Press Conference - Canberra, ACT

Transcript
09 Aug 2021
Canberra, ACT
Prime Minister, Minister for Health and Aged Care
E&OE

PRIME MINISTER: Good afternoon everyone, I'm joined by the Minister for Health and Aged Care Greg Hunt, but I'm also joined today by the head of the Therapeutic Goods Administration, Professor John Skerritt, today, John, and can I thank you for all the great work the TGA has been doing throughout the course of this pandemic, making sure that the vaccines that Australians have access to are safe. This is very important. Australia has one of the best records in the world when it comes to the administration of vaccines. We don't cut corners when it comes to vaccines. We ensure that the world class regulators that we have and Professor Skerritt is certainly one of those leading an outstanding organisation that has a very straightforward task. And that is to ensure that what they give the stamp to, what they put their support for in the approvals they give means that you can get those jabs, whether they are for your children on immunisation or indeed for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Today we have been given the green light to take another very important step forward to implement our national plan on the path forward out of COVID-19. The Therapeutic Goods Administration has given provisional approval for the use of Moderna for Australians aged 18 years and over. This means we have an additional 25 million doses of Moderna to add to the 125 million Pfizer doses and 53 million AstraZeneca doses we have already started rolling out. We will have 10 million of Moderna doses arriving before the end of this year. The first one million doses is on track to arrive next month and will go to pharmacies. Then we will have three million on October, three million in November and three million in December. This is another important tool that we have in our battle against COVID. We'll have it in our hands and we'll have the jabs in our arms starting next month. This is our plan to ensure that we get Australia to where we need to get to this year. We have more Pfizer, we have more AstraZeneca, and now we have Moderna. We have more doctors. We have more nurses, we have more pharmacists. We have more jabs in arms. And now 10 million Moderna to add this year.

With more than 1.3 million vaccine doses delivered in just one week, that is almost the population of the city of Adelaide, with 676 pharmacy sites, with 5,765 GPs enlisted and out there providing jabs and providing important advice. With the state hubs that are in place and rolling out, the national plan to get the jabs in arms, to implement the national plan is working. We have a plan to get to 70 per cent of Australians vaccinated before the end of the year. We can do this because we are doing this. Every vaccination saves lives. Every vaccination gets us a step closer to where we want to be. And I want to thank, as I did in Question Time today, all Australians who rolled up their sleeves and thank Australians who are coming forward to roll up their sleeves to arm themselves against the COVID-19 pandemic. We still have a journey to travel together, but that's how we will do it. We will do it together. Australia will get this job done. Greg.

THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: Ah thanks very much PM and Professor Skerritt. Moderna is the next vaccine to help save lives and protect lives in Australia. It comes on top of AstraZeneca and Pfizer and it will be complemented by Novavax and supplies from the COVAX facility. The Prime Minister set the achievement out in the approval. John will set out more of the details. I'll just give a very brief update on the vaccination programme.

As we know, over 1.33 million vaccinations in the last week. And as the PM said, that's almost the population of Adelaide, it's the population of Canberra, Newcastle, Geelong together. And it gives you a sense of what's being achieved. On five days last week, there were over 200,000 vaccinations and with 240,000 vaccinations on one day, that's the equivalent of more than three million vaccinations a day in the United States. And so that acceleration has actually happened. But these additional vaccines will allow it to continue further.

Just to provide another brief update, as the PM mentioned, we now have over 5,700 primary care points of presence and the pharmacies are now over 670, 676 are ready to vaccinate this week, and that will increase to over 1,500 by next week and over 2,500 two weeks from now. So additional vaccines, additional vaccination points, a record number of vaccinations, all of that has led to over 13.7 million vaccinations in Australia. It's led to a situation where AstraZeneca has been the workhorse with more than 7.4 million vaccinations and Australians are stepping forward and are continuing to do that. We've seen the reports that, confirmed reports, that Victoria is opening up new channels and we thank them for that. And so what that means is that with the arrival in Australia, we've just had 1.2 million Pfizer arrive in Australia in the last 24 hours. That's what's allowing us to expand to some of the states by bringing forward doses. With those arrivals, this week, we're expecting to distribute two million vaccines for the states, approximately 670,000 Pfizer and 41,000 AstraZeneca. For primary care, 447,000 Pfizer and 832,000 AstraZeneca are the orders that have been placed and will be delivered over the course of this week. Taken together, all of these doses offer Australians the chance to step forward, to continue to be vaccinated and to protect their lives and to protect the lives of everyone they love. John.

ADJUNCT PROFESSOR JOHN SKERRITT, HEAD OF THE THERAPEUTIC GOODS ADMINISTRATION: Thank you, Prime Minister, and thank you, Minister. So as the Prime Minister and Minister have said, we're delighted to have provided regulatory approval to the Moderna vaccine just within the last hour. It's also known as Spikevax (elasomeran), but like many things, the trade names will probably stick. And it's the fourth vaccine to receive regulatory approval in Australia. As many people will know, that regulatory approval is advised by a committee of external, medical and community experts, and they strongly supported its regulatory approval.

Now, some of you may be aware that very recently Europe has authorised or at least recommended its use for children in over 12. We made the decision in conjunction with the company to do the adults first because that enabled us to reach a decision earlier, which can then start the whole process of access to the vaccine in Australia earlier. The data on the teenagers does look good and we should be able to make a decision, again, convening the expert advisory committee within the next three or four weeks on an application for use in 12 and over. It’s highly efficacious. And of course, we can build on widespread global experience. So in the US alone, there has been over 140 million doses of Moderna used. The other really encouraging thing about Moderna is even after six months, it's proving to be 93 per cent efficacious against any infection, 98 per cent against severe disease and 100 per cent against death. And that's really exciting.

Now, none of us has a crystal ball and no medical expert will be able to say you will need a booster on a certain date. But it's very exciting to see such sustained activity of that vaccine six months after. It also seems to be quite efficacious against variants, although the company is doing some further work on development of variants. A little bit different from Pfizer, it does require two doses, 28 days apart, although like Pfizer, it's a messenger RNA vaccine.

Now, I've been asked to briefly talk also about Sitrovomab and some of the medical evidence underpinning that substance. Now, I do need to emphasise it is still under evaluation by TGA and given the need to ensure there's access to supplies as per vaccines, it's entirely appropriate that an advance purchasing agreement was made. And we're looking at the use of that product in teenagers and adults over 12 years old who have mild and moderate disease but have risk factors for progression to serious COVID. And again, our advisory committee will look at that on this Thursday. We're working closely with GSK, but a regulatory decision should be able to be made very soon so this drug can be made available to those who need it, especially in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane and other cities that are managing the pandemic.

And finally, there's other drugs coming through. And drugs will not replace vaccines. For most viral diseases, it's important to have both drugs and vaccines. And so my team is not only still working on second and third generation vaccines, but we're also increasingly working on a range of about half a dozen really exciting drug candidates. And we're also talking to a number of companies about further drug candidates.

Finally, I've been asked to touch very briefly on rapid antigen tests. Now, these tests have attracted a lot of interest in recent times. And not only is the Commonwealth working with the aged care sector on trials of these tests, but we're also working very closely with industry. And I particularly want to call out the Business Council of Australia, where some of their major members, such as the Commonwealth Bank, are already using these tests in their branches who are providing essential services in western and south western Sydney during these challenging times. Now, as many of you know, these tests are not the gold standard PCR tests, but they are useful, adjunct to it. And the message is, if you come up positive in a rapid antigen test, go ahead and as soon as possible, isolate and get tested for the PCR gold standard test. We're also working on wider availability of these tests, but clearly there are a range of things that have to be resolved, such as collection and recording of data. One of the reasons why Australia has been able to manage the pandemic so well compared with other countries, and I would remind you that even in the UK just last week, there were many days of over 100 deaths. Fortunately, we haven't been anywhere near that at any stage during the pandemic. And so we're working on a number of things, such as can these tests being used more widely, but clearly recording of data, making sure people go and have that positive test, making sure these tests are used at the appropriate time. For example, they work most reliably when there is a concentration of possible cases and also, for example, when you are immediately infectious. And so we're working very closely with business and the aged care sector and others and the states and territories have shown a lot of leadership in this area. And we do expect that while they will never replace a PCR test, they will continue to have an increasing role in testing for COVID-19 infection. Thank you.

