Press Conference in Canberra about the vaccination rollout

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Date published: 

22 March 2021

Audience: 

General public

GREG HUNT:

Good afternoon. I’m joined by Professor Murphy, the head of the vaccines taskforce and we’re pleased to give you an update on the COVID-19 progress in Australia, and we’ll begin with the fact that the latest advice from the National Incident Centre is zero cases of community transmission today.

This makes the 50th day this year when Australia has had zero cases of community transmission or approximately 62 per cent of days for the year.

At the same time, agonisingly, we have seen an uptick in global cases in the last two weeks. Very high figures in the last 24 hours for the weekend – 399,000 cases worldwide and agonisingly, over 6000 lives lost.

So I think that puts into perspective the extraordinary achievements in Australia and I want to thank everybody in every part of society, community, the medical profession, the health departments and other government departments across the state and across the country. So thank you to everybody.

And also, very high testing yesterday of 30,000 tests nationwide which for a Sunday was an excellent result.

If I may turn just to today to remind Phase 1B begins today. Over 6 million Australians will be invited to participate over the coming weeks and months, and we do reinforce the need for patients and the fact that with approximately 250,000 doses to be made available for this week.

That means we all have to recognise there’s enough vaccine for every Australian three times over but that, very importantly, those vaccines, as it is with the flu, or the National Immunisation Program, are distributed over a period of time. But we’re in a very, very strong position. I want to thank everybody for that.

If I may turn to the progress on the vaccination, so what we see is that there are now over 281,500 people that have been vaccinated Australia wide.

In particular, you will see that there are 58,358 people who have been vaccinated in aged care, if we can just turn to aged care, and of those, over 49,000 are first doses and over 9000 are second doses.

Very importantly, already 609 facilities have had first doses and 89 have had second doses. So, good progress around the country with significant ramp-up during the course of this week.

If we then turn to the Phase 1B rollout, as we say, over 1000 general practices are due to commence this week.

I had the privilege of joining the National Health Co-op in Macquarie today, to see Joe, our doctor, provide a very steady hand with vaccinating Lynn, our patient. And these vaccinations are occurring around the country today.

We’re seeing vaccinations in state clinics with regards to a focus on our health workers, we’re seeing vaccinations in general practices, and we’re seeing vaccinations in Commonwealth respiratory clinics.

And I think it’s a signature day for Australia in terms of the vaccine rollout and I want to thank our GPs, and what we’ve seen is that many of them are doing longer term bookings.

The Prime Minister and I met with the general practices, with the heads of the RACGP and the Australian Medical Association and many of our rural bodies, such as the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine and the Rural Doctors Association of Australia, on Friday. And all practices are being given 12 weeks confidence with their minimum vaccine supply so they have that certainty and they are free to book for long periods during that.

The practice we visited this morning, for example, was making initial bookings right to the end of April so over a five-week period. And they’re able then able to book in many people and to give them some certainty, as well as that, the Commonwealth respiratory clinics are available.

If I may, I might now turn to Brendan and just to remind on people who are eligible to be vaccinated and after that, he’ll also address AstraZeneca and some great news, I think, on that front globally as well as domestically, then we’ll be happy to take questions.

BRENDAN MURPHY:

Thank you, Minister.

So just to remind people, those who are eligible to be vaccinated in Phase 1B, you’ll recall that we’ve already started early parts of 1B with healthcare workers and household contacts of healthcare workers in some of the state run clinics.

But this is the really exciting thing where we’re rolling out 1B to the general population, initially to the over 70s and those with underlying medical condition and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people 55 years and over.

As Minister Hunt said, there are 6 million people in Phase 1B. This is a huge and complex exercise as we roll out over 4000 points of presence over the next month.

Getting vaccines to all of these points of presence is a complicated and sophisticated logistic task and, of course, as new clinics come on board, more appointments will be available and more access will be available.

So we do say, as I’ve said on many occasions, we are rolling out clinics, points of presence and vaccine as soon as we have available vaccine – and I’ll come to that in a minute – but that is the major determining factor of the rate of rollout.

So we do ask people, I know there’s a lot of enthusiasm, which is great, in Australia, to get vaccinated, but be patient and wait, look at the eligibility checker and wait for appointments to come up.

