The Hon. Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care
9 January 2022
Topics: Omicron, COVID-19 vaccines; MRFF Rare Cancers funding
Well, good morning everybody. I’m joined today by the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Professor Michael Kidd. And there are some important announcements to make.
Firstly, yesterday we passed 44 million doses around Australia, and three and a half million boosters, one million ahead of schedule, at this point in time.
Secondly, today we are announcing $63 million for breakthrough new medical research for rare cancers and rare diseases under the Medical Research Future Fund.
And tomorrow, the National Children’s Vaccination Program for five to 11 year olds begins, and we have approximately two million doses that are available over the course of the coming weeks. And then that will be supplemented by an additional million before January 3 for a population of 2.3 million children.
So, we want to encourage all parents to bring their children forward over the period between now and the end of January, to protect them and to help protect the community with the vaccinations.
Before beginning on the specific matters, I want to acknowledge the Queensland floods and the community. The emergency services have kicked into action. The Prime Minister has spoken with the Premier and offered all assistance, and the readiness of Commonwealth Disaster Relief Funding and payments.
The Prime Minister will be hosting an emergency management meeting at midday today, in addition to the 2pm meeting of supply chain management teams around the country that he was going to host, in any event today, so busy day.
But we reach out to the Queensland community, particularly those in Gympie and Maryborough and other affected areas, and especially to the family that has lost a young man and the family of the young woman.
Although I haven’t had an immediate update who at last report was missing, and that’s sort of an agonising situation for any family, and we just hope and pray that there is good news on that front.
But it’s a difficult and challenging time, and the Commonwealth is leaning in to support Queensland, and our extraordinary emergency services personnel and those people who are affected by the flood.
In relation to the Children’s Vaccination Program, tomorrow the nationwide program commences. But I am aware and delighted that some general practices and pharmacies have already begun. They’ve received their vaccines, they’ve commenced the program and I think that’s great news with the full national program beginning tomorrow.
Over the course of the coming weeks, approximately 8,000 providers across general practice with 6,000, pharmacies with 2,000, and state and Commonwealth clinics and indigenous health clinics will be participating in the Children’s Vaccination Program.
The important thing is that we have a population of approximately 2.3 million children in the eligible five to 11 age group, but with three million doses available over January, and two million doses available over the course of the next two weeks.
In terms of distribution, we have already seen across general vaccines for adults, as well as children’s vaccines, over 9,700 deliveries of vaccines and consumables in the last week and 11,000 deliveries this week.
And a total across the two weeks of vaccine deliveries of 2.8 million and 3.7 million, or six and a half million vaccines. So, a record number of vaccine deliveries over the course of that time.
The other significant thing, is that in terms of the boosters themselves, what we’ve seen is yesterday there were 141,000 boosters and 164,000 total vaccinations, our highest Saturday since October. And that means that Australians are coming forward.
We’ve now had over one and a quarter million vaccines delivered in the last week, and that includes last Sunday and Monday following on from New Year’s and the New Year’s Day holiday.
So, incredible work by our GP’s, our pharmacists who’ve stepped up to, on some days, be doing over 80,000, and the state clinics are now coming back online. So, we thank everybody for that work, as well as our indigenous medical clinics.
The total rate of boosters is 3.56 million at this point in time and as I’ve said, that’s approximately one million ahead of the schedule that we had originally anticipated. So, the deliveries and the providers are doing an extraordinary job.
At the national level we’ve now passed 44 million doses and that includes 94.7 per cent first doses. So, we are within sight of 95 per cent, which has always been seen as the full vaccination level. But we want to keep pushing.
Our over 50s are at almost 99 per cent for the entire over-50 population. And we passed the 92 per cent figure for second doses and we’ve now passed the 80 per cent figure, 80.1 per cent for 12 to 15 year olds. And I think that’s an important sign as we go into the children’s vaccine program.
The last thing that I want to mention is in relation to the hospital system and the ventilation in particular with a significant number of cases around the country, as everybody’s aware. I think it’s very heartening that at this point in time, there are only 76 patients on ventilation for COVID around the country.
