Topics: $3.3 million for mobile testing in rural and Indigenous communities; schools; flattening the curve; face masks; mental health impacts of COVID-19
Well, joining us now is the Federal Health Minister, Greg Hunt – Minister, good morning to you. Thanks so much for joining us.
So first of all, before we get to the current advice levels, the testing centres in indigenous communities and rural centres you’re announcing today – what sort of an effect do you hope that makes?
So, what we’re announcing is 83 mobile testing centres for indigenous communities. These are rapid turnaround, high quality tests. They will take, on average, about 45 minutes.
And particularly vulnerable communities, to be able to have rapid testing can save lives, that’s why it’s so important. It’s a fundamental part of the protections to make sure that the people in remote Australia have the same access to high quality testing as the people in the bush.
And indigenous Australians who, sadly, have a higher rate of chronic disease are therefore more vulnerable. And if we can protect them in the same way that we are protecting our elderly, we are taking care of those who are most vulnerable.
Okay. There is, Minister, quite a hot and somewhat confused debate at the moment when it comes to schools, so I just want to simplify this for all our viewers at the moment.
What is the current advice when it comes to that?
So, the advice of the medical expert panel, and this is based on evidence from around the world, is that schools are safe for children. There’s very, very little evidence of transfer from student to student amongst school children.
But equally, and this is what National Cabinet is considering, to make sure there are the safeguards and, in particular, the confidence for teachers and parents during drop-off. So, the safety of children is very well established and that’s just absolutely paramount.
But we also want to make sure that there are the safeguards and the confidence for the teachers – our amazing heroic teachers, in just the same way that our nurses and our doctors are frontline – we want to make sure that they have the confidence that everything’s being done to protect them.
Okay. Well, here’s where a problem does emerge because – coming from the Chief Health Officer from Victoria last night – he says: my advice to the Victorian Government was and continues to be that to slow the spread of coronavirus, schools should undertake remote learning from term two.
So, do you accept that there is an element of mixed messaging going on?
Look, I understand that he subsequently clarified during the evening and reaffirmed the safety for children. So, what’s occurring now is there’s a set of national guidelines about the safety for children, and then there’s an additional discussion today to make sure that there are- there’s full safety for the teachers, for the adults.
And we also respect the fact that, against those national guidelines, different states may take different views. But where we can have kids learning in the best possible environment, we all think that that’s exactly the most desirable outcome.
So, is your Government, is the Federal Government and the State Government getting their advice from the same department?
Well in fact, the medical expert panel, of which Commonwealth and State Chief Health Officers are members, has been I understand unanimous in its advice on the safety – and that’s, I think, a really important thing.
That’s been developed together by the Chief Health Officers – Commonwealth and State – and that advice on the safety of children is very important. That has to be our number one concern, but equally, we want to make sure that there’s the confidence there for the teachers. So, this is a difficult process and I think we have to be honest about this.
As a country, we have done an amazing job and it’s understandable if, as we plan our way out of the current situation, there will be cautious steps and some will feel more comfortable moving at a slightly faster rate, some will feel more comfortable moving at a slightly lower rate. And it also depends on individual States’ circumstances.
So all up though, what we are seeing is a significant and now consolidated flattening of the curve; reduction in the rate of growth of new infections. That gives us the chance to take these steps out, and we’re now planning that through the National Cabinet and we’re doing it on the basis of consistent medical advice.
And that gives us the opportunity to progressively- once we’ve fully stabilised where we are now – progressively plan and then execute the pathway out and that’s good news for Australia.
So is the plan – well on that – is the plan to completely eradicate the virus? Or is the plan to just flatten the curve and attempt to live with it?
So, actually there is another phrasing and that is ongoing, continuous suppression of the virus. The Chief-Medical Officer-
What does that mean though? Can you simplify that?
Yeah. No, no, I’ll explain – has been very clear that it’s highly unlikely that you can completely eradicate the virus – that just wouldn’t be an honest statement in a country of 25 million. But we are down to just over 40 cases a day at the moment – that could spike with an outbreak on any one day.
But if we can continue to get those cases down; if we can then have an even stronger, broader testing regime, tracing capacity and the ability to sample things such as sewage which can show whether or not there are cases within a broad community – then they give us the platform of saying: we’ve got the cases down, we’re keeping the cases down, but we can respond.
And being able to respond in lightning speed, as Tasmania did with what I call a ring of containment around an outbreak in the Burnie area is an example of how the nation can respond and therefore deal with these challenges and at the same time take gentle steps out.
So we went in quickly, we will step out gradually – we are not there at the step out yet but we’re planning that step out. And I’ve been upfront all week about how we’re doing that, and in the National Cabinet the Premiers and the Prime Minister are doing that today in the first major stage of that planning.
But, we don’t want a second wave – we’ve seen that in other successful countries. And so the more we are able to stabilise now, the greater freedoms we’ll have later on.
The New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo, has reported overnight – well he’s ordered actually – that people who go outside have to wear face masks. Is that an option, Minister? As we, as you’ve mentioned there, attempt to ease out of this would that be a consideration? Something like that?
New York obviously has enormous community transmission-
And they are living through an agonising situation – so in that circumstance I absolutely understand.
The medical advice which was issued and reviewed only last week by the medical expert panel of all of the chief health and medical officers around the country reaffirmed that they did not see that as either a need or an appropriate use of masks which should be focused on health workers for Australia.
Okay. Just finally, is the worst of it behind us?
I hope so. I won’t make a false promise but we’ve dropped from between 25 and 30 per cent increase in infections per day – down to now well below 2 per cent, and even now it’s just dropped below 1 per cent – so that’s very promising.
What we do now determines whether we can keep it low and then at the same time begin to emerge from this. And we’re only here because Australians have been extraordinary in their commitment and their observation of the social distancing and self-isolation rules.
It’s been very difficult, it’s had huge economic heartache and social and mental health challenges for the population. But we are in a position that I think, overwhelmingly, the rest of the world would want to be in and that gives us a platform.
Well some people – sorry, I’ve just got one more question. Some people that the pressure afterwards could be much worse than the actual disease. Do you share those concerns?
Because of our strong economic position both going into this, but also the way we’ve been able to contain the outcomes, I am hopeful that we can build our way out of this both economically, but even more importantly, socially and personally.
And there will be lingering effects – there’s no doubt about that. So we have a major mental health programme that we’ve put in place. But one of the things that, as Health Minister and in particular Mental Health Minister, that I’m focusing on is the needs and the concerns of Australians – especially the isolated and the vulnerable because they, above all others, could be subject to very significant mental health effects.
So to everybody watching – if you can reach out to somebody who’s isolated, if you can call them, FaceTime then, maybe do the groceries for them – these human contacts can not only help keep people engaged, but they can make the difference as to whether or not others feel anxiety, depression or even worse.
All right. Health Minister Greg Hunt, really appreciate your time. Thanks so much for joining us this morning.