So the particular focus obviously at the moment is on the over 70s and 80s and those with chronic conditions, the more vulnerable population, and we have deliberately sought to vaccinate those people mainly in general practices because general practices are what- are the place where they are known, they know what their conditions are and they feel comfortable in that setting.

So it is going to be a big, big exercise. And we’re so, so grateful to those wonderful general practitioners around Australia who have put up their hand to be part of this vaccination program and have started already. Next slide.

The AstraZeneca vaccine is our workhorse vaccine. I have said on many, many occasions how lucky we are to have onshore production of a vaccine.

Every country in the world that is dependent on international supplies is facing supply chain challenges. This workhorse vaccine is being produced in Australia, and very exciting that the TGA, only yesterday, approved the local production of this vaccine.

The vaccine that has been crossed licensed from AstraZeneca to CSL and is being made in Parkville and increasing doses will be coming off the production line over coming weeks in Parkville.

That will provide us with a reliable, steady, and progressively increasing source of vaccine so that we can expand our rollout. The TGA hopefully will be releasing the first batches of this vaccine in coming days.

The other noise about AstraZeneca vaccine, of course, everyone is aware, was the word from the European Medicines Agency that they have reaffirmed that this vaccine is safe and effective. Very important. It is a safe and effective vaccine.

In my view, it is as effective as the Pfizer vaccine, the two are indistinguishable. And it is great we have two wonderful vaccines.

TGA have also reaffirmed on the international data the safety efficacy of this vaccine after the European Medicines Agency decision. Obviously, each batch which is produced in Australia, will be tested and be released progressively.

But this is now the most exciting development, in my mind, is to have locally produced vaccine which we will display- and deploy, sorry, to the population as quickly and as we can safely do. Last slide.

Again, I do want to emphasise the need for patience. It is going to take us some time to vaccinate 6 million people in Phase 1B. We do not have community transmission in Australia. We have the time to do it properly.

We’re not going slowly, we’re going as quickly as we can with vaccines, but we’re doing it with safety as the paramount objective and getting people to these vaccination clinics near their home where we possibly can.

So you can continue to look at the website or call the Coronavirus Helpline. But be patient, wait for appointments to come up.

Your time will come. We’re going to get Australia vaccinated. We have done very well so far and we’re going to continue to improve and expand this program.

Thank you.

GREG HUNT:

Happy to take any questions. Rachel?

JOURNALIST:

Minister Hunt, two questions. How many doses are CSL going to distribute this week?

Do you have that information?

GREG HUNT:

We’ll have the final confirmation once batch testing is done. But we are on track to be able to meet all of our commitments to all of the states and territories and general practices over the course of the coming 12 weeks on the latest work that we were doing over the weekend.

But they will progressively build towards a million. Of course, we have to have the contingency for second doses. But reaffirmed only on Friday, that we’re in a position to meet all of our distribution commitments.

Second question please.

JOURNALIST:

Are there concerns the pause of AstraZeneca in Europe could have a lasting impact on people’s confidence? I know some doctors are contacting patients who are still a bit hesitant because of that blood clot reporting.

GREG HUNT:

Sure. Look, I’ll give a view and then I think Brendan’s views probably more informed on this than mine.

But we do know that one of the biggest hesitations in Australia, and I think it is important to be honest about this, is the question about safety.

And there are far more people who have been concerned in our research about the rollout being too fast other than too slow. The vast majority think it’s on track, but some feel that it is too fast and they want to know about safety, which is why there is constant reaffirmation.

We haven’t had those debates to the same extent in Australia. Globally, of course, you would all know better than us that the public appetite and the media focus has probably been greater on this specific issue of vaccines than anything I can remember on a sustained basis.

So our job is to provide the confidence and we can say these are safe and effective, and we think the best medical regulator in the world has not only made the decision, reaffirmed it, and then affirmed the Australian production which gives us the vaccine manufacturing capability. But our medical authorities are strongly supportive.

BRENDAN MURPHY:

Yeah, thank you. So, obviously, these small numbers of cases are of a very rare event in Europe have created some attention, and the European agencies are trying to understand them more.

But I think the important thing to note is that we have to stick, as Minister Hunt said, with what the regulatory authorities say.

The European Medicines Authority has intensely examined this issue. And despite a lot of anxiety in Europe, they have come out with a completely conclusive statement to say that they think this vaccine is safe and effective, and should be continued to be rolled out across the whole population.

The TGA has done its own independent review of the data. Obviously, we are monitoring data over time. But as you say, whenever there is anxiety that creates issues with confidence. And we need to inform our health professionals with the best advice so they can provide that reassurance.

I am very confident that this vaccine is safe and effective. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have had it myself.

GREG HUNT:

Tamsyn?

JOURNALIST:        

Minister, just wondering if you could give us an update on the situation in PNG and any other nations that the Government might be considering to support our neighbours, and whether we might be considering pushing more vaccines up to the northern parts of Queensland to protect those vulnerable communities up there?

GREG HUNT:

So firstly, let me start with northern Queensland. We’ve been working very closely with the Queensland Government that is focussing with our support and with our strong endorsement on the border areas.

So they are doing an advanced vaccination programme through the Torres Strait Island, and we thank them for that. And they’re doing that in cooperation with and with the support of the Australian Government.

Secondly, in relation to PNG, we are expecting our AUSMAT team to arrive this week and they will do what we call forward planning, and they’ll be assessing the situation on the ground and the PNG health system.

We’re actually in constant engagement. Our High Commission, other Australians that are on the ground, providing- we’re working directly with the PNG Government.

Brendan, I think you’ve spoken with your counterpart? The Prime Minister has spoken with the PNG Prime Minister, and so we’re now preparing for our deployment of materials and, at the same time, receiving information in on the epidemiology and, at the same time, working with Europe to try to secure those large-scale doses.

I had a discussion yesterday with AstraZeneca; they feel that they may be able to provide some doses over the coming period, and they never really identify the particular source, but that was more heartening. But we will also have more feedback from Europe.

JOURNALIST:

Would we consider sending any of the Australian doses now that they’ve been approved in Australia?

GREG HUNT:

So, I think the important this is if we can get part of the 3.1 million, because we’re not counting them in out forward projections in Australia – so these are the 3.1 million AstraZeneca doses which to date haven’t been released – they would effectively represent additional supply without having to draw on Australia’s doses.

So we’re providing 8000 immediately to support the health workers from within our own supplies in Australia. But if we are able to access that 3.1 million, any part of it, then that’s additional, which is good news.

JOURNALIST:

Were you able to secure those ones that are coming from Europe?

GREG HUNT:

We cross each bridge as we come. But we’re very determined to help PNG. They’re our friends, our neighbours. They supported us when it really mattered historically.

JOURNALIST:

Just to follow Rachel’s question, sorry, if I could.

We’ve been hearing from the Government for some time that we would soon have one million CSL doses per week. Could you tell us exactly when you would expect us to start getting one million doses per week?

And if we do, considering the speed of we’re giving jabs out so far, do you think we will actually see 1 million people being jabbed per week once we get 1 million jabs per week?

GREG HUNT:

No, we’ve always said that whilst we’re doing Phase 1- or whilst we’re doing first doses, we had to provide for contingency for second doses. So once we get to the second doses, we would hope that we would pass that million figure per week. And so we have to put aside contingency for that.

Our goal is to make sure that we receive the amount. We’ll have 50 million doses coming in. We’re just a little bit cautious about batches which we don’t control.

And so as we receive each batch, we’ll be able to talk about it. But what we do have affirmation of is that all of our forward projections for distributions have been reconfirmed on the weekend.

JOURNALIST:

I just wanted to ask about a travel bubble with New Zealand. I noticed that some legislation was amended overnight. Is everything ready to go from the Australian side?

GREG HUNT:

Yes, so Australia is ready for any potential travel bubble with New Zealand. Obviously, we have green lanes open to Australia, but we have facilitated it so as Australians can leave Australia if and when New Zealand is at a point where they feel comfortable to receive Australians without quarantine.

So we’ve prepared. We understand New Zealand has to go through its processes, and we’re deeply respectful of those, but we’re ready when they are. Clare.

JOURNALIST:

Picking up on the travel bubble issue, this morning New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern indicated that they’d had issues dealing with Australia on the whole, and instead having state by state agreements.

How would that work, given it’s the Federal Government taking- in control of borders? And are you aware of what level the New Zealand Government has been making arrangements with Australia?

GREG HUNT:

Well, we’ve been working with them very closely. I’m not aware of any issues because, you know, we’re engaging. I think, Brendan, you may have had discussions directly with New Zealand, and certainly Paul Kelly has.

BRENDAN MURPHY:

Yes, I think New Zealand have expressed concerns when different states were more anxious about recent New Zealand outbreaks.

I think we’ve now got a very good, consistent approach with our Eastern Seaboard states, and they’re very prepared to work together and stick with a common approach, which would be one that the Federal Government will lead.

So I think AHPPC, through my colleague Paul Kelly, has been doing a lot of work on this. We know that we have to give New Zealand certainty. They have to give us certainty.

If we open a bubble, we have to be confident that both sides of the Tasman will be prepared to respond to small outbreaks without stopping the bubble.

JOURNALIST:

But, sorry, we already allow people to come from New Zealand who are not quarantined. So why would there be an issue if certain states were more hesitant about New Zealand?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

Well, we have closed the travel bubble a couple of times when New Zealand have had outbreaks.

JOURNALIST:

But at a national level.

BRENDAN MURPHY:

Yeah. Yeah.

GREG HUNT:

Look, I think from our perspective, everybody coming from New Zealand is both welcome and able to come to Australia under a green lane arrangement, and there are no barriers at our end.

We’re working very closely with New Zealand. I apologise. I wasn’t aware of those comments, and I’m not sure of the basis. And so I’d always rather check them firsthand.

But we are ready, willing and able to assist Australians or people who want to travel to New Zealand from Australia to do so. New Zealand’s done really well during the pandemic, and we’ve worked very closely with them on so many different fronts. And we’ll continue to do that.

JOURNALIST:

Minister, just by my rough calculations here, just to get Phase 1B done by October, you’d have to be putting about 28,000 jabs per day into people’s arms.

Now, that balance between cautious and commitment, are you are you confident that you can hit that strike rate between now and October just for Phase 1B?

GREG HUNT:

We’re confident on Phase 1B. What we’ll see, of course, is that this week we start with over 1000 general practices, and then we progressively increase to over 4000 before the end of April.

At the same time, we’re seeing the states expand now that they have access to AstraZeneca. As the aged care facilities are progressively finished, then the Pfizer vaccines, which are likely to increase in number, will be exclusively provisioned for the states. And so they’ll be able to vaccinate more.

And then, of course, we have the Commonwealth Clinics. So you have those three layers of Commonwealth, state and general practice as the bedrock. You know, our GPs are the absolute heroes.

And so this is how we vaccinate the country every year for flu. It’s how we vaccinate people through the National Immunisation Programme. The speed limiting factor is simply vaccines in, so supply, dictates the distribution.

But we have strong supply. As of yesterday, we have very, very strong supply.

JOURNALIST:

We’re hearing reports that some GPs still haven’t received their vaccines. Do you know why that’s happening?

GREG HUNT:

So, let me deal with this because we had an interesting case study yesterday where one journalist had called a series of practices and came to us and said there are four practices that haven’t received the vaccine.

So, they were calling the front desk on a Sunday. We said, okay, if you could share those names with us; turned out, we were able to come back to them. It took us about an hour, hour and a half of the vaccine operation centre’s time on a Sunday.

And we were able to provide the fact that at 2.35pm on the 19th of the 3rd, the consumables were received in that practice and signed by electronic delivery.

At 4.37pm on the 19th of the 3rd, the vaccines were received by that practice and acknowledged by electronic signature. And we were able to do that progressively for all four.

And so, that was a case of a journalist, in good faith, but ringing around on a Sunday and speaking to people who were staffing that front desk. And when we dug into it, it showed that all of those four practices had received the details.

So, there will be some that because of the flooding will have had a distribution effect, or from time to time you might have a refrigerator that goes out which could have been flood related, or others where they have to check the details.

But we’ve had over 1000 distributed, and that’s continuing on today wherever they can get through in the flood circumstances. So, that part of it’s on track.

My one request is if you do have any of these reports – and again, there was somebody else who spoke on TV today. I spoke to that particular doctor about other practices and said, look, would be great if you could give us the practice names, and he said look, I read it on social media, I don’t have the practice names.

So, please contact the Vaccine Operation Centre if you have specific details. Please contact the Vaccine Operation Centre. They can turn it around quite quickly and check all these cases. So often when we’ve chased them to ground, they’ve turned out not to be accurate.

I’ll take one more here, and then one from Claire.

