The Hon. Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care
25 January 2022
INTERVIEW WITH JIM WILSON
Topics: 2 year anniversary of first recorded Australian COVID case; rapid antigen tests; students returning to school.
Now, Australia is marking a pretty sombre milestone today. It was exactly two years ago on this day that the first confirmed case of a disease known as COVID-19 was identified and recorded in the country.
On 25 January 2020, a man from China returned a positive test to the virus after arriving into Melbourne from Wuhan just days earlier. It was only a matter of hours before three others tested positive here New South Wales.
Now, two years later, two million others have been infected in Australia, and tragically, more than 3000 people have died. While many of the deaths occurred in the first year of the pandemic, more than half of the total infections were recorded in 2022, after the emergence of the extremely transmissible Omicron variant.
It’s been a bumpy two years, to say the very least. And we owe a great deal to people, like Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt, who’ve stepped up, often without any holiday, to lead us through this. And Health Minister Greg Hunt joins me live on the line.
Minister, welcome back to Drive and thanks, as always, for your time.
No, look, it’s a pleasure and just taking your health, you’re okay?
Yeah, I’m fine. Considering all things, mate, it could be a whole lot worse without the booster and without the vaccines. And it’s sort of lingering around the throat and the cough.
But you know what? If that’s the worst of my problems, compared to other people have gone through it, and much worse situations, I’d prefer to be sitting here in this chair rather than on a mask or on a ventilator in an ICU ward.
Yeah, look, I mean, that’s absolutely the case. And there are about 147 people on ventilation around Australia who had COVID.
But as you say, we’ve had well over a million cases in the last month. And we’ve gone from 54 to 147 in a five-week period, but with over a million cases.
And so what we’re seeing is that the health system, the workforce is so challenged, but they’ve done an amazing job. But with the beds, the ICU capacity, and the ventilation, they’re all really holding up very, very strongly.
And I just had a briefing from the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly, talking about the decrease in ICU numbers and the peaking of hospitalisation rates. And so these are so important.
And then the case rates have, I think, very clearly reached peak and, on the advice that I have, are at worst plateauing, at best, we’re likely to see a good reduction in the coming weeks.
Just on this milestone day, it’s not a milestone that we we’re hardly celebrating. I mean two years ago, first became aware of COVID-19 arriving on our shores.
Can you remember what was going through your head as the Federal Health Minister when that news came through on 25 January in 2020?
I do, actually, very, very clearly. I remember the advice from Professor Murphy. So Brendan Murphy, who was the Chief Medical Officer at the time and the Secretary of Health, and he had talked to me about the disease on 20 January, and said that he intended to list it as a disease of pandemic potential and did so on the 21st.
And we’d been engaging directly with the Prime Minister and the National Security Committee. And so we were not surprised, but we were very, very aware that action needed to be taken.
So flights were stopped from Wuhan shortly afterwards. And then we became one of the first nations in the world on 1 February, once it left the Hubei province, which is the province around Wuhan the city, and we closed that border.
And that, it was an inconceivable decision to close the border with China, because of students, trade, business, tourism, good relations. And it was one of the weightiest decisions I’ve ever been part of.
But the PM was really clear. I remember at the time. Is this a real risk? Is it a risk to Australia? Do we need to do this? Then we will do this. And we had that sense of steadiness all the way.
One of the shifts in the way with we handled the virus, Minister, is our testing, and the reliance now on rapid antigen test kits. From this week, concession card holders are able to access free tests from pharmacies, as can pensioners.
We’re being told that stock is turning up, but there are still shortages. When do you expect supply to no longer be an issue?
So supply will continue to increase. Yesterday, just on the first day, there were over 1600 pharmacies that participated, double the number we were expecting. That’s doubling again to over 3300, and almost 150,000 pensioners and concession card holders who picked up their tests.
And almost 700,000 tests just in [inaudible].
Might have a few problems there, I think with the- sorry, Minister, your line just dropped out. Continue. You’re alright.
Yeah, so I’ve been talking with the Pharmacy Guild, Chemist Warehouse. Our own supplies are continuing to come through.
We’ve now distributed about 6.7 million to aged care, over 7 million when you include the states. And then the states are getting supplies as well.
So it’s a global challenge. The US, the UK, they’ve had huge challenges themselves. But our supplies are strengthening and strengthening.
