Topics: COVID-19 update; Hospital expansion; Ruby Princess cruise ship; School closures.
Let’s cross to the Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt, live from his electorate on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria. Thanks so much for joining us, Greg.
I’ve been critical of people second guessing the experts here and playing political games and confusing the message.
So let me start by giving you the opportunity to speak to our audience to tell Australians what the strategy is here.
What is the public health strategy here that you’re putting in place? Where do you expect us to be in one month, two months, three months from now?
Sure. Look, I really appreciate that.
So the message is very clear. Obviously this is a global pandemic, it means that nobody is immune and it means that Australians are under threat.
But what we’re seeking to do is- when we say flatten the curve it means two simple things: reduce the number of infections.
And we do that by people staying at home, by people keeping their distance which is such an unnatural thing in terms of Australia but such a necessary thing.
And people making sure that they are not engaging in gatherings and practising good hygiene. All of that reduces the number of infections.
The second thing is to prepare and bolster and strengthen our health system.
And that’s about increasing the capacity of our intensive care units, increasing and doubling the number of ventilators within the current system, but then bringing in more. Increasing the capacity through testing and knowing who is there.
We now have, to the best of our knowledge, effectively the highest rate of testing in the world along with Singapore – we’ve now surpassed Korea as a percentage of the population.
That means we have a very good handle on the scope and extent of it.
Our death rate, which we know will climb, is low compared with other countries with comparable numbers.
What does that mean? It means our numbers are more accurate because our testing is broader.
As I come to air, 169,000 tests have been done. The lowest positive rate, the highest negative rate of any of the major countries.
That just means our testing is picking up a much broader percentage of the population than in any other comparable country.
So counties such as Sweden and Canada, which have theoretically about the same recorded number of cases, have a dramatically higher death rate.
It’s not a different illness, it just means we’re picking up a higher percentage which means that we are better prepared.
It’s going to be so hard, but we’re going to get there.
Now when we talk about this strategy, there are political players, there are medical experts, there are commentators and analysts who say there should be a much more severe lockdown, that you can basically shut down the country for a short period and stop the virus in its tracks.
Is your view that that was always just impossible and that you have to accept a certain level of spread of this disease throughout the community?
Well, I don’t think there’s anybody that is a credible player who believes that Australia would be immune in a world where over 190 countries have this.
What we can do is what we have done: delay the onset quite dramatically.
We were able to buy ourselves so much more time than so many other comparable countries with the early work; the closure of the border with China, the tracing and contact of every case, the isolation of those cases.
All of those have been immensely important.
Now contact tracing is such a huge part of what we are doing and the extent of the testing. But this is a global pandemic.
The reason we are taking these unprecedented steps which are having an impact on peoples’ jobs, on their businesses, on the way they go about their daily lives, is because we know this is a disease (inaudible) threatened lives, takes lives.
It particularly affects the elderly and the vulnerable but none of us are immune.
Fortunately, children are much less likely, even than the flu, to catch and are much less vulnerable even than the flu on the best medical advice we have two impacts.
They’re not immune. Any of us can be affected. But in particular, the more vulnerable you are the more likely you are to have serious consequences from this.
So it’s a health crisis on a scale not seen in 100 years at a global level. But that’s why we’re taking these steps.
There- of course there are going to be differing views, but what we’ve done is drawn together the best communicable disease experts, virologists, epidemiologists and they in turn advise the chief health officers of Australia who provide a single unified medical position to the governments of Australia in this once in a century national unity cabinet.
So where are we now to where you’d hoped we’d be say three or four weeks ago?
We’ve reached almost two and a half thousand infections in Australia. A handful of major breakouts; the wedding in Stanwell Tops in New South Wales, a Noosa restaurant in Queensland, now we’re hearing about the Lyndoch Winery in South Australia. We’re getting those numbers lifting around the country.
Are we expecting to see that sort of escalation continue or do you believe measures we’ve brought in place here over the past fortnight are going to slow the rate of infection?
I had expected the numbers to have been greater by now from when we had our first case two months ago.
What we were able to do is to delay significantly which protects more people.
It has also allowed us to begin the plans in terms of ventilator production, production of masks, procurement of test kits from overseas.
All of these things, the work we are doing on public and private partnerships with the private sector in terms of the hospitals, all of those elements.
But it will continue to grow and I think we have to be absolutely honest because this is why we are doing these things, it’s a highly contagious disease which for the vast majority of us will be mild.
But for those that are affected and are vulnerable, it can either be an agonising or it can be a fatal condition. And it’s because of that that these steps are being taken.
All the cases that you’ve mentioned, they’re the reasons why we’ve had to take these difficult decisions on mass gatherings.
Yes, indeed. Now you mentioned of course the acute care facilities. Only 17 people in the country in acute care at the moment but I think overall there’s only about two and a half thousand acute care beds in this country.
What are you doing to increase that number? Are we expanding intensive care units in hospitals?
Are we looking at military hospitals or any other resources so that you can in coming months expand the number of acute care beds that are available?
I think this is one of the most important questions for reassuring Australians.
So at the moment we are looking at doubling our ventilator capacity in the ICUs from about 2000 to 4000 units using existing capacity in hospitals, but strengthening it.
They are using spare machines, they are using machines that have been, you know, sometimes put aside as backups, machines that might have been replaced by the absolute latest.
That gets us from about 2000 to 4000.
But then we’re going into production.
We have commissioned with ResMed, a great Australian company, they do sleep apnea machines but they also have a capacity with ventilators and the capacity to adapt what they do, as well as with some of the anaesthetic companies an additional five thousand (inaudible) and that will be a combination of what are called invasive ventilators and non-invasive ventilators which can be repurposed.
