The Hon. Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care
15 July 2021
INTERVIEW WITH LIAM BARTLETT
Topics: COVID vaccine supply chain.
And we’re joined by the Federal Health Minister, Greg Hunt, on the program this morning. Minister, good morning to you.
And good morning to you.
Minister, we’ve got quite a situation around Australia at the moment, haven’t we? What have we got at the moment? I’m just looking at these new figures on the leader board, the COVID leader board if I can put it that way.
Well look, let me take you through it.
I’d just give it three new cases in Queensland, two new cases in Victoria, 65 new cases in New South Wales. How do you reckon we’re going?
Look, it’s a challenge. New South Wales, we’re seeing the flattening of the curve in many ways. We may- we’ll have good days and bad days, but their control of the community cases is strengthening. And so a lot of the cases that we’re seeing in the order of two thirds in isolation already, which I think is very positive.
Each case is a potential risk for the individual, so we’re deeply focused on that. But more generally, when we saw a hundred cases in Victoria a year ago, that grew to 700 cases. In New South Wales at this point in time, they have stabilised and they are bringing them down.
There’s a lot more to do, but I’ve got to say that they’re tracing is world-class, absolutely global gold standard. And the work that’s being done by the community, difficult, challenging, testing, staying at home, all of these things are incredibly important.
And yesterday, we had a record day in terms of primary care, or GP vaccinations, and 162,000 vaccinations across the Nation. And the highest first three days of a week so far, with over 481,000 vaccinations. So Australians are stepping forward.
We’re now to 74 per cent of the over 70s. The most vulnerable group is the most protected group. And 66 per cent of the over 60s, and 58 per cent of the over 50s. So very significant numbers.
I want to thank everybody in WA for coming forward to be vaccinated, and people around the country.
Do we have any supply issues at the moment with vaccines?
Well, in sense, we have. AstraZeneca, we have very, very large numbers, and we’re able to meet all of the demand.
Pfizer, those numbers are growing to approximately a million a week arriving in the country as of next week. The whole world has been working on the basis of a constrained supply with the MRNA vaccine.
You have a bad cough there. I hope you haven’t got it.
It’s just a one-off. It’s alright. I was tested not that long ago. But the whole world has been working within the available supply, and this was always going to be a process over the course of the year.
What we’ve seen is that, for example, in May, there were 2.1 million doses administered. In June, 3.44 million Doses. And already this month, 1.8 million across the first 14 days. So the numbers are growing and people are stepping forward.
Do you think there is anyone, as we speak today, any point, at any place in Australia, do you think there’s anyone who wants a jab but can’t get it?
Well we know that for those people who are between 40 and 60, they have to book and work through that. And so we are saying that in that age group right now, that’s a booking process.
Some people are getting them more quickly than others. For the over 60s, there really shouldn’t be any delay at all. We’re seeing significant numbers of people come forward. But there are very strong clear supplies of AstraZeneca for the over-60s. And there is a fixed supply of the Pfizer, but that is growing and expanding.
And the GP program started last week, and that’s already playing itself out with additional supplies in GPs, and the record number of vaccinations for GPS in the last 24 hours is an example.
Why aren’t we having more pharmacies, for example? Why don’t we just let the pharmacies do exactly the same as what they do with the flu jab? Explain why we don’t do that, because we look at our overseas competitors, if I can put it that way, people like America who have had great success with numbers. I mean, you can get at your local Walmart and get a jab.
Sure, but America’s had over 625,000 lives lost.
So I’m always very cautious when people compare us with America.
But so what? In vaccine.
We’ve had 912 lost. So look we.
I’m talking about making sure people don’t die. That’s what I’m talking about.
Yes, correct. So in terms of the AstraZeneca, there is a very high volume of doses available, because we made it onshore.
We were able to move heaven and Earth to get that done. In terms of the mRNA, or these new vaccines, those are being brought in, and we are increasing the supply. The GP has been the base.
Where we have towns that don’t have GPs, then we’re able to use the pharmacy. And as we have the additional supplies of the mRNA, we’ll be expanding those out to not just state clinics, but also the general practises and also the pharmacies, as we have the supply to do that.
So it’s a supply chain issue, Minister? I mean, if I can just paraphrase you there, what I’m hearing is: if we had extra supplies, for example of the Pfizer, you know, if there was no question about the limits, then you wouldn’t mind if all the pharmacies did it in exactly the same way as the flu jab.
Well, we have planned precisely to have large volumes of pharmacists on as we move to up to 2 million a week of Pfizer and Moderna.
So those are the two mRNA vaccines, and that’s something that we’ve said is expected in September, October. We already have pharmacies operating in rural areas around the country.
But as we have that additional volume, then that will be shared more broadly. For example, from 100,000 doses of Pfizer, which is going to GPS this week, to expanding that to 250,000 next week. So we’re continuously expanding that as the international supply is available.
What sort of figure are you anticipating, or has there been any numbers crunched through your office, say, by the end of the year, by the end of, by Christmas time? Do you think, what sort of percentage of Australians will be fully vaccinated?
Well, our goal is very clear and very simple, and that is to give every eligible Australian access to the vaccine this year. And we want as many people as possible to have the confidence to step forward, to take it up.
We’ve been a great vaccination nation. So we’re not putting a figure on that, other than that we want to make sure that everybody has access to the vaccine this year, and with their just with the numbers we’ve been doing per week and per month over the course of June and July, that’s achievable.
