The Hon. Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care
PRESS CONFERENCE MELBOURNE
3 May 2021
Topics: COVID-19 vaccination rollout
I’m Karen Gerzenstein, CEO, and we at Hastings Family Medical Centre would like to thank Minister Hunt and team for visiting us today.
We jumped at the opportunity to be involved in the GP rollout of COVID vaccinations, and we’re very honoured to be entrusted with this important task.
We’ve encouraged our patients and the community at large to get vaccinated and we’ll continue to do so.
The intention of the superhero theme was to lighten what might be otherwise a serious occasion of COVID vaccinating, where new patients might feel excited or perhaps nervous to be receiving their vaccination. So this is our way of having a bit of fun with it and also giving them an opportunity to mark the occasion.
To date, we have proudly delivered a total of 3540 COVID vaccines with no significant side effects noted.
From the outset of the pandemic, we resolved that the health and well-being of our staff, doctors and patients would be front and centre of every decision that we made. Once that had been determined, everything followed from there.
We found ourselves led by their ever evolving needs, whether it be supporting their mental health, financial support for our staff, allocating safe times for our most vulnerable patients, or even just helping to celebrate small joys.
Our dedicated teams continue to be at the heart of everything that we do. We’re so lucky and humbled to work with such selfless and committed professionals.
Thank you to the Minister and the Department of Health for all of their support during this time. Thank you.
Thanks very much. Thanks very much to Karen and to Mark here at the Hastings Family Medical Centre, one of the top five health employers in the country, as named recently. And to have that locally is such a privilege for us.
To our doctors, to Bradley and to James, and our amazing nurses led by Loretta, who administered the vaccine to Sally, one of the over 50s who put herself forward today as we start the next stage of our vaccination program for over 50s.
To Ash, another patient, who put it very simply and if I can quote: we’ve got to get back to normal and this is how we do it. That’s what one of our patients today said.
And then, of course, to all those who are here, from the practice manager, to the staff, who are doing such a great job in encouraging vaccinations. So, Karen, you and Mark and the team, over 3500 vaccinations in this one clinic. It’s a general practice, and as of today, this general practice is joining over 136 GP respiratory clinics around the country, Commonwealth clinics. It’s joining over 19 state-based clinics around the country, and it’s joining over 350 general practices which are providing early access, which we’re bringing forward for over 50s.
From 17 May, all general practices in Australia will be available to provide access for over 50s. So that’s been brought forward and it’s early. And so the more people who can be vaccinated earlier, the more they’re protected, the more they can be COVID-safe, the more Australia can be COVID- safe, and I think that’s a really important step forward. And so by bringing forward those over 50s, we’re protecting people and protecting people earlier.
As part of today, I’d also like to give the daily update, if I may, and the weekly update combined together. Commodore Young is in Canberra. He has been at Senate Estimates this morning and sends his apologies, but he was required by the Senate.
There are zero community cases Australia-wide today, particularly given the case, the original case and the two contacts in Western Australia, I think that’s incredibly heartening and important news for Australians.
That makes 75 days in 2021 when there have been zero cases of community transmission. And we compare that with the world, which in the last 24 hours has had 704,000 cases and agonisingly, over 10,000 lives lost. In a world which is averaging over the last week over 800,000 cases a day.
And obviously, we’ve seen the tremendous agony in India of up to 400,000 cases in one day. Half of those global cases from one country, which is going through the most agonising of times. And over 13,000 cases a day leading to loss of life over the last seven days – an incredible and an unimaginable loss which has seen 1.4 million people lost this year alone and approximately 3.2 million around the world since the start of COVID.
So against that background, in terms of what we’re doing to protect people, we’re obviously protecting Australians through our border control measures. That first ring of containment is doing that. But vaccination is a critical part of the long-term protection and the way out.
And so, in particular, at this stage, we have now distributed 4.1 million doses, which is 3.6 million, which were available to the end of last week, and half a million is available for this week. Of those
3.6 million, the total national vaccination is 2, 260,615 vaccinations that have been completed, of which approximately 35 per cent are Pfizer and 65 per cent are AstraZeneca.
And that, of course, has been based on our domestic production, which is at the heart of it. Amongst those 2.26 million, we have therefore a 73 per cent utilisation rate from those that have been distributed prior to the end of last week for availability last week.
The states have provided about 815,000 and the Commonwealth, 1,444,906 doses have been administered, which includes in primary care facilities such as Hastings Family Medical Centre, 1,210,449 doses, and in aged and disability care, 234,457 doses.
And that’s seen 1656 facilities in aged care that have had first doses, a further 1088 that have had second doses. And so approaching 2700 facility visits so far.
All up, what we’re seeing is week on week – it was an Anzac week – we had 323,000 doses delivered last week; 323,315 to be precise. And when you take out the public holiday, when you compare like with like, Tuesday through to Friday, for those four full days when there was no public holiday, there was an increase of 5000 doses administered over those four weekdays last week on the advice of Commodore Young.
So, what we’re seeing is the program continuing to grow. We’re seeing uptake, and now we’re in a position where there will be an expansion of that program – more people, earlier, being vaccinated.
I would just note in relation to India, the Prime Minister has announced that we will be increasing the number of non-invasive ventilators that we’ll be providing to India. We will now provide 1000 non-invasive ventilators to India in recognition of the human tragedy and the agony that is being faced in that country.
I’m happy to take any questions. I’ll start with those, if I may, on the telephone, and then come to those in the room.
G’day, Minister. Thanks for taking my question. I’ve got two questions, please. Firstly, with all these state run vaccination hubs that are opening up, it would seem like Victoria is well ahead of the other states, given that New South Wales is only constructing Homebush at the moment.
Queensland has got plans, but Victoria seems to have tried to open their doors much quicker.
And my second question, please, Minister, just regarding the announcement that you made late on Friday night- or, actually, early Saturday morning. Why did it come so late?
And what’s your message to Australians that are stranded in India that feel like their government has abandoned them?
Sure. So look, two things. Firstly, in terms of the state and territory hubs. All of them are doing well and those figures are published daily in terms of their vaccinations. But I can advise that both New South Wales and Victoria have provided over 200,000 vaccinations through their state programs.
And, in particular, all of the states and territories together have provided over 815,000 vaccinations. So, they’re all doing their job. They’re playing their part.
I would not confuse a particular vaccination hub for a state and territory vaccination program. Those figures are published daily. And, as I say, 815,000 through the states and territories, 1.44
million through the Commonwealth with the GP program being the largest component of those at over 1.2 million. And that’s how it was intended to be.
But the fact that we’re now having expanded state and territory programs, which are following their own particular patterns, I think that’s very worthwhile.
With regards to the biosecurity order in relation to India, that was actually published when it was completed.
We work 24 hours. That is, sadly, what’s required in a pandemic. But it’s no less than Australians would expect of the Government.
I know I signed it off at about 11:50pm, once we had worked through the evening. And I want to thank the Chief Medical Officer and his team for doing that work.
It followed, and it might be worth setting out the process. The National Security Committee met earlier on in the week. The Prime Minister made the announcements in relation to the pausing of flights from India, both the direct commercial flights and also the repatriation flights, and that was done to protect against a third wave in Australia.
Let’s be very clear, our decisions, just as they were with 1 February 2020 ban on flights from China, which was roundly criticised at the time and which has turned out to have been one of the most important post-war decisions in terms of Australia’s health and safety, those decisions are made to protect Australians, to protect against a third wave, to protect against a massive risk to Australia, and made with a heavy heart but without hesitation.
And what we saw is that, despite those decisions, and the fact that most countries had stopped themselves, made similar decisions to stop flights from India, some people were nevertheless coming via third countries, and that was evident by Friday.
The Prime Minister raised and discussed with National Cabinet, and Premier McGowan and others have provided their support for that. And as a consequence, we took the medical advice, we worked through the day, we worked through the evening, we worked into late at night. And rather than delay it, we actually published it immediately, within half an hour, I believe, of the decision being made.
So, that’s the process there. And for those Australians – the other part of your question – for those Australians around the world, we’ve brought half a million Australians home. We’re going to continue to bring Australians home.
This is a temporary pause. At the moment, it sunsets on 15 May.
But also, there’s been some misinformation in the reporting; unintended, I am certain. And that is that if somebody is outside of India, has left India, and has been away for more than two weeks, they can return to Australia.
So, it’s both a temporary ban on people who have been out of India for less than two weeks, because of the incredible rate of positivity, and because of the pressures on the Australian health system, which were a risk.
And, secondly, if they have left India for more than two weeks, then they can return to Australia. And I think that distinction is very important.
If I may go to Paul.
Thanks, Minister. Could I please ask, when did you get the legal advice underpinning the travel pause determination? Is it the Solicitor-General’s advice? And in the interest of preserving public confidence in the determination of legalities, will you waive privilege and release it?
Look, legal advice is a matter for the Attorney-General. I received all of my advice in relation to this on Friday evening and responded immediately. And that’s our approach. And we’ve published the letter from the Chief Medical Officer. Other matters are a matter for the Attorney-General.
But the Chief Medical Officer’s advice was very clear. It is public. And, importantly, if I may, what’s critical here is that we have seen in Australia cases from India which are positive go from 14 in the 28 days- in a 28-day period largely covering February, to 38 in a 28-day period largely covering March, to 210 in a 28-day period largely covering April.
And so in Howard Springs alone we saw a seven-fold increase in cases. Across the country, we saw a 1500 per cent increase in cases. A 1500 per cent increase in cases from India in two months, and that led to an agonising decision.
But just as we did with China, just as we had to do with PNG when we saw the increase in the number of cases, and therefore the risk of incursion to our medical system, we had to make decisions.
This is temporary. It is due to expire. And it also allows, contrary to many media reports, and I would respectfully say to those who are reporting, we are happy to provide advice, but we would encourage you to provide the full advice.
Contrary to media reports, people who have been outside of India for 14 days can return to Australia. And so I think those are important. I’ll keep going, to give everybody a chance.
With respect to your determination of your Ministerial power in the Biosecurity Act, so you don’t want to take this opportunity now to reassure Australians that it’s legal?
That wasn’t your question. My answer to that question is, yes, our strong, clear, absolute belief.
One of the things here is that we have been very measured. There are many orders which have been put in place, in particular under the Biosecurity Act. Nobody has been prosecuted in Australia, to the best of my knowledge.
The original Remote Communities Protection orders were made under the Biosecurity Act. The Biosecurity Act was invoked on 18 March 2020 and this section has been in action since that time.
The Remote Communities Protection ruling, which was put in place, that’s now been rescinded, thankfully, given the state- domestically across Australia. The pre-departure testing and masks required for international flight requirement is ongoing under the Biosecurity Act.
The restrictions on cruise vessels have been in place under the Biosecurity Act. The restrictions on outbound travel and the restrictions on retail at international airports.
So, this is an ongoing measure that’s been in place since 18 March 2020, and the strong, clear view is that there has been no doubt in any of the Commonwealth advice about this measure or other measures.
Thank you, Minister. The two per cent benchmark of infections in the hotel quarantine number that Professor Kelly mentioned this morning, could you please take us through that?
When was that benchmark set? How was that chosen? And has another situation besides the one that we face in India now ever exceeded that?
And then just a related one, the Prime Minister said this morning the Government was continually considering these measures, would there be any world where you lift these measures ahead of the current 15 May timetable?
Well I think we’re due, in terms of consideration, for National Cabinet to review mechanisms during the course of the latter part of the week. The Prime Minister’s Office will provide details on National Cabinet.
But there is no doubt that this will be an item that’s considered. We want to do this as soon as possible. This is being done to prevent against a third wave from the greatest number of cases the world has seen in any one country. And, sadly, as the Chief Medical Officer’s advice – which has been published – indicates, it’s a high-risk situation.
And there are concerns about pre-departure testing, and that has translated to the fact that in the weeks – I’ve given you the real numbers – but in the four-week blocks, what we’ve seen is that in February, of those cases that were diagnosed in Australia from overseas, 8.8 per cent were from India. In March over the four-week period, 11.9 per cent. In April it rose to 44.8 per cent. And in particular, in the final week before this decision was made, it rose to over 56 per cent.
And you mentioned a two per cent positivity rate, which was the expected figure for hotel quarantine capacity, which has been largely met, or it’s been below that, throughout most of the time.
The positivity rate for the flights received on April 15 and 17, I’m advised, was 13.6 per cent. So, almost seven times the expected carrying capacity, which would be the safe carrying capacity, of our hotels.
In that situation, if the Opposition has a different view that that’s an acceptable rate, they’re entitled to that. I’m not sure what medical advice they’re basing it on. Our advice is based on the Chief Medical Officer of Australia.
If I can go to Sarah?
Thank you, Minister Hunt. Just on WA, the most recent outbreak we had was in a security guard. He was given the first jab of Pfizer. And obviously as we know now he was infectious and spread that in the community. Is that unexpected or concerning?
Is there anything you’re going to do make sure something like this doesn’t happen again in those instances, or is it just something that we kind of have to deal with as this vaccination programme rolls out?
So, two things. Firstly, throughout the course of the pandemic, we’ve always said there would be more cases. Quarantine is our first ring of containment.
How is it that you have zero cases in Australia and an average of over 800,000 a day? That’s because we’ve got, in our view, the best quarantine system in the world.
But it’s the first ring of containment. Then you have testing, tracing, and distancing, and then vaccination is what’s going to be able to protect Australia and many others over the long term.
But vaccination, as we know from New Zealand, where a worker who had been vaccinated twice, nevertheless isn’t an absolute prohibition. And we shouldn’t set an expectation of that.
Vaccination saves lives and it protects lives. But it’s not an absolute prohibition on transmission, which is something we have been very clear to say.
The CDC in America put out advice recently about some thousands of cases – albeit out of, you know, over 100 million vaccinations, well north of 100 million vaccinations in the United States – where people who’d had the Pfizer vaccine nevertheless contracted the disease.
The important point is they were safe. The question on re-transmission, that’s a scientific question on which more data is emerging.
So, it’s keeps us safe. It’s not an absolute prohibition. But it overwhelmingly protects Australians and our health system.
That’s the same reason why we’ve had to make these difficult decisions with regards to flights from the highest-risk country in the world, as we did with China, as we’ve done with Papua New Guinea. Where we’ve seen a major risk which could threaten a wave in Australia, we’ve taken action.
There are those that will play one side of the street and then the other – they want tough decisions, and when those tough decisions are taken, they oppose those decisions. That’s opportunistic.
Our task has to be to protect the nation, which is what Karen and her team are doing here, it’s what doctors around the country are doing, but it’s also our sacred duty to protect the nation.
If I can go on to Tom. Herald Sun.
Thanks for taking the question, Minister. If I can take you back to Josh’s question about the two per cent sort of infection cap among arrivals in the quarantine system. Can you just talk us through what the medical advice is that helped you come up with that number?
And how does that square with, obviously one of the key strengths of the quarantine system has been, as you said, previously there’s some hotels that have got to be in places that are close to major
hospitals. How does such a low level work when previously only a very small number, two per cent of people were infected, we actually need some hospital treatment?
Well, I think that’s a view that was our expected rate. And that’s what we have based our quarantine capacity on.
We’ve been able to manage in circumstances where you get increases and decreases in cases. But this is, to the best of my knowledge, the largest positivity rate.
And what you see is a very steep increasing trend, as the Chief Medical Officer has pointed out. And so this has been the expectation from both the Commonwealth and the states, that their systems have been designed to deal with significant numbers.
When you look at it, you see over 7000 overseas-acquired cases listed in terms of the number of cases we’ve received in Australia. And that’s from over 500,000 people that have returned.
So, that gives you the sense that we have been travelling under that two per cent rate on average throughout quite significantly.
But when you saw not just, you know, an increase but to a level almost seven times the expected capacity and the very clear evidence from the Northern Territory that indicated they were concerned about, not just the impact on medical numbers but then from that they had over 80 direct contacts who also had to be quarantined and taken care of.
And so it’s a very significant impact on the direct numbers, but then also under others that have to be placed in medical supervision.
And for Howard Springs and the Northern Territory, that have been doing a great job with the support of our AUSMAT team, their request was absolutely clear, their advice was clear that they believe that they needed time.
And that was a recognition right across Australia that, when you see those numbers going from, in February, 160 positive cases all up, to 320 cases in March, to 469 in April, and with the clear projection that, unless there was a pause, then we would have seen those numbers increase. So, it’s about making sure we are protecting our health system in Australia.
Then if I can go on to Ronald?
You’ve been very patient.
The Federal Government has a proposal for it now from the Queensland Government on a privately owned quarantine facility which could take additional people outside of the hotel quarantine network.
The Queensland Government said that they’ve provided as much information as much as they can on that, and again, previously indicated the Government is looking at it. Can you just give us a bit on an update about where that’s up to and why it’s taking so long to just sort of, give a yay or nay?
Sure. Look, I’ll leave that primarily for the National Cabinet process, if I may. I don’t have an update today on that. But I know we were seeking more information.
And significantly, the principle has always been that it had to be operated at the state or territory level. And what we’ve seen, of course, is New South Wales reaffirm that.
And very interestingly, as many of you will know, the Prime Minister visited the Northern Territory last week, the Northern Territory is actually seeking responsibility for Howard Springs and that process for transition will occur.
And the chief minister there, Chief Minister Gunner and the Health Minister, Natasha Fyles, had been very clear that that’s a process where they wanted to assume responsibility. And so that’s, I think, important. And other states and territories have done that.
There may be some differing views, but all up, that operational approach is something that’s been put forward. So I think the operational side is a very important part of it.
Thanks, Minister. Just to clarify, what percentage of cases do we want to be positive before you restart these repatriation flights? I think it was 15 per cent in Howard Springs at the end of April. What sort of low figure do you want, or around two per cent, do you want before those flights restart?
And also on the number of distributed doses, be those administered, I understand AstraZeneca alone has delivered about 4.5 million doses to the Government. How does that marry up with the figures that only just over 3.2 million have been administered by the Commonwealth? Where are the missing vaccines, quite large numbers?
Oh no. Let me take you through the numbers and then let me take you through Howard Springs.
In terms of the numbers, the distribution figures up to the end of last week was a total of 3.6 million, which had been made available. Then during the course of last week, another 0.5 million was distributed for use this week. This week, there will be 0.5 million distributed for use next week. And there’s also 1.5 million in contingency.
That makes a total of – a forward supply as opposed to previously available supply – of 6.1 million. But that one and a half million for contingency is absolutely critical to make sure that we have the capacity to make future second dose needs.
So that’s the quick summary of the numbers, and that includes supply of 1.7 million Pfizer, 4.4 million AstraZeneca to use approximate numbers. So I think that that squares with what you were talking about there, Rosie.
Then in terms of Howard Springs, the key thing we need to see is that the Northern Territory health system is able to cope with the cases that are in Howard Springs. They’ve been amazing.
The NT has been an absolute nation-focussed jurisdiction. They have accepted the expansion. I remember in the earliest days when Professor Murphy and I went to Howard Springs, we went
twice with the repatriation flights from the Diamond Princess and from Wuhan, and we spoke with the community and dealt with their reassurances.
So far, there have, to the best of my knowledge, been zero cases that have left that facility. And the clinical care and guidance of AUSMAT has been amazing. But what they were concerned about, and understandably, and that’s been supported by the Chief Medical Officer, is the volume of cases which had risen very quickly, in particular from two flights with over 13 per cent positivity between them. And therefore, what they were looking for was to take the pressure off their system and to reduce that.
And so we’ll get more advice during the course of the week on the load and what that means and the comfort. So I think that that’s the pathway.
Now I’ll come to those in the room who have been very patient. Georgie?
Minister, you talked about the Australians who, if they’ve been travelling outside of India for a couple of weeks, are free to return to Australia. But for those Australian citizens who remain in India, by accepting the CMO’s health advice to stop these flights, you are essentially accepting advice that some Australians may die overseas in India.
So are you comfortable with this? And what is your response to the criticism that this is going to raise, this decision?
Look, we’ve been running an air bridge to the world, and we’ll continue to run an air bridge to the world. While there are fundamental risks to Australia, as we did with the decision on 1 February 2020 in relation to China, which was roundly criticised, the World Health Organisation, disagreed with what Australia did, and that decision was taken to save lives and protect lives.
Ultimately, these decisions are taken to save lives and protect lives. This was a decision to potentially prevent a third wave in Australia. And so we’re making sure through our amazing High Commission that they’re in contact with Australians in India and we want to bring them home.
And that’s our absolute goal. And we have been bringing them home, and we brought over 20,000 home and we’ll continue to do that. But in order to protect Australia right now, this was the difficult decision and our High Commission is reaching out and working with them.
If I may, from SBS.
The PM said that the [indistinct]. Are we going to be considering repatriation flights for Australians stuck in India? Is that going to be part of it?
Yes. So a consideration of resuming repatriation flights is one of the important items that we’re looking at. And again, it’s about making sure that the carrying capacity for positive cases isn’t exceeded.
And when you think of the fact that we had gone, as I say, from that 8.8 per cent of cases in Australia coming from India, to over 44 per cent in the month before the decision was made, to over 56 per cent of cases in the week before the decision was made, this has been done to protect our health system and therefore to protect Australians.
And it’s always a balance, and it is a difficult balance, but it’s about protecting Australians and it’s also about making sure that that air bridge is sustainable
I have a secondary question about Townsville, if you’ll indulge me.
You encouraged these fine GPs about they’re on a COVID superhero sort of programme to get more people through the doors. Some of our centres are full today, others are not. Are we expecting an advertising campaign from the Federal Government that will run nationwide? When can we see it and how much are we spending?
So it starts this evening, and will through the Senate Estimates process once the final amount is determined because we’ll judge the need. So it starts this evening to highlight to Australians that it’s open for over 50s. So that advertising campaign is commencing today.
It’s going to build up because what we’re seeing is that we’ve actually got general practises starting early. They were meant to start on 17 May, but because of Karen, and Mark, and Ash, and James, and Bradley, and Loretta and the incredible people here at Hastings Family Medical Centre and over 350 clinics around the country, they’re opening early.
And so we’ll build expectations. The GP respiratory clinics are open and over 350 general practises have opened early. And so we’ll build that.
Now, you’ve all been very patient, so you’re entitled to another.
Sorry, I’ve got to read this one. What’s going to happen to the man who escaped that ship in Townsville, is in breach of the international border? And I suppose the same goes for the other 11 crew who are now seeking asylum who are in hotel quarantine?
So there are two things there. One, there’s an asylum process. Now, the asylum process will follow Australian law, which is in line, of course, with international protocols. Secondly, the advice I have is that all have tested negative so far, which I think is very important.
So Australians are safe. And they will be quarantined and the legal processes and the assessments will be developed. But I understand they have sought asylum. And so that legal process is then carried through by Home Affairs and the Attorney-General, and we’ll follow the ordinary and usual means of protecting people.
So we have to two duties of protection: to ensure that those that have claimed asylum are dealt with accordingly and Home Affairs and the Attorney-General’s office will provide that advice, and in terms of the health safety, quarantine, negative tests and ensuring therefore that Australians are safe. And ultimately that’s what we’re seeking to do, is to protect Australians.
One final question. I’m very sorry.
No, that’s alright.
When Australia banned flights from China last year, did those who breached that ban face the same penalties of a $66,000 fine and a five-year jail term?
Yes, these penalties have been in place right through. There’s no change in penalties here. I’ve seen some commentary on that. That is incorrect.
These are the standard penalties that are enshrined in legislation, interestingly, legislation that was passed unanimously. Everyone who was in the Parliament when the Biosecurity Act was passed, voted for it. There was no dissent.
And I’m seeing some dissent, not surprisingly, from Mr Albanese, who voted for it. You might ask him why he voted for this legislation. Sometimes he forgets what he was for one day and has a different view the next.
But today is about keeping Australians safe. And the people who are keeping Australians safe are those who are watching our borders and those who are administering the vaccines. And so to everybody who is in the health system, Karen and Mark, and all of your staff, thank you.
And to everybody who is being vaccinated or thinking about being vaccinated in Australia, please come forward. It will help protect you and it will help protect everyone else. It will keep you COVID safe and it will keep the country COVID safe.
Thank you very much.