The Hon. Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care
22 February 2022
Topics: Important announcements in relation to women’s health.
Good morning, everybody. I’m delighted to be joined today by Professor Kylie Ward, the CEO of the Australian College of Nursing.
We have important announcements in relation to women’s health, but I wanted to start by thanking our incredible nurses. Through the course of the pandemic, we’ve had approximately 400,000 nurses who have been saving lives and protecting lives.
They’ve worked in our hospitals, in our aged care homes. They’ve worked in general practice. They’ve worked as nurse practitioners. They’ve worked in community health settings. And whether it’s been as part of the vaccination program, whether it’s been on the COVID wards, whether it’s been encouraging and providing support for people, our nurses have been there.
I’m obviously biased, I’m the son of a nurse and the husband of a nurse, but I think all Australians are supporters of nurses and this is a chance, Kylie, to say thank you to you and thank you to the nurses that have kept Australia’s hospitals, general practises, vaccination program, and aged care homes running and running safely.
As part of that, one of the things that we do is to really focus on women’s health. And I’m delighted to be able to announce today two important new projects: the University of Queensland is receiving $740,000 from the National Health and Medical Research Council to look at non-surgical alternatives to radical hysterectomy, so obviously a dramatic surgery for endometrial cancer, and we’ve had a strong focus on endometriosis as a government and for myself in my role.
But even more significant is endometrial cancer, and in order to provide options to help save lives and protect lives for women, this investment will also do its absolute best to see that that great gift of being able to give birth is also maintained as we help protect and save these lives.
The second grant here is about encouraging the support for vaccination amongst pregnant mums, to give them the confidence, to give them the ability to know that, whether it’s COVID, whether it’s flu, whether it’s other vaccines, for them and for young children at risk, that the information is there, the skills are there, the knowledge is there.
And so we’re providing $960,000 to the University of Adelaide to lead that program. All of this is part of the National Health and Medical Research Council Partnerships Program, a $21.9 million program all up. And this is a really important and significant development but with these two major women’s health initiatives and programs.
The final thing is in terms of the COVID rollout and the COVID case count around Australia. The first thing is we’re seeing very significant reductions.
We now have a 90 per cent reduction in caseload since the peak. We have a 55 per cent reduction in hospitalisation, a 60 per cent reduction in ICU, and a two thirds reduction in ventilation cases. And so as the cases themselves come down, we’ll also see those indicators follow and drop further.
And so our system was tested, but our nurses stood up over summer, and Australians were provided with that continuity of care. We saw days around the world with four million cases with Omicron, but two things occurred.
Firstly, our hospitals and our systems were prepared and able to cope, albeit it was difficult and it was challenging. And secondly, we had soaring vaccination rates over summer and we’ve now reached approximately 10.9 million boosters, or 61.7 per cent, of the eligible population. We have 96.1 per cent first doses and 94.3 per cent second doses, and we’ve now reached 1.12 million children.
So we want to keep encouraging people to come forward, whether it’s those that are due for their boosters, or parents with young children. These vaccinations are still critically important to helping protect the nation and to reduce the spread of COVID.
I want to thank everybody, and I’m delighted to introduce Professor Kylie Ward, the CEO of the Australian College of Nursing.
Thank you, Minister, and thank you for being there over Christmas and the New Year for me to speak to you and share the issues of the nursing profession.
It’s been a very tough year. The health of the nation through this pandemic has been dependent on the nursing profession, and I know they’re tired and exhausted.
But the announcements today, particularly to women’s health, for girls and women everywhere, if we can get it right in Australia, we can certainly then support the rest of the world, and nursing will lead in that field.
So those announcements are very welcome, as is the commitment to research. Every postcode in Australia has a nurse caring for the people in it. We will continue to do that and be dedicated and absolutely undertake whatever it takes.
The profession is tired and exhausted, but we’re not giving it up, and we’re really looking forward to taking the research and the investments and the commitment forward as we get through this difficult time and see a healthy Australia.
Thank you. I’ll start with those that are on the phone and then come to Bella in the room, if that’s alright.
I think we have Tom Minear first.
