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Interview - AM, ABC

24 March 2020

Kim Landers

Subject: COVID-19 - panic buying, PPE and domestic manufacturing


Minister for Industry, Science and Technology Karen Andrews was interviewed on ABC's AM.

Kim Landers: Australian companies are being drafted into boosting manufacturing of vital medical equipment including ventilators, protective masks, and gowns and hand sanitiser. The Federal Industry Minister is Karen Andrews. I spoke with her earlier.

Minister, when are we going to be able to go to the shops and buy hand sanitiser, toilet paper, even masks, without it being a futile mission?

Karen Andrews: Well, I understand absolutely people's concerns when they go into supermarkets and they see empty shelves. Can I assure the Australian people that this is a restocking issue, not a supply issue? So we do have adequate supplies of things like toilet paper. We do have more than adequate supplies of food. It's just that it's being stripped from the supermarket shelves quicker than it can be replaced at the moment. Hand sanitiser production is certainly ramping up. We've got Ego Pharmaceuticals that are currently manufacturing five times their forecast at 90,000 bottles a day.

Kim Landers: When you talk about the hoarding, it isn't abating though. Will we need to introduce rationing or even fines to prevent stockpiling?

Karen Andrews: Well, in fact the panic buying is sort of a little bit up and down at the moment. The products are changing, we’ve seen instances of people hoarding toilet paper and then we went to pasta, rice. We have seen a bit of panic buying with Ventolin, which seems to be easing, which is good. But we do need to get that message out to Australians that we do have very good supplies of just about all of our food products, all of our medicines, so there is no need to panic buy.

Kim Landers: We spoke about hand sanitiser a little while ago, let's turn to the supplies for our doctors, our nurses, our hospitals. What's being done to provide protective gear, full face screens, gowns, gloves and the like?

Karen Andrews: Well, we've been working on this for several weeks. So we do already have some manufacturers and some suppliers. It's true that there has been a heavy reliance in recent times on product coming in, particularly from China. But we do have some manufacturing capacity here in Australia. We went out about a week and a half ago with a request for information to really just find out exactly what was out there - not just with people who could manufacture these goods now but those who could retool and build capacity. So, it might be that they're manufacturing different equipment that they can use to start manufacturing what we need. So this …

Kim Landers: [Interrupts] But how quickly a company is going to be able to suddenly switch from making one thing to suddenly whipping up things like gowns and gloves?

Karen Andrews: Well, some things have happened really quickly. So we've got a company by the name of Med-Con based just outside Shepparton, they already produced surgical masks. So we've actually already doubled their capacity and we're looking to increase that even further. So we've done that with a lot of support from the ADF to go in there and work on the equipment that they have - replicate that – so we're building capacity there. We're looking at other supply lines for surgical masks and the P2 masks. So now, we do have supply and we do have manufacturing capacity of gloves. We have a good supply of gowns that are coming off the production lines now and are coming into the country.

So we're actually working to gather up as much as we can from our normal supply lines overseas plus new supply lines, and of course, they're building our capacity. We can't do this overnight but we are working on and have been working on it.

Kim Landers: There's another crucial piece of equipment and that is ventilators. How many do we have and how many more are we trying to buy?

Karen Andrews: Well we're putting together the information now about ventilators. There's two types - there's the non-invasive ones and there’s the invasive ones that are primarily used in ICUs. So we do already have capacity for that both in public and private facilities. So we're getting a good handle on what we currently have. We're looking at …

Kim Landers: [Interrupts] Are we going to try to get them made here?

Karen Andrews: That's my next step. So we've already placed orders to get some more of the invasive ventilators produced for us, and I know states and territories are also working on that - but we have placed orders for that. But my next step is to gather together some manufacturers and say: okay this is fine but we need to be able to produce some ventilators here in this country. How are we going to do that?

So those discussions have already started and we'll be ramping those up to make sure that we can convert existing equipment. So for example, sleep apnoea machines potentially could be converted. Anaesthetic machines can potentially be repurposed. And of course, what's in the vets can potentially be repurposed for ventilators. So, we are leaving no stone unturned to make sure that we're getting as many ventilators as we can.

Kim Landers: Minister, thank you very much for speaking with AM this morning.

Karen Andrews: It's a pleasure.