The Hon. Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care
29 July 2021
INTERVIEW WITH LIAM BARTLETT
Topics: National COVID-19 vaccine roll out update.
First up today, could we really be free by Christmas? Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? But that’s the message from the Prime Minister, who has tentatively begun talking about an exit strategy to this pandemic.
The PM reckons by Christmas lockdowns will be a thing of the past with the expectation, of course, that everyone will have been offered a vaccination by then.
Now, the so-called roadmap to Christmas still needs a magic number. That number is currently being worked on between Treasury and the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity.
The data from those sources should finally deliver a figure that gives us a vaccination threshold – that’s the number we need to reach before we can finally think about opening up.
So, is Christmas a reasonable expectation? We’re joined by the Federal Health Minister, Greg Hunt, this morning. Minister, good morning to you.
And good morning, Liam.
Thanks very much for spending some time with us, Minister. Look, given the most populous state is still another four weeks away from even thinking about opening again, is Christmas a reasonable bet, do you think?
We absolutely think that by Christmas we can ensure that every Australian who seeks to be vaccinated has had that opportunity. The figures we had for Tuesday are nearly 197,000. The early indications are that yesterday’s figures will be significantly greater again.
We’ll be close to 11.8 million when we have the final figures. And so there- you know, we’re getting very close to 200,000 vaccinations a day during the week, and that’s, that’s a huge number. If you think of it, in America it’s close to 2.5 million a day on a population equivalent. So, the vaccination programme is now rolling out at a very rapid rate and we have the supplies to come.
Well, we’ve finally, yeah, finally got the supplies right – that’s the thing, isn’t it? But look, it’s one thing to be-
Well, the supplies were always coming at, at this time, but instead of 600,000 Pfizer a week we’re now getting a million. We were expecting 600,000 at this time, we’ve been able to bring it forward. And obviously, the AstraZeneca advice had reduced that pool.
Yeah. Very much so.
But what we’re seeing is Australians come forward in, in record numbers. And when you think that we’re only a day or so away from 12 million vaccinations, that’s a very significant figure.
But look, Minister, I’m sure you’d agree it’s one thing to be offered a vaccination, it’s another one to take it up, to actually get in there and do it.
Now, yesterday on this programme, we discovered that 15 per cent, only 15 per cent – but when you think about 15 per cent in numbers, 15 per cent of health care workers, that’s frontline health care workers in Perth hospitals, in metropolitan Perth, still haven’t had a jab, not one, despite being offered it from February this year. So, they’ve had it on the plate for five months and still haven’t taken it up.
So, this is one of the things is there’s both a role for Government, the media, the community to encourage everybody. And there’s an individual role to say, not only can it save my life and protect my family, but it’s part of our commitment to others – the ability to protect them.
With childhood vaccinations, we’re now at over 95 per cent for five-year-old vaccination rates. So, we know we’re a great vaccination nation, and we want to provide the confidence, provide the support.
But it is a partnership; it’s both a national, and a state duty, and a public duty exactly as you’re doing now to encourage it. And the partnership is each individual can play a role.
And Australians have been magnificent, but I’d continue to encourage them to come forward. Doesn’t matter where you are in your community or society, young or old or middle aged, the different professions – this is something that we want every Australian to come forward and do.
You don’t know that number yet, do you? You haven’t got a magic number – 60, 70, 80 per cent.
We don’t have a final figure yet. We are working with the Doherty Institute and they’ll be talking with the National Cabinet over the coming days. And it’s likely that there’ll be a series of different steps that will help us advance and achieve our outcomes. That work is in progress.
The states are meeting, as I say, with the Doherty Institute over the coming days. And so, it’s very much Commonwealth, states and then the best modelling advice we think, in the world.
And do I think we can do this? Yes, absolutely. You know, will COVID with the world for a very long time? No question. So, we have to make sure that we have the buy-in, the vaccination rates at the community level, and that we have the graduated steps which will protect us.
And we look around the world – the UK, Israel, Singapore, all of which have had challenges as they are emerging from, you know, in some cases – certainly in the UK, a very, very prolonged period of that lockdown. But we’re seeing that the vaccinations making a difference. They’re making a huge difference in terms of safety in aged care, the difference in Victoria last year and this year is extraordinary.
Minister, the vaccination in the UK is allowing them to re-join the world, isn’t it? I mean from next week, from next week England is allowing fully vaccinated visitors from the European Union and the United States to arrive without the need to quarantine.
So, one of the things is that what the vaccination does, it allows us to have all of these different pathways. But also, we are in the position of being able to observe what is happening in other countries.
You know, when you look at it, yesterday we’ve just reached, I think, 490 lives lost in the UK in the last week. So that is a reminder that a graduated approach, the step-by-step, the Prime Ministers four step plan which has been adopted by the National Cabinet allows us to do these things safely, and to make sure we’re protecting Australians.
But our goal here is to bring back the pathway and that sense of normality in society.
Now, in Western Australia, for the most part, people are living a very normal life but with the restrictions on international travel, both inbound and, and outbound.
It’s huge. Huge restrictions.
Yep. No, absolutely.
Isn’t, isn’t the problem, Minister, with this Christmas target, for example, isn’t the problem with all this is that the states work out the lockdowns? They decide the lockdowns? So how can the PM, your boss, say by Christmas they’ll be a thing of the past?
Well, this is the, the partnership of the National Cabinet based on the, the four-part plan or road map, and so that’s showing the way in which, as we achieve the vaccinations, we can rely less on some of the other restrictions.
So what’s, what’s protected Australia? The, the rings of containment, borders, testing, tracing, distancing and vaccination. And that vaccination has, arguably, saved an enormous number of lives in New South Wales in this outbreak; it’s kept our aged care residents safe and which is, of course, with the elderly where we’ve had, not just in Australia but around the world, the most tragic and catastrophic of losses.
So then, as we move through that, we’re then able to progressively rely less on some of the other measures – not, not abandon them completely, but to know that we have a fundamental layer of protection.
And we’ve also locked in already the boosters that may well be required for both 2022 and 2023. Now, the world will learn more, but those purchases are already in place.
But, but the world will have moved on, won’t it? I mean, by the time we get our act together there’ll be new variants on top of these variants, and then boost as required for them, and so on, and so forth.
Look, we’re, we’re in a position where we’re planning for all contingencies. The whole world is learning and evolving and has challenges, it’s just that our challenges have, mercifully, been far less than the vast majority of the world.
You know, when you think that, you know, the deaths in the UK with well over 125,000 lives lost, or the US with over 620,000 lives lost, we are in a vastly different position.
Yeah, I understand that. And, and our listeners, our listeners will too. We all, yeah, we know the figures, but we are sort of paying the price in a sense too, aren’t we, for being that closed off? There’ll be a price to pay down the track. I mean, apart from the generational debt and the mental health costs, you know, we have other legacies, don’t we?
Do you think that we should be treating this slightly differently now? Changing our approach slightly to this?
Not yet, no. I respect the view, but the alternative is the, just the human tragedy on a grand scale that we’ve seen in Italy, France, the UK, the United States and, and so many others – but that’s also come with massive economic costs.
So the thing that we’ve managed in Australia is to protect both lives and livelihoods. Four point nine per cent unemployment and, you know, one of the lowest levels of lives lost of any developed world country. These two things are a monumental, shared national achievement. But none of its cost free.
But, Minister, no, none of its cost free, you’re right, but as Health Minister you know better than, than most, there’s another cost. You know, there are lives lost in mental health, through mental health there have been lives lost because of this. So we can’t just say that’s, that’s not off the table.
At this stage all of our evidence is that, despite many of the predictions, the massive supports that were put in place, whether it was Beyond Blue, or Lifeline, or the, the Head to Health program, or others, has meant that last year there was no likely increase in the rate of people who have taken their own lives.
The job’s not done because there hasn’t been a significant decrease either, so that’s a massive ongoing national task.
But we, perhaps as much as any other country, focussed on mental health during the course of the pandemic with early programs, significant programs. And if you are struggling, please don’t hesitate to go to headtohealth.gov.au, or Beyond Blue, or Lifeline. The Beyond Blue Coronavirus Helpline has been immensely important.
And so there will be challenges. We’ve got through it so far better than almost anybody; we’ll get through it again.
I do apologise because I do have to go back into the Cabinet committee. But I just want to thank everybody and keep urging you, come forward for those first jabs when you’re eligible, and second jabs when you’re due.
Yep. No. Good advice. Can I just ask you one final question?
So just to, just to nail this down. You expect National Cabinet – because this hasn’t happened so far – so you expect once we have that magic number that there will be a National Cabinet meeting? At the end of that meeting every single state premier will agree on one particular way forward?
And then, when the meeting’s finished, they’ll all come out in unison, totally unified and stick to that figure?
Well, I won’t speak for other states and premiers, but our hope and our belief is that we will have a unified National Cabinet position. And that, that’s actually what came through the early work in National Cabinet, and that’s what I’m very hopeful will continue to do that with regards to the Doherty modelling.
Minister, thanks for giving us your time. I appreciate it.
Minister for Health federally, Greg Hunt, on the program.