The Hon. Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care
8 December 2021
Topics: Very Special Kids, Moderna booster shot, Omicron variant
Welcome to Higgins this afternoon on this beautiful afternoon here at Very Special Kids in Malvern, Australia’s first hospice.
It started 25 years ago and with Federal Government commitment of $7.5 million, matched by the State Government and by philanthropy, we are now rebuilding an incredibly beautiful place for children with life limiting conditions.
As a paediatrician and as a mother, I know we all want our kids to have the best start in life, and it’s wonderful to be here, celebrating an institution here in Higgins that provides care for kids who have life that is actually in a limiting way, supporting the families around those beautiful children, the angels, and the angels caring for the angels, but also offering love and hope.
So I’m absolutely delighted to be here with the Minister for Health and Ageing, the Minister Greg Hunt, who is here to turn this on and to make some extra special announcements.
Thank you very much, Greg.
Thanks very much to Katie. We’re in the heart of her electorate of Higgins, and Katie and her predecessor, Kelly O’Dwyer, helped make the case for the funding. And it is a partnership, Commonwealth, State, philanthropy coming together to support Very Special Kids.
The name says it all, and these are beautiful kids with life limiting conditions, but who can have a rich, thriving life. And this hospice will give them that hope, as well as the new medicines and the new treatments that are being developed, which we’re really privileged to be able to support.
I’m also delighted to be able to announce today that the TGA, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, has just given its green light for the Moderna booster for people 18 plus in Australia.
So in addition to the Pfizer booster subject to a final approval, a second green light by ATAGI, or the Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, Australians will have two options for boosters very, very shortly.
And I think this is another important step. Every day, we’re making new strides and new progress with the vaccine program. We’ve now reached 93 per cent of Australians with a first dose, 88.5 per cent of Australians with the second dose, 580,000 Australians with a booster, and over 99 per cent of those 60 and over who’ve had a first dose.
But the booster program is fundamentally important. When we see the variants such as Omicron, and inevitably there will be more variants and more variations, we know that the boosters will help keep us safe.
Another addition to the booster program today, and we will await ATAGI over the coming days, but they are meeting over the course of the coming days.
But we’re able to protect Australians with a 93 per cent take up, and an almost 40 million figure, which we will pass in the coming days.
I’ll start, if I may, with those on the phone and then come to those here at Very Special Kids in Higgins.
Firstly, to Rachel.
Thanks, Minister. So you said that ATAGI is expected to approve this within days. Do you know how far off they are with confirming the Moderna vaccine for children aged 6-11?
Okay. So there are really three approvals that are being considered. Rachel’s asked about the approvals process for the different vaccines.
The TGA has now approved the booster for Moderna and the Pfizer for five- to 11-year-olds. Both of those will now be considered by ATAGI over the coming days, and I’m very hopeful that we’ll have a positive announcement over the course of this week in relation to the Pfizer for kids.
And I’m very hopeful that over the course of the next week, we’ll have a positive announcement about Moderna as a booster and then going through the international evidence in relation to Moderna as a six- to 11-, that’s the application. A six- to 11- vaccine for children. That has to be TGA first, and then Moderna.
If I can go to Jade, please.
Thanks, Minister. Victoria has had two suspected cases of the Omicron variant, as well as one confirmed case in hotel quarantine. Can you provide any update about the Omicron variant in Australia, and are you concerned about the number of cases of community transmission reported so far?
So Omicron has been identified in Victoria. I’ll continue to allow the Victorian Government to provide those details.
But Australia is well prepared. Victoria is well prepared to deal with the Omicron variant. The latest advice I have from the Chief Medical Officer as of this morning is that it is likely that the Omicron variant will be more transmissible.
But there is emerging evidence that the vaccines are likely to provide strong, clear protection against serious illness, hospitalisation and death and there is emerging evidence that this may well be a milder form of COVID-19.