Hi Minister. Thanks for taking our questions. I just wanted to ask you about Victoria’s changes to masks rules announced this morning.
Does it make sense to you that masks are no longer required in places like major events and dance halls, but kids in Years 3 to 6 still have to wear them? Would it be more sensible to give mask mandates to kids at the same time as office workers and others?
Sure. Look, I welcome the changes as they’ve been announced. It will be up to the state to explain that.
I know for some parents it will be hard, and for kids. What is important is that we continue to make progress in allowing people to return to their lives and the normal freedoms as quickly and safely as possible.
So I encourage continuous review. And so today is progress, but more to be done. And so continuous review, progress, more to be done.
Thanks, Minister. I’m going to try for two questions, if I may.
Julie Leask and other people have raised concerns about the rate of vaccinations amongst children. Do you share their concern? And is there more to be done in that area?
And separately, the ATAGI consideration of isolation rules for close contacts and household contacts – what’s your thoughts on where they’re up to? Is it possible there’s an announcement coming down the pipe?
And going into winter, is it realistic that household contacts would be under the current rules?
Sure. So let me deal with children and their contacts. Firstly, in terms of children, we have a 49.2 per cent vaccination rate. It’s one of the highest rates in the world.
It’s, at this stage I think, higher than the United States and Israel, Germany and Denmark. It’s higher than New Zealand and Ireland. And so Australian families have done a great job.
But, what we’ve announced today is actually specifically aimed at continuing to drive that rate higher. I’ve been speaking directly with Professor Julie Leask, who is one of Australia’s great vaccination program experts – indeed, I would argue, one of the world’s vaccination program experts.
And I’ve asked Professor Julie Leask to lead a roundtable with the Commonwealth, the states, and the community on what can be done specifically to lift that vaccination rate further.
One of the primary topics is in-school vaccination. We’re encouraging all of the states to conduct extensive, comprehensive in-school vaccination programs. The community vaccination programs deliver that 49.2 per cent rate, or 1.12 million people.
We want to lift that further, and so I think we can do that. We know that the intention to vaccinate is approximately 67 per cent on the tracking which we’ve been doing, and so we want to see it go beyond that but we want to get it to at least that.
And whilst there are thousands of points of presence around Australia, actually taking it to the parents and taking it to the children through the schools is one of the critical steps forward.
In terms of household contacts, obviously over summer, particularly in relation to nursing and to other critical professions, the decision was taken on medical advice to allow for household contacts who are asymptomatic in critical sectors to be able to work so long as they follow testing and PPE requirements.
The next step on the return to normal is to consider expanding that definition through the work of the AHPPC or the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee. And it has worked well with our nurses, it has worked well with those in critical sectors to ensure that there’s adequate workforce.
And people have been very responsible. If they’ve had symptoms, they’ve not come to work. If they are coming to work, they’ve been tested and they’ve followed the PPE requirements.
So there is that capacity. And I know that New South Wales and Victoria, with the Commonwealth’s support, are leading that work and I strongly support that direction.
If I can have Sara.
Hi, Minister. Just regarding vaccination requirements for incoming travellers or returning Australians.
Sinopharm is a vaccine that is recognised in people under 59 years of age, but not in people over 59. There are people who have had both doses overseas and they want to come back to Australia, but they’re unable to get in – they’ve got their two doses and it’s not recognised if they’re at the age of 60. And they’re really worried and they want to get home.
Have you heard these concerns? Is there anything that can be done regarding that – if they are overseas and are unable to get two extra doses of something like Pfizer, or anything like that to make themselves eligible?
And what is your response to this certain situation that caught a few people out?
Sure. So the Australian rules are very clear. And as we’ve seen over the summer, we’ve applied them fairly and equally, but to everybody. And those rules are that if you’re double vaccinated with a vaccine that’s recognised by the TGA – whether it’s a vaccine that’s available for distribution in Australia or it’s another one which has been recognised for incoming purposes – then you can come in without quarantine.
And at this stage, the rules are that, of course, somebody can come, but they are under- via state rules would quarantine for seven days, in certain states.
Those rules will continue to be reviewed by the TGA in relation to the recognition not just of specific vaccines, but also the age groups which follow the data evidence.
So, where there is no data or insufficient data, the TGA is always searching for and continuing to expand the categories and the approvals, so we’ll follow that medical advice.
We’ve done that because it’s kept Australians safe and that’s an important thing to do, but there is a process of what we call and have requested for, which is continuous review of international vaccines on the basis of the published safety data.
Now, I might turn to Bella in the room, who’s been very patient.
That’s all right. Thank you, Minister. I’ll just take you back to the question about relaxing those home isolation requirements for household contacts. Do you anticipate that if that were to happen, it would see a surge in cases?
Our load star has been public safety and medical advice, so we’ll follow the medical advice. And if the medical advice indicates that it’s safe, then we’ll do it.
As an example, Victoria is changing its mask rules today because the caseloads have dropped, so it’s always a balance of ensuring that we have decreasing case numbers, and that’s a trend which I am increasingly confident of. Decreasing case numbers, increasing confidence.
And as a result of that, that actually allows us to have the greater freedoms. These are emergency measures; these are not permanent conditions where people’s ability to be in the community have been limited, and that’s not something which should be considered as a permanent condition.
It should always be seen as an emergency measure, and as vaccination rates go up – 96 per cent now for first doses, over 94 per cent for second doses, 61.7 per cent for boosters – there’s greater protection.
As case numbers come down, there’s greater protection. As treatments are available, there’s greater protection. They allow us to safely return progressively to normal.
National Cabinet has itself set the task of transitioning to Phase D, which is the normal ability to go about daily life.
The states and territories have written to the Federal Government demanding a further extension of the Commonwealth’s 50 per cent healthcare contribution. Are you considering that request?
Look, we’ll continue to focus and review. At the moment, we’ve provided 92 per cent of uplift in funding over the period since we came into government. So that’s 92 per cent increase in Commonwealth funding.
By contrast, what we see with the states is that they’ve had a 44 per cent increase, so we would invite them to match the funding that we’ve put in place.
And then we’ve also provided over $8 billion of funding specifically to the states for COVID health measures. So we’re pleased with the partnership in the way that that’s helped protect the hospitals.
The final thing is, of course, that even though, formally, health under the Constitution is a state responsibility, we provide 60 per cent of all health funding in Australia, and we’ve invited the states to match our funding. At this stage, we haven’t received it, and we’ll continue to do that.
But at the very least, we’d invite them to match the 92 per cent growth which we’ve put into the hospitals. And whilst the biosecurity declaration is in place, we’ll continue to be providing that additional support over and above everything else that’s happened.
Last question from me. CSIRO have developed a new technique to end the refrigeration of COVID vaccines. This breakthrough has the potential to enable more affordable and more equitable access to warm vaccines.
Will this vaccine be exported to Australia, and will it make it cheaper?
So the CSIRO has helped develop another great Australian breakthrough. We have Professor Mark Kendall with the Nanopatch, which is about making vaccines available right around the world, particularly without cold storage in developing countries.
Now we have the MOF technology, effectively what that does is it wraps a scaffold around the vaccine infrastructure, and it means that the vaccine is more stable at warmer temperatures.
I’ve spoken today with the head of CSIRO Professor Larry Marshall. I’ve spoken with Professor Mark Kendall, the inventor of the Nanopatch, today. This is about giving broader access on a more equitable basis to more people, not just in Australia, but all around the world.
And so when it’s ready, we look forward to using it in Australia. At this stage, it’s not available for mRNA technologies, but it does have the potential to be used with the viral vector vaccines.
And what does it mean? It means we’ve provided 16 million vaccines to the rest of the world, and that’s increasing dramatically. But it also means that as the technology is available, we look forward to using it in Australia. We look forward to sharing it as our gift to the world, and ultimately it’s about saving lives and protecting lives, and in particular helping protect lives in the developing world.
I want to thank everybody and again acknowledge our nurses, our researchers, and to see the COVID rates dropping, hospitalisation, ICU, ventilation – that’s a real sign for hope.
Thank you very much.