The Hon. Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care
18 April 2021
Topics: COVID-19 epidemiology; vaccine rollout.
Good afternoon everyone. I’m joined by Professor Alison McMillan, the Chief Nursing and Midwifery Officer for Australia, and we’re giving the weekly update with regards to coronavirus and the vaccination program around the country.
The first in important news is, of course, we are fortunate to have another day of zero cases of community transmission. That’s a total now of 63 days throughout the course of the year; there have been some revisions in one of the states to their historic figures, where other cases have been previously identified, but zero community cases on a day where, again, the world has had over 740,000 cases.
And indeed, the world has had, very sadly, over 11,400 lives lost. It is perhaps I think very informative and also a point of national positive reflection to note that in this climate, Australians continue to be safe. They continue to live very close to their normal lives but with appropriate social distancing and COVID safety measures.
And when we look at a world with repeatedly over 700,000 and on some days over 800,000 cases, and compare it with the lives that are being lived in Australia, largely normal but with appropriate distancing and some challenges, it is an extraordinary testament to the work of our medical teams, our medical and health workers, and above all else, Australians and all of those who have been involved in that process.
Very significantly, what we have seen is that case numbers globally have now passed 140 million and, very sadly, over 3 million officially recorded COVID deaths. That 3 million mark, of course, is very likely well short of the reality. In the early days, not all cases and lives lost were identified.
Even today, there will be many parts of the world where the simple stresses of that which they’re facing on a scale unimaginable in Australia mean that we are not seeing all of these lives lost necessarily recognised. So an official global loss of life tally, which is now past 3 million, is just an incredible human toll.
At the same time, we continue to vaccinate Australians, and we have now reached 1.5 million vaccinations in Australia. The official figure is 1,496,608 vaccinations, and that’s 330,533 vaccinations in the last seven days, so over 330,000 vaccinations in the last seven days.
And I think that’s a very pleasing outcome, and we want to continue to urge Australians – and this in particular is Professor McMillan’s role – in coming forward, to encourage Australians to come forward through the respective vaccination programs for the over-50s and those health workers and immunocompromised and others under-50s with the access to the appropriate vaccines for each of them.
During the course of the vaccination program, the states, doing a tremendous job in conjunction with the territories, have now passed 643,832 vaccinations, and the Commonwealth 852,776 vaccinations, with the GPs having alone provided 680,425 vaccinations. And Alison will take you through the aged care sector. And so, all of that, I think, is very important.
Our GPs have been and continue to be the cornerstone of the program going forwards with a very strong support from the states. National Cabinet will consider ways in which the states can assist either now, with regards to the larger vaccination clinics, although the GPs are, as we have said, seeing an enormous increase compared with where we were four weeks ago.
And we will in particular look as we move in the latter parts of the year to large numbers of Pfizer vaccines, the combined role of general practices and large state and territory-based vaccination clinics. But it will be up to each of those states and territories to, in partnership with the Commonwealth, to find their capabilities and their preferences.
I want to thank all of our primary carers, however, for their work. And what is very interesting, this week we’re seeing a large number of general practices that are participating in the program. There had been some commentary about individual practices. The reality is general practices will go from 4039 to over 4300 general practices. When we add in the GP respiratory clinics and the Aboriginal community-controlled health organisations, there will be over 4500 points of presence in the primary care vaccination program by the end of this week.
That is earlier than was expected. We were aiming to achieve that mark by the end of April, and so we’re very pleased that that’s been done. That means we have largely achieved those points of presence, and that will now remain a basic stable point going forward until we see progressive completion of the GP practice rollout.
Another very important thing that happens in the next 24 hours is, as of this evening, international travel begins to open up for Australians. Australians can travel to New Zealand as of midnight tonight. That’s a two-way travel bubble.
It means that New Zealanders and people coming from New Zealand can come to Australia; people from Australia can travel to New Zealand. That is the first step of a progressive opening, an opening which will be progressive, guided by safety, and in partnership with the states and territories and the Australian people. But it’s another significant milestone for Australians.
To add one last thing, I want to thank the states and territories for their work. Obviously, tomorrow the Prime Minister is meeting with National Cabinet to continue to chart the way forwards over the course of the year. The individual states and territories have now contributed, New South Wales, over 173,000 vaccinations; Victoria, over 162,000; Queensland, 122,000; Western Australia, 76,000; Tasmania, over 28,000; South Australia, 46,000; the ACT, over 20,000; and the Northern Territory, over 12,000 vaccinations.
It is a national program and a national achievement, and to see that growth of 330,000 vaccinations in the last week, I think, is heartening. Individuals always have to take on board the advice and make their own choices. We have chosen a voluntary program, but to provide that confidence and support as well as the update on the aged care program, I am pleased to be able to invite Professor Alison McMillan, the Chief Nursing and Midwifery Officer of Australia.
Thank you, Minister. Before I give you the figures on aged care, I too would just like to echo a congratulations to everyone working out there in primary healthcare. General practice practitioners, nurses, and the support staff, the reception staff, they are doing a terrific work, piece of work.
And I know this is difficult in a time when they’re also managing their practices, so I just take this opportunity to thank all of them for what they’re doing, the great work they’re doing in delivering vaccine to all of our vulnerable communities.
So, the figures for today in relation to aged care is that now 172,351 vaccines have been delivered to aged care facilities. 112,000 of those are first doses, and 59,000 of those are second doses.
As you know, each vaccine requires a second dose, and they need to be timed in a particular way after three weeks. That is now 1,311 facilities have been visited and delivered that first dose. Seven hundred and ten facilities have now come back around to have their second dose. So over 2000 visits to facilities in the rollout of this vaccine.
And if you remember, at the outset of the program it was our most vulnerable that we were looking to protect, and as we know, that includes those living and residing in aged care facilities, and we’re seeing very promising figures in relation to those.
Thank you Minister.
Thank you. Happy to take any questions, and Alison and I will share. If I may just start with the telephone, and then we’ll come to Christian, who’s with us. Claire?
Thanks, Minister. Just a couple of questions.
Firstly, with regards to hesitancy around the AstraZeneca vaccine, a lot of Australians would be looking at the death of a 48-year-old woman and thinking that that is very close to the age of 50, which is the limit that ATAGI has set. Overseas, Canada set the age of 55, Germany has set 60.
Are you expecting that we will maintain that 50-year-old limit or recommended limit on taking AstraZeneca, given the hesitancy and the rate of cancellations of appointments that we’re seeing?
And just secondly, on those under-50 in 1B who are primarily healthcare workers, their GPs are calling to see if they’re still okay to go ahead and consent with having the AstraZeneca vaccine, as it’s potentially the only one available to them. And a lot of them would feel compelled to take that option as they are in the health workforce.
Are you offering any assistance or advice to GPs on how to deal with the appointments they already had locked in with those under-50s who are not necessarily recommended get AstraZeneca?
Sure. Look, I’ll speak briefly and then obviously invite Alison, as she has a very critical role in this space.
Firstly, with regards to the medical advice, one of the lodestars and guiding lights of what we had done in Australia is put safety at the heart of our decisions, and, in doing that, we’ve followed the medical advice.
Our medical advisers have helped keep us safe. When you look at that comparison of over 740,000 cases worldwide, zero in Australia, you can see that what’s happening in Australia is working. It is taking care of people. It is giving people safety, and it is giving people real hope. And I will reflect and then answer very specifically.
This morning I went for a walk. I passed a junior footy match at one of the ovals, and to see kids going about their sport, parents and grandparents, mums and dads living a normal life was just a stark reminder of the world outside and then the safety within Australia.
So that medical advice has been fundamental. We have tasked ATAGI with what I call continuous review of safety, and if they change their advice, then we will adopt that advise. And we’ve done that with the borders. We’ve done that with the molecular clamp, which was the University of Queensland vaccine. We’ve done that with the difficult but nevertheless recommended and adopted immediately change with regards to the preferred vaccines for under-50s and over-50s. And so we’ll continue to follow that medical advice.
