Health | Ageing

Federal Health Minister the Hon. Greg Hunt: Australia meeting challenge of COVID-19

Federal Minister for Health and Sport, the Hon. Greg Hunt joined CEDA at a recent livestream to provide an update on the crisis and how Australia has managed so far.

“By global standards Australia's outcome has been an extraordinary achievement,” he said.

“The successive million (cases) is being reached at a faster rate than the million beforehand, and that's a very concerning outlook. It means that the global situation whatever our challenges domestically, the global situation is real and accelerating.

“We had a pandemic plan that was viewed by the World Health Organisation a couple of years ago as being probably the most advanced in the world. It turned out we were able to execute it but then of course we had to...move in terms of PPE and other things.

“Nobody could predict that in a global outbreak, the centre of global mask production Wuhan, would be the first place to be hit, so there was a massive supply shock. At the same time as there was an enormous demand spike.

“We are clearly having what we regard as a very serious spike in Victoria now, there's no question about that,” he said.

“As we’ve designed operations going forward we’ve said where there are outbreaks – and we’ve always said there would be outbreaks – we would have to have testing, tracing but also the potential for local solutions.

“We conveyed to Victoria that we would be supportive if they chose additional local measures.

“We’re pursuing through Victoria a localised testing strategy which sees tens of thousands of people tested both symptomatic obviously, but asymptomatic as well. 

“We ramped up public health around the country and we’re diverting resources where they are needed. South Australia, Tasmania, New South Wales, Queensland, WA, they are all contributing to what’s occurring at this point in time in Victoria, bringing forward resources.”

Speaking about the COVID-19 crisis overall, Mr Hunt described the pillars of containment. 

“We set out to deal with this through containment - the flattening of the curve, the reduction of numbers - and capacity - increasing the ability of the primary care, the aged care, the hospital system - and the research components of our health economy to manage what is clearly now a massive and ever growing pandemic,” he said.

“The tracing has two elements: the human and the electronic.

“The (COVIDSafe) app is now at six and a half million downloads.

“It’s doing what it’s meant to do. It’s actually been used for multiple contacts; it’s identified people that otherwise would not have been known.”

Mr Hunt said Australia had now completed over 2.3 million tests, testing more than 40,000 Australians a day.

On telehealth, Mr Hunt said that a plan for telehealth was in train and was initially going to be introduced to seniors first on 1 July 2020 and then rolled out over 10 years, but was rolled out to the entire population to meet the challenges of COVID-19.

“Because we had some of that architecture in place, we were able to rapidly build on that. That allowed us to make the decision to go to whole of population telehealth and…we were able to make adjustments as required,” he said.

“We were able to introduce universal telehealth to the whole population in a 10-day period.

“We’re now approximately at 17 million telehealth consultations.

“We’ve got a system we intend to be a long-term system. We will have to adjust it to make sure that it’s not in any way shape or form subject to overuse by some sectors.

“The Shifting the Dial report said that telehealth is likely to produce at least $300 million of economic benefits per annum in terms of inefficiencies as well as of course the patient benefits.”

This included in mental health and aged care Mr Hunt said.

Mr Hunt also discussed Australia’s research and clinical trial system.

“What we have now is a high degree of international interest, building on what was already a high degree of interest for clinical trials and for research in Australia,” he said.

“Many of the systems in other countries for non-COVID research have had to be put on deep pause and as a consequence of that, we know already that there’s in an interest in rapid movement for phase one, phase two and parts of phase three trials to Australia.

“We are now moving with the states and territories to set up a one-stop-shop for ethics approval.

“If there’s a standard and institutions are included, then that will expedite that investment process.

“The pharmaceutical companies have said that will bring a more general investment in basic research as well as potential for advanced manufacturing.”

Looking ahead Mr Hunt discussed Australia’s borders.

“We’re going to use quarantine for students, for high-skilled investment capacity and maybe further down the track for people who are going to come in if they want to be long stay tourists, and they’re willing to pay for their own two weeks accommodation and accept that they would have to have two weeks hotel quarantine," he said.

"But those international border restrictions will be with us for a long time.” 

Also speaking on the livestream was University of Melbourne, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and Professor of Medicine and Radiology, Director of Molecular Imaging, Professor Rodney Hicks, and Siemens Asia Pacific President, Elisabeth Staudinger.