Okay. Just on the test kits, why is it that there are two Australian companies manufacturing these kits in our own backyard, they’ve been supplying the UK and the US and yet they still haven’t got TGA approval?
Why is that, and we’re relying on 16 of the 22 TGA approved companies that manufacture out of China, why aren’t we using these Australian-made, manufactured kits?
So we do have an Australian company that is TGA approved and supplying. There are others who actually only either just applied to the TGA, there’s one that has spoken a lot in the press, hadn’t applied to the TGA until very recently, and still hasn’t completed its application.
There are 66 approved tests in Australia, more than in the United States. But if somebody does not apply, and we have had multiple conversations with them through the TGA encouraging them to apply, then obviously, by law, the TGA [inaudible] have, even though they’ve got 66 approved tests, they still don’t have one from either of those two companies.
And so we are urging them to do what every one of the other 66 sponsors has done, and just to provide that data. And we’ve done it really quickly, because we want all of these to be done.
But one of those was suspended by the US FDA, the US Medical regulator, with a class 1 suspension, which is a potential threat to life and their tests were suspended for a period of time. And so understandably, the TGA is saying we’d like to see the data.
Okay, just on supply Minister, Labor leader Anthony Albanese wasn’t holding back at his National Press Club address earlier today. I just want you to have a listen to this.
Never before has Australia had a prime minister with such a pathological determination to avoid responsibility. He declares, it’s not my job. It’s not a race, it’s a matter for the states. He doesn’t hold a hose and he doesn’t give a rat’s.
Every action, every decision, has to be dragged out of him. And so often, after all of the build-up, he gets it wrong anyway. And it’s always, always too little and always too late.
[End of excerpt]
Okay, so he’s super critical there of the Prime Minister but also, by extension your leadership. What’s your reaction to his address this afternoon?
Look, the simple test, if you were the start of the pandemic you’d go back two years and you’d say I want to be the country that has one of the lowest rates of loss of life in the world. That matters more than anything else. One of the highest rates of vaccination in the world and one of the strongest economic recoveries in the world. Of greater vaccination of over 95.4 per cent, a rate of unemployment of 4.2 per cent and that’s Australia. Australia is the country.
And the single person who’s taken the most responsibility, who has, day in and day out, done that work, is the Prime Minister.
And he and myself, and Josh Frydenberg, and Brendan Murphy and Paul Kelly and Penny Shakespeare and Glenys Beauchamp and Caroline Edwards and others, their officials. We’ve all done our best to help, but no person has ever stood up in peacetime and taken more responsibility than the Prime Minister.
So we are the nation that has those results. And it’s a shame that Mr Albanese is so negative, that he can’t acknowledge 45,000 lives saved, one of the highest vaccination rates in the world and one of the lowest rates of unemployment that Australia has had in decades. Which just means jobs, lives saved, and people vaccinated and protected.
And he doesn’t believe, or he appears not to recognise, that there’s been a pandemic, that the pandemic is a global challenge. It’s just that we’ve done better than almost anybody.
Well yeah. Well I’d like to know.
He was asked about rapid antigen tests today and he couldn’t say anything about it.
His last policy was six billion dollars to get people vaccinated. Well, we’ve got 95 per cent vaccination and we’ve delivered seven million tests to the public, the states are delivering tests and it is a challenge.
And the pharmacies only yesterday delivered 700,000 which were paid for and by [inaudible]
I think we’ve- sorry, that phone lines obviously- just a quick one before I let you go. Obviously millions of school kids will be heading back to the classroom next week and there’s obviously concern about what this will do to transmission rates.
Are you confident our health systems will manage the cases which arise out of schools?
Yes, absolutely. Firstly, we have one of the highest children’s vaccination rates already. Secondly, what we’re seeing, you know we now have over 700,000 kids on top of over 6.8 million boosters, on top of a 95 per cent vaccination rate.
And with that, what we’re also seeing is that there is a change in the profile of cases, that’s sort of a plateauing and a potential reduction, that we’re seeing that peaking.
And finally, we have a really strong system to protect those children. And I think the epidemiologists and the health advisors in the states and the Commonwealth together have strongly supported children going back for their health, for their mental health, for their education.
All of these things are the reasons to continue to do that.
Minister, thank you for your time and happy Australia Day for tomorrow.
Take care everyone. Thanks Jim.
That’s Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt.