The Hon. Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care
20 January 2022
WITH LUKE GRANT
Topics: Rapid Antigen Tests, Kids COVID-19 Vaccination.
Let’s have a chat here with the Federal Health Minister, Greg Hunt, and we’ll get his take on things. He’s on the line. Minister, good afternoon. I trust you’re well.
And good afternoon, Luke. Yes. Yeah, no, we’re just focused on all of the work and helping to get people vaccinated, which they’re doing magnificently on, and to keep them safe, and with some promising news and work in relation to case trends that came out of National Cabinet today. So I think that’s a really important point of hope.
Yeah, that’s good. I’ll ask you about that in a sec. By the way, I spoke to John Skerritt earlier. Very impressive, very impressive. The head of the TGA.
And I asked him about the approval process for some of these RATs that are made, or rapid antigen tests made in Australia. And he said it straight, and he also told us that he had a heap of his people having a break over Christmas, and given the urgency of all of this, and we do, all of us, from time to time, probably have a bit of a poke at and a joke at the public servants, but he brought so many people back to work.
And he was keen to say, you know, these are hardworking people and probably in the mix, we think of doctors and nurses and everyone, but we shouldn’t think poorly of the bureaucrats. They equally work hard.
No, no. Look, the people we’ve had as a country, it’s called a public service for a reason, and I understand the sort of light-heartedness that can be made.
These are Australians that have worked literally seven days a week, in many cases, barely without a break, over two years. And the TGA does all of our medicines, vaccines, testing, and safety work, and they’ve brought 66 rapid antigen tests onto the market in Australia, more than in the United States, John tells me.
And John Skerritt and his team, I think they’re the best health and safety regulators in the world. But just today, two new treatments, molnupiravir and paxlovid, to help frail people, particularly elderly, who might get COVID, and new a vaccine, Novavax, which for those that haven’t been vaccinated.
We’ve got a 95 per cent vaccination rate. We hope, if they’ve been holding out, and we don’t want them to hold out but if they’ve been holding out, this is the next thing that will lift that rates still further.
Yes. Yeah, he told me those two new medications could be here in a matter of days, that you’ve been working with the people who make those drugs. It’s all very encouraging.
What about these reports that the Federal Government is confiscating rapid antigen tests on arrival from overseas? Is there anything to that?
No. Look, it’s completely false and we’ve reported companies to what’s called the ACCC, so the competition body, which looks at, amongst other things, false and misleading conduct; so if you’re making patently false statements, and these are.
And indeed one example of a company with whom we had no contract whatsoever, who’s making these claims, and what you see is that you have some that may have over-promised or not being able to fulfil their orders and they thought: it’s easy just to say this, well, we’ve taken the big stick of the tough cop on the beat.
And I think that’s very important because there are supplies coming in through the Commonwealth, through the states, and through the community or private market, through pharmacies and through supermarkets, and it’s important that all of those come through.
So that’s been a fundamental principle. And I’ve seen reports now, as the journalists have started off the back of our work, they’ve actually started to interrogate some of these claims, and all of them have collapsed.
Nobody’s produced any evidence and they’re backing away at a thousand miles an hour. So, in short, it was a pretty low light. It’s a shame that one of the State Ministers in Queensland tried that, but we pointed it out that it was false, and they didn’t make that again.
So it is a challenge for everybody. But there are over 50 million rapid antigen test across Commonwealth state and community that are coming in over the coming weeks through the international freight assistance mechanism. Basically where the Commonwealth helps secure flights to get these important tests to Australia.
We have defence logistics, we have transport logistics, we’re working with the private sector, so that we’re helping to facilitate all of those three channels. And just today, a family friend of my daughters had a test in Victoria at Frankston hospital and instead of a long line, she was in the line for about 30 minutes, had a rapid antigen test through the state system and that’s just one human example of how that system is coming together.
The challenges around the world, but honestly, we’re doing vastly better than almost anybody.
Well, if you look at the international press, and there are problems in getting product into shops, and there are a shortage of these tests, its not just here.
Sometimes we like to think that’s the case, but it doesn’t help when you get- you’ve got that Queensland Minister making that false claim.
And I heard Penny Wong, who I’ve got a lot of time for, a lot of respect for, she said in a statement a week ago, that you hadn’t started ordering these tests until last week. And that’s not right, is it?
Again, that’s disappointing and false.
We were one of the first into the market back in August. I’ve been a very, very strong supporter of the role of rapid antigen tests.
In August, we were providing them in aged care and using them in that healthcare environment. We pushed really hard to make sure that there was support for them to be in place for the opening up of Australia from 1 November.
And they were not recommended by the vast majority of the state public health units, who wanted to focus understandably on the PCR testing, which is the most accurate of all testing, and has helped our contact tracing and helped keep Australia safe from the Delta and the UK, and the original strains, and was the appropriate form there.
But now with Omicron it’s a less severe, but more virulent form of the virus then that they do have a critical role. And we’re making sure that there are literally 50 million over the coming weeks and more than 200 million over the coming months, that have been ordered by Commonwealth and states together, plus the private market for pharmacies and for supermarkets, and our community support through the pensioners’ programme, which will help deliver 66 million tests to low-income people without any contribution.
