The Hon. Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care
28 May 2021
Topics: Vaccine rollout, Victorian lockdown.
Good afternoon everyone. I’m joined by the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly, and the Head of the Vaccines Coordination Program, Commodore Eric Young. We wanted to give collectively a brief update in regards to the situation in Victoria and the rollout across the country.
In particular, I want to start by reaffirming our deep support for the circumstances of Victorians. We know that this is a very hard time. Right across Victoria, there will be families that will be dealing with difficult conditions. There will be families that will have been separated and circumstances that are hard for so many people.
We said yesterday we thought this was a regrettable but necessary step given the circumstances on the ground. There is, however, real hope with the results overnight, the level of testing, the level of contact tracing, and the fact that the case numbers were limited. Professor Kelly will go into that in more detail, but there is real cause for hope.
I think the situation in our observation is very different to a year ago, and I think that’s on three grounds. Firstly, the contact tracing system in Victoria has vastly improved, and we congratulate and we respect the work of the Victorians on that front.
Secondly, this lockdown has come very early in the process. And I know that I spoke with my counterpart Martin Foley, on Tuesday night. The Prime Minister has spoken with the Victorian Acting Premier along the way, and we indicated that if Victoria were to move early, they would have our support. And they have done that, and that’s to their credit. There are obviously significant events which have led to transmission, but they have moved early, so that’s the second point.
And then the third of course is that we now have the vaccination program in the aged care facilities that on all advice I have before joining you is expected to have all facilities in Commonwealth residential aged care having been vaccinated by the end of today. So those three things mean this is a very different outbreak than a year ago. Nevertheless, we have to watch, and we have to do all that we can to assist.
On that front, the Commonwealth will be providing 160 Defence personnel to assist Victoria. In particular, this will assist with compliance and other tasks relating to close contacts that allows Victorian authorities to be deeply engaged in the contact tracing program.
That request has been made by Victoria to the Commonwealth. I think there’s some formal paperwork still to come, but we are planning now with Victoria to ensure that those Defence Force personnel are made available for the purposes which will most assist Victoria in helping to contain the outbreak and to protect Victorians. That remains our highest priority.
In addition to that, I want to thank Victorians for coming forward to be tested and to be vaccinated. What we have seen is record numbers of vaccinations in Victoria and record numbers of vaccinations Australia-wide. In Victoria, we’ve seen over 41,000 people vaccinated in the last 24 hours. Australia-wide, we have had 124,871 people vaccinated in the last 24 hours. I think that’s worth repeating and reinforcing – 124,871 people vaccinated Australia-wide in the last 24 hours.
We want to thank everybody for coming forward. Each person is doing their bit to help protect themselves and to help protect the nation. We can do this. I know we can do this. We’ve done it before. We can do it again.
And these are always challenging times in a global pandemic, and it is worth reflecting on the fact this pandemic has seen, again, over 580,000 cases in the last 24 hours and more than 12,700 lives lost.
And so, as difficult and challenging as it has been and is right now in Victoria, we see the level of the pandemic on the global scale, and we know that we are in a very difficult position now in Victoria, but a very different position Australia-wide compared with the global pandemic, which is continuing to have such a profound effect on lives and national circumstances.
So I want to thank all Australians for coming forward, to urge all Australians who are eligible to continue to come forward. In particular, I think it’s very important to note that we now have over 52 per cent of our over 70s who have been vaccinated nationwide.
And that’s a real testament to every one of those people, and it’s a testament to the spirit of Australians for coming forward.
Thank you, Minister. So firstly, an update on the epidemiology. As the Minister said, look, a lot of positive news overnight in terms of that testing, tracing, and isolation work that’s being done in Victoria.
So we have just the group of 30 cases so far. They are all linked. That’s a very important component of what we know so far. And those are all positive things, relatively small number of extra cases, all currently linked to those two in themselves linked outbreaks in the north of Melbourne and then in the south part of Melbourne, and one link in between those two outbreaks. So they’re very positive things.
The way that they’re getting to those tests, getting those tests read, even despite the very large number of tests that are being done every day, keeping good timeliness in terms of the results coming through. So all very positive.
On the other side, some of these issues we’ve already heard about from Victoria is that there are a number of complex or high-risk settings where people have been to whilst infectious. So those number of nightclubs, for example, bars, and the latest cases related to a cold storage facility. And we know that those are high risk for transmission.
So we’ll be watching very closely, but there are now those 30 cases that have generated hundreds of close contacts, thousands of casual contacts, and there have been some positive cases in those casual contacts that are linked.