And what we’re seeing is that obviously a significant increase in Omicron cases, clearly vastly more transmissible, but equally, significantly less severe. And that’s being seen in the number of people in either ICU or in particular, those who are most still on ventilation, with the reports being from the states that up to two thirds of those in ICU remain unvaccinated.
And so if you have not been vaccinated, please come forward to be vaccinated. It can protect you. It can keep you safe, it can save your life. It can reduce the risk of serious complications.
Related to this is the fact that the ongoing work of health continues. There’s $63.4 million for 27 research projects and clinical trials, in particular under the Rare Cancers Rare Diseases program with the Medical Research Future Fund. That includes amazing programs on precision medicine, Precision medicine being where the individual’s specific condition is diagnosed and the medicine is tailored for them.
The University of New South Wales is doing a childhood cancer program with $1.5 million to use precision medicine or precision analysis of the tumours that individual children may face, and to tailor the particular treatment to their specific cancer condition. And for parents, this is such an important breakthrough working with the Sydney Children’s Hospital, the extraordinary Sydney Children’s Hospital.
Another example is the University of Newcastle, $2 million to focus on precision medicine in helping to treat cystic fibrosis, to tailor the conditions and treatments used to assist any individual.
So, a theme of this round. Or to put it another way, diagnosing the specific sub condition that an individual will be going through and then tailoring the medicine or the treatment or the dosage to that individual’s personal requirements.
So, important breakthroughs. And I want to thank all of our researchers, Professor Kidd.
Thank you. Thank you, Minister. I wanted to talk about what people should do if you test positive for COVID-19 on a rapid antigen test or a PCR test.
With the rising case numbers we’ve seen over the past week in many parts of the country, it’s likely that many of us will test positive for COVID-19 over coming days and weeks if we haven’t already done so.
Thankfully, as the Minister has said, most people in Australia aged 12 years and above have been vaccinated with at least two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, and this is modified the seriousness of COVID-19 infection for many people.
If infected with COVID-19, many of us will have no symptoms at all. Some of us will have mild symptoms, which can be managed at home, and a very small number of us will require medical care or hospital admission.
The first thing to do is to be prepared. My advice is that you make sure you have some paracetamol or ibuprofen at home in case you’re diagnosed with COVID-19. Paracetamol or ibuprofen can be used to manage fever and aches and pains.
You’ll need to drink plenty of fluids, which can be water, but you may also benefit from using electrolyte powder or solution, which you can buy from your supermarket or pharmacy. But it’s important to be prepared because you won’t be able to go to your supermarket or pharmacy if you are diagnosed with COVID-19.
If you test positive for COVID-19 on a rapid antigen test or a PCR test, then many people are going to feel anxious. But as I mentioned, most will have no symptoms or very mild symptoms.
You’re not alone, and there are resources and people available to provide you with support and advice.
Firstly, if you do become seriously unwell, especially if you are having difficulty breathing, chest pain, or feeling faint, you need to seek urgent assistance and you should call triple zero for an ambulance.
The Australian Government has established the National Coronavirus Helpline on 1800 020 080. I called the hotline at 6pm yesterday and I was on hold for only five minutes before my call was answered.
You can call this number at any time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week for advice about management of any of your symptoms, for other medical advice, advice about vaccines or about restrictions in place in your state or territory.
States and territories have also established their own helplines, and details of those numbers are on their websites. You can also get information on the Australian Government Health Direct website at healthdirect.gov.au, which includes details about when to seek medical advice.
If you call the National Coronavirus Helpline and you report worrying symptoms, then you may be referred to a nurse who will speak to you about your symptoms and provide you with advice about what to do next. The National Coronavirus Helpline also has specific advice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, for people with disability, for people who do not speak English.
If you’re diagnosed with COVID-19 and you’re aged 65 years or over, or if you are unvaccinated or if you are pregnant, or if you have a serious medical condition such as diabetes, heart disease or lung disease or obesity, or if you are immune compromised, then you should call either your own GP or the COVID-19 National Coronavirus Helpline for advice about what to do.
