The Hon. Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care
5 October 2021
Topics: COVID-19 update; net-zero emissions targets.
I’m delighted to be joined today by Professor Brendan Murphy, the Secretary of the Health Department, but here in his role as the Chair of the Scientific and Technical Advisory Group that advises on vaccines and treatments.
Before I begin, I’d like to congratulate Dominic Perrottet and Stuart Ayres for their positions as the new leader and deputy leader of the party, and therefore the new Premier. Premier Dominic in New South Wales, whom I believe will do a fantastic job in helping New South Wales remain safe, and to kick-start the recovery process. So congratulations, Dom.
I’m really pleased to be able to announce that Australia has secured 300,000 treatment courses of Molnupiruvir.
Molnupiruvir is a breakthrough new anti-viral treatment, and Professor Murphy will provide more detail of it, for people who have COVID-19.
It’s not a vaccine, it’s a treatment. Vaccines are our frontline, but these 300,000 courses will help people who have been diagnosed. And the clinical trial results that have been reported internationally show a 50 per cent reduction in the likelihood of hospitalisation or death for those that have been diagnosed.
So our first protection is vaccination. And there is no substitute for that. But in addition to that, treatments help protect individuals and protect our hospital system.
So it strengthens the national roadmap and it’s a fundamental part of providing that pathway back to the normal for people right across Australia.
The fact that this is an oral tablet, and therefore can be done out of hospital is, I think, a critical step forward in providing treatment, providing access, and ensuring that no matter where you are in Australia, that we can reduce the risk of consequences from COVID. But the best protection is vaccination.
On that front, I’m pleased to be able to report that given the public holiday yesterday, 185,742 vaccinations were given, which has exceeded our expectations.
As a result of that, we’re now at 28.955 million Australians who have had vaccinations, either first or second doses across the country. And in particular, as of last night, we have reached 79.94 per cent first dose across the country, and that meant that there were less than 13,000 vaccinations required today to achieve the 80 per cent result.
So as of about 10.30am this morning, Australia will have achieved the 80 per cent first vaccination rate, and that’s a huge national achievement, and it’s a huge tribute to everybody who has been involved, to our health professionals, to everybody who has organised, to our GPs, our pharmacists, our Commonwealth and state vaccination clinics.
But above all else, the more than 16.5 million Australians, who by the close of business today, will have had their first vaccinations. So I want to thank everybody for coming forward, but to urge you to keep coming forward.
We’ve seen in the ACT over 90 per cent being achieved. In New South Wales, well over 88 per cent being achieved. Victoria is now well over 82 per cent. And across the country, the best single protection against COVID-19 and against the consequences of COVID-19 is vaccination.
So please keep coming forward. The second dose rate is now at 57.4 per cent, and I think very pleasingly, we’ve achieved 95.4 per cent for our over 70s. And already, 543,000 doses for our 12 to 15-year-olds, or 43.7 per cent.
So today, important new protections for Australians. Molnupiravir, a new antiviral oral treatment, 300,000 doses have been purchased by the Australian Government. And I think that will be a significant complement to the vaccinations.
But also today, we will have passed, at about 10.30am, the 80 per cent first dose rate, a significant and critical milestone. But we want to go further and we want Australians to keep coming forward. Professor Murphy.
Thanks very much, Minister. So this is an exciting new development in our treatments approach to COVID. Clearly, as the Minister said, vaccination is our first line of defence, but treatments are an important second line of defence.
We’ve had one of the antibodies, Sotrovimab, which has been used across the outbreak sites in Australia very effectively, and this drug Molnupiravir is a very exciting new addition to our treatment armamentarium.
The Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee that I chair has been looking at all of these treatments as soon as they reach any early promising signs, and we’ve been working with the companies to find out what these treatments offer.
And both the antibody we’ve got now, and this drug, are both very effective in protecting people with COVID against severe disease. So they’re not for everybody, they are for people, and this drug particularly is for people who have early COVID, but who are at risk of getting severe disease.
The people who, for reasons of their age or underlying co-morbidities, are more susceptible to getting severe disease. And if given this drug early on, the early trials – and it’s still early from the US – suggests that they have a promising protective benefit.
It’s an interesting drug, this one. It works by what we call an analogue of a nucleoside, so the virus is sort of tricked into making some false copies of and it interferes with the viral metabolism. But it’s important that it’s given quite early.
And as the Minister said, because it’s a tablet, we can now distribute this across the country, even into remote areas, and have it available to treat people early if they are those at risk of severe disease.