But we know that those numbers will increase significantly, beginning next week, when we get the first of the million- approximately million doses supplies arrive. And that will then be played out and distributed, and that will continue to grow.
And that will mean that more and more people have access.
That will be a bit of a game-changing, won’t it? Do you think that criticism of the Federal Government has been a bit unfair in that sense?
Look, our job was to make sure that we had as many irons in the fire. The world had never had a coronavirus vaccine. So we’ve done six contracts; five of them have come through.
The University of Queensland was a brilliant vaccine, but it carried a marker for HIV false positive. It was safe, it was effective.
But we have Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Novavax, and then what’s called the COVAX International facility, which gives you a range of options. And so all of those are in play.
The Moderna will come in September on current projections. The Novavax we’re expecting most likely commencing in the last quarter. And we also have booster shots available for next year.
So that’s on top of the 40 million Pfizer, on top of the 53.8 million AstraZeneca that we have. So all of those things we keep working on.
When do we, and I asked this question too in relation to the lockdowns we’re seeing at the moment. I mean, it’s just a never-ending nightmare, isn’t it, for many people around the country? Not just talking about Western Australia – all Australians.
To stop this cycle of lockdowns, and also to get some of these international flight caps released, and make sure we get some more people who are trapped at the moment overseas for various reasons, because their flights keep getting cancelled, and they keep getting bumped, and well, you know all the stories.
I don’t have to tell you. I mean, where do we get to, Minister? What percentage can we get to, and when we can expect some of these things to be relaxed?
Yeah. So firstly, it’s a deeply human and important element. Of course there’s an economic, fundamental economic component. But above all else, it’s the human, in terms of people being able to visit family, to visit loved ones for the great events in their lives, in either direction. Secondly, this is what the Prime Minister took through National Cabinet.
We do know that some of the states did want to reduce the numbers of people who were coming into the country, particularly with the Delta variant, with which people are very familiar now.
And so what the Prime Minister took through National Cabinet, which was accepted by all of the states and territories, obviously including Western Australia and the Premier, was this four-stage plan to progressively reopen Australia to the world, and that’s based on vaccination.
Right now, the Doherty Institute based in Melbourne is doing the modelling on what you would call the graduated staircase. So as you get to certain points of vaccination, and remembering this, we’re at 34 per cent of the eligible population, the adult population, from 16 plus, that’s already been vaccinated.
And so as you get to progressive numbers, then we’ll be able to do things such as ensure the people who are fully vaccinated may not be subject to lockdowns, can cross state borders if there were a lockdown.
And they’re very important markers: can have earlier access to international travel, can return to the country with home quarantine. And we’ve approved already a 14-day home quarantine proposal for people who are vaccinated in Australia, travel overseas, and return.
The first of the states, South Australia, is looking at that, and we’d encourage the other states to participate in the trials as soon as possible.
And so in the coming days, we’ll pass 10 million vaccinations in Australia. As I say, 162,000 in the last 24 hours, and those numbers are growing. That plan, the principles have been laid out and agreed.
And that was a huge achievement, to get all of the states and territories on the same page with the Commonwealth, and really important, and we thank WA and the Premier for being part of that.
And now the specific numbers are being worked on by the- probably one of the world’s leading epidemiological modelling centres, or, if you think of them as disease spread modelling centres, the Doherty Institute in Melbourne.
And that will come back to National Cabinet within the coming weeks. And that four-stage plan will then have the objectives and the targets and the thresholds added to it. So that gives people certainty.
I think a lot, yes, exactly, that’s the key, isn’t it, certainty. I think a lot of people will be very, very interested in those figures, in the actual figures.
And it is important to understand as a nation what we’ve achieved. The UK, which has done incredibly well with their vaccination, they’ve got over 40,000 cases in the last 24 hours, more in 24 hours than we’ve had as a nation throughout the entire pandemic.
Fifty people approximately lost their lives, 500 on ventilators.
Yeah, but how many of those cases are getting to hospital? I mean, they’re open next Monday.
If 500 people are on ventilators in the UK.
So do you think that’s madness, do you? Do you think their plan for Monday is madness?
No. Look, I respect that each country has to make their own decision. What I am saying is that it’s all of the elements, the borders, the testing, the tracing, the distancing, and the vaccinations which have gone to make up the Australian model. And that Australian model has saved lives on a grand scale, and it’s kept us safe on a grand scale.
And it’s come with enormous impositions, and I understand that, and we understand that. But our position is other health ministers from around the world have said to me, with the exception of New Zealand, which has been in a very comparable situation, we just wish we were in a position that Australia is in.
And they think of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of lives lost, and they look at us, and they think that Australia is a near miracle, and it’s come with so much hardship. But even today, the job figures, alongside the health figures, I think the job figures showed an unemployment rate of 4.9 per cent.
So as a country, lots of challenges, but I think it’s important to stop and reflect and recognise that with 74 per cent of the over 70s vaccinated, with unemployment at 4.9 per cent, and then you compare with where the UK is at, recognise that it’s all the things together which have allowed us to achieve what we’ve done.
It’s difficult, there’s more work to be done. But I just want to say thank you to Australians.
Good on your, Minister. Good to catch up with you this morning. Thanks very much for your time. Appreciate it.
Thanks Liam, take care.
You too. Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt on the program.