Some people who are elderly or who have chronic health conditions, especially those who have not yet been vaccinated, may benefit from treatments, and these can prevent people from becoming seriously unwell.
Some people who are at risk of becoming seriously unwell may also be provided with a pulse oximeter, and this is a small device which is placed on your finger and it measures the level of oxygen in your blood, and it can provide a warning when someone’s respiratory condition is starting to worsen.
If you have a high fever, vomiting, diarrhoea, breathlessness, persistent cough or you’re feeling abnormally tired and weak and struggling to get out of bed, then you may have moderate symptoms of COVID-19 and you need to seek medical advice today.
So, please, if that’s applies to you, call the National Coronavirus Helpline or contact your own GP. When you call your GP, tell the receptionists that you are a confirmed case or suspected case of COVID-19 and what your symptoms are, and you may be able to book a telehealth consultation with your GP or one of the staff at your general practice.
If your GP is unavailable, you may also be able to attend one of the Commonwealth funded general practise respiratory clinics, which have been established around the country to assist people with respiratory symptoms and details of those clinics is available on healthdirect.gov.au.
But as I mentioned, most people who test positive will have no symptoms or only mild symptoms, such as a runny nose, a dry cough, a sore throat or aches and pains. And these are symptoms that you can manage yourself at home.
You should get plenty of rest, you should eat well, you should take some paracetamol or ibuprofen if needed to manage the symptoms and continue to take any regular medications.
If you can get some gentle exercise in your home or your garden, as long as you’re not putting other people at risk. And reach out to family and your friends by telephone or video call, it’s important to look after your mental health as well as your physical health while you’re isolating.
If you need mental health support, again, you can call the National Coronavirus Helpline or your GP, or you can access the Head to Health website on the Australian Government website.
It’s important to protect the other members of your household from becoming infected, especially elderly people and those with serious health conditions.
You can reduce the risk of spread of coronavirus to other people by staying in your own room on your own. If it’s possible, have a bathroom that only you use. Wear a mask at all times if you have to leave your room for any reason, ensure good ventilation in your home, and do not cook, obviously for your family members or provide care to other family members.
Individual states and territories are starting to introduce systems for you to register if you have a positive rapid antigen test. Victoria has introduced a mandatory registration system last week, and other states and territories are looking at developing their own systems.
If you’d like further advice, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, the RACGP, has produced an excellent guide on managing COVID-19 at home with assistance from your general practice.
And this is available on the RACGP website at racgp.org.au. Many general practices also have a link to this resource on their practice home page.
My most important message is that if you have any doubt about what to do call the National Coronavirus Helpline 1800 020 080 or call your own doctor for advice and support.
I’d like to end by thanking everyone who’s working on the COVID-19 hotlines around the country and everyone who is working in our nations general practices, pharmacies, hospitals and other health settings, providing advice to people who have been diagnosed are exposed to COVID-19 over recent weeks.
Thank you, Minister.
Thanks very much, Michael.
Happy to start by taking questions if we could start on the left and if you could just identify yourselves as we as we go forward.
Sure. Minister, it’s Eliza from Channel Nine.
Have all eligible aged care residents received their booster yet? And if not, why not a residents being left vulnerable with waning immunity now that outbreaks are affecting hundreds of facilities?
I’ve also got a question on the election, but I might wait until everyone else has had to go first.
Just in terms of the aged care. The program is ahead of schedule and expectations. There are over 1,500 aged care facilities, and those numbers will be updated during the course of the coming days.
And all facilities on the advice that I have from Operation COVID Shield are expected to complete that program during the course of January.
So, the advice I have is that all is that all facilities have either completed or are scheduled to be done, and that’s in line with both eligibility and the ability of facilities to receive the boosters.
So sorry, Minister, you just breaking up that entire time, so I didn’t really get much of an answer. So how many have actually had their booster?
At this stage we have over 1,500 that have received the boosters, and all facilities have either received the boosters or are scheduled on the advice that I have from Operation COVID Shield to receive them during the course of January.
So, we are ahead of expectations and schedule at this point in time. And we’ve been able to bring that further forward over the course of the last week, they’ve been a particular focus of Operation COVID Shield.
So, I want to thank Lieutenant General JJ Frewen and his team for doing that and the aged care sector for their support in being able to bring these forward and to make sure that we’re ahead of the and indeed at this time, subject to the ability of facilities to actually receive visits to carry that program, so all facilities are scheduled during the course of January.
I’ll just move on to the next please.
Thanks, Minister. It’s Jade from The Herald Sun.
On the kids jabs, will ATAGI reconsider the interval between the first and second doses, given the obviously surge in positive cases in the community?
And on a separate issue, Novak Djokovic is expected to argue that he followed the ATAGI advice. Have you spoken with the ATAGI co-chairs? And what is their reaction to their advice being obviously, according to the Government, misinterpreted?
Sure. Look, firstly in relation to children’s vaccinations, that’s a program that ATAGI has set following very, very significant consideration. They have set out what they believe to be the optimal dosing period. But each week there’s continuous review.
So my request to ATAGI is to continuously review the settings of the vaccination program, as they have done recently in relation to the timing of the general population booster, where they brought it from six to five months and then five to four months, and then from the January 31 to two to three months.
And so they have full independence and freedom if they believe that it’s in the medical interest to change. At this stage, I haven’t heard that there is any plan or proposal to change, but it’s continuous weekly review.
But look in relation to Mr Djokovic, as this is now a matter before the courts. I’ll respectfully leave any commentary until after it’s been heard by the court. My understanding is that there’s a hearing tomorrow.
The other advice that I have from Border Force is that their assessment of any visas relating to the Australian Open has now been completed, and two other individuals have now voluntarily left the country. As is the case that any individual who has their visa cancelled is entitled to leave the country at any time, even whilst they are going through a court proceeding. But that’s a matter for them.
Beyond that, the advice is that there’s an ongoing court case, so respectfully not making any additional comment.
It’s Dan from The Canberra Times.
Just a question about what Professor Kidd was saying in relation to things people can do to prepare for the likelihood they’ll get COVID. So is that a shift?
We spent the past 18 months talking about what we can do to prevent us and others getting this disease. Is it a case of now, everyone in the community has to take proactive steps to just prepare themselves for the likelihood that they’re going to get it?
Thanks, Minister. We obviously want to continue to do all we can to prevent people from being infected with COVID-19.
Nobody wants to be infected with a serious infectious disease. And although most people will have mild symptoms or no symptoms, some people are still going to become seriously unwell with COVID-19, and we want to prevent that from happening.
So, that’s why it’s important to prevent transmission to the people that you share your home with, particularly protecting elderly people and people with chronic health conditions and making sure that we are not seeing everybody being infected.
We also have complications in the longer term from COVID-19. We all know about long COVID and the symptoms that some people experience. This can occur even in people who’ve been vaccinated, so you don’t want to be infected with COVID-19 unnecessarily.
Yeah, thanks, thanks, Minister. It’s Andrew from The Financial Review.
Two issues, kind of related. The first, the supply chain disruption. The furloughing of staff and sort of, you know, critical sectors like shop distribution and warehouse distribution and truck drivers and all that sort of stuff.
What’s the Government, sort of, doing about that? Have we got any advice from health officials that someone who is isolating would be able to go to work if they have a rapid antigen testing that day? Is that the path we’re heading down, given what business has sort of asked for?
And in light of the importance of rapid antigen testing, you were saying last week, you know, we’ve got tens of millions of test kits coming over, you know, 100 million plus over the next couple of months. How quickly are they actually going to arrive given the global shortage and demand for them?
So, I’ll start with rapid antigen tests and then going to furloughing things.
So first, in relation to the antigen tests, there are 70 million Commonwealth purchases that have been made and now over 200 million, including the states and territories, I’m advised, plus the very significant private acquisitions. What we’re seeing is a progressive increase in those.
