The Hon. Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care
26 September 2021
Topics: COVID-19 Vaccine rollout; Brain Cancer Mission
Topics: Vaccination update, home testing from 1 November, child mental health support.
Good afternoon everybody.
There are real points of hope today. There’s light at the end of the tunnel for Australians on a number of fronts. Firstly, we have seen the number of vaccinations past 27 million vaccinations in Australia. And perhaps most significantly today, 70 per cent of our over-50s are now fully vaccinated right across the nation, on average. And so that’s an immensely important milestone.
What we see is we can achieve the 70 per cent fully vaccinated mark and we’re on our way to 80 per cent. And I think that that’s about protecting Australians, but it’s also about the light at the end of the tunnel.
As I look at this as well, one of the critical parts of the national plan is to make sure that people will be able to go about their daily activities safely, and so I’m delighted that the TGA has now recommended that home testing will be available from 1 November, obviously subject to individual tests being approved as being safe and effective.
But this is an important additional protection for Australians: home testing to support Australians and to support the national plan.
When I turn specifically to the detail, that we’re now at 27.1 million doses that have been delivered within Australia – 70 per cent, as I say, of over-50s are fully vaccinated and that is backed by 88.5 per cent of over-50s that have had a first dose.
Yesterday, there were 303,000 Australians who were vaccinated, and that takes our first dose level to 76.7 per cent around the nation. So 76.7 per cent of 16-plus Australians have been vaccinated, and that means less than 700,000 vaccinations to the 80 per cent first dose threshold.
So, we’re very close. We’re on our way. And Australians are stepping forward, but I would urge them to continue to come forward to be vaccinated this week.
To be vaccinated for themselves, for the country, and to protect their friends and family and to help bring our way of life back.
We’re at 52.6 per cent of second doses. And I’ve obviously mentioned the over-50s now 70 per cent fully vaccinated. But our over-70s, 94.1 per cent, 94.1 per cent of over-70s have had at least one vaccination.
And in aged care, we now have 99.1 per cent of aged care workers that have had vaccinations. So these are really important protections.
At the other end of the spectrum, already, just two weeks into the full national program, over 380,000 12 to 15-year-olds have had a first vaccination, and that’s over 30 per cent of 12 to 15-year-olds, or 30.8 per cent.
To back this up though, as we increase these rates, one of the important things is that we can supplement what is known as the PCR testing – so that’s the testing that we all know if we go to a Commonwealth clinic or a state clinic, and that will be supplemented with the access to home testing for Australians.
So the TGA, at my request, has been going through a thorough assessment. They will now move to make these tests available from 1 November, and there are two steps. Additionally, one is that we have to have individual applications approved – so specific tests have to be shown to be safe and effective.
At this stage, they’ve had over 70 expressions of interest and 33 tests have already been approved for supervised use. So, they will now be considered and made available if, if found to be safe and effective. But that’s very important.
The second thing is obviously to ensure that each of the states and territories is in a position to accept that. But from a national perspective, home testing will be available from 1 November.
Now, as we go through this one of the great challenges has been mental health, and in particular for our kids. And we want our kids back at school at the earliest possible time. And so, we also know that whilst they’ve been at home, or even whilst they’ve been at school, the pandemic has been a great challenge for so many children.
And so today, just after this press conference, I’m joining the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute to launch the Raising Healthy Children app. It’s an app that’s available on the phone. It’s coming from the Raising Children’s Network, and it’s focused at 12 and under.
And it’s about simple tips for them and simple tips for family on what to look out for, how to help provide support to detect early warning signs, but above all else, it’s about prevention, diagnosis and treatment, where you can go as mum or dad, or what you can do to help your younger child deal with some of the mental health stressors.
So, we’ve done amazingly well. It has been a pandemic that has brought immense stressors, but with one of the lowest rates of loss of life in the world with the economic outcomes that have seen the maintenance of employment, and now, with real light at the end of the tunnel, I think there are important causes for hope.
Happy to start, if I may, with those on the telephone, then I’ll come to those in the room.
Damien, Channel 9?
Yes, Minister. Thank you. Look, yesterday, New South Wales obviously announced its way out of restrictions and lockdown life.
December 1 is the big day when it’s really a free for all, when the unvaccinated are invited to enjoy everything else that the vaccinated would have enjoyed for a couple of weeks.
