The Hon. Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care
29 August 2021
INTERVIEW WITH KIERAN GILBERT
Topics: Australian COVID-19 vaccine rollout; mental health.
Joining me now this Sunday morning is the Health Minister Greg Hunt. Thank you very much for your time, Minister.
I know that a big challenge for you over the coming months along with the Prime Minister is this reopening and to bring the nation with you on that. But it’s complicated, isn’t it, by the fact that the COVID-free states like certainly WA but Queensland are not as open to this roadmap.
It’s a fundamental challenge for you, isn’t it?
Look, I think we have a common national direction around a clear national plan. And the clear national plan is based on the capacity of people to see their parents and grandparents, to attend weddings and funerals, to participate in the great events of life.
And the 70 per cent and 80 per cent benchmarks that have been set through the Doherty modelling process, these are very important milestones for Australians, both in terms of safety – they are significant vaccination rates – and then also in terms of hope.
And it’s fundamental to provide hope, direction, and a plan in a safe way for Australians. And so I’m confident that the direction set out in the national plan do provide a pathway and will provide the pathway through which Australia will take the next steps.
It certainly, it is compelling, and I think for many people in lockdowns like I find myself this morning and many in Sydney and Melbourne, the argument is a compelling one.
But if you’re in WA and it’s COVID-free, essentially the plan amounts to allowing COVID into that state.
Look, I respectfully take a different view. That’s about saying at some point children have to be able to see grandparents. If not at that point, when?
I’m not sure that anybody is really saying forever, but that is the implication of what some might be putting, that they would stay in that closed state forever. And that’s obviously not a situation that any country, any jurisdiction can have. And so the plan is a way through.
There are some who may have no way out. And, you know, we hear that from, we heard that earlier on in the week from Anthony Albanese. Effectively, he had no way out.
Now, fortunately, I think there’s been movement in the ALP federally, but I want to make sure that they are locked into that. But for us, what we’re seeing is record vaccinations. We’ve had another 220,000 in the last 24 hours. We’re now at 18.9 million vaccinations and 57.5 per cent first dose. Or to put it another way, to get to the 70 per cent from where we are, it’s less than 2.7 million additional Australians stepping forward. And to get to the 80 per cent on first dose, it’s less than 4.7 million Australians.
And we’re already over the 80 per cent mark for everybody over 60. Within the week, we’ll be over the 80 per cent mark for everybody over 50. That shows it can be done. We are on the pathway. We are getting there, and we’re getting there now at a very rapid rate.
And so we can do this, and we will do this.
Well, as you said, nearly 19 million, not that far in terms, as you put it like that, to get to those 70, 80 per cent thresholds.
But when we get there, the Prime Minister says it’ll be like living with the flu. But in the worst year of a flu, you’re talking about, say, 4000 deaths or thereabouts.
Do we have to get ready for that sort of thing with COVID?
Well, the critical thing, and we’ve been very upfront about this, is that what has been the worst pandemic in 100 years since the Spanish flu and where we’ve saved at least 30,000 lives in Australia compared with the OECD – 45,000 lives compared with the per capita losses in the US and the UK – it’s now become endemic.
It’s become part of the global disease load. And so it’s not disappearing from the world. And so if we engage with the world, we recognise that through vaccination and through new treatments, such as Sotrovimab, which has now been distributed overnight for the first time to the first of the states and territories that are receiving it, which can help people over 55 in particular who catch the disease treat it and lead to dramatically reduced hospitalisation rates.
All of these things help protect Australians going forward. But will the disease be endemic in the world? It already is. Does that mean that any country can avoid it? no. There is no scenario under which any credible epidemiologist or adviser that I have seen says that any country can avoid this forever. And so, therefore, vaccination will save lives. And I encourage everybody to continue to be vaccinated.
The evidence that we’ve seen is, I’ve just received overnight from the National Incident Centre a comparison between New South Wales and Victoria. The numbers of infections in the Victorian wave and the New South Wales wave are almost even at this point in time, yet the rate of loss of life in New South Wales is 10 per cent of that, approximately, in Victoria.
So just over 800 lives lost, you know, agonisingly last year. Just over 80 lives lost at this point in New South Wales. And there will be more. But the difference between those two is the vaccination rates. That’s what has saved lives. You know, roughly 10 per cent of the loss of life in New South Wales compared with Victoria. And that comes down to vaccination.
And that- as you said, in terms of reducing the death rate, as well Sotrovimab, this monoclonal antibody therapy, the latest treatments running alongside those vaccines, I guess as a parent and many parents watching and some grandparents wondering, what about kids?
It’s been approved for 12 to 15. How soon are they going to be vaccinated? Will it be before the end of the school year?
We will make sure, and we’re very confident that not just every Australian, but in particular every 12- to 15-year old will have access to the vaccine this year, and we want to encourage parents and encourage children to take it up.
Each family will make their own determinations. In my family, with a 12- and 16-year old, it’s a double green light. Parents, yes. Kids, yes. And both of my children have said, yep, I’m in, Dad. And more importantly, they said, I’m in, Mum, because she’s a nurse. And so they look to me, but they really look to her.