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you, Professor Skerritt. Yes, Lanai.

JOURNALIST: So what can you tell us about whether or not Australian children aged six months to 12 will participate in the Moderna trial? And secondly, the IPCC report is out later this afternoon. Will your government commit to net zero emissions by 2050 before Glasgow?

PRIME MINISTER: I'll come back to other questions, non COVID-related later in the press conference after Professor Skerritt leaves us, which is our usual practise, as you know. So while we're on the COVID issues, I'll ask Professor Skerritt to address them.

ADJUNCT PROFESSOR JOHN SKERRITT, HEAD OF THE THERAPEUTIC GOODS ADMINISTRATION: Thank you, Prime Minister. So, Moderna has made statements, but like many other companies in this business, they're major competitors. They are interested in testing the efficacy of our vaccines in children even as young as six months. And we welcome that because while preschoolers and young children, we have to be absolutely convinced about safety, as this, as we move to learn more and more about COVID, it is important to understand the role of these vaccines in children, the same with flu vaccines. At this stage in Australia, there's been no application to conduct a clinical trial in Australia. The company did make a statement, but there was a number of countries they may consider running a clinical trial. But we do not have an application to run a clinical trial at this stage.

JOURNALIST: Can I follow on from that? What's the process for Moderna to set up that trial, which it has indicated it wants to do? Does it first have to gain approval from the TGA to even give its vaccine to somebody as young as one or two years old? And then does it require TGA approval for the trial itself? Can you just go through that?

ADJUNCT PROFESSOR JOHN SKERRITT, HEAD OF THE THERAPEUTIC GOODS ADMINISTRATION: The process essentially would be that they would apply to relevant major hospital networks and the ethics and research committees of those, and they would make a decision based on the safety and the appropriate controls and informed consent and all of those things. That information would then come through to us. It is generally a, it's technically called a notification, although we often do discuss trials of particular interest with the companies. But it is a rapid process as far as we are concerned. But the most important thing is that the major hospital systems, which in this case would be the state and territory public systems, would have oversight of any trial, even if the actual trial was done in an outpatient setting. It is possible that some of these trials can also be done in the private sector. But again, it requires oversight by research and ethics committees and a formal notification of the details of a trial to the TGA.

JOURNALIST: [inaudible] batch testing obviously has to be done. When will the first shots of Moderna go into arms? And secondly, just in the last few minutes, I think the last hour or so, South Korea are saying that its Moderna supply for this month is going to be half and it's blaming global supply problems. What assurance, maybe the Minister there, what assurance have we got from Moderna that we will actually get this vaccine?

ADJUNCT PROFESSOR JOHN SKERRITT, HEAD OF THE THERAPEUTIC GOODS ADMINISTRATION: So I'll just cover off on batch testing. We have already received reagents from Moderna because one of the things about any new laboratory test is the team, first of all, has to be trained in it. And secondly, they have to test with practise samples. The team has been doing that for the last couple of weeks and we're now on top of the testing processes. We have all their methods. So we will be batch testing. Now that can either be done in our labs or a small number of laboratories with whom we have very close working relationships in Europe. But every batch before it goes into Australian arms will be batch tested from Moderna.

THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: As late as the weekend, the advice from Moderna to me directly was that we're expecting one million in the second half of September. And as exactly as the Prime Minister set out, three million in each of October, November and December. But as we do, we are constantly, with all of our suppliers, checking and pushing to bring forward. But that advice was provided over the weekend.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, we're five weeks away from the mid-September deadline for aged care workers to have their first dose of a vaccine. Given how close that is, and that we're still a long way off getting the full workforce vaccinated, at what point do aged care providers have to seriously consider letting staff who say they will not be vaccinated go, so they have time to …

PRIME MINISTER: I just couldn’t hear that last bit, sorry.

JOURNALIST: At what point do providers have to ask staff who refuse to get vaccinated to leave so they have time to replace that workforce? Or, what happens in mid-September if we don't reach the one dose quota for every worker?

