The Hon. Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care
26 November 2021
Topics: Update on COVID booster shots, new South African COVID variant, increased funding for Mental Health during COVID.
[Indistinct] chance of hope for Australians in general.
Now, in particular, today I wanted to address the fact that the national booster program is ramping up from here, and the Prime Minister, the Chief Medical Office of Australia, Professor Paul Kelly, and myself are writing to households across Australia over the coming weeks, and that’s to urge all Australian’s to come forward for boosters.
We know that, on the advice of the TGA, the ATAGI or Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, and the Chief Medical Officer of Australia, Professor Paul Kelly, boosters are a vitally important part in the national protection program.
The name indicates exactly what they are – they boost or add protection. That additional protection, particularly for immune compromised Australian’s, but for Australian’s of all ages, is an important part of the vaccination program.
And Australia has not only has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world with one of the lowest rates of loss of life. But we are one of the first nations in the world, after Israel, that have whole of nation booster programs.
Just to give you a bit of an update on what we’re doing in the booster program, so we’ll be writing with a letter, encouraging all of Australians to take up their boosters.
I’m due, myself, in just over a, a week, and so I’ll be taking my booster up, and looking forward to that. The Prime Minister and Jane Malysiak have already had, had their boosters, and Australian’s around the country are doing that.
We’ll also be providing new information and capacity for families to be ready when they are ready.
In terms of supply, we not only have, already, the 40 million Pfizer that are in hand, but we have an additional 60 million Pfizer due next year and 25 million the year after in 2023. We have current 10 million in Moderna, and we had 15 million Moderna that are due next year.
Novavax is going through the TGA and processes, there’s more data to be provided, and we’re hopeful that sufficient data will be provided for approval, which would allow that to be available early in the new year. This is a process which is going on around the world, with over 51, 51 million doses of Novavax.
So, these are really important steps forward, and of course, the AstraZeneca continues to be available.
The booster program, we’ll see at- before the end of November, approximately 520,000 people eligible. Already, we are now at 390,000 Australian’s who have stepped forward for boosters, out of 520,000 eligible Australians. That’s an extraordinary rollout that is well ahead of all of our best expectations.
And so Australians are now world champions at rolling up their sleeves for boosters, along with the work that they have done with the first and second doses.
Our first doses are now 92.1 per cent, our second doses are now at 86.3 per cent. We’re at an extraordinary 38.9 million vaccinations across first, second and third.
And then when you look at particular age cohorts, we’ve now passed the three quarters mark for our 12 to 15 year olds with first doses. And we’re, as of today, at 75.2 percent, so three quarters of the youngest eligible Australian’s who have stepped forward.
But I continue to urge them that any person, doesn’t matter what age you are, can be infected.
And then when we look at our particularly vulnerable groups, our over 50’s are at 97.2 per cent first vaccinations. Out over 70’s are an extraordinary 99 per cent at first vaccinations, and almost 97 per cent second vaccinations. So that is an immensely important protection.
And then within our aged care workers, we’ve now reached 99.9 per cent of aged care workers. And hearteningly, 99.1 per cent. have had second doses.
And so what we’re seeing is Australians stepping forward, and the most vulnerable Australians stepping forward in the greatest of numbers. And so I want to thank and acknowledge everybody on that front.
I do want to provide a little bit of information, I know there’s a great deal of interest in the potentially emerging South African new variant, this is to B1 1529 variant.
I have been briefed this morning by the Chief Medical Officer of Australia, Professor Paul Kelly, and the Head of the Scientific and Technical Advisory Group, Professor Brendan Murphy. They are investigating and reviewing the South African variant in conjunction with the WHO and our international partners.
At this stage they are gathering information, and the information is that it has potential to be a new variant, but the world is learning and looking at that information.
The WHO is holding a special meeting to discuss the variant, and if it is determined to be a major new variant it will be given the Greek alphabet signal NU, as in NU for the phonetic equivalent.
