The Hon. Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care
25 May 2021
INTERVIEW WITH JIM WILSON
Topics: COVID-19 vaccination rollout
Now, plenty of feedback from you about whether we need an ad campaign to encourage people to get the COVID vaccine.
Now, I’ve had my say. I think we need one ASAP to separate fact from fiction and allay fears about the safety of our vaccines, especially the AstraZeneca jab. In fact, it should already be on our TVs, in the newspaper, on the radio. So why is the Government dragging its heels?
Let’s get some answers. Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt is on the line. Minister, welcome back to Drive.
And good afternoon, Jim.
So, why don’t we have an ongoing ad campaign across a variety of media, Minister, busting myths around the vaccine and ensuring people feel safe about getting it, in particular the AstraZeneca vaccine?
So, there is a campaign. We’re investing $40 million, and it runs across television, radio, newspapers online. I saw it on TV. I don’t get to see much TV, but I saw it on TV when I got home sort of after, very late, two nights ago when we got into Canberra.
But that’s an ongoing campaign. It’s focused on safety. Obviously, at this point, where it’s primarily the over 50s who are being vaccinated, in particular, it is focused on what the research is showing or the concerns of the over 50s.
And the simple message is, it is safe, that any side effects are extremely rare. Twenty-two of the 25 people that have had those side effects have already returned home, as the Chief Medical Officer said, and we’re encouraging everybody not to wait who is already eligible for the vaccine to come forward and to do so as soon as possible.
Just on the advertising campaign, I haven’t seen it. A lot of my production team say they haven’t seen it. I mean, do you need to do more? Because right now, there is a huge amount of concern and hesitancy in the community about getting the AstraZeneca vaccine, in particular from those over 50 and those who are 70 plus.
Well, we’ve already had almost, probably today or tomorrow, we’ll pass the 50 per cent mark of those over 70 who have been vaccinated. So to think of that, you know, that’s probably 20 times the capacity of the Homebush Stadium with over roughly 1.5 million people over 70 almost who’ve been vaccinated.
We’ve already had 3.7 million vaccinations in Australia. And last week was the first time we’d had 500,000 plus vaccinations. We had 512,000 vaccinations.
So, all up, that’s, you know, a huge step up, but we’re always working on both supply and confidence. And the main reason to get out is it can save your life or it can save the life of a loved one or others.
We’re doing incredibly well in suppressing the virus – 94 days of zero cases. But as we see in Melbourne’s Northern Suburbs, this can strike anywhere, anyone, any time, and that’s the best reason to be vaccinated.
One of my colleagues here went to the Sydney super hub this morning for his Pfizer vaccine. And yet the queues were long for the Pfizer vaccine, and yet the AstraZeneca hub is almost empty. Surely that’s an indication that people aren’t keen on the AstraZeneca vaccine.
So how can we try to, what more needs to be done to actually get the message through to the community that the AstraZeneca vaccine, that the benefits far outweigh the risks?
Well, I think one of the things there is that AstraZeneca is being distributed through over 4400 general practices around the country, which means it’s easily accessible for everybody. Pfizer is almost overwhelmingly going only through the state clinics for the under 50s who are within the qualifying groups.
And so, you know, those who are health workers, those who have some form of chronic condition, and then they’re taking a small number of general population over the age of 40. So that’s really one of the very few outlets because we have a much smaller volume of Pfizer at this point in time, which expands significantly in June, and then we continue to expand the doses, and that expands as the year goes on.
But right now, if you’re over 50, you can go to your GP, you can go to your Commonwealth respiratory clinic, or you can go to one of the state clinics, and you can access the AstraZeneca. And there are over 2.4 million people who’ve had the AstraZeneca vaccine.
I’m one of them. Brendan Murphy is one of them. Julia Gillard’s one of them. We all went together. And so that’s a really powerful message that people around the country are doing it, and 50 per cent of those over 70, well, as of tomorrow, will have done it.
We’re getting feedback from GPs on the program. Some doctors say they are booked out with COVID appointments but don’t have enough vaccines to administer. What do you say to them this afternoon?
So, we’ve expanded the number of doses from 50 to 150 or 200 for the lower volume facilities; from 100 to 200 or 300 for the medium; and from 400 to 600 for the high clinics that are going through good volumes of doses. So, that’s as supplies come in, supply’s dictated the rollout, and we’ve been able to expand that off the basis of our Australian sovereign vaccine manufacturing.