Now the last two elements; it’s too early to make a final judgement, but each day from around the world we have new hope that the vaccines will protect against serious illness and hospitalisation and loss of life from Omicron.
And each day we have new hope, on evidence from around the world, that this may be a milder form of the disease.
If I can come to Simon, Channel 10?
Thanks, Minister. Just following off there from that question. We’re hearing The World Health Organisation come out overnight with a bit more of an update on Omicron, what are you hearing about the extent that it would curb hospitals that have experienced a fair drop of hospitalisation or a lower rate of hospitalisation? And can we expect any indication, and particularly the key [indistinct] areas?
And also, while I’ve got you on, I’m just wondering too, if the Government’s aware that the town of Bathurst being issued- been declared a hotspot, and whether that has an implication for the Prime Minister who was there at the Bathurst 1000 on the weekend?
Sure, so I’ll just run through a few things there, and I might actually ask Katie to say something as a paediatrician and really an outstanding national researcher prior to her time coming to Parliament.
Firstly, often the nature of a viral outbreak is that over time a disease may become more infectious but less severe. That’s not a universal truth, but it’s a common pattern that’s been observed over a very, very long history.
The second thing is that the WHO, I don’t have early advice yet as to what they may say. I’m aware of their most recent update where they lent in in the same direction as Australia’s Chief Medical Officer to indicate vaccine protection against serious illness and hospitalisation, and the potential that if it were milder – and there are signs that it may be milder – that this may also take pressure off the hospital system.
Too early to make a call on that, the world will know more over the coming weeks. But there are cautious signs for optimism.
In terms of Bathurst, we’re well used to hotspots and to outbreak sites around the country, and the public health units give their advice. Now in New South Wales, it’s a much smaller circle in terms of close contacts. I don’t have any details about individuals in that circumstance.
Just on pathways for virus and what it means for children, Katie?
Thank you, Minister. I think the first thing to say is that we’ve lived, you know, humans have lived with respiratory viruses forever.
And if you go back to the Spanish flu, at that time we didn’t have tests to know that the Spanish flu was the Spanish flu, nor did we have vaccines, and nor did we have social media to be able to communicate effectively and immediately with the public.
So those three things have been very, very different with this COVID pandemic, and our Australian medical researchers and doctors have been front and centre with the response to this extraordinary pandemic.
It’s been an extraordinary pandemic because it’s global, but it’s been equally extraordinary because medical research and technology has been at the heart of the response.
We’ve had COVID tests to know what we’re dealing with, and to see the variants changes that have come through – the variants of concern – so that we’ve known and been able to map our response and be proactive about how to respond. We’ve of course had a whole armamentarium of different vaccines that have been able to respond.
And then lastly, the public health measures have been able to be targeted, have been able to be designed, particularly for particular parts of the community, and have been effectively used by the governments of the day and the leadership here in Australia.
When it comes to Omicron, obviously we are watching this with great interest. It is a variant of concern. The first thing to say is it indeed seems to be more infectious. But the good news is, is it doesn’t seem to be as deadly as previous variants.
We still have to see if that is indeed true, and we’re watching it very carefully, both here in Australia, but more importantly, overseas. And we are- as an Australian community, have the luxury of looking at overseas communities to see how things are developing there, so that the Minister for Health can act in such a quick, careful and considered way to keep Australians safe.
But as a paediatrician, I know that respiratory conditions in children are something we always worry about, but this seems to be a variant that is more infectious and possibly milder, and it’s something that we will look very carefully to see the response going forward, remembering that with the Spanish flu, there are very three very large waves and then it disappeared.
No one really knew what happened to it. In some ways, it became a different variant, and we’re hopeful that this new Omicron may be that new hope that we’re moving into a different part of the pandemic – hopefully a better part of the pandemic. But it’s too early to say with surety at this point in time.
And we’ve got a Minister for Health who’s well in control of how to deal with this emerging situation, which I think we will wait to see in the coming days, weeks and months. But cautious optimism that this may be a good sign moving forward for COVID.
Senator Gerard Rennick has said the TGA approval for Pfizer for kids aged five to 11 is completely irresponsible and he won’t vote for any government legislation until it’s reversed.
Do you think this undermines the vaccine rollout for kids and what consequences will there be for Senator Rennick?
Well we’ll follow the TGA advice just as we did with AstraZeneca.
We’re here, Paul, in Higgins. The Labor Party selected a candidate, Michelle Ananda-Rajah, who tried to trash the brand of AstraZeneca. It was very unfortunate.
And we followed the TGA advice there. We’ll continue to follow the TGA advice here, and people will have their different views.
But my approach, our approach, the Government’s approach, the Prime Minister’s approach through the pandemic has been to follow the advice of the medical experts.
Are Gerard Rennick’s views also very unfortunate?
As I’ve said, we are following the medical advice and people will put their views, but I disagree with views that are at odds with the TGA, whether it’s Senator Rennick or Michelle Ananda-Rajah, the Labor candidate in Higgins, who’s trashed the brand and attempted to trash the brand of AstraZeneca.
Fortunately, approximately seven million Australians have had that vaccine, including myself.
And Tom? Then we’ll come to those who are here. Thank you.
Thanks Minister. I’m interested if you could explain how we decided to proceed, which booster dose between Pfizer and Moderna now that approvals in place?
So there’s enough vaccine for both Pfizer and Moderna, for all of those GP’s, pharmacies, Commonwealth and state vaccination clinics and indigenous vaccination clinics who wish to dispense either or both to be able to do so.
So, you know, we’ll be taking orders from all who wish to dispense the Moderna vaccine as a booster, but they’re already available to GP’s, pharmacies, state and Commonwealth clinics for primary.
And so this just increases the options and the opportunities for not just providers, but also for people around the country.
I might come over here.
Yesterday John Frewen told a committee that some aged care facilities were asking for booster visits to be delayed until after the Christmas New Year period. Do you believe that’s appropriate? Should people be getting them as soon as possible?
Well, we’ve offered those to all of the aged care facilities as they’ve come due, some because of circumstances such as flu, have to be very careful. And so we recognise that.
We’re well ahead of schedule on our aged care booster programme and that’s something that I’m absolutely delighted about, that we’re well ahead of schedule on the aged care booster programme.
There may be a couple of facilities or a small number where their individual circumstances mean that they have to time it with the clearance of flu or the completion of other elements.
But at the end of the day, we have – believe it or not – a 99.9 per cent staff vaccination rate in aged care in Australia.
Every person, every family that has been willing to provide the vaccine to their family members has been given it, well over 90 per cent, and we would encourage all of those people who are eligible in aged care facilities, either themselves or their families, to support that programme.
It’s understood Novak Djokovic is seeking a vaccine exemption to be able play at the Australian Open. Those who get those vaccine exemptions, do they still have to undertake 14 days’ quarantine?
Well, there is a 14-day quarantine requirement if you are coming into Australia and you have an exemption to come, and that is if you are not double vaccinated.
If you’re double vaccinated and you’re coming for a work purpose, then you’d be subject to the current 72-hour rule, that may or may not be in place at the time of the Australian Open.
But if you’re not double vaccinated, the rule applies to everyone.
And is there a chance that if he does play, do you think that that’s going to be a bad look for those who aren’t vaccinated, that aren’t allowed to attend?
That’s a matter for Victoria. Last year, they brought in all of the players and to the best of my knowledge, I’m not aware that any of them had been vaccinated at that stage.
So it’s a matter for Victoria as to whether or not they provide a workplace or major events exemption that’s entirely within their gift. Our quarantine approach is if somebody comes in on an exemption and isn’t vaccinated, then they’ll be doing two weeks of quarantine.
Alright, thank you very much. Take care, everybody.