We are looking to supply the states with approximately 10 million rapid antigen tests, predominantly point of care over the coming weeks, as well as supporting all of the aged care facilities. And we’ve provided over five million to aged care on the latest advice that I’ve had just this morning.
Then what we will see there are increasing volumes coming in through the combination of Commonwealth state and pharmacy and supermarkets.
And so it’s a global challenge where you’ve got increasing supply but increasing demand globally. And I’ve seen reports out of the United States, and the UK, Europe, that they’re all facing many of the same challenges.
So we are in a fortunate position [INAUDIBLE] supplies coming. And the Commonwealth is expecting to be able to provide over the coming weeks, 10 million to the states, as well as all of the aged care.
And we know that the states are bringing in significant amounts, and as is the private sector just talking with some of the operators there, that they’re seeing significant volume in over the over the next few weeks.
The next thing in relation to furloughing. This is probably the most important challenge that has come from Omicron.
We’re seeing very low rates of significant illness, as demonstrated by the fact that with approximately half a million cases over the last month we’ve seen the number of people on ventilation go from 54 to 76 since December 15, so that’s very heartening.
It’s the workforce and furloughing, which remains the principle national challenge at this point in time. And so we’ve been working through AHPPC or the Medical Expert Panel of Chief Health and Medical Officers, as well as through the National Coordination Mechanism, which is the Commonwealth supply chain management body to look at those furlough requirements.
Michael, I think, is better placed as somebody who sits on AHPPC to talk about the directions that they may be taking. Michael?
Thanks, Minister. So AHPPC is actually meeting as we as we speak right now, looking at this issue and looking at what might be modified with the requirements and restrictions in order to ensure the supply chain and supply lines continue. Thanks.
So I’ll just give you an example, of course, the definition of contacts for purposes of isolation was changed in response to Omicron, a part of the national plan in response to Omicron.
And that was done through a combination of AHPPC advice and the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly and National Cabinet together.
That meant that the isolation definition was reduced and in particular, the household contacts or household like, and that has significantly reduced the number who would otherwise have had to isolate.
And right now, that work’s being done in relation to aged care and the hospital system with new protocols for aged care having been released.
The other thing, for example, that we have done is to provide 60,000 shifts of additional aged care workforce support through a combination of the agency and other providers, as well as some states have invoked the private hospitals guarantee to draw on that agreement, which we completed at the end of March last year.
And that is was designed for exactly this type of moment where there are 57,000 nurses, approximately over 30,000 beds and over 100,000 staff in the private hospital system.
And there’s states and the aged care system need them commensurate with appropriate treatment. They are being drawn upon, so all of those things are coming together.
I might come to the last in the room and then we’ll go back to Eliza for her final question.
Thanks. Minister Hunt. It’s Shuba Krishnan from SBS News.
Just on child vaccines. The reports that parents can’t get appointments for their under 11s and GPS with low dose allocations, what’s being done about that? Is that what you’re hearing?
And what’s your message to parents who are concerned about sending their child to school unvaccinated?
And just another to Professor Kidd, is there more that can be done to protect children with schools in terms of ventilation and other sort of measures?
So firstly, in terms of the vaccine supply over the course of January, three million doses available for children and that is for a population of 2.3 million. So, more than enough for every single child in Australia to be vaccinated.
We achieved a 65 per cent vaccination rate for the 12 to 15s within two months, and we’re just in the last two days past the 80 per cent mark after three and a half months for the 12 to 15s. And we’re encouraging parents to come forward [INAUDIBLE] vaccination options for every child in Australia.
Obviously, that occurs over a period of weeks, not every child will be available or able to do that or in one particular day. And practices have a certain volume because we are providing support to over 8,000 points of vaccination around Australia.
And so that’s to make sure that people in rural areas, in regional areas, in non-English speaking background areas, in lower socio economic areas have the same access.
