The Hon. Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care
3 December 2021
INTERVIEW WITH NEIL MITCHELL
Topics: COVID-19 cases; update on the Novavax rollout; retirement from federal politics.
Well, it wasn’t surprising, but Greg Hunt, the Health Minister, announced he’s stepping down the election, which isn’t all that far away.
I want to catch up with him on a couple of things related to his career, a bit of retrospective. But first, some of the urgent matters, he’s a man has been nationally in charge of the COVID pandemic and the reaction to that point; been through a very, very tough time obviously.
He’s the Member for Flinders, the retiring Member for Flinders, the Health Minister, Greg Hunt. Good morning.
And good morning, Neil.
Just on the pandemic first, if you don’t mind. Are you concerned by the figures in Victoria? We’re still up around 1,200. We really struggle to get below that. You concerned by those?
Look, obviously, we are always striving for the last possible numbers, but this is now a disease which is moved up to a very different stage.
Around the world, we’re seeing on some days, over 700,000 cases. And our numbers, by global comparisons, are low. Our vaccination rate, this is the big thing, the big difference, is extraordinarily high.
Victoria’s now well over 93 per cent for first dose. And our rate of loss of life, by global comparisons, is one of the lowest in the world. So one of the highest vaccination rates and lowest rates of loss of life.
So, if you haven’t been vaccinated, or you’re due for your second dose, for your booster, that’s the single best thing you can do to help protect yourself and your family.
An epidemiologist says to me if the figures stay this high, we might look to need to dab the brakes, you know, to bring back some of the mitigation measures like masks or some compulsory distancing in certain facilities. Do you think we have to look at dabbing the brakes?
That’s not the advice I have coming out of the Operation COVID Shield meeting just now from Professor Paul Kelly, that Chief Medical Officer of Australia.
So the country is on a journey where as we open up, with some of the highest vaccination rates in the world, there will be cases.
It is an ongoing challenge. We’re seeing the Omicron variant, and the advice just this morning from the Chief Medical Officer is that he’s cautiously optimistic. It’s too early to make a definitive call.
It’s clearly transmissible but the vaccines remain strong, but it may be a milder version in terms of its outcomes.
Now, that’s fully to be determined, but our officials spent two hours with South African officials last night, working through all the evidence from there. They wanted to know how we got our vaccination rates so high and to deal with hesitancy. But equally, we wanted to know about their experience in the field with the Omicron variant.
And the early signs, still to be determined, are it may be a more transmissible but a milder version of the disease.
So it’s coming out for a week since we first heard about it, a little longer than it was discovered or unearthed in Africa. Although, it seems to me, in other parts of Europe or in parts of Europe first. But do we know much more than we did a week ago? I mean, the message of the cautious optimism; is that optimism building?
I think it is carefully, cautiously. If you think of the three variables, is it transmissible? And clearly it has strong transmissibility. It looks to have outcompeted the Delta variant at this stage in South Africa in terms of its transmissibility and is replacing it in terms of the frequency of the different types of the virus that are appearing.
Secondly, it’s response with regards to vaccine effectiveness. The advice at this stage remains that the vaccines are still strong and have an impact, particularly with regards to serious illness and hospitalisation and preservation of life.
And then thirdly, the question of the severity and the early, and this is, again, very much to be a determined question as, with the vaccine effectiveness, early advice, the cautious advice is that it may prove to be, on balance, a milder variant.
It’s still to be determined, but we’ve got emerging evidence that that might be the variation.
Good. I’m getting a lot of messages from young men concerned about mRNA vaccines, wanting to- Anxious wants to know what’s happening with Novavax. Where does Australia stand with Novavax?
Sure. So I actually had a meeting with Novavax Australian and international team yesterday.
I’m very hopeful that there may be the first international approval over the course of the next week, and that Australia is in a very similar timeframe. I’m hopeful that we might see some positive news before Christmas.
The TGA, our medical regulator, is an independent body, the Therapeutic Goods Administration. But at this stage, my advice is that it’s progressing well.
What does that mean? It means that we would have the first of the Novavax subject to the TGA and then Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, or ATAGI, approval, those two green lights in January.
And still to be determined. And they’re independent regulators and advisory body, but if they give two green lights, then the January rollout is the expectation.
And there is a sizable group of people, we think, whether it’s one per cent, whether it’s more than that, that are waiting for Novavax.
I think that direction is positive. Paul Kelly’s advice this morning, Chief Medical Officer, the best vaccine is the one you can get. Don’t wait, but nevertheless we recognise the reality of it, and that will add to the vaccination rate.
Could Novavax be used as a booster?