But these treatments are not 100 per cent effective, they’re not perfect. And as the Minister has said, the single most important thing Australians can do is get vaccinated.
I really, really want to emphasise, particularly to those in those parts of the country where there isn’t COVID at the moment, we’re seeing a huge enthusiasm for vaccine uptake in those areas where there are outbreaks. We need that same enthusiasm in areas where there is no COVID at the moment.
The best way to protect yourself and your community for when COVID comes as it will. The Delta virus is going to come everywhere eventually, and we all know that. The best way to protect your community and protect yourselves is to be vaccinated when the virus comes to your shores.
So it is really, really, really important that we now take this opportunity. If you’re someone who has been complacent, hesitant, not too worried because there’s no COVID, now is the time to make your vaccination appointment.
We have three incredibly effective vaccines. There is plenty of vaccine. There are plenty of points of present. There’s free choice for vaccines. Please, please go and get vaccinated now.
If you’ve been one of those people waiting, it’s really, really important because if COVID comes to a part of the country for the first time when there’s high vaccination rates, the impact is quite minimal.
And we’ve seen in New South Wales, how effective vaccination can be at controlling an outbreak. It can be equally effective at preventing a significant outbreak, at preventing impact on the health system. So we are at this inflection point now in Australia.
There’s nothing to stop people getting vaccinated. Go and get vaccinated, please. It’s the most important thing you can do to finish this job.
Great. Thank you. I’ll ask Brendan to call out the journalists in the room, working from left to right please in the room.
Minister and perhaps also to the Professor. There are calls for the Federal Government to ensure 50-50 funding extended beyond the current period. There’s suggestion that it’s expired, I think the idea here is, especially from Queensland and other states, is that they want to be, want to ensure that once there are some higher levels of hospitalisation that you guys pay half the bill.
What’s your response on that, given that it’s already been called shakedown politics by the Prime Minister?
Well, I happen to agree with the PM, because we already paid 50 per cent for COVID-related hospital expenses. That’s already part of the agreement, and as part of that, we paid $6.3 billion to the states as part of that 50-50 COVID partnership.
So that’s already in place and that’s ongoing and operating. And so, it feels like it’s something of a diversion. And I have to say, our view is that on the advice that we have, all of the states and territories have prepared. They’ve prepared for a surge. And we started this 20 months ago.
We reached the agreement for a private hospitals guarantee on 1 April 2020. And in the meantime, all of the states, all of the territories have been preparing their systems.
If there is an issue in Queensland with their hospitals at a time when they do not have COVID pressures, that is not related to COVID.
That may be related to the fact that whilst we have doubled funding, approximately a 99 per cent increase since coming in, they’ve increased by 55 per cent. So we would welcome Queensland matching our funding.
On hospital capacity, Brendan may want to say something about what all of the states and territories have provided. It’s not appropriate to ask him to comment on political matters.
So, just briefly, I’ve been leading with Dr Sonya Bennett in the Commonwealth Department a very, very productive piece of work with every state and territory jurisdiction on health system capacity, working for how we can live with COVID with low level transmission, which is what we expect when we’ve got highly vaccinated populations, but also looking at what preparation we could do for a surge if it happens.
But the best way to prevent a surge is to get vaccinated. So, most of the states and territories have worked very closely with us and they all feel comfortable that they have well advanced plans to deal with the predicted modelled COVID that will occur in the national plan from the Doherty modelling.
It’s ongoing work, but we report back to National Cabinet regularly and there’s really, really good, strong collaboration across the states and territories and the Commonwealth.
Yes, next question.
Related to that, Andrew Barr, the Chief Minister in the ACT said last Friday that National Cabinet was given a 100-page document on the state of the hospital system at last Friday- or before last Friday’s meeting. Can you tell us what that document is about? What does it actually show?
There are concerns from the AMA that the hospital system is going to be overwhelmed. Is that what the 100-page document says? Does it outline any scenario where there’s an overwhelming of the public hospital system?
So that document, I mean, has been presented now, that’s the third time it’s been to National Cabinet and it’s been well circulated, and each different iteration goes to National Cabinet, and National Cabinet discusses it. And it’s clearly been workshop with the state and territory CEOs well before it gets to National Cabinet. So it’s something that the states and territories are well familiar with. So essentially what it’s showing, using the Doherty modelling of the 70 and 80 per cent fully vaccinated rates with various scenarios and the states and territories predicted hospital demand, it’s showing that we can cope with the predicted demand on our health system.
Clearly, as the Prime Minister and Minister Hunt have said, when you’re at between 70 and 80 per cent, we need to be pretty cautious. You need a lot of, you need to continue some public health and social measures, some testing, tracing, quarantine, and isolation, but the higher the vaccination gets, the less pressure there is, the less outbreak there is, and the less demand there is on the health system.
So it does show, as we’ve said on many occasions, that at this modelling level- now modelling is modelling, and obviously states are doing their own work and doing their own modelling. And clearly, we need to work with the medical profession, with the AMA and the College of GPs, on how we’ll be looking after COVID.
Most people with COVID in a fully vaccinated scenario will be treated in the community by GPs, by community care. So we’re continuing to work with states and territories, but we are confident that that they will cope, but the best way to make sure that no health system is under pressure is for everybody to get vaccinated.
When will that document be released? Shouldn’t Australians be able to see what this 100-page document shows about the state of the health system?
That’s a decision for National Cabinet, but I would favour a transparent approach, but National Cabinet will make that decision. Yes?
Just a question on some other modelling, Minister Hunt, stepping away from health for one moment.
We know modelling is being done on net zero emissions at the moment and the impact it’s going to have on jobs if we try to do that by 2050. How important is that? And as a former environment minister, would you ever thought we’d be contemplating net zero by 2050 this seriously?
Well, we already signed up as a country as part of the Paris Agreement to net zero. The time frame for the Paris Agreement is in the second half of the century, and that’s obviously under discussion at Glasgow. So I’ll leave that to those that are involved.
But let me repeat, as part of the Paris Agreement – and I had the privilege of helping to negotiate and sign on behalf of Australia – we’ve already committed to that target in the second half of the century, and that’s the global written commitment.
The second thing is, unlike many others, we have met and beaten Kyoto 1, Kyoto 2, and we’re on track to meet and beat our Paris targets.
The critical thing is that we do this without putting pressure on electricity prices for family, and there has been, over the course of the last decade, two very different approaches. One is to use technology and the Emissions Reduction Fund, which has achieved its targets. It has helped us to achieve our targets and has achieved its goals.
And the alternative view, the Labor Party view, is to drive up electricity prices. If you want to know Labor’s policy for climate change, it’s electricity prices, electricity prices, electricity prices.
So we’ve always set out exactly what our plans are, exactly what our targets are, and exactly how we’re going to achieve them. And we’ve done that with the costs, and therefore the impacts, for jobs. We’ve been able to do that.
We can’t tell you what Labor’s plans are, other than to drive up electricity prices. So we’ll continue to set out a plan, a process, and what that means for the Australian people. But the difference is very clear: lower emissions under us, higher electricity prices under Labor.
Just back on hospitals, Annastacia Palaszczuk says there is an issue. She doesn’t think her hospital system will cope with a surge in COVID cases.
Why isn’t Queensland ready at this point? And has the Commonwealth been asleep at the wheel if there are states that still aren’t prepared to deal with a surge?
There have been 20 months since we first started talking about flattening the curve. Queensland has said publicly that their hospitals are prepared. If they have misled the public, that would be a matter of the most serious and grave concern.
What’s clear here, they wanted to try for more money. They’ve got themselves in a pickle of on the one hand saying their hospitals are prepared, on the other hand trying to justify using money as a basis for closing borders.
Last week, the Premier said she wouldn’t open the borders unless she got more money. That is about keeping families and friends from each other. It’s about parents not being able to reunite with children, about Queenslanders not being able to return to their own homes, their own state.
That is the most profound and grave use of a border closure for a monetary reason. And I would ask them to explain whether they believe that that is within both the law and the spirit of public health orders.
But our approach is very clear. Health measures are for health reasons. We’ve increased funding by 99 per cent. They’ve increased funding by 55 per cent. It’s 50-50 for COVID-related measures. And I think we have to watch for whenever somebody gets in trouble, suddenly they ask for more money or complain.
What we’ve seen is a $6.3 billion investment in funding from the Commonwealth for COVID-related measures, an increase in state hospital funding from $13 billion to almost $26 billion this year, then $27 billion, then $29 billion and then $30 billion each year.
So right now, if somebody has not prepared themselves after 20 months in charge of a state where we started talking about flattening the curve and boosting capacity, we put in place the COVID hospital funding partnership with the states with $6 billion, the private hospitals guarantee, Telehealth, the training of nurses.
But if the Queensland system is struggling now without COVID cases, they should be very clear, because that would mean a fundamental failure of duty and responsibility. Having said that, all of their advice to the Commonwealth has been they are prepared.
Minister, there are people taking to the streets in New York, Americans draping themselves in Australian flags, saying that they are standing up for Australia. They believe that we are living under an authoritarian regime, being forced away and locked in lockdowns in our homes for months on end.