JOURNALIST:

Minister Hunt, yesterday Professor Kidd said that there had been some delays of deliveries in the most flood affected parts of New Zealand- New South Wales, rather – wrong issue. But he wasn’t able to put a number on the number of deliveries or the number of GPs impacted.

Are you able to do that yet or do you expect to be able to do that at some point?

GREG HUNT:

Sure. Look, the latest advice is that as of the end of today, there are likely to be 50 practices thereabouts that still require distribution where they don’t think they can get through during the course of today.

And then obviously, safety is just the absolutely paramount thing. This could be GPs or their staff who are, either their practice might be in a flood affected area or their houses, their own communities. It could be their patients are unable to attend and they’re not opening the practice. Or it could be that the distribution simply hasn’t been possible because somewhere along the chain, there’s an impact on that.

So, the advice that we have is that by the end of today, there are likely to still be about 50 practices that, as soon as they open up, I spoke with Linfox yesterday and they said they’re packed, they’re ready to go, and then they’re just distributing during the course of today and as areas open up over the course of the weekend.

And it doesn’t actually change the time of the vaccinations because many practices will do clinics where they’ll do all of the vaccinations on one day, or they might do it over a couple of days. Some might do them continuously over the week.

Alright. I’ll take that very last one.

JOURNALIST:

Thanks Minister. The one million a week figure, you say you’ve reconfirmed the supply plans and obviously the Government’s using the October target.

How does the one million a week fit into that if we don’t exactly understand when that supply level will be hit? Will it be, for example, in Phase 1, or perhaps?

GREG HUNT:

No, look, we’re expecting very large numbers this week. We’re just always a little bit cautious until the batch testing is done. But what we’re doing is building towards one million a week.

We’re expecting very large numbers and full distribution of all of the vaccines that we’ve pledged over the course of the next 12 weeks.

It’s just, one of the things is I always try to wait until the batch testing is done. We waited until the approval of the CSL plant and then TGA announced that yesterday. So, we are in terms of our distributions, exactly as we had hoped to be.

We always said we would start 1B in this week, and we had hoped that we would get our approvals from the TGA by now. That’s exactly what’s happened.

And then subject to the batch confirmations, which we’ll talk to you about this week, we’re in a very strong position for the full distributions.

JOURNALIST:

What’s your best guess on the one million a week, though, post Phase 1B?

GREG HUNT:

No, no. During the course of 1B.

JOURNALIST:

We’ll hit one million delivered?

GREG HUNT:

We’re expecting that this will progressively ramp up. Yep. And there are scenarios where depending on the batch shields – and Brendan has been doing this – it will grow beyond that. But again, we’re not banking on any of that. We’re just continuing to be cautious.

We’ve seen from overseas there were contracts made and contracts thwarted because of global supply chains and then issues with the EU. That’s an honest answer.

This vaccine supply in Australia is absolutely one of the two most important decisions that we’ve made. There are many people who thought we should just contract from overseas.

We didn’t know what the circumstances would be. But our judgement in August, the Prime Minister, myself, Professor Murphy, was that the risks of events occurring overseas were too great not to take extraordinary action to produce vaccines onshore.

And you know what? At that time, there were many people who said we either didn’t need to do it or it wasn’t possible, and yet we’ve done it.

Alright, thanks very much, everybody.

JOURNALIST:

Can I ask a question to Professor Murphy.

GREG HUNT:

Sure.

JOURNALIST:

Just about hotel quarantine and when you expect that might end?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

I don’t- it’s just- how long’s a piece of string? We just don’t know.

As I’ve said on many occasions, it depends on how effective the vaccines are, how long the duration of vaccines are, what other countries do.

Government will be taking expert medical advice from AHPPC over the course of this year and we’ll review that. There’s very keen interest, obviously, across the country and in government. But the expert advice is that it’s still too early to make a definite prediction.

JOURNALIST:

But you anticipate that it will end one day?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

Of course it will. The sun will shine.

GREG HUNT:

It’s a temporary, not a permanent condition. And today is the beginning of the next phase of Australia’s vaccine rollout.

But on a day where there have been no cases of community transmission and on the fiftieth day this year when there have been no cases of community transmission, and in a year where there have been no lives lost in Australia, thankfully, to COVID-19, this is the next great horizon which begins today.

And thousands of people are being vaccinated in GP practices and Commonwealth clinics around the nation. And it’s a really important step forward.

Take care, everybody.

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