And we’re also bringing in Pfizer, and we’re sharing that, focusing on the vulnerable groups with them first. For example, there have been 330,000 doses in aged and disability care across the country. That’s understandably been a priority, and 95 per cent of the aged care facilities have had first doses, and 68 per cent of the aged care facilities have had second doses. So, over 4200 visits as we’re speaking.
Just before I go, I want to get a few things confirmed. For those over 50 who would prefer to wait for the Pfizer vaccine, can you guarantee they’ll be able to get the Pfizer vaccine? And if so, when?
Well, we do not want anybody to wait, is the first thing. Let me be absolutely clear, if you wait and you catch COVID, you can die. I’m sorry to be so prescriptive and perhaps blunt about it, but do not wait.
We’ve always said that we have a range of different vaccines for contingency purposes and that therefore we would have whole of population access later on in the year.
We know that we have the Novavax, which is a protein vaccine, which is coming in in the latter part of the year, we have Pfizer, which will continue to grow, and we’ll have 40 million doses of that during the course of the year. And Moderna, which is another vaccine.
But we do not want anybody to wait, because if you’re in the northern suburbs and you catch COVID in Melbourne, you could die. And as you increase in age brackets, then you are more at risk of very serious consequences.
So, Australians have done a magnificent job, 94 days of zero cases, and we’ll get back to zero cases. Right now, we’re fighting an outbreak in Melbourne’s northern suburbs. But the best thing anybody can do is if you’re eligible for vaccination now, come forwards and join the 3.7 million people that have been vaccinated.
Just on the situation in your home state, reports that Victoria has recorded another four cases of coronavirus this afternoon. This brings the cluster in Melbourne, Minister, to nine cases.
Now, you’re the Member for Flinders, just south east of Melbourne. How concerned are you about these new cases?
Look, any outbreak anywhere is a cause for concern. What we’re seeing is very high rates of testing in Melbourne’s northern suburbs. The Victorian Government has acted, I think, quickly and proportionately.
It’s very different to the way actions were taken back in June and July of last year. That was where the Victorian second wave came from in the northern suburbs. So this time I think their contact tracing is much stronger, their testing is stronger, and their actions have been earlier.
So I think I should provide support where it’s due, and it is appropriately due.
Do you have faith in Victoria’s contact tracing system?
Yes, I do. All the states and territories have significantly improved. New South Wales remains the gold standard. I’ve said that for a long while. They really have, I think, one of the globally outstanding contact tracing systems. And that’s how you’re able to manage the northern suburbs or the northern beaches outbreak.
And that was potentially the largest outbreak we could have had in Australia to date. It was more significant in its early scope than the Victorian one in June and July. And yet, because of the contact tracing, and because of the way people in the northern beaches and across Sydney stood up for testing and the way they responded with their behaviours, we were able to do it.
And people are doing that again in Melbourne, and we’ll just continue to urge them: be tested, but also be vaccinated.
Just on changing perceptions around AstraZeneca, are incentives do you believe the way to go when it comes to ramping up the vaccine rollout?
Well, the strongest incentive is to save your life and to save the life of somebody else.
Would you consider other incentives, though?
Oh, look, let us get through all of the population that wants to do this, as much as possible. And we’re always looking at what’s occurring. But then, the two great incentives to keep yourself and your community safe, but also to ensure that the more people that are vaccinated, the more will be able to travel and maintain our way of life.
They are the two great incentives for every Australian.
Just one final one for you. Some of our listeners are asking the question, if you get the AstraZeneca jab first up, are you able to get follow up or a top up Pfizer vaccine down the track?
So, the medical advice is very clear that whatever you get as your first vaccine should be what you get as your second dose, and that’s AstraZeneca, AstraZeneca or Pfizer, Pfizer or later on in the year, if Novavax or Moderna are also available, the second of those.
For the what’s known as the booster or the variant strategy in subsequent years, the advice that I have from the Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly and the Head of the Scientific and Technical Advisory Group, Professor Brendan Murphy, is that at that point, Moderna probably has the most flexible and is likely to be the most widely used booster, but that’s in 2022.
So, right now, whatever you have as your first dose, that’s exactly what you should have as your second dose.
Minister, as always, thank you for your time this afternoon.
Thanks, Jim. And, you know, we’ve done incredibly well. When you look at the rest of the world and you look at us, there’s virtually nowhere that is safer. And that’s just a huge testament to the work of Australians.
Yep. There’s no doubts about that. We’ve been united in the fight, and we’ve kept a lid on it by a united front. So thank you very much for your time again this afternoon, Minister.
The Federal Health Minister, Greg Hunt.