We do know that this is a variant of concern, which is more transmissible. That is another issue we’re watching that carefully and closely. And we just have to wait and see what happens over the coming days in terms of that spread of the virus in Victoria.
We’ve had, again, an emergency AHPPC meeting today. We’ve had them daily this week. Very much focused on the situation in Victoria and how that’s affecting other states.
So for example in Queensland, they’ve followed up through the manifests that we’ve provided to them of flights going from Victoria to various Queensland ports during this period of concern. They’ve had almost 90,000 arrivals during that period, and so they’re doing their due diligence following those up. Several states have found close contacts that have travelled.
So it just demonstrates how quickly this virus can spread, not only within Victoria, but around the country. And as the Minister has pointed out, our ticket out of this is the vaccination. That is going now faster than we’ve said, and record numbers again of vaccinations, so thank you everyone that’s come forward and rolled up your sleeve.
There’s been some media today and over the last few days about, well, those figures we talk about here are just first doses. Can I just really reiterate, as the Chief Medical Officer of Australia, that first doses are important. Zero doses give you no protection. One dose gives you very good protection quite quickly.
So within two or three weeks, we know this from the clinical trials, we know this from the laboratory tests that are being done about antibody production. We know it from real-world experience, particularly in the UK and particularly in Scotland where they have very good information now about the protection given both by the AstraZeneca vaccine and the Pfizer vaccine after the first dose.
So zero protection with no dose, very good protection with the first dose, and then from next week, we’ll be starting to see those second doses really rolling out in relation to AstraZeneca. And so those numbers of fully vaccinated people will rapidly rise over the coming weeks.
That was the medical advice from ATAGI about that dose interval. And so of course, we don’t have a lot of people fully vaccinated at this stage in Australia, because most of the vaccinations we’ve been rolling out in general practice in particular have been the AstraZeneca. So that 12-week dosage interval, which will eventually give us the best outcome in terms of protection, kicks in this weekend.
And I think, Minister, you’re due to be one of the first to receive your second dose with Professor Murphy. So that will be coming, and we’ll see rapid rise in the fully vaccinated over the coming weeks.
Okay. Commodore Young?
Thank you Minister. Good afternoon everybody. As the Minister said, yesterday we had our largest day with over 124,000 doses of vaccine administered across the country, taking our total now to over 4 million doses of vaccine administered.
It took us 47 days to get to our first million doses of vaccine administered, and just 13 days to get to our most recent million.
In Victoria, again as the Minister said yesterday, 41,389 doses of vaccine were administered yesterday through a combination of both Commonwealth and state facilities. Taking their total to 1,042,844 doses of vaccine administered in Victoria.
And of particular note, we now have 33 per cent of those aged 50 and over who’ve received at least one dose, and 51 per cent of those aged 70 or over having received at least one dose of the vaccine. Reaching a milestone is always important to have a look about where we’ve come from and where we’re going and what we have left to do.
We’re not here to celebrate. We’re here with two areas of focus. Firstly, to continue to increase the rate of vaccinations in Australia. And secondly, to do what we can now to support our fellow Australians in Victoria.
But I would like to take the opportunity to thank everyone across our supply chain, across our distribution chain and the thousands of healthcare providers across the country who continue to turn up every single day to vaccine Australians.
In particular, I’d like to thank those across our distribution network today, who have gone the extra mile to deliver extra doses of vaccine to that state.
Minister, this morning you mentioned 20,000 disability care residents are still unvaccinated. Could I please ask how many of them are in Victoria, how quickly will they be vaccinated, and why hasn’t the surge in aged care been able to be replicated in disability care?
Sure. So, very much similar workforce, and so what we’re seeing, for example, is that the numbers, and I can say this now, we’ve now reached 424 in-reach visits to disability. Over the course of this week, the total number of facilities will have doubled.
And that’s as we’re seeing the transition of the workforce from the aged care in-reach to disability. So that’s very much a planned process. And the medical advice was always the highest risk, the highest priority, was for those in the aged care setting.
And the disability residents represent approximately a quarter of those, of the national title, within Victoria.
Question for Professor Kelly if I could. You talked about the vaccine being a road out. Just on the AstraZeneca vaccine and the ATAGI decision about the over-50s. Do you see, given what is happening in Victoria and developments in Germany in the last few days, do you see in the immediate- or quickly, there’ll be a scope to lower that age limit for AstraZeneca?
Well, ATAGI is reviewing the evidence all the time, so there’s, they don’t seem to sleep, actually, literally. There’s one member of ATAGI that is on international, seems to be almost every night on international hook-ups about exactly these matters. So they’re very cognizant of Germany and other regulators looking at these matters.