But some are saying, look, the announcement is probably steered people away from, you know, from getting the vaccination. Because that was the message, get vaccinated to be able to live and do everything you want.
But do you believe that the Government may have jumped too early on delivering the unvaccinated the same rights as everybody else?
Look, I welcome the plan, but my message to those people who haven’t been vaccinated is if you aren’t vaccinated and you catch COVID, you could die. It’s as simple as that.
The strongest possible incentive to be vaccinated is you could die if you do not be vaccinated and you catch COVID.
That’s what we’re seeing in New South Wales at the moment. The figures are absolutely clear that those people that are in ICU are overwhelmingly the ones that have not yet been vaccinated. And vaccination dramatically reduces your chances of catching COVID, of being hospitalised, of being admitted to ICU, or of losing your life.
And so the strongest possible reason to be vaccinated is to save your lives and to protect every other Australian.
Thanks, Minister. In Queensland today, we, well the Government has announced that they will mandate the COVID-19 vaccine for truck drivers from October 15, and then double dose from November 15. Do you have any concerns about this? Or do you welcome it?
And in terms of concerns, will there be a pipeline of truck drivers who are unable to come into Queensland and causing a disruption in supply?
So we’ve always said that the.
Could you comment in general.
Sorry. We’ve always said that the question of public health orders was a matter for the states. The critical thing, as we have done with aged care, is to make sure that there was a plan, that we work very closely with the sector.
We work particularly closely with the Unions and, in aged care, you can see the results – 99.1 per cent of workers that have, have been vaccinated. But there was a very careful plan which was focussed on giving people time and making sure there were no workforce shortages.
So, that’s the lesson of what we did at the national level – a clear plan, active engagement. My Department, myself, Richard Colbeck, everybody worked very, very closely with the sector to make sure that there was the support for the sector, confidence in the sector, and no workforce impact in terms of supply of workers.
Thanks, Minister. Do you think the restrictions that will be in place at 80 per cent double vaccination under both the Victorian and New South Wales road maps are consistent with the national plan? Or do some measures such as, say, restrictions on the number of people you can have at your house need to be eased further, beyond that point?
Sure. Look, both states are working to the national plan. There are obviously differences in particular elements, and the Victorian plan as I said last week, so this is not new, it’s a very cautious plan, a very cautious plan.
But what I welcome is the direction to implement the national road map. The national road map is about hope; it’s about protecting people; and, it’s about ensuring that we get to the 80 per cent dose rate and well beyond. New South Wales were already at well over 80 per cent. The ACT similarly. And other states and territories are lifting their rates every single day.
So, I welcome the plans. I recognise that some of the proceeded at more cautious rates. But all of these plans are about incentives to be vaccinated, as well as the simple incentive that if you are vaccinated, it can save your life.
Thanks, Minister. What is the Government doing specifically to boost the Indigenous vaccination rates? Particularly in hard to reach communities in Western Australia and Queensland?
Sure. So, we’re working with indigenous communities. We’re working with all of the states and territories.
We had a specific focus on this at the recent Health Minister’s meeting which was addressed by Pat Turner who’s the National CEO of the Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations. And what we’re doing there is focussing on every community.
Pat Turner made the point that the challenge was not supply or access. She specifically said: access was not the issue, but that- it’s about hesitancy and also about dealing with some of the, the issues with regards to myths or views about the safety of vaccines.
So, we’re working right across the country and we’re seeing indigenous rates continue to, to increase. But we want to make sure that every Indigenous Australian has the same confidence in vaccines as everybody else. But in particular for these communities where we have a significantly lower loss of life than the national average, which is one of our most important achievements – that we continue to protect Indigenous Australians.
So, our message to Indigenous Australians is: there are multiple channels for accessing the vaccine – and so many Indigenous Australians are in urban environments and not just rural and remote – but that it is safe, and it’s effective. Ken Wyatt is leading the process; he’s engaged in a constant national taskforce in co-operation with the states.
We’re seeing the RFDS; we’ve had AUSMAT; we’ve had the work of the ADF in Western New South Wales all engaging, as well as specialised programs in the Kimberley – we’ve been working in partnerships with Western Australia and Indigenous communities on the ground.
We’ll come to those in the room.
Sorry. I just have one more question but I just don’t want to forget about it if you don’t mind me asking.
So the free rapid test – I’m just wondering, with home testing approved for COVID tests, will we be able to get free rapid tests for home use?
So, at this stage it would be something that people acquired – unless it was in a workplace arrangement – from their pharmacy. So it would be like all other tests at the, at the current time.
Now, within the room. Georgia?
Yes. This is a question about Bridget, Bridget McKenzie has said that supporting net zero emissions by 2050 is the worst kind of vacuousness over values. What do you think about that?
Look, I haven’t seen those particular comments. Our task as a, as a nation is to do two things. One is to ensure that we’re achieving our targets, which we are.
We were able to beat Kyoto one, beat Kyoto two, and we’re on track to beat Paris. And so we’re one of the few nations which will have met and beaten all three of the grand international goals.
And at the same time, to ensure we’re not driving up people’s electricity prices – there are those that want to drive up electricity prices and that will hurt families, small businesses, jobs – we’re not for driving up electricity prices. We know that Mr Albanese is.
So you know, anybody who is in favour of lower electricity prices, they have my support.
At the same time, we can also have lower emissions. And we’re over 450 million tonnes ahead of our Kyoto two targets, so that meant that we were able to achieve that almost a year early – and so that’s an important thing.
So our approach is pretty simple – lower electricity prices, keep the pressure off families, and, lower emissions, and we’ve been able to do both.
And will Disaster Payments continue once we get to 70 and 80 per cent fully vaccinated?
Look, I’ll, I’ll leave that to the Treasurer. Those COVID Disaster Relief Payments have provided an important support as we work towards the national road map goals.
I’m sorry. Minister, can we remind people on the phone to mute themselves? Because we’re getting feedback through the microphone.
I’ve been asked to remind those on the phone to please mute. Thank you.
On those rapid antigen tests, when do you imagine that Australians will actually be able to buy those tests from? What date?
I know they’ve been approved from November 1, but when, physically, we might be able to buy them ourselves?
Well, it will now be up to the individual firms to put forward their applications. But we already have 33 tests that have been approved for use outside the home, so I imagine they’ll be able to be converted.
So my hope is as soon as possible after 1 November. I won’t put a particular date because the TGA runs an independent safety and effectiveness testing process for each test kit. But 33 test kits have already been approved for use in Australia in other settings, so I think that’s a great start.
The Disability Royal Commission has described the vaccine rollout for those in disability care as seriously deficient. Does the Government need to apologise to those people?
One of the things that we’ve been able to do is to protect all Australians, but in particular protect people with disability. Our rate of cases and our rate of loss of life is one of the lowest in the world.
But in disability, they’re both stronger and safer than the national average – both cases and lives lost in disability are at a lower rate than the Australian average. So, we’ve actually been able to protect those in disability even more than we’ve been able to protect Australia’s overall rate.
And so, I understand this is an immensely important topic. It’s been a passion, not just of myself and of Linda Reynolds and of the Prime Minister, but of the whole government.
We have had over 4000 in reach clinics or hubs. Those are ongoing. We see that for those with a disability in residential accommodation, their double vaccinated rate is 14 per cent higher than the national average. So, a lower loss of life and a higher vaccination rate.
And they’re the real things that matter, but we’ll continue to encourage and to support every family with a member who has some form of disability to continue to come forward to be vaccinated and to give them the confidence to be vaccinated.
What will the national rules be if someone who’s fully vaccinated takes a rapid antigen test, comes back positive, would they then need to quarantine for the full 14 days?
So, that’s something which will be considered and determined by the medical expert panel, or the Australian Health Protection Principle Committee, which is the Chief Medical Officer and the state chief health officers.
So, that will be subject to state-based public health orders. But we would hope that everybody is reporting the positive cases, because I think that’s a critical step. But the specific rules will be determined by the medical expert panel as they should be.
But do you envisage, if someone’s positive though, they’d need to go and get a PCR test to confirm it.
The early guidance we have is that the expectation would be that if somebody is positive, they do confirm that with a PCR test.
But those rules, I should say, are not ones that will be set at a parliamentary level, but they’re ones that rightly should be set under public health orders at a state level.
And you said that the test would be available at pharmacies. Are there any plans for the Government to fund it through the PBS or even help bring down the costs for consumers getting these tests?
Well, I think what we’re able to do is we’re providing them in specific settings. We have been using them at a Commonwealth level in aged care at Howard Springs for those that are returning- have been returning from India.
So, we’ve been using them and making them available. And these are tests that will give people additional support over and above what’s available through the PCR program.
Can I just ask you two questions on the vaccine rollout? Firstly, does Daniel Andrews have any excuse now to not bring back the Pfizer interval from six to three weeks?
He says that there’s still issues with the fourth week allocation in October. What are you telling him?
Commonwealth supply through October will be four million doses going forward over the course of the next five weeks. That’s on top of 4.2 million doses that have already been provided. That’s just for mRNA.
AstraZeneca for Victoria is uncapped – so, those are the Victorian figures. 4.2 million mRNA provided. Another 4 million to come over the course of the next five weeks. Uncapped AstraZeneca, enough to ensure that every Victorian from the age of 12 and above has access to double-dosing before the end of October.
Timing is a matter for them, our GPs. Many of them are choosing to vaccinate at three-week mark with the mRNA. The formal TGA approval is for three weeks. The guidance from ATAGI is for three to six weeks. And so, there are no barriers in terms of supply.
Surely you have an opinion though on whether the interval should be cut?
No, those are medical questions. And so, the medical guidance is out there. And I’ve been very clear right throughout that it’s very important for us to separate out what is a policy decision from a medical decision.
The medical advice is any time from three to six weeks, is appropriate. The supply advice is there’s enough supply for every person in Victoria, 100 per cent of people 12 and up, to be double vaccinated before the end of Victoria.
Alright, thank you. I’ll finish there.
Sorry, just one more, please, Minister. If the Federal Government had treated the vaccine rollout as a race sooner, would we have avoided the lengthy lockdowns that we’ve seen in New South Wales, the ACT, and Victoria?
Look, I respectfully don’t accept any of the propositions in that question. One of the things we’ve been able to do is to continue to bring forward vaccination. And that supply has been something that has motivated us every single day.
And there is enough vaccine right across Australia to ensure that there are two doses for everybody who seeks it before the end of October. But that’s particularly the case in Victoria. I’d respectfully refer you to the situations in Singapore, Israel, and the UK.
Can I ask you about international travel, please? Alan Joyce has said that he’s hoping the country will eventually move to a test and release system for international arrivals. Do you expect that to happen, and if so, so when?
So, the pathway for international is firstly we want to see people being able to travel, particularly the double vaccinated, as soon as possible. And that’s to ensure they can travel and return safely.
The return is obviously something that’s of fundamental importance, not just to the individual, but to every other Australian.
The stage which is being considered at this stage is home quarantine. And obviously, further down the track, there may well be a circumstance where people are able to be tested. And if negative, perhaps have a follow-up test and be out in the community.
But at this stage, the next step is double vaccinated to be able to travel, return, and home quarantine. And home quarantine, I think, is a very important step forward.
Last question from Georgia?
I notice that you’re unaware of Bridget’s comments that she’s written in the Fin Review today. Are you one of the MPs she says backing net zero, is backing net zero because you’re more worried about being cool than the consequences?
Look, we have critical responsibilities as a nation to protect jobs, to protect family livelihoods, but to achieve our international obligations.
And for me, this has always been a deep, fundamental commitment going back over decades. And I was the person who literally signed the Paris Agreement on behalf of Australia. And I think it’s sometimes lost that the Paris Agreement already includes a commitment to net zero in the second half of the century.
So, that already includes a commitment to net zero during the course of the second half of the century. So, all countries who signed Paris are already signed up to that on the particular timing. That’s something which the Prime Minister and Angus Taylor are leading.
But Australia’s should be very proud. We will be one of the few countries in the world to have beaten Kyoto 1, to have beaten Kyoto 2, and to have beaten our Paris Agreements. The difference between Australia and some is that when we set targets, we plan for those targets, we achieve those targets, we meet those targets and we beat those targets.
And on that. I’ll finish with where I started, that there is real light at the end of the tunnel. Cases have passed 27 million. Over 50s are now 70 per cent fully vaccinated. The capacity for home testing to support the national plan, all of these things are coming together.
But right now, this week, if you haven’t been vaccinated, please come forward to be vaccinated. And if you are due for your second vaccination, please come forward for that. Thank you very much.