But what does it mean? It means that as of 13 September we’ll open for bookings and for vaccinations for children 12 to 15. We’ve had the advice of the medical regulator and then the immunisation advisory body, the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation. They’ve both given a green light as well.
And that means it’s safe. It’s effective for children. That’s the Pfizer vaccine. This fortnight, we’re expecting to get advice from the TGA on Moderna for 12 to 17-year-olds. It’s currently approved for 18 plus. And I’m hopeful that that will be added, which will give a second vaccine.
So we have significant vaccine supplies. We’re seeing rates of approximately 1.9 million a week, rates that people thought were impossible. And as additional vaccines come on board, we will make sure that every Australian has the opportunity to be vaccinated at the earliest possible time.
But kids open up, 12 to 15, as of 13 September.
Minister, what about the Indigenous population? The Prime Minister said this was going to be a big focus at the start of the pandemic.
If we look at western New South Wales, less than seven per cent of the Indigenous population is vaccinated compared to just under 30 per cent for the rest of the population in that region. Now hundreds of Indigenous have contracted COVID-19.
How did it come to this?
Well, at this stage, there’s 36.5 per cent of Indigenous Australians that have taken up the vaccine. And we’re actually seeing in western New South Wales very high rates of take up: that seven per cent figures is not correct in terms of the first doses across that region.
We’re now seeing very significant take up. And one of the things that we discussed yesterday with the states and territories is that you can have quite differing views within a community. A community can have a vaccination day, and there can be very high rates of take up.
The Northern Territory minister was talking about sometimes you will have very low rates in a in a community and sometimes very high rates. So that vaccination can be offered, but because of, in some cases, hesitation or anti-vaccination sentiment, that can have a big impact.
So we’re going back again and again and again with information.
So it hasn’t been a problem with supply?
No, this is very much, as Ken Wyatt has set out, about the question of hesitancy. The examples yesterday that state and territory ministers were giving of some communities where there will be a vaccination visit and you can have very high rates of take-up because of a strong pro-vaccination position in some communities, where you can have the same visit but very low rates of vaccination take-up.
That’s a joint task, the community, the Australian Government, the local government, and the state and territory governments all working together to build, build, build that confidence.
And we have seen is almost as if it’s a switch that has been flipped in western New South Wales, according to the community leaders, where they’ve said, yes, this really does matter. There was also a sense of we’re remote, we’re immune.
Our Indigenous rates of COVID have been approximately one third of the national average. Our Indigenous loss of life has been one sixth. And to date I’m not aware that any person, any Indigenous Australian in remote areas has lost their life.
So that is a massive global achievement, not a national achievement. But now we have to provide that extra protection by encouraging and supporting confidence in the vaccines.
I mean, we hope that that remains the case, that that achievement you referred to there.
Now, a couple of stories before you go. Andrew Clennell reported earlier that there were four separate cases of New South Wales police apprehending COVID-positive people breaching the curfew in Sydney. Does this show why they’re not bringing the numbers down? A lack of compliance?
Well, this is a very serious issue. If somebody knowingly breaches the quarantine arrangements after having been diagnosed.
I am certain that the police will take a very strong view. But it’s a responsibility for each individual. Any one of us can save a life or risk a life. And if somebody leaves home and travels about knowingly positive, then that is, it’s a legal breach, but it’s a gross moral breach.
It’s a failure of personal responsibility. And I would say to those people, yes, the police will find you and fine you. But most significantly, you could lead to other people losing their lives. It’s worse than drunk driving because it could affect not just one person, but numerous people.
So please, if you are diagnosed, stay at home. Stay at home for your own sake, for your own health, but stay at home for everybody.
Minister, just finally, Patrick McGorry, the great Australian former Australian of the Year, describes it as a shadow pandemic.
Tragically, we’re seeing this number from the Victorian Agency for Health Information – more than 300 teenagers admitted to hospital a week in Victoria with mental health concerns, more admitted to hospital with those concerns in the adolescent teenage years than anyone admitted to hospital with COVID in that state. This is the shadow pandemic, isn’t it?
Mental health is so critical, and it’s such an important issue in the course of the pandemic. Kids need to be at school. Kids need to be able to engage with each other. And these things are so critical, both for kids and for parents. And that’s why the national plan is indispensable.
It provides a pathway to ensure that our children are able to go to school. They’re able to see each other. And you can imagine in teenage years, in pre-teen years, the ability to see each other and to engage in schooling is so important.
So, yes, we’re providing massive mental health support, but the strongest support is the hope of a clear plan and of being able to see each other. And for parents and kids that aren’t able to go to the playground, these playgrounds are so important. So we have to have a pathway to get these kids back into the playgrounds, to get people back across borders.
And vaccination and the national plan are about hope, and they’re about safety, but also they’re about mental health. And so the sooner we get kids back to school, the sooner we get kids back in the playground safely, then that will be incredibly important for them.
Indeed it will be, and we look forward to that day. Minister, thank you very much. Appreciate it. Thanks for your time.
Thanks, Kieran. And just finally to say that when you think of that 2.7, less than 2.7 million to get to 70 per cent on the first doses and less than 4.7 million Australians to be vaccinated to get to the 80 per cent, there is real hope. We’re not that far away. We can get there.
Minister, thank you. Talk to you soon.