They formally look at that advice around the 50-year cut-off, and balance, as they’ve done from the beginning, the risk and benefit of the vaccine. So, they’ll do it again- look at that again formally, next week on Wednesday, I think they meet.
Do you have a view whether that should be?
Oh, look. So, I’ll be guided by their advice and they’ll take into account whatever the situation is by next Wednesday in Victoria, in terms of the benefit of changing that advice versus the risk in relation to the rare but serious blood clotting issue.
Professor Kelly, you said before that first dose is a very good coverage and protection against COVID. Has there been any more consideration from the AHPPC meeting today perhaps about focusing on getting first doses, maybe not holding back for second doses we have been and getting as many shots into arms as possible?
So that’s definitely another matter for ATAGI, really. Certainly the AHPPC has sometimes quite strong views in relation to public health matters, and very important views to take into account. But the expert advice on the immunisation is from that ATAGI group.
So, look, there’s a range of things that they review all along. The decision about the 12-week dose interval actually came from the TGA, but ATAGI was also involved and engaged with that information. And, similarly with the three week dosage interval for Pfizer.
Isn’t it three to six weeks, though, for the Pfizer? And could we potentially go towards more of a six-week mark between?
Yeah. And some countries have decided to do that on the basis of their epidemiology. I think we have to be reasonable to say, although we’re very concerned about Victoria and Victoria’s had to take drastic action to look at this particular outbreak, there are 30 cases there. Very different to the several hundred thousands in other places.
Could I just follow up on that? You say it’s a question for ATAGI, but isn’t there a practical, almost a political decision too, about how many of the doses to hold in reserve. If you’ve got a crisis that’s on us now in, well, we’ve got a lockdown, it’s on us now in Victoria. Isn’t that a practical decision, not necessarily an ATAGI decision about how many doses to keep in reserve?
And isn’t there actually a practical argument for releasing more and getting more first doses done?
Question to both of you.
If you deal with the medical, I’ll follow with the policy.
Yes, is the answer to that. We do need to consider those matters. And in fact, I’d emailed ATAGI this morning to consider exactly that matter and to see what they say.
But why wait? Why isn’t it for you, and for the Minister?
Well, look, I think the way that we look at this is let’s get the evidence from the medical experts on immunisation, then we put a public health lens over the top, and then I will advise the Minister accordingly.
So, in terms of policy. Our first golden rule of the entire pandemic has been to follow the medical advice. And I understand, there are many who have had different medical advice, some experts, some non-experts, throughout the whole pandemic.
And many have said that we would be running out of ventilators at different times, or that the assessment processes for vaccines should be short circuited. And we’ve respectfully followed the medical advice all the way through, and that’s what we’ll do here.
But on that front, there are actually very significant inventories of vaccines which are present at the moment, with both states and with general practices. And just to take the Victorian case, for example, and Victoria is doing a fantastic job. A fantastic job as a state with their vaccination program.
Prior to today, there were 666,000 vaccines which had been delivered to Victoria, with another 71,000. All up, it’s just over 737,000 vaccines. Prior to today, there had been 422,000 vaccines administered by Victoria. And they are doing a fantastic job.
But what that shows, is that the vaccine supply has been ahead of the demand. Now we are seeing that demand catch up. So there are very significant inventories that are available. And we are getting good supply of AstraZeneca.
The only thing that we’ve had to in particular be prepared for, is that as we’ve always said, week 17 of the program which has an impact on week 17 and 18, they have line maintenance. So we then run that contingency down.
We have to absolutely make sure we’re always provisioned for second doses, particularly with the short turnaround in Pfizer. So we’ve followed that medical advice, and we have always made sure that we are distributing the absolute maximum possible.
Is there any argument, because AstraZeneca has produced at Parkville. Is there any argument for more of that production to go straight to Victoria? It’s local, they’re in the most need, should they get more of it?
Yes, there is, and that’s what we’re doing. We’re distributing an extra 130,000 vaccines to Victoria.
Could it be more than that?
If more is needed, more will be provided. But at this stage, as I’ve indicated, there are significant stocks in hand in Victoria.
One there, then Andrew, firstly.
Minister, is there enough Pfizer supply for Victoria to further expand its rollout to people, say, under the age of 40? And given that you’ve mentioned, obviously, the need for people over the age of 70 to be getting jabs, should that be Victoria’s priority over expanding to younger age groups, even the 40s?
