The Hon. Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care
11 February 2022
Topics: Novavax vaccine; extension of biosecurity measures; update on COVID-19 measures; aged care; parliamentary rumours.
Good morning, everyone. I’m Dr. Peter Stratmann, I’m the founder of Medical One.
Medical One has 13 large scale medical centres around Australia. I’m pleased to welcome Mr. Hunt to our Elwood centre today.
Today’s a day great significance. We have Ange with us today who’s the first patient in this country to receive the new Novavax vaccine, which is obviously a COVID vaccine. And it’s the fourth key weapon we have against this deadly virus that’s caused so much trouble over the last two years.
This is a different technology. It’s a tried and true technology. It’s a different way of attacking and protecting against the COVID virus, and we’re really pleased to offer that option.
I’m sure Mr Hunt will speak to that for people who have concerns about the way in which vaccines may affect them. So, really pleased to have Minister Hunt and Ange here today. Ange had her vaccination only about 10 minutes ago, and she’s looking better than ever.
So I turn over to Minister Hunt.
Great. And thanks very much to Dr Peter Stratmann, who’s the founder of Medical One, and to have his general practices and our amazing nurses such as Lil and Bernadette, who are vaccinating and have done thousands and thousands of vaccinations over the course of the rollout, is just a great privilege for us.
I’m here with Ange. Today, we have passed 52 million vaccinations during the COVID vaccine rollout, but this was the first vaccination with Novavax.
And our hope is that hundreds of thousands of Australian vaccinations will be done with Novavax, whether it’s first dose, whether it’s second dose, or hopefully, with the application to come before the TGA soon, for boosters.
And I think it’s an extremely important addition to our national vaccination program, which has now reached 95.9 per cent of first doses and 93.9 per cent of second doses. And there are those that, for their own personal circumstances, have either waited or been unable to take the other vaccines.
Well, this is a new choice.
It is a protein vaccine, which, as Peter says, is a tried and tested vaccination platform. It joins with the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is a viral vector, and with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which are mRNA vaccines.
And we already have one of the highest rates of vaccination in the world, but after today, there are no excuses for anybody.
Over the course of the next week and a half, the Novavax vaccines will be distributed to over 3500 general practices and pharmacies and state and Commonwealth clinics around the country.
That will commence as of Monday and be available for bookings on health.gov.au or via your own practice or pharmacy or state clinic.
And sometimes, the practices might want to know whether or not there’s patient demand. So if you haven’t had a vaccine and you have been waiting for Novavax, please let your practice know so as they know to order or to join the program, and I think that that’s extremely important and heartening.
It will start a week earlier than expected, which is great news. The TGA was able to do the assessments and the batch release quickly. They gave it 100 per cent approval, and so we’re good to go.
Now, the next thing is that we have also met this morning. I met with the Governor-General on a phone conference. He has signed off on the extension of the biosecurity determinations under the Biosecurity Act.
That will be extended to April the 17th, and that means that the specific sub-declarations that are made, the determinations which are in my name, will continue.
Most significantly, we will review these on a continuous basis and any can be taken away based on the medical advice at any time.
Importantly, that means that we will retain the double vaccination requirement for people entering Australia. But as of the 21st, that will be open to all visa categories so long as people have been double vaccinated. So tourists are coming back to Australia.
The second thing is it will maintain the rules in relation to people who are leaving the country with double vaccination.
And then importantly, it also allows the flexibility for determinations to remain in place with the consent and application of traditional owners, Indigenous leaders in the Northern Territory and the Northern Territory Government.
One significant development, which has come out of National Cabinet, which relates to the biosecurity determinations, is that we will work now with the states to be able to resume cruising. It will be dependent on a double green light, the Commonwealth and each relevant state or territory.
But as of last night, work has advanced significantly with states and territories. It will be up to them to ensure that they are ready, that they feel that they are in a position to do this.
But there are many jurisdictions overseas that have been able to recommence cruising safely, and that involves repeated testing, frequent testing, protocols for isolation. But it is an important sign of Australia returning to normal.
In addition, National Cabinet also considered the three-dose requirement on the basis of advice from the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation and has endorsed the recommendations of ATAGI or the technical advisory group that three doses, two doses plus a booster, are now required to be what’s called up to date.
Up to date as the terminology that’s been recommended by ATAGI, and the minimum time is three months before somebody is ready to have the third dose after their second dose, and it’s recommended that they do that within six months. And if somebody does that within that six-month window, then they will be considered to be up to date.
In addition, we’ve also had the greater freedoms that have been recommended and adopted by National Cabinet off the back of the advice of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee or AHPPC for people in residential aged care.
It’s a very challenging balance. On the one hand, the protocols that have been put in place to protect people have saved lives. We have one of the lowest rates of loss of life in the world in aged care, but it comes with a very heavy burden – the isolation and the loneliness.
Well, we are now moving to try to reduce that impact significantly, to ensure that facilities are in a position to allow greater visitation, people to see their loved ones, those that are in the very last weeks and months of their lives to be able to be with those that love them and care for them, and those that are have a long future ahead of them in residential aged care, but because of their physical needs, are living in supported accommodation. They will have greater access to the life of loved ones.
So I want to thank our medical professionals for considering the needs going forward. I would also note that in terms of the report on epidemiology, a really simple message: Cases are dropping, hospitalisations are dropping.
The advice to National Cabinet is that cases are down 80 per cent from the peak. Hospitalisations and ICU are down 37 per cent from the peak. And ventilation cases are down 46 per cent from the peak, which was in October of last year. And so we’re seeing real progress on that front.
On the vaccination front, I’ve mentioned that we’ve passed 52 million doses. We’re at nine, almost 10 million doses now. We’re at 9.7 million booster doses, and 95.9 per cent of first, and 93.9 per cent of second. Significantly, we’re at 46.8 per cent of children, but we want to encourage parents to keep coming forward.
Peter was just making this point to me to keep bringing their kids forward, to have them dosed and to have them vaccinated.
But as of today, Novavax is available. And I am delighted to introduce Angela, who is our first Australian patient to be vaccinated through the rollout with Novavax.
Ange, if you want to introduce yourself.
So hi, I’m Angela Luttick. I’m actually a virologist by training, and I have chosen to wait for Novavax to be available. I have preferred a traditional vaccine to be introduced into myself. I’m not an anti-vax, but I am a pro-choice, and this was my choice.
So I’m very, very excited to be the first recipient of the Novavax vaccine. I am a co-owner of a business called 360biolabs who has supported the Novavax vaccine. We have done the speciality lab testing for the vaccine, so we are familiar with its effectiveness.
And I am very, very excited to show you that I am perfectly well after having this vaccine. So if you have been hesitant, this vaccine is available. And I would encourage you to bring it on board.
Fantastic. So happy to take questions. I’ll start with Sarah from The Australian.
Thanks, Minister. Just on the update of ATAGI on the number of doses and that being up to date and so on. You mentioned how great it is that we already started cruising for the tourism industry.
But the tourism industry is definitely concerned about discrepancies between states when it comes to how many vaccines an international traveller will need to have, after some of Dan Andrews comments.
What’s your message to the tourism industry? And was there discussions with Dan Andrews in National Cabinet about this discrepancy?
Sure. Look, firstly, in terms of the ATAGI advice, the ATAGI advice that is expressed that it relates to domestic. Our international advice, as a Commonwealth, is that we will continue to require the double vaccination rate.
There are many countries which are not advanced in their booster programs, and so that will remain the international standard. But we will continue to follow medical advice.
States and territories were apprised of this last night, and I understand all states and territories are considering this when they look at their domestic restrictions.
But the clear understanding is that the Commonwealth sets the determination for international arrivals.
I will just add, in relation to cruising. It is very clear that it’s important that there’s a three-way partnership: the cruise sector, the Commonwealth, and the relevant state and territory. It will have to be a double green light, and those standards will be agreed.
And any one state or territory will have to make sure that they are prepared, that they are comfortable, and they are ready. But when they are ready, then the Commonwealth is in a very strong position to lift that determination.
We are simply in a position now of waiting for the protocols to be agreed and developed by individual states. But there are some states and territories, and I’ll let them speak for themselves, who are advanced in their consideration.
Thank you, Minister. Just on the National Cabinet agreement on progressing to Stage D of the reopening plans, about managing COVID consistent with the flu. Obviously, each state will go their own way. But what should people be expecting here?
I mean, should we start thinking as if things like the seven-day isolation period, face mask restrictions on large events – and obviously, each state will their own thing – but broadly, what would you expect we might start seeing, as you know, individual states go and do the same thing?
Sure. So in terms of Phase D, for those Australians that are watching, currently we are in the later stages of Phase C of the national reopening plan. And that’s occurred as we’ve passed those 80 per cent, and now 90 per cent vaccination rates nationally, as well as having seen a booster program, which has 57 per cent of the eligible population boosted.
This will be reconsidered on 11 March as part of the national cabinet process. But what we’re doing now is to lay down the markers, and there are probably two sides to it there. What are the likely trigger, and then what are the likely responses?
In terms of the triggers, we’re looking at caseloads in Australia and overseas. We’re looking at vaccination rates in Australia and overseas. And we’re looking at any development and emergence of new variants in Australia and overseas.
So we look at those three principle markers, both domestically and internationally. Then in terms of what that would mean, progressively, it’s about opening up to full free international movement, that’s at the Commonwealth level.
And at the state level, it’s about the progressive ability to lift restrictions so as people can return to the normal, full free lives consistent with anything that’s a notifiable disease.
So, as Peter will tell you, there are many notifiable diseases that, if they appear within a practice such as this, need to be reported. And so this will continue to be what’s called a reportable disease or a notifiable disease, but the treatment of it is what will continue to change.
And that’s why the changes in aged care are such an important thing. It is a hard balance between protecting physical health, but also protecting emotional and mental health and our deep human engagements.
And reducing the isolation and improving the human engagements with the changes in rapid antigen testing, now the provision of treatments.
Those are the things that are allowing us to open up safely there. And that’s a guide, I think, for the rest of the country.
Thanks Minister. I’ve just got two questions on aged care vaccination and [Indistinct]. You’ve spoken about the need for older people not to be locked up, and suffering the mental consequences of that.
With the new advice from the AHPPC, have they recommended that visitors be allowed even when there are COVID positive cases, and have- do you have a grievance with the state to stop telling their local health services from going to lockdown?
And just off the vaccination; in terms of allowing providers to do their own booster jabs, is the Commonwealth going to be providing any residual support there in terms of getting them the doses? And also, will they be able to have Novavax included in that program?
Sure. So just firstly in relation to providers, that’s been going on for a long period now. I think as an example, TLC in Victoria has vaccinated many, many residents in many homes, as well as staff. They’ve provided that service to others.
So, this is a program which has been open. It’s now been extended and expanded because it has seen very good take up.
One of the things that we’ve found, sometimes when the staff themselves, or vaccinators from within an aged care home, are doing that vaccination, because of the history and the trust between the nursing staff and the resident, we can see a higher take up, and the TLC example is one to which I would point.
And we’ve been providing throughout the course of it the vaccines. Novavax is absolutely available on the basis of orders to be done through that program. And so we’ll continue to supply the vaccines on that basis. And I think that that’s a really important thing.
In terms of aged care homes more generally, these are guidelines, and they are recommended, but they have come through what’s called AHPPC, or the medical expert panel, which does comprise the state chief health officers.
I was speaking with our Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Professor Michael Kidd, this morning, and he has chaired that process. And what we have seen is the states really focus at chief health officer and senior health officer level to make sure that they are focussing on the human needs.
So in particular, to go to your question, they’re looking at things such as zones or cohorting to keep people safe, but to ensure that instead of a blanket lockdown for an entire facility, that it’s much more nuanced.
And that indeed was the word that the Professor Kidd used; much more nuanced to allow every patient every day to have a visit in the vast majority of circumstances.
That’s our human requirement. We want every resident every day to be able to have at least one visitor. And I think that’s extremely important.
There may be circumstances where a facility has a widespread outbreak and they have to dial back, but more generally, the real goal is to open up as much as possible.
Now, if I may turn to Simon, please.
Thanks Minister. You may be aware today that Victoria has announced plans for the end of code brown arrangements where elective surgery will resume. Do you welcome that?
And just secondly, I’m also asking about reports that have been around this week from Peter van Onselen. How damaging has the leaks that have been coming out of Cabinet, regarding the Prime Minister and [Indistinct]?
Sure. Look, firstly in terms of the Victorian lifting of the elective surgery ban. I welcome it. I welcome it strongly, clearly, absolutely.
This is about people who will have cardiac conditions. They may have orthopaedic conditions. They may have intense pain; hips, knees, spine. They have all of the different human conditions which require treatment.
And it is a sign that the hospital system has been challenged but has passed that challenge over the course of the summer.
The world has seen an Omicron wave with, on some days, four million cases reported. And, you know, even in the course of this week, we’re seeing over two million cases. We’ve had an 80 per cent drop in cases from the peak in Australia, and a 37 per cent drop in both ICU and hospitalisation and 46 per cent drop in ventilation.
Under those circumstances, this is an appropriate step going forward.
In terms of those reports, frankly, I read that report today, and it struck me as somebody who was there that it was utterly inaccurate in what we’re seeing, so I don’t believe it came from somebody who was there.
My view is that we actually have a deeply united Cabinet. And I don’t care. I don’t care if somebody is off on the side with differing reports.
What I know is that I am deeply and profoundly passionate in my belief about this Prime Minister who’s helped lead Australia through a pandemic with one of the lowest rates of loss of life, one of the highest rates of vaccination, and one of the strongest economic recoveries.
So it was wildly inaccurate, the report. So I just want to put that to bed. Absolutely.
Do you deny the reports were true?
The report is wildly inaccurate and would not have been given by anyone that was there. And I know that because it is so utterly inaccurate.
And I’ll go to Rachel, please. To Rachel.
Thanks Minister. Just following on from Sarah’s question about the update from ATAGI on vaccination status. Do you see some issues cropping up for international tourists who are coming here with only two doses, when they could require people to have three doses to visit certain venues, etc? How will those issues be overcome?
Look, our task is to ensure that we have the medical advice. The medical advice relates to the domestic circumstances. The advice in relation to international is for people coming into the country. It remains for venue holders, consistent with the law and the medical advice, to be able to set their own terms.
That’s always been the case, but I am actually very heartened that we have clear medical advice from ATAGI, clearly accepted by the National Cabinet, and that provides a basis for the continued safe reopening of Australia.
What comes out of all of this? At the end of today, one of the lowest rates of loss of life, one of the highest vaccination rates, a new vaccine, the first person in Australia to be vaccinated with Novavax, and one of the strongest economic recoveries.
Thank you, everybody. Take care.