And so there are multiple options. It could be your general practice, it could be another general practice, pharmacies. We are finding that Commonwealth vaccination clinics, state vaccination clinics, and indigenous medical clinics are all participating.
And I think what we’re finding, and I’ll just give you the exact figures, is that there will be over 6,000 general practises, over 150 Commonwealth vaccination clinics, over 115 indigenous medical clinics, 2,000 pharmacies and at this stage, over 250 state clinics, all participating.
So multiple options and the orders, as I say, are well ahead of schedule. We’re going through record delivery last week and this week in terms of total vaccines, and that includes the children’s vaccine.
So any one practice, whether it’s a pharmacy or a general practice or state clinic, might have a certain capacity on any particular day as to just with their workforce, how many they can do.
But across the system, the fact that there are over 8,000 points of presence for children’s vaccination is designed to mean that there are multiple options over the course of the coming week. And with three million vaccines for 2.3 million, it’s enough to ensure that every child has the opportunity to be vaccinated.
Every child that wants to be vaccinated can be vaccinated, but the critical message is for people to look around and bookings are opening every day. So health.gov.au is the starting place the eligibility checker, but also the states as well.
Thanks, Minister. Also just to add that as more vaccine supply is received by general practices and pharmacies, they will open up more appointments for people in their clinics as they schedule staff to run the vaccine clinics.
So, as the Minister said, keep a close eye on the health.gov.au to make your appointments.
At schools, very important that we’re protecting all the children in our schools. Over recent months we’ve been doing that through the vaccination of the adults who are in the schools and available to students and of course, are hoping that parents are also vaccinated in order to protect younger children.
Ventilation has been a strong focus of the state and territory education departments looking at ensuring that the physical infrastructure in our schools is safe for our children.
And now we’ll have that increased protection for the five to 11 year olds as the vaccine program rolls out. Thank you.
Great. And just to finish Eliza, please?
North Queensland businesses and tourism operators are again seeing their trade decimated. It’s not exactly the recovery they were promised. Are you worried that anger will translate to voters punishing the LNP polling booths on Election Day?
Well, look, the first thing is that our focus has been on the health and support.
This is a global challenge and we’re seeing it now. But we’ve gone from approximately 500,000 cases a day to over two and a half million officially around the world over the course of six weeks. And so that’s a 500 per cent increase in official global cases, but inevitably the real global figure is vastly higher.
So this is a global challenge and of all the countries in the world, we have one of the highest vaccination rates, one of the lowest rates of loss of life. And we have one of the strongest economic recoveries.
And we’ve provided, as a Government, enormous support to businesses, to help, and to the community, and we’ll continue to do that. And our focus is on the health and wellbeing.
And the fact that what we see is one of the strongest economic recoveries, but with genuine and real challenges, exactly as you say, for particular businesses now and it’s a matter for Queensland in terms of their approach to international arrivals under their stage one and stage two.
There are differing approaches across some of the states and we’ll let them speak to that. I know in particular, for example, the student market has very much very much valued the access that it has had to New South Wales as a case in point.
But above all else, our task, our responsibility is to do what we have been doing, to have one of the highest vaccination rates, one of the lowest rates of loss of life and one of the strongest economic recoveries with employment having recovered very strongly.
But the challenges are ongoing. This is a global challenge. It’s just that as a nation we have been fortunate and we have worked together to achieve outcomes that the vast majority of countries would deeply covet. Basically, so many other countries would vastly prefer to have had Australia’s journey through the pandemic than their own.
With that, if it’s your time to vaccinated, please come forward. We’re at 94.7 per cent first dose, but we want that to be higher. For those that are not yet vaccinated, please, come forward.
We are still seeing those numbers increase and we want to get to that 95 per cent and we want to encourage people to keep coming forward and keep going with those numbers.
If you are due for your second dose, please come forward and if it’s time for your booster, or your child is in the 5-11 age group, over the coming days and weeks, please book them in, please bring them forward. And please work to find that booking.
And we thank you, and we thank Australians for supporting each other. Take care, everyone.