What do you make of that? Do you think these people are misguided? Do they not understand what’s happening here, or do they have a point?
Sorry, I’m not aware of that, but our goal is to protect people and to give them their lives back as quickly as possible.
Vaccination’s critical. Today is the day that we pass 80 per cent first doses as a nation. That 80 per cent mark is a critical health measure, but it’s also a critical milestone on people recovering their freedoms.
And so we believe deeply in making sure that people can have those freedoms, which is exactly the case with Queensland, that border measures and lockdown measures can only be about health. They can never be about money. Depriving people’s liberty, freedom of movement for reasons of a money grab. That is extraordinary.
So our policy is very clear: that any of these health measures that have restricted people’s natural rights are only done in the most extreme circumstances for the most profound of health reasons.
And as we reach these vaccination marks, the national plan is absolutely clear. People have to be able to return to their freedoms so as we can do that safely, but above all else, to give us the chance for kids to go back to school, for families to reunite for weddings and funerals, and people to attend births and for grandparents to meet beautiful new children.
These are the things that are our natural right, only ever forestalled under the most dire of health conditions. And New South Wales is a great example of that journey, of seeing how vaccination and the difficult measures that people have been through but have stabilised and brought those cases down.
And so we’re seeing cases dropping, vaccinations rising, and freedoms returning.
Minister, Professor Murphy just says that he favours transparency when it comes to the release of the report on the health system capacity that went to National Cabinet. Do you share that view? And if not, how do you justify keeping that report secret?
No. With great respect, National Cabinet is about making sure that there’s information, decisions, and then throughout the National Cabinet process, papers are released on the basis of the consensus of the members.
And so there’s no barrier right now to any state or territory releasing all of their details. And the Prime Minister works with the chief ministers. And if there’s a consensus, then we’re always happy to provide that.
So right now, any state or territory can provide a full account and report of their hospital readiness.
Minister and Professor Murphy, what options are we now looking at to treat COVID patients long term? A lot of doctors have been calling for more home care options with working with GPs.
Are we thinking about specific hospitals to treat COVID or wards? And what discussions have been had so far?
So, I’ll take that, Minister. So that’s exactly the work that is in this 100-page document and that we’re still working through with the states and territories, with the AMA, with the College of GPs, with primary health networks.
And you’re absolutely right. Community care will be the mainstay of treatment with COVID. In a highly vaccinated scenario, we will not get a large number of people, hopefully, that will need hospital care.
There’ll be some people who need to be monitored in the community. There’ll be some who will be pretty well and not- don’t need much care at all. So we are trying to improve and build on the experience.
New South Wales and Victoria have some well-developed community care programs, and we are building on those learnings. Other jurisdictions have done a lot of planning in that space. We’ll be using our Commonwealth GP respiratory clinics.
We’ll be making sure that every GP, all their staff are vaccinated so that if a positive person comes in, we don’t have to furlough all the staff and we can start treating people in the community.
There will be likely call centres to monitor people, to ring them up, check on them, home visiting services. All of those models are still in development, and they’re part of this national plan for community care. So very important work.
And as you say, most jurisdictions are looking to stream those people that do need hospital care into specific hospitals so that they can cohort them together and make it simpler to not interfere with the rest of the hospital system, which must keep going.
We’ve got to be able to continue to treat cancer and heart attacks and strokes and do elective surgery.
[Inaudible] supermarkets, other essential services in Victoria. Can you provide an update on what you’re doing to adjust things like isolation and tracing protocols as we reopen?
And what changes what would you like to see, particularly for the Minister in Victoria, as these vaccinations go up?
I might start and just say that I think this is work that AHPPC is doing. I don’t chair it anymore, my colleague Paul Kelly does, but I do know that there’s a lot of progress in this space.
And we’ve seen in New South Wales already, they’ve made significant changes to their isolation rules, in particular, as you’ve said, in supermarkets and distribution centres.
Now if we have a fully vaccinated workforce and there is not a high level of exposure, there is less likely to be a need to quarantine all casual contacts for a long period of time.
You can have vaccinations supplemented by daily rapid antigen testing, and a lot of those things are being introduced in New South Wales. I suspect Victoria is seriously considering them as well.
Minister, did you want to add anything?
No, just to say that vaccination opens up the possibility for fewer impositions on people. And to be fair to Victoria, they are considering exactly these changes now.
So I neither want to be unfair nor pre-empt what they’re doing. But they are looking at the pathway that New South Wales has taken.
