The Hon. Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care
30 December 2021
Topics: Braftovi listing in Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, COVID-19 vaccination rollout, Rapid antigen testing
…it can sadly lead to tragic outcomes. But with early intervention, we can make a real difference.
So coming forward for screening to get your chance to do the test that comes in the mail every two years, to also above all else follow the advice that you’ve got. But as part of that, I am delighted that on 1 January, we’ll be listing a new medicine for bowel cancer, Braftovi, on the PBS.
This is a medicine which would otherwise cost over $33,000 a year and will help 340 patients a year have access to a potentially life-changing, life-extending, life-saving medicine that would otherwise have been not available and out of their reach. And it can be for as little as $6.80 a script from 1 January.
So it’s a really important thing that whilst we nevertheless are dealing with the pandemic, which around the world is ongoing, we have to focus on our health. And it’s incredibly important to continue to do this.
So a new, potentially life-changing, life-saving medicine for 340 patients a year. We’ll be saving them $33,000. But much more importantly, Braftovi for bowel cancer, patients with the BRAF V600 variant, this could mean a very different future for them.
And there was a wonderful story from one of the staff of the Giants that was on TV, the Western Sydney Giants, and I’m really pleased to see that sort of treatment making that sort of difference.
Secondly, in relation to COVID, yesterday we had a far stronger number of doses and boosters given than we had anticipated.
Great news, Australians coming forward. There were 149,000 vaccinations yesterday across Australia coming off the Christmas long weekend, and 112,500 of those approximately were boosters. What that means now is that Australia has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, one of the first countries after Israel to have a whole of nation booster program.
And then in addition to that, we have one of the lowest rates of loss of life, and one of the most freshly, or recently vaccinated nations. So all of those things are coming together.
We’ve now reached 94.3 per cent first doses, and 91.3 per cent second doses. And New South Wales has achieved a 95 per cent first vaccination rate. Ninety-five percent is often the definition of full vaccination, and at the start of this program, there were very few people who believed that we couldn’t achieve that rate.
It was one that we quietly hoped for in the background, and Australians have exceeded all expectations. But there are still more people to be vaccinated. And so if you haven’t come forward, please keep coming forward.
But now’s the time to talk with your friends and family, people who may have been hesitant, to be able to point out that there are now well over 42 million doses that have been delivered. It’s saving lives, it’s protecting lives.
And for anybody who has had hesitation, the fact that there are over 42 million doses is the best guarantee of the safety of these vaccines. Now we know they’re effective. Yes, there are challenges with Omicron, but we also know that these vaccinations are our best single protection.
In terms of boosters, we’ve now passed 2.25 million boosters that have been delivered; 2.257 million boosters have been delivered.
We will go into the New Year approximately 700,000 boosters ahead of what was anticipated by that time. And so that’s a great tribute to Australians and to our health professionals.
Yesterday, of those 112,000 boosters, 60,000 were delivered by pharmacies. So more than half were delivered by pharmacies. A record day for pharmacies. Our pharmacies exceeded GPs, and pharmacies alone were double the state clinics.
Primary care was approximately of the Commonwealth programme, 80 per cent of the doses delivered, and the states 20 per cent.
So after New Year, we’re really encouraging the states to step up. They’ve done a great job during the course of the pandemic. We understand that at this point in time they have had to give staff a chance to take a break.
But we want those states to step up to reclaim the 40 per cent mark and to reach the heights of their vaccination programmes, which were up to five times higher than they were yesterday. The pharmacies are at four times what they were only two and a half weeks ago, and that’s what we know can be done in Australia, and I think that’s been a real model.
The last thing that I want to mention in relation to the booster program is we’ll be expanding the vaccines that are being delivered in the first two weeks of January. Between now and 15 January, we’ll be delivering over five million vaccines, significantly increasing the numbers that are available.
We have 20 million vaccines in the country for boosters, enough for every eligible Australian, every Australian. So that five million, we’ll combine with those that are out in the field to make sure that approximately nine million are available between now and the middle of January. And that’s on top of the 2.25 million that have already been delivered.
So we say to everyone, thank you for coming forward, but please come forward if you haven’t had your booster yet and you are eligible.
I especially want to talk to the over 70s. There is every opportunity to be boosted, whether it’s a pharmacy, go down to your local pharmacy, give them a call, book in online, have a family member or a friend book in online for you, go to your GP or go to the state clinics when they’re open.
All of these are ways of being boosted. And the best protection against any form of COVID is to be boosted and to be vaccinated if you haven’t been vaccinated.
Now I will just make a point: National cabinet is meeting after the Prime Minister has brought it forward by a week. This is, as ever, to adapt to the changing circumstances, in particular to respond to Omicron.
We know that two-thirds of those in ICU are unvaccinated, so there’s only a very small proportion of Australians who are unvaccinated, less than six per cent have had no vaccine, and less than nine per cent have yet to have their second dose. And yet they make up two-thirds of the people in ICU.
The facts are clear. If you do not have a vaccination, you put yourself more at risk of losing your life or having a very serious illness. If you do have the vaccination, you are vastly better protected.
Vaccinations save lives, it keeps you away from serious illness on an overwhelming basis, and it protects our hospital system, our friends and our families.
Related to that, the critical issues before National Cabinet today, which the Prime Minister will address in his release afterwards, are we know Omicron is more transmissible, but now there is clear, strong evidence that it is less severe.
The latest reports overnight, which the Chief Medical Officer has just briefed the Prime Minister and myself on, indicate that, looking at South Africa, the data is clear. Looking at what we have seen in Australia, the data is clear, and looking at what we are seeing in the UK, both in England and in Scotland, the data is clear that this is less severe.
Nevertheless, a booster is the best protection, on top of the primary doses, if you haven’t had it. And I want to give an example of this. Whilst there are challenges, the key thing is that when we look at our ventilation numbers, two weeks ago on 15 December, there were 54 Australian patients in hospital on ventilation for COVID-19.
Two weeks later, with significantly higher numbers, there are 55 Australian patients as of last night on ventilation with COVID-19. And so, an increase in the numbers, but a very important stability in terms of those on ventilation.
So the real challenge is actually about the number of people who are contacts and being furloughed. So today, National Cabinet is focusing on the furloughing, and the contact definitions and the way in which we are able to test people to ensure that we are prioritising those PCRs for people who are clearly symptomatic and highly at risk.
As always, we have adapted, that’s what’s led to one of the highest vaccination rates, one of the lowest rates of loss of life, one of the most recently vaccinated countries and one of the first countries in the world, after Israel, to have a whole of nation booster program.
So, that’s the program today, but announcing that we will have over five million vaccines delivered between now and the middle of January, which will ensure that there are enough vaccines for every eligible person.
Now, it may take the workforce a little bit more time, because we understand that some of the state clinics still have to stand up and reach that full capacity, but please come out and get boosted. Or, if you are in that less than six per cent that have yet to have any primary dose, now is the moment.
Happy to take those on call, I’ll start with Rachel.
Thanks, Minister. The Prime Minister flagged yesterday that (INAUDIBLE) to make big changes to the way we manage the pandemic. Do you think there will be a discussion about reducing the isolation for symptomatic patients as well as dropping the (INAUDIBLE) of close contacts altogether?
And secondly, on New Year’s Eve, there is some very big parties, events and festivals planned for tomorrow and the day after, as we are recording thousands of cases. How do you feel about those going ahead?
Sure. So, obviously in terms of any restrictions, I’ll deal with New Year’s Eve first, that’s a matter for the states and territories.
But the messaging is clear, and it is what the PM said before Christmas, when we were on Bribie Island, and that is: avoid the mosh pit. Avoid the mosh pit. Don’t pack in in large, close numbers, that’s common sense.
People are doing a great job; Australians have done an incredible collective effort in protecting each other. So, it is more transmissible, it is clearly less severe, but it can still be dangerous for individuals, and so use the common sense which is such a feature of Australian life, and such a feature of the way in which Australians have gone about this.
Just seeing the shops this morning here in Mount Martha, people were very careful the way they were going about their business. And so, where possible, keep that distance. If you are inside, in an event, although it may seem unnatural, wearing a mask is an important, simple defence.
Then, in terms of National Cabinet, the health ministers met last night, the chief health officers, under the chairing role of Professor Paul Kelly, the Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer, have been meeting consistently.
They have made immense progress, and I want to thank them. They, like everybody else who is in this space, has worked right through Christmas, and will continue on going right through New Year, and that is happening over a couple of hours from now, so I won’t pre-empt it.
But essentially, what they are looking at is practical ways to ensure that we are not having large numbers of workforce who are furloughed or put on leave, because we want to maintain the workforce for the hospitals.
So, whereas last year, in 2020, the real threat was whether or not the beds would be overwhelmed in the ICU and ventilation. At this stage, all the evidence is that that is strong, as shown by the fact that, after two weeks of very significant case growths, which came on previous case growth, we have had almost absolute parity in the numbers on ventilation.
Therefore, the challenge remains workforce, and that is what today is about, and they will be looking at isolation periods, contact periods, testing. But we have seen a lot of very good cooperation between the chief health officers, and I wanted to thank them.
Thanks, Minister. Firstly, the AMA says redefining close contacts will accelerate the outbreak. What do you say to that, and it looks like the cost of rapid antigen tests are going up. Are you going to do anything to stop this kind of price gouging?
Sure. Look, firstly in relation to the definition of close contacts. What we have done throughout the pandemic is have a single national voice of truth on vaccination, ATAGI, and a single national voice of truth on public health measures, which is the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, AHPPC, which is the medical expert panel comprising the chief health officers from all states and territories, with input from the Communicable Disease Network of Australia and chaired by the Chief Medical Officer.
So, I respect that there are many views, but theirs is the authoritative view, and that is what we will continue to do.
In terms of rapid antigen tests, what we’re seeing is very large numbers coming into the country. We’ve seen over 84 million in orders announced in the last couple of days, and we know that the private market is also providing them. So we’re expecting large numbers.
One of the private market major suppliers has indicated that they are bringing in 15 million over the course of the coming weeks. We’ve got 84 million in the states. The Commonwealth has been in the market since August. I think we were pretty close to being the first into the market. We’ve provided aged care.
And so we will have a discussion with the suppliers to make sure that there’s no price gauging and if there were, as we did last year, we will take strong, clear, swift action.
Cam from Sky.
You were talking there about the rapid test manufacturers. One of those in Australia, Roche has said today that the decision to approach rapid tests for use at home in November and not months earlier as many other countries had meant the slower procurement and also contributed to supply shortages that we are saying.
Was the TGA too slow or too cautious to approve this rapid test for use at home? And could a speedier approval have prevented some of the queues that we’ve seen over Christmas?
What we’ve actually seen overseas is a number of products being recalled. The FDA, for example, has recalled a number of products, which were not giving the quality of outcomes that they wanted in America, let alone we want in Australia.
And so what the TGA’s done is make sure that the priority and safety of Australians is paramount above all else. And the experience from overseas where they’ve had significant product recall, I think underscores the wisdom of the TGA’s approach.
But it was announced in October, available from 1 November. The Commonwealth was in the market from August.
And so we’re also seeing very large volumes of supply that are passing through pharmacies and passing through supermarkets. And the states didn’t have any trouble in announcing 84 million of supply. And the notice has been out since August that these tests that are likely to be approved.
But the one thing about the Australian system is that emphasis on medical independence of ATAGI for vaccinations, of the medical expert panel, or AHPPC, for public health measures, and the TGA for the approvals has been a lifesaver in Australia.
And so I know, we even had one state minister asking for approval of a product that was withdrawn in America, and I think when that was pointed out they may have walked back. So sometimes, there’ll be commercial interests that want to bypass or cut safety corners, but safety first. Because otherwise, you end up with recalls, as we’ve seen, like America.
Thanks, Minister. Do you anticipate relaxing the definition of a close contact will lead to higher case numbers because fewer people are getting tested so cases will be (INAUDIBLE)?
And on a non-COVID issue, Cory Bernadi overnight congratulated you on an appointment to London. Are you the next UK High Commissioner?
Sorry, no, I hadn’t heard that. And no is the answer. It’s not a discussion I’ve had with anyone. Fro, now until May, I’ve got one focus, and that’s Health. And then after that, my goal is to be a dad. And that’s it.
The next thing is, in terms of the close contacts, that’s something which is being discussed today. That’s actually about furloughing, and that’s about making sure that there’s no inadvertent reduction in the size of the workforce, not just in Health, but also in other public areas.
And whether that’s in hospitality, whether that’s in manufacturing or transport or logistics, all of the elements of our society. And so with a less severe but more transmissible disease, the nature of the challenge is different, and that’s the whole process of COVID.
Firstly, the challenge is less about the ICU and ventilation, which is strong and clear, and every state and territory is well prepared. But there’s also the private hospitals guarantee, which adds an additional 30,000 beds, an additional 57,000 nurses, an additional 100,000 staff around the country where required.
And what we also know is at the same time, though, that if the current definition is maintained in areas of high case numbers, it’s the workforce that would become a challenge. So as ever, we want to get ahead of it and make sure that that is carefully managed.
And so I want to finish by thanking Australians for coming forward. A record day in pharmacies yesterday. I was talking with the Head of the Pharmacy Guild today and thanking them for their work on rapid antigen tests and thanking them for their work on the boosters. But if you are due, please come forward.
And I just want to, as a passing note, acknowledge that we have heard something from the Opposition about confusing eligibility and being overdue. It’s very irresponsible of them to do that.
People become eligible on a particular day. They do not become overdue on that day. So I will gently say to Mr Albanese it’s important to step up and help. It’s important not to make false, untrue, incorrect statements that are irresponsible and do not add to the national program.
We expect something more of our leaders, whether they’re in government or opposition. So I would just gently say that to Mr Albanese that it is critical to show respect for the role that you are in by showing respect for the public and not saying things which are simply plain wrong.
Moreover, have a great Christmas season as it extends and a great New Year. Be safe. Follow the common sense that has set Australians apart and given us one of the highest vaccination rates, most freshly vaccinated countries and one of the lowest rates of loss of life.
But where possible, keep that distance, and above all else, come forward for your first dose, your second dose, or your booster, knowing that there are five million doses that will be distributed between now and the middle of January, and that there will be nine million doses available for all of the boosters that are required between now and then.
Thanks very much, everybody.