What does this mean? It means that we’re well-prepared. We are able to act quickly if there is advice. The advice at the moment is to engage with international communities. And of course, we have the fact that it’s- double vaccinated Australians are, are returning. Other relevant people are subject to the current border restrictions, and there is no change to those at this point in time.
One thing I want to mention is, along with David Coleman, the Assistant Minister for Mental Health, a major announcement with regards to suicide prevention.
We know that any single loss is an agonising loss for families. Last year, there were many concerns and fears that the suicide rate would go up, in fact it went down by 5 per cent. But it hasn’t stopped.
And so every life lost is important, it just is personal tragedy and family agony. And so there’s an allocation today of $114 million under the National Suicide Prevention Program for suicide prevention support for at risk populations, for lived experience.
In particular, we’re focussing on Indigenous communities where that suicide rate is twice the national average, which remains one of our great public health and human challenges going forward.
So that funding is an important step forward, it’s open for grant applications, and we hope that it will add to the work that we’ve seen in the last year of reducing that suicide rate.
But we want to keep that work going to save every Australian. There may be dark times, but there are always, always avenues of support.
Happy to take any question. I’ll just start in the middle.
Just on this new variant. Obviously, Britain is now extending quarantine period in internationals returning home. Is that an option in Australia for countries which have their, precincts or jurisdictions who’ve had their state borders open?
So at this point, of course, people returning from South Africa, or if they were to be coming, are, will be going through Howard Springs, so they’re going through quarantine. My advice is that there was a repatriation flight in- last week.
There was no further that I’m aware of, although we would need to check with the Department of Transport and Foreign Affairs. But my advice speaking to the Secretary of the Department of Transport this morning is that there’s no immediate extra flights that are likely.
So the most recent flight has been, is already seeing people going through a full quarantine period.
But as we’ve always been, we’re flexible. And if the medical advice is that we need to change, we won’t hesitate.
That’s what we’ve done as a country, whether it’s been closing borders, whether it’s been ensuring that there’s quarantine, our approach is to look at the medical evidence and to act fast, and we’ll continue to do that.
The 520,000 currently eligible for a booster, is that in addition to the 500,000 that were announced for the immunocompromised? I think it was maybe a month or so ago.
And what more are you doing to keep pharmacies and providers on board to keep in the booster program and providing shots?
So, what we’ve seen, let me deal with the pharmacies and then the numbers. In terms of the pharmacies, I really want to thank them. We’re now over two and a quarter million doses which has been delivered.
The number of pharmacies that are delivering boosters has now increased. And so, we’ve gone from 0 to 900 to over 1500. And that’s going to continue to expand as the number of eligible people continues to expand.
I think General Frewen set out this morning that we’ll see, as people come to the end of their six months from their second doses, particularly through February, March, April and May, significant demand. And so GPs and pharmacies will play that role.
And they’re magnificent, so I want to acknowledge that. So, we have the immunocompromised figures which I’ve set out, and then, in particular in terms of the third doses, the third dose six months’ eligibility is 520,000.
Obviously it’s early days with this new variant, but does it have the potential to threaten our reopening plans?
At this stage, the advice of the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly, who is truly an international epidemiologist with the highest standing, is that there’s no basis for change.
But always, always through the pandemic, we responded, as we did with flights from India when there was the emergence of the Delta variant and a massive spike.
At this point in time, there’s very little traffic directly between South Africa and Australia. We also happen to be very, very highly vaccinated now. As I mentioned, 92.1 per cent of the 16 plus population and that’s a very different position from when the Delta variant emerged in India.
But we’ll continue to be flexible, and when tough decisions need to be made, we haven’t shied away in the past and we won’t shy way in the future.
Well, on that note, England is taking South Africa on their red travel list. Is Australia considering a blanket ban on people coming from South Africa to Australia?
So, no change at this stage. And I asked the Chief Medical Officer of Australia, Professor Kelly, this morning in our conference call to review the status of the potentially emerging variants.