PRIME MINISTER: Yeah, well, I’ll, the Minister may also want to add to what I'm saying. We've been working closely with the aged care providers. That's what the Federal Government has been doing to achieve these rates of vaccination amongst the aged care workers. What I'm very pleased about is that the work we put into making sure that the residents of aged care facilities have been vaccinated at the, way higher than 80 per cent level, up to about 86 I think it is …

THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: Eighty-seven now.

PRIME MINISTER: Eighty-seven per cent on first dose and 83, I think, on second dose. That is proving to be enormously helpful in preventing what we saw in Victoria last year, which was terrible. This year in Sydney, and the outbreak we've seen there, those double dose vaccinations across all aged care facilities have proved to be extremely effective. But, you move to the next level, as we have been, and working consistently on this. This has been one of the highest taskings of Operation COVID Shield and General Frewen, and they've been working through it systematically. Now, at this point, there is, there are no states or territories that have put in place public health orders on this matter, that has mandated that requirement, and that is a matter for them. But, what we are doing is working with the providers, ensuring that there will be a transparency, not just at a state level, but at a facility level to ensure that residents and their families understand what is occurring at those facilities and the levels of vaccination. But, I would say this to families too. I would urge you, when your, if your loved one is going into an aged care facility, please ensure they’re vaccinated first. That question will obviously be raised by the aged care facility when they go into that facility. But, it's even better that the answer is yes when they go in. And, it's important to have, it's important to have that discussion because we know that if a resident is in an aged care facility and they haven't had vaccination, they still remain very vulnerable, as we have seen, sadly, very, very recently. But, Greg, did you want to add to that?

THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: Sure. Just to Clare’s question, we have no reason to believe the states will do anything other than proceed with the public health orders. I think that was where you were going. Secondly, the plan that we have and we've worked on, and I was working in this building on Saturday with Lieutenant General Frewen on precisely the question of age care worker vaccinations. I set out in Question Time the channels, but very specifically every aged care facility in Australia is expected to, and on the advice that I have, does have a plan to complete that vaccination process over the course of the period between now and the middle of September. In particular, as part of that, there is also an exceptional circumstances provision that if there were a barrier such as, for example, a lockdown which prevented workers being vaccinated, there's common sense which backs it up.

PRIME MINISTER: Chris. Chris.

JOURNALIST: [Inaudible] has repeatedly said that she's aiming for a 50 per cent vaccination …

PRIME MINISTER: I can’t quite hear you.

JOURNALIST: New South Wales Premier has repeatedly said that she's aiming for a 50 per cent vaccination rate. Does that mean, given where the rest of the states are, that New South Wales will be effectively isolated from the rest of Australia for the foreseeable future?

PRIME MINISTER: I think there's a lot of misunderstanding about this point. I addressed this question on Friday. I understand the Victorian Premier also addressed it today. The Premier in New South Wales is not referring to moving to Phase B at 50 per cent vaccinations. She is not suggesting that. She is not aiming to do that, to go to Phase B. The vaccination rate required to get to Phase B of the National Plan, which the New South Wales Government is an enthusiastic supporter of and has agreed to, is 70 per cent, and then 80 per cent for Phase C. The whole country, on average, has to get to 70 per cent, and then that state itself has to get into 70 per cent. What the Premier is referring to is how New South Wales might seek to manage their suppression phase measures of restrictions in that phase. That is what she's referring to. So, I think these two issues have been at cross purposes and hopefully that clarifies it very clearly, that the Premier is not going in another direction to the National Plan, and New South Wales, all states and territories, affirmed their strong agreement to the National Plan on Friday, and those vaccination targets for moving to Phase B and phase C. This is about the management of the lockdown in New South Wales and what what steps they may take in managing that lockdown while they remain in the suppression phase. But, the important point is this; the lower the case numbers are when we go into Phase B, the better - not just for the nation's health, but for the nation's economy as well. As Professor Skerrit has already noted in terms of what is occurring in countries that do have above 70 per cent vaccination rates, they are still seeing deaths in the United Kingdom that we would hope never to see in Australia at those levels. So, it is very important that the suppression phase continues to work effectively, as we are seeing it do right across the country. But, there is a very big challenge, as we've seen in New South Wales, in arresting the growth in those case numbers, and it remains the goal. It remains the task to suppress those case numbers down. So, when, ultimately, we can get to 70 per cent, which we hope to achieve this year - and based on the vaccination rates we’re achieving, the maths backs that up - then we would be able to go into that phase in a much stronger position, because this is the difference between Australia and the rest of the world. The rest of the world has not seen the very low fatality rates that we've seen in this country. They have not seen the economic recovery, by and large, that we have in this country. They have not seen the very low case numbers. So, we're going for the trifecta. We're going for low case numbers. We're going for low fatality rates, and we're going for a vaccinated country. And, on top of that, a strong economy. So ...

