The Hon. Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care
20 April 2021
INTERVIEW WITH KIERAN GILBERT
Topics: Two-way travel bubble with New Zealand; Vaccination rollout.
We return now to our top story. The Health Minister, Greg Hunt, joins me. Minister Hunt, thanks very much for your time.
Have you been reassured by your New Zealand counterparts that this case at the airport in Auckland is not an ongoing concern and that it might threaten the trans-Tasman bubble?
They’ve given us strong reassurance, as has the Chief Medical Officer of Australia, Professor Paul Kelly who along with the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee or the medical expert panel, has also been briefed by their New Zealand counterparts.
So bottom-line here, what we see is that there is a vaccinated worker at the airport who’s been working in one of the red zones or the hot zones and despite that vaccination, they’ve still contracted the disease.
But they’ve been tested. The testing program has found them. They’ve been isolated. The contact tracing is going ahead.
Australia and New Zealand both have highly developed programs which are about detecting, testing, tracing and containing, and all of those things are occurring.
So we have high confidence in New Zealand. Obviously, each case will run its own course, but at this stage, we’ve seen very early action in the most professional way.
And Minister, you mentioned that the worker had been vaccinated and still contracted COVID. Is this our reality now that even those vaccinated remain at risk and these cases will still emerge?
So we’ve been very, very clear that one of the things that we have to see is transmission effects. There’s transmission and longevity. So you have coverage, how many people in a country, transmission and longevity.
But the CDC in America published a paper which indicated that there had been transmission to a number of people who had received the Pfizer vaccine. But these are very, very small percentages.
Secondly, what we do know is that on all the clinical trials for the vaccines in use in Australia, as the Lancet journal and as the World Health Organization have said about AstraZeneca, but it’s similar with Pfizer, 100 per cent protection against serious illness, hospitalisation or loss of life.
So they’re the things that protect Australians. But the world is learning through the largest mass vaccination rollout in history about the strengths, the capacities, but also some of the challenges with particular vaccines.
And that’s an honest explanation, and the New Zealand case is a case in point.
What would be the point for you and the Prime Minister to say travel within the bubble has to shut? Obviously, not in this instance, but what would be the threshold?
Well, we actually have a hotspot definition which the Chief Medical Officer of Australia can take up. It’s the same as the Australian hotspot definition.
And so, that means if they believe that there is a risk from one of the variants and that they’re highly contagious and that they could spread, then they’re in a position to close that border, or if there’s a significant spread of cases.
But at this stage, all the advice I have from the Chief Medical Officer – I was briefed shortly before our national update today by Paul Kelly. And again, the advice that I have from the New Zealand Minister Chris Hipkins is that they’ve acted early.
They’ve taken the containment measures. And one of the things that the world will learn is not just the degree or percentage of cases where people have been fully vaccinated but may contract, which is likely to be a very small percentage, but we can’t say exactly yet.
But secondly, there are limits, having been vaccinated, both in terms of risks to health, likely to be very minor, but also the limits in terms of to then retransmit. And that retransmission is, at this stage, something on which the world is learning.
And that when we have a case like the New Zealand one, they’ll be able to detect viral load, they’ll see whether or not other members within the household who’ve already been isolated, I’m advised, have received or are at risk of having received the illness.
So all of these things are part of ongoing daily global learning.
The Prime Minister said just a couple of days ago that Australians would have to become used to dealing with a thousand cases a week or more if we lift the borders and people were to come.
With the vaccines and, you know, the transmission question that you rightly pointed out earlier as to the doubts, as- you know, on the vaccine and its impact on transmission, do we have to have a reset at some point in terms of the way we look at this, as opposed to, you know, every day we have a tally or, you know, there’s a case here, a case there?
Do we have to have a reset at some point as to how we look at this virus?
Look, progressively, two things will occur in my judgement. Firstly, we continue to vaccinate the nation – 67,000 in the last 24 hours, 1.65 million as of last night. By tonight, over 1.7 million Australians will have been vaccinated.
That vaccination will provide protection against the very thing we worry about with this disease – the serious illness, the hospitalisations, the use of ICUs, the ventilation, and then, of course, the tragedy of human loss of life.
But secondly, it opens up the pathway to safely, progressively, as quickly as we can, subject to that safety, providing access to greater engagement with the rest of the world. In a world with over 700,000 cases today and zero again in Australia, we realise that we’re safe now.
What the vaccine does is it provides additional protection against the rest of the world and it provides a pathway which is being developed in conjunction with the states to progressively open up.
We’ve already done that opening up this week. Two-way travel with New Zealand, stage one, other countries, and then the capacity for people who have been vaccinated to travel and return eventually through different options such as home quarantine. And then that’s the progressive pathway that we’re looking at as a nation.
And the discussion last week, in reality, was just saying not everything would happen at once, it will happen progressively, and that’s where there’s unanimity with the states.
There’s not unanimity when it comes to what Gladys Berejiklian said today. She seems to have had a crack at you. She says: I don’t buy what I heard last week, that if everybody’s vaccinated, we can’t open up. That’s the biggest load of rubbish I’ve ever heard, is what the New South Wales Premier said today.
What do you make of her remarks? Is she overreacting to what you said? What’s going on there?
No, I don’t take it that way at all. I think the point is, and my point last week and this week, is actually that we open up progressively. It’s not to say that, I think, reported by some as indicating we wouldn’t.
My point was you have to learn, as we’ve seen from New Zealand today, as the UK Chief Medical Officer Chris Witty said in describing what had occurred in another country, in Chile, that we learn from the world’s vaccination programs and we want to see our nation open up progressively, safely, as quickly as possible subject to that safety.
And that has been my position. That remains my position. And that’s our national position in partnership with the states.
Now, you spoke about the next stage from National Cabinet. Where to in terms of expediting the rollout for those over-50s? Do you see it within days that the over-50s will go to their GPs and get their vaccination? Is it going to happen within days? Is that what you hope to see?
Look, I’ll be very cautious on setting expectations and time frames, it’s a National Cabinet process.
There are really two things here. There’s the capacity for individual general practices at a time that National Cabinet would consider to bring on those between 50 and 70 years of age, where those practices have that capacity. Some may not. Some may be fully subscribed.
And then there’s secondly the capacity to expand the existing state and territory clinics, which are currently open, which are currently available for the over 70s, to allow them to be there for the under-70s. And then they may open up new points of presence around the state or around the territory.
So they’re the three things that can occur. We’ll allow National Cabinet to run its process. I’m meeting this afternoon, literally shortly after you and I finish, with some of the GP and medical leaders of Australia from the AMA, the Australian College of GPS, from the Rural Doctors Association of Australia and others.
And we’re plotting out, planning out that process where if there is a final decision of National Cabinet, but they’ve certainly lent into it as an in-principle position to be able to bring forward vaccinations for the over 50s, then we’re ready to do that at a time that everybody believes is appropriate.
But it’s bringing it forwards from the middle of the year. The specific date, that’s to be determined.
Now, finally, Tony Fauci said on the radio earlier that inevitably in the early stages of a rollout, there will be hiccups until it ramps up to scale. He’s talking about the Australian experience, incidentally.
Do you think some of the criticism has been unfair?
Look, I think we’ve got 1.7 million Australians who’ve been vaccinated. They’ve been really two challenges.
One, there was 3 million or 3.1 million doses that was otherwise due to arrive in Australia from Europe, which we’ve not been able to access. We’ll continue to fight for those, particularly for PNG. But two, the big change, which is a global change.
And not just with AstraZeneca, but you’ve also seen the J&J vaccine in the US paused. Some were arguing last week we had to have J&J; the next day it was paused. The big change is that there’s been medical advice that Pfizer will now be the preferred vaccine for the under-50s, and AstraZeneca for the over-50s is being safe and effective.
And when we have that medical advice, we have to adapt. That has had an impact on the program design, no question. But every day there are challenges, and every day through the pandemic we’ve adapted.
So we just continue to deal with a global situation where there’s 700,000 cases a day overseas and none here; 1.7 million, by the end of today, vaccinations that will have been completed; and a vaccination program that, since we brought on the GPs, has increased sixfold in four weeks. So you’re always improving. You’re always updating, and that’s how we’ve kept Australia safe.
The point was made during our press conference earlier, what did I think of the fact that there would now be no limits on the number of people who could go into football, subject to the capacity of the ground? The idea that on Anzac Day or on Anzac Eve for the Melbourne versus the mighty Tigers match, there could be 100,000 people or as many as they can accommodate, what a symbol of Australia’s success.
And when we put all of this into perspective, Australia has achieved at a national level an outcome virtually very few other countries, very few others have achieved or could aspire to. And we remain the envy of the world.
And with a rollout that is accelerating with 330,000 people last week, and then if we bring forward the over-50, subject to National Cabinet, then we’ll continue to vaccinate the most vulnerable Australians at the earliest possible times and to protect their lives.
That’s a pretty good outcome for a pretty good country.
Yep, well, we keep our fingers crossed that everything stays on track, Minister. As always, I very much appreciate your time. Talk to you soon.