Yeah. Well, that’s all very impressive, but it doesn’t help the person who rings this show, with respect Greg, and says, you know, I can’t get one of these tests. If I can find one, it’s 30 bucks.
And you know how it works, they’re looking for someone to blame. I’m not looking for you to name someone to blame. But the there is a widely held belief that we were caught on the hop here.
Yeah, look respectfully firstly, I understand anybody who is looking for rapid antigen tests and is having trouble.
We’re seeing them come into the pharmacies and the supermarkets. The state systems are increasingly beginning to use them.
And then thirdly, our role has been to supply the aged care sector. And perhaps I think we’ve supplied more than anybody else, with over six million to be aged care sector, 6.1 million so far, as well as supporting the indigenous sector. And we’re assisting the states with 10 million units.
So it is a global challenge. The difference is we have a very strong PCR system, which is delivering over 200,000 PCR tests a day. We have the rapid antigen in addition to that, with more coming in. And what we do know is that there’s both more supply, and at the same time, we are beginning to see, as Professor Kelly has said, signs of hope with regards to the potential peak.
And National Cabinet was informed today of some significant reductions in hospitalisation in a number of states.
So the rollout of the vaccine for children, is that progressing as you’d hoped it would, or have we dropped the ball a bit here?
No, it’s well ahead of schedule. As of last night, we had 492,000 in really only a matter of ten days since the program started. And yesterday was 56,000 kids, for example.
So our pharmacies and our GPs are vaccinating at about 250,000 vaccines a day across kids, boosters, and people who are still coming in for first or second doses and that’s at the absolute highest end of their work right throughout the pandemic, the state system has been doing about 75,000 a day. But they’ve got a capacity of 157,000.
So they’re ramping up, and we’re pleased about that. So if you haven’t been able to get an appointment, because your GP might have a full list, the state system, pretty much in any state, has capacity to vaccinate your child.
And so if you can look, whether it’s pharmacies, GPs, Commonwealth clinics, and in particular, large numbers of spaces available in state clinics, that can help your child get that vaccination. But we will have passed 500,000 today in just a little bit more than a week, so an incredible effort.
Yeah so it’s a bit like if the supermarket shelves aren’t full, then find yourself somewhere else to buy stuff. And there’s evidence that some supermarkets aren’t as empty as others might be; the same with vaccine. If you can’t get into your doctor or somewhere nearby there, I’ve looked myself, you know, there are appointments in the state system since they’ve since they’ve ramped that up.
I just want to ask you a couple of quick ones, and you’re very generous with your time, Greg. I know you’ve got other things to do than talk with me.
No, of course.
But the boss of the Pharmacy Guild, Trent Twomey, has made comments today about his children under the age of 12, won’t be wearing masks in public. He’ll take them to the public pool or to the movies. And indicates that, you know, it might be better, more convenient, to have COVID now rather than during the school year.
Now, he’s affirmed those comments to us, and I’m hoping to speak to him, perhaps even tomorrow, or someone will, just for clarification. But we don’t need people in leadership positions, do we, running this kind of line? I don’t think there’s any good time to get COVID. Otherwise, you know, what’s the point of it?
So I haven’t heard the comments. I won’t speak specifically to them. What I will say is there’s no good time ever to catch COVID. It is a dangerous disease. Fortunately, Omicron is much milder, but it’s not a disease that we would wish upon, or want anybody to have.
And the best defence is to vaccinate. The next critical thing is to practise all of those disciplines that we know in terms of distancing and masks. And so as a general principle, I would say that; please continue to do the things that will protect you.
And we’ve seen some of the challenges for the hospital system and for distribution, and all the businesses of people who are listening at the moment, most businesses will have been affected in some way, shape or form.
And so we want fewer people, not more people, to have this disease. And we are beginning to see some positive signs.
And just finally, my listener, Kate, says: thank you, Mr Hunt. We’re very lucky to have you as our Minister of Health. You are always so reassuring.
Has there been, one minute, Greg, has there been one second where following what you announced in the parliament about leaving where you thought to yourself: you know, am I going three years early?
No, no. I’m also a dad, and I have a daughter who’s 16, going into year 11, and the son who’s 12, starting secondary school. And they haven’t had much of a dad over the course of their lives, so it’s my last chance to be a proper dad.
So I love my work, and my wife has said to me on a few occasions, better to go a little bit early than a little bit late. And there’s a huge volume of work to do between now and the election.
And so in my mind, I’ve got four months of intense work. And we’ve worked as, just as John Skerritt said, the Head of the TGA, right through the summer, every day, focusing on protecting Australians.
The PM, he’s worked right through. I think he’s cancelled every bit of leave in 2020, in 2021, in 2022. And I get to work with the PM and Josh Frydenberg, and you see people who spend every waking minute trying to protect the country.
And it’s a privilege, but there’s also a natural season and time for everything.
It wasn’t just one message, there was a number of them there. Good to talk to you. You’re a very decent human being, I know that firsthand. Thank you so much.
Take care, Luke. Thanks, everybody.
And we’ll get through; we’ll get through this.
Yeah, I think we will too. Thanks, Greg. That’s Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt.