The Hon. Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care
PRESS CONFERENCE MELBOURNE
30 April 2021
Topics: New treatment for Dravet Syndrome on the PBS, Phase 2A of the vaccine rollout, travel restrictions.
Well, good afternoon everyone and it’s my great pleasure to welcome you to the Star Health GP Respiratory Clinic at the Prahran Town Hall.
Today is made possible because of funding from the Federal Government as well as a terrific local partnership between the City of Stonnington and Star Health.
Can I especially welcome the Mayor of Stonnington, Kate Hely, and the CEO Jacqui Weatherill. I acknowledge the Star Health Chair of the Board, Tass Mousaferiadis, as well as our local member Katie Allen, the local Member for Higgins.
We’re delighted to have Minister Hunt here, so can I welcome you, Minister. And looking forward to your announcements this afternoon.
Great. Look, thanks very much to Damian and the incredible team here at Star Health.
So we’re at the Star Health General Practice Respiratory Clinic, which is, of course, in the site of the former Prahran Town Hall and so the City of Stonnington.
And to the Mayor and CEO, to Kate and to Jacqui, thank you for having us into your patch.
Delighted to be here with Katie Allen. Katie’s here both as the local member, but of course, she is here as somebody who has had a deep, longstanding interest in paediatric health and research
through the Royal Children’s Hospital as a leading paediatric clinician nationwide, which relates to the second part of why we’re here.
So we’re here for COVID reasons, but also saving lives and protecting lives of beautiful young children with Dravet syndrome, which is an epileptic condition, a severe epileptic condition for which, from today forwards, there will be a new treatment available on the PBS and I’ll come to that.
And on that front, I’m really delighted to be joined by Dr Victoria Rodriguez. And Victoria, you and your colleagues in Ingrid Scheffer, Professor Ingrid Scheffer, have helped actually develop this
treatment. And that’s very exciting to have cannabidiol available for the treatment of severe epilepsy.
So, I’d like to do a few things. Let me start talking about the GP respiratory clinics. Here we are in the old Prahran Town Hall. It’s a Commonwealth GP Respiratory Clinic.
What does that mean? It has two functions. Firstly, they have conducted over 35,000 COVID tests during the course of coronavirus. Secondly, they have already delivered over 5,500 vaccinations here.
And the important thing is that as of Monday, this GP respiratory clinic, and I want to draw the distinction here, the GP respiratory clinics, 136 of them around Australia, will open for the over-50s to be vaccinated. And that’s a really exciting development.
It’s the next phase. We are bringing forward Phase 2A around the country. The vast majority of general practices will begin on 17 May. So 17 May. And your GP will contact you. Our general practices will open on 17 May, but already over 400 will be opening next week.
So we’ll have 136 general practice respiratory clinics, or Commonwealth clinics, that open next week. And we’ll have over 400 GPs that open. Those GPs will contact you, please don’t contact them.
But what that shows is that we’re bringing forward Phase 2A for the over 50s, which means earlier protection for older Australians. Katie and I are in that group. I’ve been fortunate to be vaccinated as part of the demonstration program, but Katie said she’ll be down here next week.
And that’s just more opportunity for more Australians to be vaccinated earlier.
The other thing, of course, that’s happening is that the ordinary work of health continues. And one of the things we have been most privileged to be involved with as a government is the PBS, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.
So I am delighted to announce that, commencing from 1 May, from tomorrow, a new medicine, Epidiolex, will be available for Dravet syndrome, which a severe form of epilepsy. And in particular, it impacts children.
It’s the first occasion on which a medicinal cannabis product has been made available on the PBS, cannabidiol. And this can help literally save lives and protect lives.
It is a small number of kids, about 116 a year who are affected and will have the appropriate condition to receive this medicine. But it would otherwise cost them $24,000 a year. And for those families, it would be in almost every case impossible.
So what’s effectively access to a medicine otherwise not have been available that will help give
these children a shot at normality, help given them a shot at a longer life and a better life, and that’s really powerful.
So all of this is occurring as the ordinary, the essential part of healthcare, at the same time as we’ve been going through COVID.
And in relation to COVID, we’ve had two other critical meetings today. National Cabinet and Health Ministers have both met. In relation to National Cabinet, whilst obviously I wasn’t there, the
briefing I’ve had is very clear that the focus of that is to make sure that we are keeping Australia safe at a time of an expanded global pandemic.