But the point of confidence for all Australians is firstly respect for individual choice, but secondly the view that we have, that we have probably the strongest medical advisers in the world, and certainly we don’t believe that there are others ahead of what we have in Australia.
And so, they have freedom, they have skills, and we have confidence in them, and Australians should have confidence in our advisors.
Secondly, with regards to GPs, extensive materials have been made available for them to have those discussions. And the ATAGI advice was very clear, that whilst the vaccine for under-50s that’s preferred is the Pfizer vaccine, it’s nevertheless a matter between doctor and patient, and that’s a process of informed consent, and extensive advice has been made available.
Thanks, Minister. Claire, thank you for the question also, because I think that hesitancy is something that we need to recognise.
I encourage everyone who has any considerations or concerns is firstly, you can talk to your health professional, general practitioner, nurse practitioner, a whole range of people available to you to talk to.
But also, make sure that you get informed with reliable information. And I encourage again, we have put significant effort into providing information on health.gov.au. And I also encourage you to look at our website where some of the myths and ideas that have come from elsewhere are addressed directly.
So it’s quite understandable that one might be hesitant about a vaccine, but do please look to the information you can rely on so that you can make a decision that’s informed by the most up to date information you can have available. Thanks Minister.
Great. Thank you. Rachel?
Thanks, Minister. A couple of questions as well, if I may. By the Prime Minister’s comments this morning, he said the vaccine rollout in the 50 to 70 age group, so, say, 2A, will be discussed in National Cabinet. What exactly will be discussed there? Will that be a consideration of more large mass vaccine clinics?
And secondly, he also said that for those who’ve been vaccinated and had travelled, home quarantine could occur or will occur in the second half of this year. Can you give us a more narrow timeframe that that? And do you think that’s feasible?
Look, firstly, in relation to the over-50s to 70s, that is one of the items that the National Cabinet will discuss. That’s something which the health ministers have already addressed.
And what we’re looking at is the timing and also the mechanisms for delivery. GPs are, as we’ve seen, doing an extraordinary job. Their numbers have increased dramatically. They have contributed over 680,000 vaccinations. And that’s a trusted source.
But equally, as the Prime Minister has said, if states wish to expand their offerings, then that’s an option that’s available to them individually. There is no one-size-fits-all model. That each state and territory will have options going forwards.
But we need to be honest that the global challenge with the scientific information, which it was our duty to make sure was considered by ATAGI and when they made the recommendations, has meant that there are elements that we are reviewing through the National Cabinet. And that’s what we’ve done right through the pandemic.
You know, this pandemic, every day it delivers new challenges, but of all the countries, we’ve been able to adapt. So that’s what’s being considered on that front.
With regards to home quarantine, what we see is the pathway to progressive but safe, progressive but safe openings within Australia through partnership. Today, within the next 24 hours, we’ll see the travel opportunity to New Zealand, the first of the big international opportunities.
Later on in the year – and we won’t provide a timeframe beyond that which the Prime Minister discussed today – the opportunity arrives for those that have been vaccinated to return and be home quarantined. But that will be based on the medical advice.
And that’s what Professor Kelly and Brendan Murphy and Alison and others have discussed about understanding the impact on transmission and the longevity of the vaccines.
But there’s no doubt that this is about progressive opening and progressive opportunities to reduce pressure on hotel quarantine and to provide greater freedoms as we vaccinate more, as we learn more, but above all else, with the principle of safety underpinning everything.
Thank you, Minister. Good afternoon. Karen Andrews said this morning the Federal Government was looking at building mRNA vaccine facilities but that we actually already had some capacity to make mRNA vaccines here.
Could you please take us through what capacity we have currently to make mRNA and why we’re not using it right now to make Pfizer vaccines, for example?
And considering Pfizer saying last week that vaccinated people may need regular booster shots, is it inevitable that we will need onshore manufacturing for mRNAs soon?
So, look, to be fair, Minister Andrews’ point is one which we’ve all made, that as a country we’ve been able to adapt and we know that our industries, our pharmaceutical sector, our vaccine manufacturers have been able to develop new approaches.
That’s what we’ve done, where it was almost impossible that we could have retooled with CSL so as they could produce the adenovirus AstraZeneca vaccine. And yet we were able to do that.
I think Karen’s point is that as a nation, this is something that we will be able to do and that the capacity that she’s talking about is that capacity to adapt, the capacity to do it. Right now, it’s very clear that that would mean that we would have a significant period of scaling up before we could do that.
But already, we’ve struck a long-term agreement as part of our flu and antivenom agreements with CSL for a 12-year program. In turn, that’s meant that over the last year they said they would invest up to $1 billion dollars in a new vaccine manufacturing programme in Australia. That’s moving from egg-based to cell-based.
They have said publicly that they are also considering moving to an mRNA capacity. And others are considering mRNA capacity, so we are doing a business case now to look at that option, but we’ve driven forward new vaccine manufacturing through CSL. And Minister Andrews’ point, my point, the Prime Minister’s point is we know we can do this with mRNA.
It won’t happen over overnight, but already we’ve started that process of the business case, and individual firms have expressed interest. So there is that capacity to do that. Right now, that scale up, as everybody has indicated, would take a considerable amount of time.
And so the fastest way to get vaccines into the arms of Australians is through our Pfizer contracts. That is the earliest large delivery of mRNA vaccines. It’s already delivering, but it will see 40 million doses delivered over the course of this year.
Thanks, Minister. Just three questions, if I may, just to push the boundaries. In reference to Rachel’s question, you mentioned timing. Are you referring to pushing back the start of Phase 2A and the other phases that follow?
No. No. The simple answer is no. We’re always looking to see if we can pull forward time frames for the commencement, not push them back.
Okay. Can you clarify when pharmacists will be able to administer the vaccine, and when they do jump onto the roll out, will it be mainly AstraZeneca or Pfizer or a mix of both?
That’s assuming Novavax is yet to come on board at that point. And on mass vaccination hubs, that would require a significant amount of medical staff.
And there is a finite number of doctors and nurses to go around. Would the Government consider licencing dentists and veterinarians to administer the coronavirus vaccine?
So, in relation to the last question, that’s not something that we have considered. I know that there are some proposals which have been raised, but that’s not a proposal which we’ve actively considered at this stage. And it’s not one that I see is as an immediate change.
The mass vaccination approach is very much something where individual states and territories may choose to do that. We are seeing large hubs already in place in Victoria, for example, both at the convention centre and at the exhibition buildings.
And so that is one model. Other states may have different models. That’s for now. And this is something which could apply to any of the vaccines. But in particular, because of the profile and the way in which we’ve been able to secure the extra 20 million Pfizer vaccines to give as many Australians as possible, as early as possible, access to those vaccines.
We’re looking at the combination of primary care, general practice and pharmacy, and state and territory-based mass vaccination clinics, particularly with regards to Pfizer, when you would have that huge increase in the latter part of the year. We’ll need all hands on deck at that point. And so that’s a, I think, a very important point.
And then with regards to pharmacies, there’s a very early opportunity. I’ve had discussions both with the Victorian and the National Presidents in the last 48 hours, and I’ve got to say, the National President Trent Twomey has put forward a very compelling proposal, and that is for those communities which do not have general practices but do have pharmacies, we may have a fast-start pharmacy proposal, and I’m attracted to it.
We’d have to look at that through both National Cabinet and with pharmacies, but we’d like to reach a landing on that over the course of the next two weeks.
If I can talk with Rosie?
Thanks, Minister. Just following up on what you said on mRNA onshore manufacturing, is it more likely that will be possible in Australia next year and not earlier? And can you tell us who some of the firms you’re in talks with other than CSL for that manufacturing?
And on home quarantine, the PM says that it’s essential it must be as effective as hotel quarantine. How do you suggest is the best way to do that?
Sure. With regards to home quarantine, the answer is very simple: taking the medical advice. And that’s, when you look at the impact of the vaccines, as we’re learning, and that was actually my point earlier on in the week. We need to make sure that we have clear evidence of the longevity and the transmission effect.