Well, Victoria’s running a dual program. They’re running an AstraZeneca and a Pfizer program. And what they’ve seen is that there is an increase in demand amongst the over-50s. And as Eric mentioned, we now have, in Victoria, the very, very significant uptake of 33 per cent of our over-50s, noting that the over-50 program only began in full, just over a week and a half ago.
And so there are 730,000 people in Victoria over age of 50, who have taken up that vaccine. So there are strong supplies of AstraZeneca. They also have Pfizer in hand, significant supplies, and that’s why they are in fact opening it up.
What they want to do is make sure they focus on the priority populations first, the risk, as Professor Kelly and right around the world, the medical evidence has shown, is age-based. And so, they focus on those age-group priorities where they have additional capacity.
I’ve got two questions. First to you Professor, yesterday, I think you said, of the 30 new cases or whatever the number was yesterday, one of them had been vaccinated, if that’s correct? And if it is correct, my question is we were all fascinated obviously to know how that person goes. And in a similar vein, what can you tell us about what’s happening in northern England where you’ve got a new strain going through a highly vaccinated population?
And to you, I’ve got a question actually from PNG, our correspondent. She’s aware of two Australians who have had some COVID medevac request to Australia, and they’ve been turned down. Is there a problem with Australian seeking to be repatriated from places like PNG? Are there problems with the number of beds being offered to Australians from overseas, in places like PNG?
So I apologise. I’m not aware of those details. They haven’t been brought to my attention.
I did mention that yesterday. I actually rechecked that last night with our Victorian colleagues. And so, of the 26 cases, as it was yesterday, 21 had been asked about their vaccination status and the answer was no, and the rest were under further investigations. So I had been led to believe there had been one vaccinated person, but that’s not been fully confirmed.
And in northern England?
So the concern we have, so this vaccine of concern, sorry, variant of concern that we have circulating into Victoria, which is also circulating, or a slightly different variant is circulating in England at the moment, it’s originated in India.
We do know that it does transmit more fully, and some are very preliminary results may suggest that some of the vaccines may be less efficacious. But that’s very early information, and so we need to wait and see that.
What we’ve seen previously in these things is let’s wait for the real-world data. I haven’t any seen any real world data in relation to the 6171 strain anywhere, actually, and the 6172, which I think is circulating in northern England mostly at the moment. So I can’t answer that one, I’m sorry.
Sorry. The other question I wanted to ask was just in relation to the State Government’s quarantine proposal. Does the Federal Government actually prefer the Avalon site over Mickleham?
We’re actually in discussion on both, and it’s very much a fact-based question. So that process has been led by Prime Minister and Cabinet. They’re in discussions with Victoria. But the Prime Minister has leaned very strongly into this.
He thinks the general concept that Victoria is proposing is strong. It has the elements that we are looking for. As to the particular site, that will be guided by the discussions, where time and speed to establishment would be a very important component.
Minister Hunt, I just wanted to check something on the Government’s position on hotel quarantine.
Is it position of the Morrison Government that the current hotel quarantine arrangements are the best long-term and sustainable system for managing arrivals into the country, or is it simply an interim measure which inevitably will be replaced by dedicated quarantine facilities?
And if it is an interim measure, when does it get replaced by dedicated facilities? And I can put that also to Professor Kelly to see what his advice is on that as well, that would be great.
Sure. Obviously it’s a program that’s been established to manage COVID as we have it. And so, it’s always under discussion with the states and the Commonwealth. It’s the fastest and safest way to bring in large numbers of people to Australia.
And so far, we’ve had over 300,000 people go through hotel quarantine; over 500,000 come through different quarantines from mid-March last year when the border arrangements were put in place.
At the same time, we’re always planning for the next step and the next step, and that’s why we’ve established, in line with the advice of Jane Halton, the Commonwealth facility within Howard Springs.
The Northern Territory is now in the process of establishing control and management and operation of it. But that’s been a great partnership. And now what we’re doing is looking for partnerships with other states and territories.
The question you go to specifically is very much one for National Cabinet so I’m not going to go beyond what I’ve said there. But the Victorian proposal is far and away the most advanced, and we think an excellent model that could be considered elsewhere in the country.
If I could just get Professor Kelly’s view on that.
Yeah. So hotel quarantine was introduced well over a year ago and the Minister has talked about the numbers of people that have successfully gone through that process. We’ve had routinely around 1 per cent of the people going into hotel quarantine ending up being positive for COVID.