The figures we know are reaching extraordinary levels, and so we have put the pause on the flights from India. But in particular, the Prime Minister and National Cabinet were focused on making sure we have a pathway for repatriation flights from India to begin as soon as possible, after 15 May, once we have seen a reduction in the number of cases in Howard Springs.
And the same is the case with regards to commercial flights. Those final decisions will be taken by the National Cabinet. But what we’re seeing lifting of pressure within both the hotel quarantine and
within the Howard Springs facility, and that is opening up the possibility for the resumption, exactly as discussed, as early as possible, subject to the final National Cabinet decision.
In relation to the Health Ministers, the central point that came out, and we were fortunate to be briefed by all of the Chief Health Officers who were present, the first time since the pandemic that we’ve had everybody together in person, the Health Ministers and Chief Health Officers.
And the point that came out, as well as the briefing from the co-chair of the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, Professor Allen Cheng, and from the head of the TGA, John Skerritt, was a strong, united commitment to reaffirming the importance of safety of the vaccines, and the importance of being vaccinated, just as they have done here at Star Health, with over 5,500 vaccinations.
A unanimous view across all of the Ministers, all of the Chief Health Officers, and the TGA, about the safety and the fundamental importance of coming forward to be vaccinated. It can protect you, and protect everyone else in your community.
Finally, just in terms of the update. No new cases today within Australia. At the same time, 882,000 cases and 14,500 lives lost around the world. Zero cases in Australia, over 882,000 cases and 14,500 thousand lives lost around the world. It just reminds us of the fortunate position we’re in, through the work of Australians and the work of our health professionals.
Finally, in relation to vaccinations, what we have seen is another 67,000 vaccinations in the last 24 hours. We’re now at over 2,175,000 vaccinations.
And in particular, we’ve seen our primary care network deliver over 1.15 million vaccinations, including over 42,000 in the last 24 hours, 1625 aged care facilities with first doses, over 1000 aged care facilities with second doses, and so that program is protecting our most frail and most vulnerable Australians.
Today, though, we’re focused on our youngest Australians who are suffering from a deeply debilitating condition in Dravet syndrome and access to new medicines.
Thank you. Thank you, Minister. And it is wonderful to hear these announcements made today, but I’d just like to start by thanking Star Health, the Chair Tass, the CEO Damien, and Stonnington CEO Jacqui Weatherill, and Mayor Kate Hely for a wonderful partnership between the City of Stonington, Star Health, and of course the Federal Government.
We all know that it’s been a pretty tough 2020. And as someone who’s down here, as the first test dummy for testing, I know that the Prahran Town Hall site has been fantastic for the people of Higgins.
And with 35,000 tests that have been done for COVID through last year, it’s a real star, I should say, in our local health of vision about making sure that we are delivering locally for the people of Higgins, and I’m very, very grateful for the work done with Star Health and City of Stonington.
But of course now, we move into this vaccination situation. And Australia, again, is in a very strong position thanks to the Minister and his forward planning with regards to ensuring that we’re going to have AstraZeneca produced locally in Australia.
We know the difficulty we had a year ago, it’s hard to believe, with regards to access to PPE and access to testing. He sorted out that problem, so well done. And now he’s got us AstraZeneca locally made.
And it was great to go and look at the clinic and see the vials of a locally made AstraZeneca ready and available, safe to use, now being rolled out for those over the age of 50 here at the Prahran Town Hall.
And I’ll be done here next week. I’m not going to take up the queue, because I want to make sure that we get the locals done as soon as possible. And I’ll be in the line when there’s a bit of a quietness in the queue.
But down here, we know that it is a fantastic facility, with 5,500 vaccines already done. I understand 200 to 250 a day, and ability to ramp that up. So Star Health, you really should be congratulated on the wonderful work that you’re doing.
And of course, the City of Stonington for making it so easy for Star Health to rollout a really fantastic and feasible, safe, and effective vaccination program, on the back of a really effective testing program as well.
But of course, we’re here today for what is quite an astounding moment in history of paediatrics here in Australia. And I say that because as a paediatric trainee, and then as registrar and a young doctor, we used to see patients who had these devastating conditions in the first year of life, young girls and boys in their infancy who would have seizures.
Seizures that were activated by fevers that could last for long periods of time. Many minutes and up to hours, distressing families, of course distressing for these gorgeous little babies, but not stopping and keeping on coming.
As a mother myself who has a child with epilepsy, I know how frightening it is not knowing when your child may have an epileptic seizure, and that that could be incredibly dangerous for that child.
And then to have them in the case of Dravet syndrome, which we’re talking about today, over and over again during the first few years of life and onwards, but not having any treatment that can actually decrease the amount of seizures they’re having and the length of seizures that they’re having.
So I remember as a young trainee, hearing about Professor Ingrid Scheffer and her wonderful work, firstly to understand the genetic basis of these epileptic syndromes of infancy.
She has actually discovered many hundreds of genes. She’s actually a world-leading epileptologist. And then she was part of the trials with regards to finding these new treatments, cannabis oils or cannabinoid treatments, and they’ve now been trialled.
And we’re so delighted that the Federal Government has released, for the first time ever, on listing the ability for these drugs to be made available for children with these life-threatening conditions, these ongoing epileptic seizures.
And by reducing these seizures, it means these children will have the opportunity to develop more normally, and the impact on families is very hard to quantitate.
But I know myself that the fear, the anxiety will be brought right down for these literally 116 patients per year that are exposed to these frightening and prolonged seizures.
And this drug, which can cost $24,000 a year, will be brought down to the cost of a script. And that means the world for a family.
So I’m delighted to be- for us as a country, to be in a position to be able to pay for this, to be able to give this opportunity for children affected by Dravet Syndrome to have a more normal life.
And congratulations to the Minister, Greg Hunt, for the amazing work that he’s done with listing more than 2600 drugs or amendments on the PBS or Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme since 2013. That’s an achievement every Australian should feel proud of, and I’m so proud to be down here making this announcement with the Minister, Greg Hunt.
Thank you very much.
You might invite Victoria.
And I’ll invite Victoria to come and say a few words. Thank you very much.
Thank you very much. Thank you for inviting me to come here today, and thank you for attending.
Just a few words about Dravet Syndrome. As Katie said, Dravet Syndrome is a severe, life-
threatening epilepsy which begins in the first year of life. It’s usually associated with prolonged seizures, with fairly frequent seizures. And after the first year of life, children are left with severe intellectual disability, developmental delay, ongoing seizures, and they also carry a higher risk of early death.
So this is the first pharmaceutically grade compound that has cannabidiol worldwide. And we are delighted that not only the children but also the adults in Australia that have Dravet Syndrome will have access to this drug from now on.
Professor Scheffer participated in the first trial that proved this drug would to be efficient in the treatment of these children, and she was the chair of the Dravet committee for that trial.
The results of those trials were published in the New England Journal of Medicine, and this showed that there was a 43 percent responded rate, which is defined as a 50 per cent seizure reduction.
Now, it is important to notice that CBD, or cannabidiol, is just a component of the cannabis plant. It is one of the two most well-known component. The other component is the THC, and is the component that is psychoactive, that makes you feel high, and that also carries a higher risk of developing psychosis later on in life.
This drug does not have THC, it only has CBD. That is the only one that has proven effective in epilepsy, and it’s also the one that is considered safe for the brain.
So we are, again, delighted that the Federal Government have approved the access to this drug. For some patients, this will be life changing, and for that, we are very grateful.
Thank you very much.
Thank you very much, Victoria, and all thanks to you and the team at the Children’s Hospital. So, I’ll start with those on the telephone if that’s alright and then work to those in the room.
Thanks, Minister. I just have a question in regards to the breach at Brisbane airport. Did you receive from your counterpart in New Zealand? What were your thoughts about this breach, and are you concerned?
So, I haven’t spoken to my New Zealand counterpart but I’ve been in meetings all morning with health ministers. I have been briefed by the Queensland Chief Health Officer and the Queensland Minister.
And our position is very clear. Firstly, most importantly, the advice from the Queensland Chief Health Officer is that this is a low risk situation. The two individuals in question maintained their masks on their advice, at all time, and also maintained a distancing in what was an area with a low number of people.
Secondly, however, our health officials have been in touch with New Zealand and conveyed the information to them.
Thirdly, Brisbane Airport’s corporation, I understand, has apologised.
And the answer is a simple. Every day, it doesn’t matter where it is. Whether it’s state, private, or public, we’re always seeking to improve, and so, we’ll work with Queensland and with the Brisbane Airport’s corporation to make sure they don’t do that again.
It’s very, very clear that the advice I have is it’s a relatively new private staff member from within the Brisbane Airport’s corporation firm and employment regime.
But we’ll be very clear, that’s unacceptable. Most importantly, the advice from Queensland Health is that it’s low risk, and public safety is our number one focus.
Thanks, Minister. There are around 650 Australia citizens in India. I’m just wondering if there are any plans or rescue flights to get them out of India as soon as possible.
And if I may, second question, are there any Australian citizens in Indian ICUs at the moment, or have any Australian citizens over there died?
Sure. So firstly, in relation to the vulnerable Australians who are in India, that’s our number one priority.
And when I mentioned, at the outset, National Cabinet was focusing on repatriation flights, they are commencing as soon as possible after the 15th of May, as well as commercial. The vulnerable are those who will be prioritised.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is leading that. I’d respectfully also refer the question of the circumstances of individual Australians in India to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
I understand that they are compiling the information that’s know, and they’ll be in a better position to provide that detail.
Thanks, Minister. We had a number of experts come out recently and say they don’t think the hotel quarantine is fit for purpose for the rest of the year or long term. Is the Government willing to open more quarantine centres? I’d like to be able to ask a second question as well.
We’ve been keen to know what work is being done to prepare for a high number of likely COVID cases coming through India- coming through quarantine when flights eventually do restart for India.
Okay. So look, a couple of things there. Firstly, in relation to hotel quarantine, when you look at the numbers today, the 72nd day with zero cases this year, and 882,000 worldwide, you actually have to say that this is the system which has delivered world leading outcomes.
It’s delivered world leading protection for Australians. And there, I think, can be no doubt or debate about that. 99.99 per cent protection.
It was always the first ring of containment, and around the world, it’s hard to find a system which has offered better protection.
We’re always looking to improve. A number of the states and territories have different proposals, and as the Prime Minister has indicated, we are always willing to look at and see what’s being proposed.
I mean, right now, there is no question that hotel quarantine is protecting Australians, and it’s bringing them home in large numbers. Protecting Australians and bringing them home in large numbers.
Over 500,000 Australians have come home since March of last year, and that’s a very important thing.
As we talk about repatriation flights, we’re talking about bringing home Australians. So we have to be able to continue to do two things: protect Australia, and bring Australians home.
Where individual states or territories have additional proposals, as the PM has indicated yesterday
in relation to Victoria, we’ll look at those and consider them, but always on the ground of safety and capacity.
Then, in relation to positive cases, this is precisely why there was that pause with India, and that will be reviewed on the basis of medical advice through the National Cabinet.
But one of the critical things that we have set out is the role of rapid antigen test. We already have the PCR test.
But what this proves, even with a PCR test, a case can emerge later, and that’s why the extra layer we’re putting in these rapid antigen tests, and even through the health ministers, we’ve been making sure that all of the states and territories are ready to adapt if there are higher numbers of cases.
It’s a balance. That’s the honest answer. We have to keep Australia safe but bring Australians home, and that’s the balance.
I’ll just start in the room.
Look, Minister, will you be paying $200 million for a quarantine site in Melbourne?
So we are just learning the details of the Victorian proposal, I’ll put it that way. I understand the local council has asked for details. I’m sure they were unaware as well. And then, the Prime Minister said we’ll review it and consider it, so I won’t pre-empt anything.
There are many elements which are somewhat of a surprise. It wasn’t a Commonwealth proposal, even though it’s on Commonwealth land. It was something that has been put to us, so we’ll just respond to that after we’ve had a look.
Obviously, community support, I imagine, would be a very important point for Victoria, and we’d be interested to know what support there is. It’s not something we have proposed.
Labor has called for the Government to provide vaccines and financial support for Australians stuck in India. Is that being considered?
Well, at this stage, I won’t pre-empt anything in relation to financial support. The question of vaccination for Australians overseas is a challenging one, and we have to be able to ensure that there’s cold chain integrity, there’s support of countries.
And so, that’s something that we’re always taking medical advice on, so it’s a question for medical advisors to what’s achievable and what’s possible.
Minister, two questions. One, you’re here standing up after National Cabinet today. Usually, the Prime Minister is the one who stands up when there’s a National Cabinet meeting.
Where is the Prime Minister and why isn’t he doing that?
I think the PM has spoken on many, many days in the last week. Today, I think National Cabinet was more in review than decision-making mode. Health ministers’ meeting was, in many ways, if I may say so, the principal focus today, and the reason why it was the principal focus was two words: vaccine confidence, based on vaccine safety.
But vaccine confidence was the key message that the nation wanted today. And we were focusing through our Chief Health Officers, the advice of the Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation and the TGA with, I might say this, a very clear message on safety and confidence.
But also, the health ministers heard from the head of the TGA, but the chief health officers all backed it up, that it’s very important that when there are reports of individual cases, do not rush to judgement.
That was a strong, clear request from the Health Ministers, the Chief Health Officers, the TGA, and ATAGI that let the medical authorities do their assessments.
There are 3,000 Australians who very, very sadly pass in the ordinary course of events every week. There are 50 people who develop clots on any one day, and all of those will occur. And sometimes, that will occur after someone’s had a vaccine.
And the very strong advice, the number one message from today, from National Cabinet and from the health ministers’ meeting is the vaccines are safe and effective and based on medical advice.
And we gently and respectfully ask all of those involved in the reporting process to understand that these ordinary human events occur. Please do not rush to judgement or to sensationalise.
That was the message. And that’s why I’m focusing on that.
The other question, just regarding those returning into the country. There have been two Australian cricketers, including Adam Zampa, return on a Qatar Airways flight, using a loophole able to get into the country.
Why did that occur, and is that loophole being closed?
So what we have done, of course, is ban commercial flights on a paused basis, and we’ve also paused the charter flights or the repatriation flights.
And then the quarantine hubs, or the hubs to which people travel have overwhelmingly stopped taking those people. And we’ll have a little bit more to say on the interim period, subject to some deliberations-
On charter flights, though, are you saying there’s still allowed?
No. What I’m saying is that at this point, in terms of our repatriation flights, we’ve paused them. In addition to that, we have also made sure there are no commercial flights.
I don’t have the circumstances of the individual, so I won’t speak to those. But we’re also examining whether there is any other risk factors to Australia.
What’s it about? Caseload. We’re focusing on that.
Just on Gill’s question about quarantine. Peter Dutton this morning described the plan put by Victoria at 9.40 yesterday to the Commonwealth as smoke and mirrors. Would you share that criticism?
What I would say is that the plan is new to us and can be described in many ways. But the undeniable fact is it’s new to us. It wasn’t commissioned by us. It wasn’t proposed by us.
And I understand that they did have a number of proposals as part of their expression of interest or tender process.
I’m not quite sure how Victoria ran it. They obviously didn’t accept any of those ones, such as Avalon, which was widely ventilated, shall we say, beforehand. And they have identified one.
We’ll consider it and respond to it. We’re just learning the details, as is the local community of what’s been proposed.
And Minister, another question. Given Victoria’s planning this quarantine hub that won’t be finished until early next year, does that mean international borders and quarantining will be.
No, to be fair, I think everybody’s preparing for all options, both for any future pandemics, but also whether or not this one continues for a long period.
As we vaccinate the nation, we’ll have more freedoms. And that’s the important message. As we vaccinate the nations, it protects each of us. It protects the country. We’ll have more freedoms. Thank you very much. Alright, very last question.
Just, Minister, very quickly. There’s obviously been a debate around hotel quarantine. Is the solution to get everyone vaccinated, as Jane Halton’s just suggested?
Well, the more Australians that are vaccinated, the more freedoms we’ll have.
Right now, we have a job to protect the country. As we’ve seen, 882,000 cases worldwide, zero in Australia.
What’s the thing which is the first line of containment, the first ring of containment? Hotel quarantine, the testing which is being done here, the tracing which is being done.
And then, of course, the vaccination. And that’s the simple single thing that any Australian can do that can protect themselves and protect Australians. Thanks very much.