JOURNALIST: [Inaudible] The employer groups are saying they want federal and state public health orders to give them some clarity and they don't want to be left open to the legal limbo and being challenged for decisions they make. Can you rule out any public health orders? And, also, as a federal employer, what is your inclination with things like the federal public service and NDIS workforce, for example?

PRIME MINISTER: The vaccination program in Australia is free and it is not mandatory. That is a very important principle. We are not going to seek to impose a mandatory vaccination program by the Government, by stealth. That is not what we're going to do. It is a non-mandatory program. Now, I set out on Friday that there are already existing powers that employers have, both in terms of lawful directions, reasonable directions to their employers. Equally, business owners have property rights in terms of who they can allow to come in and out of their premises. Those property rights, those authorities that they have for their employees, already exist. Now, we will seek to provide as much careful advice as we can to help them make those decisions. But, it is important that Australians know that we are not going to seek to impose a mandatory vaccination program in this country by some other means. There have been some isolated cases which have already been identified - quarantine workers and aged care workers. They are the only areas that any states or territories or the Commonwealth has suggested that we’re providing some statutory or a public health order enforcement of such a mandating.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, why did Richard Colbeck not know the latest intensive care numbers? And, given his form in this area, why does he deserve to be a member of your health team in your Government, managing such a difficult rollout?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, by the time I was asked the question, I'd had a more updated brief.

JOURNALIST: But, why didn't he know?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, he had the most recent information available to him.

JOURNALIST: He had no information. He said he had to take it on notice.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, he has that information, and I'm sure if he's asked, then he'll provide the appropriate answer.

JOURNALIST: Do you have confidence in him?

PRIME MINISTER: Yes, I do.

JOURNALIST: Just following up from Sarah’s question on mandating, you've made it clear that, by and large, employers are going to do the mandating, if anyone's going to do it.

PRIME MINISTER: If they, if they wish to. That is a matter for the employer.

JOURNALIST: But, then employers take on the liability in the event, God forbid, something goes wrong after a vaccination. The Commonwealth's indemnifying GPs in order to give people vaccinations. Would the Commonwealth consider indemnifying employers who take on the mandating, well, role?

PRIME MINISTER: Let me, I understand the point you're making, Kath, but there's a presumption in the question that says that the Commonwealth wants to mandate vaccines. We are not seeking to mandate vaccines. That is not the Government’s policy. That is not how Australia has successfully run vaccination programs in the past. We've done it because Australians know their value. We know there is an inbuilt incentive in a vaccine. You're less likely to get it. You're less likely to get seriously ill from it. You're less likely to transmit it to a loved one or a friend or someone you meet in the street, and you're less likely to die from it. They’re four very good reasons why it's important to go and get the vaccine, incredibly important reasons why we need to do that, and why every Australian is coming forward in record numbers to get those vaccines. Now, managing things in the workplace, look, we'll continue to engage with, with the various industry and business groups that are raising these issues. And, they're getting, I'm sure, quite a lot of very helpful legal advice about what their authorities are to do this. But, I wouldn't want it suggested that either the Federal Government or the state and territory governments are somehow seeking to impose a mandatory process on this vaccination program for Australians. We've been very clear about that.

JOURNALIST: That wasn’t my question, though. It was, it was about will you consider an indemnity for employers?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, if we were to take that step, I'll let the Minister for Health, that would be there, thereby endorsing some sort of mandatory process.

THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: So, there are two different things here. There’s mandating, which the Prime Minister set out very clearly, is not something that we're proposing, other than in those exceptional circumstances, either with regards to the vulnerability of the worker or the vulnerability of their clients, being quarantine and aged care. In terms of the indemnity process, that automatically, by definition, under the terms that the Prime Minister set out when he announced this, that process covers anybody who takes a Commonwealth sponsored vaccination, so long as it's administered in an appropriate way.

PRIME MINISTER: I’ve got time for one more, because I've got to chair a Cabinet meeting.

JOURNALIST: [Inaudible] change the travel rules for Australian expats wanting to enter the country?

PRIME MINISTER: Sorry, can you start that again.

JOURNALIST: Sorry.

PRIME MINISTER: I apologise. For those who are watching on, the media are rightly wearing masks at the press conference, and sometimes it's hard to hear them.

JOURNALIST: So, last week your Government changed the travel rules for Australian expats wanting to enter the country. So, when are these measures expected to lift? Are they going to be attached to vaccine targets or thresholds? And, what are you doing to increase quarantine capacity into the future so Australians who are overseas can return?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, first of all, the rules regarding returning expats, well, the only change we've made most recently to those is those who would would claim to have had a usual residence overseas, and they previously would have received an automatic exemption, and that is no longer the case. And, that is already in force now because we're seeking to prevent people going out and in and out and in, because that obviously has an impact on quarantine spaces. And, we obviously want to maximise those to have as many as possible who are returning home, and that's why we're seeking to do that. So, that's, that's the only change we've made to those set of arrangements.

JOURNALIST: Sure, but people still want to come back for say, for funerals or milestones.

PRIME MINISTER: Of course they do. And, this is why we’re running the facilitated commercial flights. This is why we've expanded the facilities up at Howard Springs, which is where those flights are coming into. That's why we're increasing those flights. We want to be able to provide as many of those opportunities as we can. But, equally, as I'm sure Australians understand, that in this phase we took the decision to halve the amount of people coming back into Australia at the moment because of the Delta strain of this virus. I can't stress this enough. Delta now accounts for 80 per cent of cases in the United States. And, in the lowest vaccination states, it's even higher. Ninety-seven per cent of hospitalisation in the United States is the unvaccinated. The Delta strain is a complete rule changer for everything. Everything we knew about COVID before has changed. All the tools that we had - test, trace, isolate, quarantine - all of this proved very effective against earlier strains, and did enable jurisdictions to be able to continue to keep much of their states entirely open on on occasions. Delta has changed all of that. It's changed all of the rules and it means we've had to change with it to keep Australians safe. And, that means, right now, we are going through one of the toughest parts of this COVID pandemic. And, I know Australians are frustrated. I know they're sick of it. I know they're angry. And, I know they want it to stop and for life to get back to where they knew it. But, what we have to do now is recognise the reality of the challenge we have in front of us. None of us likes it. None of us likes to have restrictions. None of us likes to have the situation we're having now. And, I can understand that Australians will go, well, you're the Prime Minister, or you're the Premier, or you're the Government. We don't want it to be this way, believe me, I get it. I don't want it to be this way either. I don't want it to be like this for you and your family. I don't want it to be like that for your kids, who I know you want to go to school. I want my kids to go to school, too. We all want that. But, there are no shortcuts here. Delta has made it clear, of this virus, that we have to get through the suppression phase and keep it at bay as best as we can. So, if you're in an area that's in a lockdown, please stay at home. Don't go out for hours on end, don't congregate in areas of Sydney. Don't do it. Stay at home. Only go out if you absolutely have to. The lockdown has to work for the lockdown to be lifted. And, we have to get those case numbers down, because when we get to that next phase and we're at 70 per cent, I want us to go into that phase as strong as we possibly can. So, we have to bear down at this time. We have to push through. We have to not let any voices of negativity overwhelm our optimism for the future, and we have to push through. We have achieved what few countries have. We can't throw it away now because of any impatience. I understand the frustration, but I know Australians will be able to push through. Now, I do have to chair a Cabinet meeting, so thank you very much for your time. And, thank you, Professor Skerritt.