Potentially, and that was what was the advice yesterday, and that was what Paul said today.
There’s no theoretical barrier to it, but they would need to apply for that. And I did encourage the international board, or senior leadership of Novavax to put in an application if they believe that there’s strong evidence, and that would be assessed in Australia.
So it’s always been presumed that what’s called a protein vaccine, think of it as three vaccines. Protein, Novavax; viral vector, which is AstraZeneca; and then the MRNA, Pfizer and Moderna, that the protein could make a very good booster.
Onto something else. So I was reading about the local government inspectorate today. They had 900 complaints around local government elections, accusing candidates, and the inspectorate said of unethical and underhand behaviour.
We’ve got sleaze oozing out of Canberra. We’ve got essentially dishonest government run by spin in Victoria. You’re getting out now, you must feel you need a shower. Have you ever seen politicians so much on the nose?
At every stage there are points of criticism. I’m essentially optimistic, as optimistic as I was the day that I came in. I haven’t lost any of that belief.
I saw the Parliament, the Federal Parliament, this week, pass through the House of Representatives, on a conscience vote, a law for mitochondrial donation. Maeve’s Law, named after a beautiful little girl from the Mornington Peninsula who has mitochondrial disease.
And the Government, the Opposition, the crossbench, all worked together cooperatively for the yes case. They also worked cooperatively together, those of a different view for the no case. And then the yes and the no case worked together to make sure that was done respectfully.
So you see the best and sometimes some of the more disappointing things. But when you look at Australia with one of the highest vaccination rates, one of the lowest rates of loss of life, one of the strongest economic recoveries and then a population that’s really pulled together.
You say, there are good and bad things, but the fundamental nature of who we are and our fundamental governance system is strong, I do believe in that.
You know, I’ve sat with the PM and the Treasurer, with Josh and Scott, and watched how they’ve worked, and they know the way. It’s really exciting.
Yeah, well I don’t think the message is getting through. And look, I’m not just talking about the Liberals, I’m talking about all of them.
People don’t trust politicians. People just, any trust seems to be evaporating when they read about these things. Do you think it’s got worse since you’ve been there?
I think social media is obviously much stronger, and it’s driven by activists in both directions. And it’s very much used as a form of attack on character.
But if I go back to being a kid, and I remember similar conversations, and when I started I remembered similar conversations. And one of the things I’m seeing is really strong, capable, independent women who are coming in.
They’re people like Katie Allen, and Sarah Henderson, and Jane Hume, and Gladys Liu and others in Victoria. We’ve got candidates such as Stephanie Asher in Corangamite, the Mayor of Geelong; Sharn Coombes in Frankston and Seaford who’s our candidate for Dunkley. Really powerful people coming in. And then around the country, similar folk, and that just broadens the Parliament.
And, you know, in health, they’re already there. 57 per cent of people on government health boards are women, they’re already in those leadership roles. And we’re seeing that across the country now in the Parliament.
Just finally, I’d imagine this is the toughest two years of your political life, but how tough was it for your family?
The hardest part was, as I said yesterday, the absence, and the absence was twofold. The absence when I was away from home, but also the absence when I was at home, because the work has literally been 24/7.
And I’m fine with that, and I’m lucky that health and fitness are strong, but you do want to be a dad, and you do want to be a husband. And that continuous engagement, which has been absolutely necessary and will be necessary from now until the end of May.
Even today we’ve just announced another half a million for COVID measures to protect Australia next year. But that continuous engagement has meant that, basically, my wife has had to raise our two beautiful, strong kids as an effective single mum, and I’d like to be there as a dad.
Good on you. One thing I wanted to thank you for. We did conspire to get a family to the United States for CAR T therapy. Peter and Gina Argerio,
I was talking to Peter the other day – everything’s going so well. And he was just so moved that, because she was dead. If that money hadn’t come forward and she’d got to the United States, if she hadn’t done that, she wasn’t going to survive. And I know you played a big role in that. So I thank you for that.
I think those stories, and to those who are listening, there are a huge number of things that are done under the radar. This was not quite under the radar, but something we were able to work on together where you can actually measure the outcomes.
They’re reasons to believe in Parliament. They’re the reasons to believe in our representative democracy.
And you played a really important role in that. And I was pleased to help in some small way. And what matters, there’s Gina, and there’s a family, and they have their mum. She has her life, and things might have been different, and to be able to help with you and others on something like that, that’s just endlessly motivating and rewarding.
Thank you so much for your time. We’ll be talking again I know, because you’re there until the election. The member for Flinders, the Health Minister, Greg Hunt, stepping down at the next election. So you’ve got a few months ago, we don’t actually know when the election is yet.