And we’ll have to do things in a way which is creative, which may not have been the traditional way, but this allows us to dramatically increase our workforce.
We’re working with the private hospitals. I’ve just been meeting with them this afternoon and we’re guaranteeing their viability as we go forward over the coming six months because that’s such an important message to the market and to the staff to maintain their viability and they, in turn, maintain their capacity.
And what they will do is partner with each of the state systems to provide support.
They may be taking patients from the state system. They may be a particular coronavirus hospital. They may be a hospital for the vulnerable so as they are not having any known coronavirus cases or providing general hospital support, so working as a single, unified, national health system across the country to lift that capacity and to exchange doctors and nurses wherever they’ll be able to focus on those cases that need the intensive care.
We want to save every single life and we’re going to have that shot.
Now, Greg Hunt, you probably didn’t hear me at the top of the show. I understand you were talking to the Prime Minister but I focused on the case of the Ruby Princess.
I actually was, yeah.
One case in particular, where the details have been relayed to me, a woman who is now in intensive care in Western Australia was tested for COVID-19 on the Ruby Princess; was then allowed to leave, stay in a hotel in Sydney for two days before developing symptoms and then flying back to Perth and going home.
I mean, this is a tragic breakdown in our system and could have led to- may well have led to any number of infections in the hotel in Sydney, on the flight back to Perth.
This is just not good enough.
How can we be guaranteed that our systems, state and federal, will prevent that sort of abrogation of responsibility occurring again?
Look, I think this is a very important question. This is precisely why, under the emergency powers, the first order I signed was to prevent the arrival of foreign cruise ships.
Obviously, cruise ships were returning and then, in each of those states, it’s been the responsibility of the state health officers to declare those.
Overwhelmingly, they’ve done a tremendous job.
In this case, I understand, the relevant authority acknowledged on Saturday that there were certain steps that should’ve been taken.
But I’m not in the business of criticising.
I am in the business of fixing. And what we want to do here is make sure that every person, every passenger, is in isolation and is contact traced.
One of the things that we are doing is helping the states with their contact tracing, building that capacity as we go forward. And I think that that’s absolutely essential.
So, my view here is not to be critical of others but to say: let’s make sure, as the Border Force commissioner has done, that the procedures are followed in every case by the relevant health authorities at state level and then here, to contract trace to contact trace and to contact trace.
Now, the public policy debate regarding schools is going to go on and it’s been quite complicated and heated already. But I want to ask you just for the pure medical advice, the latest medical advice you’re getting on schools and children.
We know that mercifully our children seem not to be particularly vulnerable to this infection.
Is it also the case that that there is evidence or data suggesting that they perhaps don’t spread it either?
So, we definitely know and the chief health officers have reaffirmed that in statements this week that children are less likely to contract and less likely to be affected.
The Chief Medical Officer of Australia, Brendan Murphy, has said the evidence is still not clear on their capacity to spread if they do have very mild symptoms.
So, that is one of those items that are around the world is being tested. But what that means is the medical advice says school is a safe place.
And I understand some of the questions that parents would have.
But if a child does have very mild symptoms, almost sometimes unrecognizable symptoms, put them with a grandparent and that could put that grandparent at grave risk, at perilous risk, that no family would actually want.
If they are in shopping centres instead of being at home or at school, if they are milling in groups.
These are why the isolation requirements are so important and why the medical advice has been that the schools are an appropriate place.
I understand that some of the states are preparing for both school holidays and for the possibility of online learning.
That’s why there’s a unified national view on the medical advice, but flexibility for implementation at individual state level.
Greg, your focus is obviously on the health response here, the medical response. That’s going to be what’s keeping you going day and night and every Australian would wish you every success in this endeavour.
But the big question hanging over all of this, not just in this country but around the world, is there any possibility- how much sleep does the National Cabinet lose over that equation, that question of whether the cure here could do more damage than the disease?
Look, this is an immensely important question.
I went to get a takeaway coffee. I came in early this morning to do media in my office. I went to get a takeaway coffee mid-morning after just stopping for a moment. I wanted to be out and see what’s happening with the shops. I could see so many shops closed. I spoke to so many people and what was interesting was the sense of fear but also of appreciation of the importance. And I spoke, as I bought the takeaway coffee, a little local coffee shop, Harlem, that had closed the coffee shop that opened the takeaway window, and the hardship but the understanding. So, these things weigh immensely.
But what we are seeking today is to maintain the capacity in the system.
And sometimes, people will say: gosh if you can just lock everything down, it will all go away.
Well, that doesn’t make the disease go away.
But what it could do is it could have unintended consequences of destroying capacity in the health system because a truck might not be able to run. Critical parts may not be able to be produced.
You might not be able to get workers, magnificent nurses or doctors or hospital administrators, to the hospitals or to the general practices.
And so, those unintended consequences, whether it’s for the health system, the police and security system, or the food and critical supply system, are so important and that’s why we’ve considered work generally other than the negative list of those which are gatherings to be essential because it underpins the capacity to deliver all the other essential services.
Greg Hunt, thanks so much for joining us tonight.
Thanks Chris. And the final message to everybody is: these will be times like we will never again see in our lives and- other than those that lived through the war had never seen before.
But it’s a limited duration. We believe about six months. Could be a little less, could be a little more. But if we back each other and support each other, we’re going to get through this. We really will get through this.
Yeah. Well said and good luck to you, Greg Hunt.
The Federal Health Minister there, Greg Hunt. The man in the eye of this storm along with the Prime Minister of course.
Fascinating to get those insights from him.
He will be joining the National Cabinet in a hook-up in about an hour from now as the state premiers and the Federal Government look at the next step in this battle against the pandemic.