As I say, the B1 1529. And if more action is needed, more will be required- more will be implemented.
So, it sounds like your saying it’s possible that could change for December 1 when international travel- international borders reopen? [Inaudible]
Well, at this stage, of course, we have the direct bubbles with only a small number of countries, either current or future. And then in addition to that, we have the direct capacity for Australians.
So, the traffic from South Africa is minimal, but also the case being how Howard Springs at the moment, those that have come from there are currently going through, in any event, a 14-day quarantine process.
So there was not a general opening up to that country, and there’s not a plan to create a bubble at this point.
On the new variant, have we seen any of it in Australia, in any of our genomic sequencing or anything that we’ve got?
And then secondly with our booster shot program, do the formulas need to be change if we do see a rise in variants?
So, I think two important questions there. To the best of my knowledge and on the advice that I’ve had this morning, we’ve not seen the emerging South African variant in Australia.
I’m happy to continue to take advice, but we did discuss it specifically and at length the number was raised.
In terms of the adequacy of the vaccines to cover emerging variants, the advice remains that the broad spectrum nature of the vaccines is likely to cover variants. And that’s been the case with Delta. That’s been the case with other variants that have emerged.
But everything is reviewed, always, and if it’s something that affects one country, it will affect all countries. But for example, we have the capacity to be able to deal with these.
At this stage, it’s considered highly unlikely that that would affect the efficacy of the vaccine. One of the challenges for South Africa is that the vaccination rate distributed this morning is just over 28 per cent of whole population.
Have we sent some of our vaccine to them, then?
Well, the world operates in terms of supplying vaccines. And so we are supporting the international vaccine program through the COVAX program, through our work within the region, and we’ve been providing our additional vaccines.
And so this is an important question. I’ll take two more, one or two, and then finish up.
If you’re an Australian considering going back for Christmas to South Africa to see family, should you reconsider your travel?
So, that advice is being reviewed as we speak, we’ll see questioned today amongst others. And if there’s more advice, then that will obviously be provided through Smartraveller.
The vaccination rates in South Africa places close like Papua New Guinea, doesn’t that show the international vaccine rollout of those programs just aren’t working?
No, I’d respectfully say you see some developing countries with extremely high vaccination rates. We’re so proud of what’s occurred in parts of the Pacific – in Fiji, for example, where Australia’s AstraZeneca vaccine has been provided.
Other countries have their own distribution or hesitancy or uptake challenges. And so around the world, what you see is some extraordinarily high developing country rates.
But then some countries where there’s a much lower rate. And the circumstances of that will be fair for others to set out.
But our job in a world which has seen over 7 billion vaccines delivered, is to continue to support that.
And so our spare vaccines are being provided. But beyond that, we’re also working directly through the COVAX program. And I do know that South Africa is doing everything it can to encourage vaccination in its population, to continue to expand upon their distribution networks.
But there are different challenges in different countries. And very last one.
Back to the national booster program, there’s about 500,000 people who are due their COVID-19 booster already, and only 370,000 or so have come forward. Why do you think that’s the case?
I would put it the other way around. We were expecting that that would occur over the course of November and December. The fact that we’re 370,000 already is now, in our estimates, well ahead of expectations and schedule.
So I think Australians are proving to be great vaccinators. And to have 99 per cent of over 70s and 97 per cent of over 50s to have- New South Wales, which is at an extraordinary, extraordinary level, and so many others, I think is testimony to the fact that Australians do trust the vaccination program; that yes, there’s the noise of a fringe, but they’re losing the battle.
The vaccinators are winning the battle, and I am very hopeful that this early high level of booster acceptance will continue right through the program.
So to Australians, thank you for everything you’ve done. As you come due for your boosters, please come forward. It’s safe, it’s effective. It can save your life, it can protect your life, and it can help protect everybody else.
Thank you very much and take care.