But that’s evolving every day. And because there are global sets of data, we’re actually in a very strong position to benefit. So, progressive opening on a safe basis, home quarantine will be something that we will be able to consider on the basis of the medical advice.
And the medical advice is drawing on the medical data on transmission and other elements. But we’ve been able to carry out.
Minister, I was referring more to what measures you have in place to make home quarantine as effective as hotel quarantine, i.e. would you need daily police knocks, daily police phone calls, ankle bracelets, all those sorts of options?
So, we already have witnessed a home quarantine system in Australia. States and territories, in particular during the course of the Victorian second wave, put that into place.
I’ve experienced it twice. I’ve lived through it twice in the ACT. I think, Alison, you’ve been through it. And the ACT was a perfect model.
We had random police checks. They were just as applicable to the Health Minister of Australia. I know the Prime Minister went through home quarantine. We had a daily online messaging service enquiring about health and mental health. We had also random telephone calls, and those elements were put in place.
So that model exists. That model has been in operation. Always open to refinement, but the Australian states and territories, in conjunction with the Commonwealth, have largely mastered the security side of home quarantine.
And that was a very important part in ensuring some of the reductions during the course of September and October of 2020.
Then with regards to mRNA, it does take time to create that scale of manufacturing. We are one of only a very small number of countries across the world to currently have a sovereign vaccine manufacturing capability for COVID. The next phase, mRNA, we know we can do this as a country.
I won’t put an exact time frame, but the companies we’ve been speaking to have said that they would expect it would take the best part of a year, but some may be able to do it earlier. Some may take longer because of their commercial disclosure requirements.
Other than CSL, which has referred publicly to it, I’d have to leave it to the individual companies. But we’re talking widely, and there is very high interest in mRNA capability in Australia.
Minister, just to shift focus for us. Health fund premiums have jumped by up to 15.5 per cent this month, and the peak body for health insurance says it’s in part because of the Government’s outdated and exceedingly high costs for common medical devices.
Will the Government consider lowering the costs of these devices, and what more can the Federal Government do to lower the cost of private health insurance in Australia?
So, yes, we will. And then the next thing is, of course, we’ve just had the lowest increase in 20 years. Any increase can be hard for families, but we’ve gone from over six per cent during Labour’s period in government to four, to three, to now 2.74 per cent. So we’ve had the lowest changes successively in 17, 18, 19, and now 20 years.
So a personal passion has been to drive down those changes in the cost of private health insurance and drive up affordability. Changes that we’ve made include medical devices, but right now we are having discussions with both the device manufacturers, with the private health insurers, doctors, and private hospitals to make sure that we have the highest quality access for medical devices but at the lowest possible cost.
So there’s another round of reforms on devices following on what we’ve already done. And each year we’ve been able to drive down in my time the price change for private health insurance, and from six per cent under Labor to less than half of that under us is an important step forward.
But any price rise for families we know is tough, and that’s why we’ll continue to make changes, including younger people under the age of 30 being able to be included on their family programs. Increased access to mental health, increased downwards pressure on the cost of prostheses or medical devices with more to be done right now.
Those are discussions we’re having with the device makers, the hospitals, the insurers, and the doctors.
Now, Christian, you’ve been unbelievably patient.
Thanks, Minister. I’ve got a few questions on behalf of my ABC colleagues.
You’re entitled to a few questions.
Thank you. When will a decision be made on whether GPs can distribute the Pfizer vaccine?
So I’ve already spoken with both the President of the AMA and with the President of the RACGP. I’m speaking again with the President Karen Price of the RACGP later today. And so, we’ve asked them to provide guidance on their capabilities.
So we’re very open. The presumption is in favour of if the safety requirements can be met. The positive news is that the TGA, in line with what occurred in America, reassessed the refrigeration requirements on a submission from Pfizer.
Those refrigeration requirements are now less onerous. As the safety data improved, we were able to respond in Australia. That gives greater access for the GPS and others to be able to distribute. So safety will lead it, but both the AMA and the College of GPs are currently developing models which they’ll be submitting to us.
And could opening international borders lead to 1,000 COVID cases per week, as the Prime Minister has suggested? Or is that, and is that number based on any health advice in particular?
Yes, it is. It’s based on the advice of the Chief Medical Officer. And that’s why we’ve talked about staged and progressive opening.
Some have said strip away all protections. We can’t immediately, even though we would want to, strip away all the protections for Australians.
Let’s go back to where I started today: 744,000 cases worldwide in one day, zero community cases in Australia. Those protections are fundamental.
But tonight, we begin the first of those stages, but- where travel is allowable to New Zealand. And this is progressive, but home quarantine is about making sure we’re still providing protections, basing it on vaccination.
Those are the steps, and that’s how we do it. And so the Prime Minister’s point is very, very clear. We can only do this when we’re focused on safety. We can only do it progressively, and we can only do it in partnership with the states and the Australian people.
I will say this, whilst there may be, of course, in a country of over 25 million people, a variety of individual views, we do know that Australians want to be safe. And that’s been our shining light right throughout all of this. And the medical advice and the safety have kept us safe, and the medical advice and that focus on safety will continue to keep us safe.
How concerned are you about COVID transmission within hotel quarantine in Sydney?
Well, what we’ve seen is that there have been no cases, to the best of my knowledge, which have been transmitted outside of that.
And what we’re seeing when you look at a country with 63 days of zero cases of community transmission this year alone, in a world where we’ve seen across this year over 57 million cases and in the last year over 140 million cases, that says that we are doing an extraordinary job in our hotel quarantine.
New South Wales has been at the forefront. They have brought home vastly more Australians than anybody else. They have helped keep Australians safe, and we owe them a great deal of thanks. There are many Australians who’ve been reunited because of what’s occurred.
And since 13 March, we’ve now, 13 March 2020, we’ve now brought half a million Australians home.
Okay. I’ve got a question for Professor McMillan, if that’s alright.
The UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation recommended pregnant women should receive the vaccine. What’s your on Australia adopting that position?
Well, as we’ve said from the outset, we ask our expert group in vaccines known as ATAGI to provide us with the most reliable advice on the administration of these vaccines.
ATAGI, the expert group of vaccines, will look at this information coming out of the UK. We knew that once pregnant women began to get vaccinated, either because they chose to or because they were vaccinated when they didn’t know they were pregnant, that we would get more reliable data to be able to guide the decision making.
That will continue to be so. So I’m sure that ATAGI, the experts, will be looking at this, and they will provide advice to pregnant women in the fullness of time.
But again, as the Minister has said, we are living here in Australia with no community transmission, which is somewhat different to what they’re seeing in the UK.
Minister, one more question if it’s okay.
Of course. I will just add on that, that international data is good news for Australian pregnant women. It’s good news in terms of added safety advice. It will be considered by the Australian experts. We learn from the world but ultimately make our own decisions. But all up, it’s about confidence and good news.
You’ve spoken about the travel bubble with New Zealand. Have we approached any other countries or have any other countries approached us about setting up another travel bubble?
Look, the Prime Minister has already indicated that we’ve had very preliminary discussions with Singapore. There are discussions with the South Pacific.
I don’t want to set expectations too quickly. Again, we will be guided by the Chief Medical Officer and partnerships with the state chief health officers. This is very much where what’s known as the medical expert panel or the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, AHPPC, as it’s now, I think widely known across Australia, provides fundamental advice.
And they have rightly prioritised safety, but right now we start with New Zealand. That opens the potential for other countries. So after some challenging information just over a week ago, I think Australians have responded magnificently.
As we’ve said right through the pandemic, the difficult days, the hard days, we’ll get through this. As we open our two way borders with New Zealand tonight, as we see 330,000 Australians vaccinated in a week, as we see zero cases in Australia today, there’s real cause for hope.
There’s a long way to travel, but not only will we get through this, we are getting through this. And I believe we’re getting through this arguably better than almost anybody else in the world.
Thank you very much.