy that is as good as virtually anywhere in the world. There’s a small handful of countries and jurisdictions that are a comparable position to Australia.
But, as those two things occur, reduced case numbers abroad, increased vaccinations domestically, the risk begins to plummet as each of those is significantly advanced. And at that point, the way in which the disease is managed can evolve.
And that’s what was set up, with the agreement of National Cabinet, on Friday. And the Secretary of the Prime Minister’s Department, Phil Gaetjens, will lead that process, but in collaboration with the states and territories, in collaboration with the Health Department and our medical leaders.
And so it’s about the milestones which will be determined, but they’ll be scientifically based. As we can see the risk, and as we can see that risk abating, then we will be able to take future steps.
We want to get to a situation where no-one feels they need to close a domestic border. We want to have a situation where the responses are tailored to the risk with public health tracing and testing being the primary response. And that’s the direction for the country we want to be able to travel. We’ve done well, but we can continue to well but with less impact on our daily lives.
Just a couple of questions. AstraZeneca says it’s working on creating a booster that would cover for new strains of COVID. Could that booster be made in the CSL facility and how quickly can we get that?
And just secondly as well, on the digital vaccination certificate, how long roughly is it expected to take between getting a vaccination to having the certificate?
Sure, firstly in regards to CSL. So for those who don’t know, CSL is producing 50 million units of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine here in Australia. It’s a fundamental part of our sovereign vaccine capability and our supply security for Australia.
CSL was able to adapt very quickly, so I won’t speak to them- speak for them, but I have to say that they were able to adapt very quickly. And in my discussions, actually, not just with the Australian head of AstraZeneca, but with the global head of AstraZeneca on the weekend, one of the things they identified was just the sheer extraordinary capability of CSL to adapt, that they were a leader amongst all of the contract manufacturers for AstraZeneca in the way they adapted.
So my general principle is that they are an extraordinarily capable firm that are able to adapt. As to the specifics of any particular change, these are issues that the whole world faces.
The advice that I have is that we have not seen any variants of which I’m aware, and nor is the Chief Medical Officer as of this morning that have fundamentally changed the spike protein. There have been multiple variants relating to that, but none that have changed the fundamental nature of it. And so they’re in a position to be able to adapt. And if adaptations are required, we’re well placed.
One of the particular strengths of the Novavax vaccine, which is why we’ve kept it as the third vaccine in the series, is that it is very well tailored to be able to be used as a subsequent booster in the same way that each year we need a new vaccine for the flu because it’s a protein vaccine. Novavax is very well placed to be able to be used in subsequent years.
So we’re in a strong position. There will be challenges, but our fundamental direction is absolutely clear of being able to vaccinate the population, beginning on latest advice in late February, confirmed only an hour before joining you and being on track for completion by the end of October.
Greg, it’s my turn. It’s Mark from Channel 9 down in Melbourne. Do you mind if I just ask you a couple of questions in regards to the ADF for clarification?
230 was the overall number that the ADF mentioned to us yesterday, and you said the same thing. But our Victorian Government has said they actually requested 460 initially. Can you explain why the difference in number?
And secondly, is any work going on in regards to potentially finding a hotel quarantine location out of the Melbourne CBD? It keeps getting brought up by both sides of government down here in the state.
Sure. Look, firstly, the advice that I have is we’ll be more than doubling our ADF from 202 to 430. And that’s what the Commonwealth is responding to. We had a request on, I believe on 29 January. That was clear and in writing from the Victorian Government. We have a response which was provided on 3 February by the ADF. And we’ve already provided the first 50, so I think that may be the point that we’re talking very similar numbers here of actually achieving a total outcome of 430 for Victoria.
In relation to hotel quarantine, it remains a matter for every state and territory if they wish to open additional facilities. Our concern is that they are safe and effective, that they have the infection control standards set by Alison and her team at AUSMAT, and that they are able to carry those out.
We are neutral in relation to the fact that any state or territory may wish to put forward additional proposals. We’re supporting a potential significant expansion of the Howard Springs facility in Darwin, and I’ve had the privilege of visiting there on two occasions. It’s very close, a matter of about 25 minutes from Darwin Airport. It’s on the edge of the urban area. It services and is serviced by Darwin. It has the proximity to the city. Sometimes, it’s presented as if it’s out in the country; it’s not. It’s on the fringes of the city.
And it’s an example where we’re stepping in to increase the capacity of other states wish to do that. Then, of course, we’ll continue to be supportive, subject to the safety and the quality.
Sorry, Minister, just to clarify, you said that the numbers are relatively similar. But has the ADF again refused to do any of the hall monitoring work effectively?
Look, I’ll leave that to the ADF. I think that they’ve got very clear standards as to what they’ve been doing around the country and the tasking of that is a matter for the ADF. And I think that’s an appropriate position. I think Priyanka had another question here. She’s waited very patiently.
Yes, thanks so much. So now we’re seeing Craig Kelly still posts these unproven treatments on his Facebook. I wanted to ask if he’s not listening to the Prime Minister, just who do you think will he listen to?
Well, our position is crystal clear. We follow the medical experts. And if others put things on, we disagree and we reject those; clearly, categorically, absolutely.
There are many others right across the spectrum, some reported by those who’ve been putting forward questions today, or at least their institutions.
And equally, I saw a major program last week feature an economist. And I’m not aware that this economist has any training in vaccine. And the economist was flatly disagreeing with the advice of Professor Murphy’s committee. The economist was flatly disagreeing with the advice of ATAGI. The economist was flatly disagreeing with the approach taken by the TGA or the Therapeutic Goods Administration.
And so we are rejecting Mr Kelly’s position. Others who are highlighting other people that disagree with the medical experts may want to reflect on the prominence they are giving themselves to non-medical experts, to people other than the authorised national committees of advice. And so this is something for all of us. But I am flatly, clearly rejecting those views. All right.
But if a member of your own party are still talking about unproven treatments.
Now, with great respect, you’re from the ABC? It was the 7.30 Report on the ABC, which gave extensive treatment to an economist with, to the best of my knowledge, no specialised vaccine training, and highlighted that person, gave them effectively a rails run, invited questions, not challenge them, and privileged their information and standing over the medical experts.
And so I would say to everybody: do what we’ve done, hold people to account against the standards of the medical expert. Reject Mr Kelly’s views, that’s what we have done. But similarly, hold to account those who are not medically trained rather than giving them primacy, prominence, and a status above their medical standing.
Anyway, bottom line in all of this, we’re on track. Our results are good. The tracing outcomes that the states have taken have been excellent. And we’re going to get through this. We continue to do well, but there will be challenges every day. But in the end, we’ll keep Australians safe and we’ll get there. Thank you very much.