And you can see with New South Wales, the combination of increasing vaccinations and decreasing cases is allowing them to make changes with regards to their isolation requirements. Victoria’s going through that same process.
I do think it is important that the public has knowledge of exposure sites, so as they can isolate or test or take precautions. I think that knowledge is very important. But at the same time, that pathway where you have increasing vaccination to be able to moderate the isolation requirements, commensurate with safety, is an appropriate journey that Victoria’s on now.
So, I think it’s important to acknowledge that they’re doing it.
You both said that you’re confident that hospitals across the states and territories are sufficiently prepared for a surge in COVID cases. What would it take for the Commonwealth to step in?
Is there a federal contingency plan in case cases get out of control, the hospitals get to an even worse COVID alert than yellow, for example?
The contingency plan is the private hospitals guarantee. That’s an additional 30,000 beds. It’s an additional 57,000 nurses. It’s an additional 100,000 workers. And this was put in place on 1 April last year.
It’s been drawn upon in Victoria last year. It’s been drawn upon in New South Wales during the current outbreak. It’s there for Victoria to draw upon now with some use at the current time, I understand.
And it’s available to all states and territories, plus the 50 per cent uncapped payments for COVID-related hospital expenses, plus telehealth, and the work that Brendan is doing. So, I think it’s very important that we recognise the 20 months of work that has been going on, and it is very important that the combination of vaccinations and preparation puts us in a strong position on the national plan.
And if, as I said before, anybody or any one state in a non-COVID situation is having issues, then that is not related to COVID. It’s something that they’ll need to explain.
But all states and territories have given undertakings that they are well-prepared, but we’ve created that national contingency plan. And then I’ll take-
Two more, Minister?
Two more, that’s good. Thank you.
Just in regards to Queensland, the Queensland Health Minister says that Queensland’s being unfairly targeted as every state and territory health minister has written to you asking for more funding. How would you respond to that?
And will you consider extending the COVID hospital uncapped 50 per cent funding beyond 2023 if need be?
Well, look, it’s an ongoing measure at this point in time. The timing of it’s reviewed in relation to COVID. It’s a COVID measure, and it’s there.
And so you get the feeling sometimes that people are desperate for a fight. They cannot complain about vaccines. So now they’re trying to create a diversion. There is a COVID 50/50 payment. Last week everybody was saying there’s not. There is. That claim is false.
There are vaccinations in mass numbers. Right now, the focus of the Queensland Government shouldn’t be about fighting, but it should be encouraging people to say now’s the moment to come forward to be vaccinated.
And my message to Queenslanders is: this is the moment to come forward to be vaccinated.
There aren’t capacity constraints. There is the opportunity. And the risk of COVID is that every Australian may face the prospect of being exposed to COVID at some point, and therefore the best protection is vaccination.
So to Queensland, focus on vaccination. We have to lift those numbers we have to give people the sense that there are clear protections, but those protections will be above all else provided by being vaccinated.
Last question, please.
This question combines two themes in the press conference so far, climate change and isolation rules.
Mr Hunt, I know you understand the importance of global climate change conferences. You were at Bali in 2008. Now, Scott Morrison is being asked to go to Glasgow. One way in which that could be made easier would be if the ACT allowed him to do a shorter period of quarantine when he comes back to the Lodge.
Now, given the vaccination rates that we’re seeing around Sydney or around the ACT, do you think that there’s a case for the ACT to give him some flexibility so that he might be able to go to Glasgow?
I’ll leave that to the ACT. One of the things is that what we see is that the Prime Minister has travelled, I think, three times recently, or had three periods in quarantine and is very focussed on making sure that as a country, he is here during the transition.
But beyond that, in terms of individual conferences, individual timing, I’ll leave the ACT to its own quarantine. And the Prime Minister and the Emissions Minister to make the determinations as to how Australia is represented.
But we’re there. We wanted the country.
Minister can I ask you one more question.
One of the few, hold on. We are one of the few countries to have met Kyoto 1 and beaten it; met Kyoto 2 and beaten it, and be on track to meet and beat our Paris commitments. So all of those things come together.
We’re a country that sets its plans and achieves its plans. In terms of COVID, that is translated to being one of the three lowest per capita rates of lives lost, which is a fundamental national achievement across all states and territories across the country and above all else due to our health professionals and people.
And we’ll continue to do that, continue to focus on COVID, continue to focus on emissions, meeting and beating out Paris targets and protecting Australians.
And today has been another important day. A new oral treatment, a COVID treatment pill, molnupiravir, 300,000 doses, saving lives and protecting lives.
Thank you, everybody.