We’ve had an extremely small number of breaches of that system. With the latest one we’ve seen has caused this issue of- associated with this issue in Victoria. It’s a complex system. It has lots of people involved. Every time there is a breach, and we’ve done this on every single occasion, the states have- that have been running those hotels have done a review of some sort or after action understanding of what had happened, and that comes to AHPPC.
Every week, we talk through that as a continuous quality improvement exercise. Will hotel quarantine ever be the perfect system? We’re continuing to strive for that. And so, that’s what I’ll say. The latest results of the review from South Australia was presented yesterday and that’s available and public. So, people can look at that.
Professor Kelly, a couple of questions. The World Health Organization today said that people aged 20 to 29 should be getting the vaccine because they seem to pass it much more quickly between each other because they are the ones in pubs and clubs. Do you think that’s a good idea? Should we start to focus on the younger people sooner rather than later so we can stop the spread?
And a second one, bit of a left field one. Have you seen any real world advice or evidence of when someone has had a COVID vaccine, whether there’s any side-effects linked to any dental work they’ve had? So like root canals, re-infections of those, have you seen anything like that?
That is definitely a question for Professor Kelly.
Root canal. Look, there’s a very long list of potential things that happen after vaccination, and we need to be very careful about linking causality when things happen because someone gets a sore tooth after having had a vaccination and it’s almost certainly not related to the vaccination.
But I might have to take that one on notice and check, but I can’t see any biological link there in terms of root canal.
And the first question was, sorry?
Between 20 and 29.
Yeah, the age groups. So, very early on – and the Minister mentioned- addressed this in an earlier comment – we had to make that choice because of the supplies for vaccination: do we go to protect lives or do we look to limit spread. They’re two quite reasonable options for a vaccine program.
Some countries in the world, for example Indonesia, has gone for the latter. So they are concentrating on the younger people to decrease and dampen the outbreak potential.
Most other countries in the world have gone the same as us. Let’s look to decrease death and severe illness first, concentrating on that kind of age range. So we’re continuing to do that.
There are still- even though we’ve had great uptake in the over 70s, there are still people over 70 who have not had their vaccinations. The 50s were the next step, and as the Minister has said, that’s progressing well. We’ll keep going with the supplies we have and then we’ll move to the younger age groups.
Minister, you said that you support the Victorian lockdown. Is that now the Federal Government’s position in the event of an outbreak, you support lockdowns fairly quickly?
It’s all about circumstances, and the advice of the Chief Medical Officer was there were a very high number of contact sites, sites of concern, of early cases. And so, in that circumstance, it was appropriate for Victoria.
And so these things are very much about every outbreak has a different epidemiology and a different potential. And under the circumstances in Victoria, given the challenge they were facing, we felt that that was appropriate and we indicated, in advance, that if they had to make the heavy decision, then we would support it
One more who we haven’t heard yet.
Just back to the issue about hotel quarantine, we know that you’re considering Victoria’s proposal. Would the Federal Government encourage all of the states to put forward their own proposals, and if they do, would you be willing to consider one in each jurisdiction?
Look, each state and territory will carry out and manage their own operations and I’ll leave that to them. The Prime Minister had already spoken on this so I don’t want to add anything.
We know New South Wales has been operating a hotel quarantine system which has carried much of the national burden, and they’ve done an extraordinary job in that. Other states and territories are doing that.
So, the position from us is that where somebody wishes to do that, that will be a matter for them. We’ve been in contact with all the states and territories. And our goal right now is continuous improvement and a focus on the Victorian option that meets, overwhelmingly, the requirements the Prime Minister and the Commonwealth sat down.
The PM said in recent days that there would be a new public awareness campaign and- a serious question, although it might sound silly, but have you thought.
Are you offering to star in it?
If you want, absolutely. But what about a lottery? It might be cheaper and more effective. Have you- how much thought, serious though, have you given to a lottery, as you’ve seen in places like Ohio?
There are many constructive proposals that people are putting forward for governments or for the private sector or the community.
The strongest reason is to avoid a lottery and it’s to avoid the lottery of COVID and to avoid the lottery of death. And too many numbers have come up around the world.
The number one reason to be vaccinated is it can save your life and it can save the life of your family and friends. And so, our message today is please come forward and be vaccinated at the earliest possible time.
There’s real hope out of Victoria. We’re making progress. I apologise, I’ll have to finish here. But there’s real hope with those numbers and with the outcomes, but we’re sending 160 ADF personnel to Victoria to assist, to support, and to provide that sense that we will get through this.
We’ve done it before, we’ll do it again. And Australians have come out in record numbers to be vaccinated, but please keep doing that.
Thank you very much.