The Hon. Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care
12 July 2021
Topics: COVID situation in NSW and government support; vaccination rollout.
Good afternoon, everybody, and thank you for joining me.
Today I’d like to talk about the situation in New South Wales and Commonwealth Government support for the people of New South Wales on the health front and also the work that’s being done on economic support and mental health support, as well as the update on the vaccination program.
The first thing is to acknowledge that this is a difficult and challenging and stressful time for so many people in Sydney and more broadly across other parts of New South Wales and across Australia. Virtually every Australian will have connections with friends or family who are under lockdown and who are facing pressure and concern about their health, potentially their mental health, and about their economic circumstances.
In order to assist with that, the Commonwealth will be making a health support package available that’s been approved by the Expenditure Review Committee of Cabinet today or the budget committee of Cabinet chaired by the Prime Minister, and that will include support for general practices, for pharmacies, and for allied health practitioners.
In particular, we will make, from the National Medical Stockpile, through the seven Primary Health Networks of northern Sydney, central and eastern Sydney, south-western Sydney, Western Sydney, south-eastern New South Wales, Nepean Blue Mountains, and the Hunter, New England and Central Coast Primary Health Networks the following package available: 1 million surgical masks, 1 million N95 masks, 250,000 pairs of gloves, 250,000 gowns, and 250,000 goggles.
These are to assist in infection control, to support our health practitioners as they support the community. It’s a recognition that, whilst they may not all be required at this point in time, they will be made available through the Primary Health Networks.
And to our doctors and our nurses, to our pharmacists, to our allied health workers who are conducting essential services, I want to acknowledge and thank you. I have spoken both with the President of the AMA yesterday and the Vice-President today. I’ve spoken with the head of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, Dr Karen Price, today as well as the New South Wales Health Minister, Brad Hazzard, and the New South Wales Mental Health Minister, Bronnie Taylor.
And all are pitching in and our support is to provide that health support, which is to assist our amazing professionals who are taking care of Australians whilst keeping both our health workers safe but also keeping the public safe.
In addition, I would note that the expenditure review of Cabinet, as mentioned, has met and is also in advance discussions, through the Prime Minister and the Treasurer, with New South Wales on both an economic support package and a mental health support package.
The stresses that families, workers, businesses are facing are real and significant. The Prime Minister and the Premier have been in constant engagement, and I know we met yesterday as a contact group with the Prime Minister to discuss arrangements.
Those arrangements were taken forward today and it’s expected to be completed with New South Wales in the very near future. So these are supports to assist people through the difficult, challenging lockdown period.
But I will say this. We’ve done this before. We’ve done this nationally. We’ve done this in other states and territories. We’ve been through this in Victoria where we are now. And we’ll do this again in New South Wales and there will be moments of distress and uncertainty, and of course, the health impacts are uppermost on our mind. But as a National Government, we are stepping in to support the New South Wales Government, stepping in to support the New South Wales people, and stepping in on behalf of all Australians.
In relation to the vaccine rollout, I want to thank all Australians who have been coming forward over the course of the last week. We have had a record number of vaccinations again. 894,344 vaccinations were delivered across the nation.
That now takes it to a total of approximately 9.15 million vaccinations, and that includes almost 6.8 million individuals who’ve had a first dose or 33 per cent of the nation, and 2.325 million individuals who have been fully vaccinated, 11.3 per cent of the eligible population of 16 and over.
Very significantly, because whilst COVID can affect anybody, its severity increases with age. That’s the single strongest determinant of the likelihood of a severe outcome. Although sadly, as we’ve seen in New South Wales, it can have severe outcomes on anybody.
But very significantly, we now have, for the over 50 population, 56.5 per cent of the nation have had vaccinations. For the over 60s, 65.4 per cent have had vaccinations. And for the over 70s, a very heartening 73 per cent of the population have had vaccinations.
And my message is very clear. If you are over 60, please do not hesitate. Please come forward for your first dose. Please come forward, if you have had a first dose, for your second dose. Do not wait. Do not wait for either if you are eligible and whether you are eligible for AstraZeneca as an over 60 or you’re in another group with access to Pfizer, please do not wait.
And for the rest of the population, to everybody in Sydney, thank you. You’re doing an extraordinary job. Staying at home is difficult. We’ve been through this here in Victoria. We know you can do it. We know you can do it. And you will.
But as part of that, this week, we’re expanding the general practice Pfizer program rollout that will lead to a further 500 GPs around the country that will be able to distribute Pfizer. And all of this opens up more points of presence, more opportunities for vaccination, and as those numbers continue, of increases in vaccination, there’s increased protection around the country.
Lastly, the three key messages for people in Sydney who are affected by the lockdowns or in the broader areas, stay at home. Please stay at home. You’ve been doing an amazing job but continue to do this unless it’s for the essential reasons. If you do have symptoms however, please be tested. Do not ignore the symptoms. Please come forward to be tested. And if you are eligible to be vaccinated for your first or second dose, please do not wait.
I’m happy to take questions. I’ll start with those online, if I may, and then I’ll come to the room.
Thanks, Minister, for taking our questions.
Regarding the advertisements that we’ve seen over the weekend, the graphic ad of the young woman under 40 struggling to breathe can be quite frightening to people in that age group who currently can’t get a vaccination.
So, what’s the point of that message then, if they’re to be scared of getting severe COVID but have no way of accessing their preferred vaccine?
And just on the Arm Yourself campaign, General Frewen has said it will be adapted in the future. Is that an admission that this is a placeholder ad until we get enough vaccine supply?
No. With the vaccines, over the course of the year, we were always proceeding in four stages, which roughly align with the different quarters of the year. We’ve now moved into the third quarter phase, and the Arm Yourself campaign was always planned for exactly this moment.
And so, it’s commencing at the time that we were intending. We have increasing numbers of Pfizer coming into the country. We have good uptake of the AstraZeneca. And we’re encouraging people to come forward, and it’s a message to people both for now and in the future.
And it sends the message that all of us can play our part in protecting ourselves and each other. Any one of us can save a life. Any one of us can inadvertently risk a life. And that’s the message as well with regards to the more difficult, the more challenging ad, but a deliberately constructed ad, which was prepared in anticipation of if there were a major outbreak and approved by the Chief Medical Officer as being the appropriate time to release.
And that message is very clear and that is, please stay at home. Do not think that you are immune. The virus travels, as Paul Kelly says, as Professor Paul Kelly says, with people. It travels from person to person. And if you keep your distance, if you stay at home, if you aren’t visiting other households, then that’s the best way to protect from transmitting or receiving the virus.
Equally, of course there are significant numbers of people under 40, whether it’s with regards to health workers, aged care workers, whether it’s in relation to those on the frontline, whether it’s in relation to Indigenous Australians, immunocompromised Australians, the very large population which is already eligible on that front.
But it is saying no one is immune. And it’s conscious and it’s deliberate. It’s challenging and it’s confronting. But we know that young people can play a huge role in helping to prevent the spread of COVID simply by staying home.
Josh, New Daily.
Yeah, thank you, Minister. Just on this Pfizer story, you said on radio this morning that you’d already done the work with Pfizer before receiving Kevin Rudd’s letter.
Could you take us through those negotiations? How was that ramped up supply locked in? Who were you speaking to? And I guess more broadly, is it correct the Federal Government hadn’t spoken directly with Pfizer’s Global Chair previously, and if so, why not?
Well, I might just read Pfizer’s statement from today, which I have just received, and I understand it’s been published.
Quote from Pfizer: recent media reports suggesting that any third party or individual has had any role in contractual agreements reached between Pfizer and the Australian Government are incorrect.
The only two parties involved in these agreements are Pfizer and the Australian Government.
All discussions on supply and procurement with the Federal Government are led by Pfizer representatives in Australia.
And so, we’ve had ongoing, continuous and multiple negotiations with Pfizer Australia.
I speak with the country head every week and sometimes on multiple occasions, so that’s Anne Harris. They are the principal point of contact, and that’s why when we did have the confidence that we were on track to achieve the million doses, the Horizons document, which was printed in June, set out a base case of 600,000 a week rising to a potential case of a million doses a week. And that’s exactly what we had sought as the maximum, which Pfizer believed was remotely possible.
We’ve been able to achieve the highest and best expectation that could be done in terms of bringing that forward. And I’m delighted with that result. So I’m thanking everybody who’s been involved. Pfizer could not have been more categorical.
This is something that we’d done through multiple discussions and dealing with the company directly, and that’s our job, and that’s what we’ve been able to do.
Now, I might come to Madura.
Thanks, Minister. Just on the vaccination rates of residential aged care workers, what percentage of that workforce has received at least one dose of the vaccine?
And with just 10 weeks left until September 17, is there enough time to offer at least one dose of that vaccine to everyone in that workforce?
Sure. So we have approximately 107,000 workers who’ve received at least one dose. This is approximately 40 per cent of the aged care workforce. That’s increasing significantly every day, and I want to thank those workers for coming forward.
We have made this decision through National Cabinet that these public health orders will be issued for this to be a mandatory condition for working by each of the states and territories; that was reconfirmed on Friday through the National Cabinet.
We have a series of ways to ensure that all those vaccinations to which you refer can be achieved, so as everybody is in a position to take that up.
That includes firstly, through in-reach programs, secondly, through roving clinics, thirdly, through hubs, and fourthly, through self-vaccination programs.
We are expecting that at least 25,000 workers are likely to be done through those facility-based self-vaccination programs. I have referred to the example of TLC here in Victoria, a program which they have run which was a pilot, highly successful. Many facilities are now coming forwards to take that up.
And then outside of facilities, we have the option for firstly, the visit to the general practice where priority will be given. Secondly, the Commonwealth vaccination clinics, and thirdly, the state-based vaccination clinics. And all of those are options to ensure that the workers are vaccinated.
And it’s, I think, been public that General Frewen and I are, straight after this meeting, meeting with unions, facilities to continue that process for rollout. So those numbers have increased very significantly in the last week.
Minister, thanks for your time, just on the latest outbreak in Sydney and the concerns over that, would you support the August sittings of Parliament be suspended because of it?
And just on Kerry Chant’s comments today, she remarked that people shouldn’t go to the GP clinic to be tested if they are feeling unwell or have sickness. Does this identify the need for at home testing to be approved, legislative change to be rolled out so that you can have at-home testing kits in the event of an outbreak?
Sure. Look, just in terms of Parliament, the Parliament was able to sit last year during the Victorian outbreak, and we saw a very adaptable approach led by the speaker and the President. And so they will work through those arrangements.
Of course, it’s too early to say where the outbreak will be in New South Wales by that time, but I’ll leave that for the presiding officers and then for the leader of the House and the leader of the Senate in conjunction with their Opposition counterparts.
But we’ve been able to do this before, and we’ll find a way to do this again on matters in relation to timing and circumstances. They’re the appropriate people.
In relation to testing, what we see is that Australia’s testing process was identified by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine as being one of the most accurate in the world. And so the AHPPC or the medical expert panel maintains and oversees the standards, so I will leave those standards to them.
But very significantly, we continue to have very, very high rates of testing in Australia. We’re now well over 20 million tests that have been conducted, and I just want to thank all Australians for coming forward but continue to urge Australians to come forward to be tested, most particularly in greater Sydney and surrounding areas if they do have symptoms.
David from the SMH.
Thanks, Minister. I’ve got two questions, very different ones. The first is on vaccine supply. You did a radio interview on Friday, you talked about booster shots and the Novavax and the Moderna supply coming on later in the year and then next year.
What about Pfizer boosters? Do you think we have enough booster shots supplied by the contract already, or do we need more?
The second question is about the Delta variant, because there’s a debate about whether, well, the different rules that every state has got for dealing with it. Some believe that masks are required, and some don’t. Do you think there’s a case for a single national set of rules on how to deal with Delta?
Sure. So look, the AHPPC is meeting virtually every day, and they focus on common approaches and common national standards.
But one of the things that we established as a principle right at the outset was that each state and territory would take the national principles but apply them to the specific circumstances of their outbreak.
And I’ve got say that I recognise and respect what all of the states and territories are doing. They’re adapting to their own circumstances. But you’re right, the Delta variant globally we know is a more transmissible variant, and that has created some of the next evolution of responses through the National Cabinet, and as a result of that right now, everybody’s pitching in. And we understand and respect the different approaches to different circumstances on the ground within the states.
Now, with regards to boosters, there’s no final decision as to whether a booster will be required, but we are planning as if a booster will be required. At this stage, our best advice is that mRNA and, in particular as well, protein vaccines would be the ideal candidates for a booster.
And we have 51 million Novavax, which are contracted to arrive in Australia. They’ve always been intended as being used for the booster program, although they have been in reserve as a first round if that were required.
In addition, we have a further 15 million Moderna that are due to arrive in 2022. They are specifically contracted to allow for variation as a very nimble platform to adapt to any variants. Our advice is that this is a highly flexible requirement- highly flexible capability, and so that is there.
So, of and in itself, that’s 66 million doses that are likely to be available. But we ask and we continue to work with SCITAG, so the Scientific and Technical Advisory Group led by Professor Murphy. And if they advise more, then we will ensure that more are procured.
But at this stage, we have very significant numbers, more than enough to vaccinate the nation. And one thing which has not been determined is whether a booster would be a one-shot or a two-shot program. So those are medical questions to be determined over the coming months.
Now, I might, Finbar.
Cheers Minister. What do you make of New South Wales opening up access AstraZeneca for anyone over 40 at mass vaccination hubs? And should other states do the same?
So what New South Wales has done, and I’ve seen the press release, is that they have made it available to those who may seek to do this, on the basis of informed consent, particularly given the outbreak.
That’s in line with the ATAGI advice which has always been that those who are below the threshold in age may seek access on the basis of informed consent.
Now, for Rachel and Dana who are in the room and have been very patient.
So, back on the Pfizer issue have you.
Sorry, but should other states do the same?
Look each state will make their own judgements on their circumstances. This is a particular response to the outbreak in New South Wales.
Back on the Pfizer issue, have you or the Prime Minister spoken directly to Pfizer Chief Executive Albert Bourla at any stage over the past few weeks or months?
And if not, given that Benjamin Netanyahu did that on behalf of Israel, isn’t that something Australia could have done?
Look, can I just deal with this issue, if I may. I had a little chuckle when I saw the story. We received the letter from the individual in question, I think, not long ago, and we said to ourselves: well, no doubt, that will be released when our current negotiations are announced publicly. And that’s exactly what happened.
And we’re fine. We understand. We’re happy for people to do that. Our focus, as I’ve said, has been working weekly with the Australian head. That’s our advice and that’s what’s actually achieved this outcome.
Let me not, for one second, let us be diverted by what Pfizer has described – if I may, just to repeat that – what Pfizer has described as being incorrect.
Pfizer’s words, once again: recent media reports suggesting that any third party or individual has had any role in contractual agreements reached between Pfizer and the Australian Government are inaccurate.
The only two parties involved in these agreements are Pfizer and the Australian Government.
This was set out before any contact between the said person, but we welcome and value their contributions even if they had no material difference.
We have worked with them on the basis of achieving the outcomes, and achieving exactly the outcomes that we’ve just done.
To the substance of my question, though, are you confident that Australia couldn’t have got a better outcome by going to the top, by going to Albert Bourla?
Completely. Completely. And Pfizer Australia has been absolutely correct on that, because we just got exactly the best outcome that we were seeking on exactly the terms and on exactly the time frame.
And so I respect that individuals will sometimes take initiatives and we welcome and thank them. But did it make a difference? No.
Minister, just to confirm, did you have any interactions with Pfizer, the global company, once you realised that those 10 million doses in November would need to be boosted?
Well, we worked through the Australian office. We have dealt with one of the board members previously.
And the important thing is, no earlier doses were available. That’s the critical thing. Late doses, which we were then able to contract to take to it 20 and to take it to 40 million, were available. We’ve set out the time frames. And then we worked to bring those forward.
But the reason we set up in Australia, a domestic manufacturing business, I want to deal with some of the complete myths that have been put out here. The domestic manufacturing work to move heaven and earth to have CSL create a manufacturing option for AstraZeneca is because there were no earlier doses available than the ones that we were able to secure.
Those were what was available. Pfizer has said that previously. It’s very similar when we look at the situation of New Zealand. New Zealand is doing a fantastic job in the way they’re managing the pandemic.
Our first dose rate is, however, significantly higher than theirs, with not a word of anything other than praise for New Zealand. And that’s because they’ve been in the same position.
Now one of the reasons is precisely because we have been able to do so well in fighting the pandemic. Companies have been very clear that where there is mass death around the world, they have to ensure that we get our fair share, but that they are prioritised.
As to this latest one, my respectful words are we thank anybody who wishes to put in a good word for Australia. But Pfizer couldn’t have been clearer, that this outcome was something which was already set.
And in particular we know this, because we published the range, and we would not have published that range in June unless and until we were confident that it was track.
Just to deal with one other aspect of this story. The source has been quoted as saying that Australia displayed a quote, unquote, rude, dismissive and penny-pinching approach in.
Who was the source?
I don’t know, it’s not my story.
Who was the person who wrote the story?
This is the business person who’s had interactions with Pfizer who said that Australia displayed a rude, dismissive and penny-pinching approach in negotiations with Pfizer back in June last year. Do you deny that that’s the case?
That’s been rejected by Pfizer. That’s been rejected by the Government. That’s been rejected.
This is a grassy knoll story, if I may. It’s unattributed, it’s unsourced, it’s unverified. But it’s been rejected by fact.
The factual response, this story also included that it was a junior person leading negotiations. The truth of the matter is it was one of the most senior people in the department, a First Assistant Secretary, who was present, one of the nicest people that I’ve had the privilege of meeting within the public service, who is the equivalent of a two-star general. So the very foundation of this story is false.
The fact that there’s no attribution, no verification, but then the most basic element of it is false should cause everybody to stop and say: clearly, there’s a little bit of a game here.
What we’ve done is secured the maximum amount at the earliest possible time. And we’re very happy for anybody to put in a good word for Australia, but given that we published the June Horizons document, which set out the range, and we would not have put that range in unless and until we were confident that we were going to achieve it, and we have been able to deliver at the maximum level, reaffirms what we’ve done.
What does it mean for Australians? It means more doses earlier. What does it mean for people in New South Wales? We’re supporting them with a health package. We are working with the New South Wales Government on an economic and mental health package.
And they’re the big things. Coupled with a major increase in international supplies of vaccine. And this week, a record amount of vaccinations following a record amount of vaccinations the previous week.
Australians are stepping forward. Difficult, challenging times, but we are have done it before and we’ll get through it again. Thank you very much.