Radio interview with Patricia Karvelas, ABC Radio National on 14 July 2022

Read the transcript of Minister Well's radio interview with Patricia Karvelas, ABC Radio National discussing COVID in Aged Care; mask mandates; health budget.

The Hon Anika Wells MP
Minister for Aged Care
Minister for Sport

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PATRICIA KARVELAS, ABC RN:

Anika Wells is the Minister for Aged Care and I spoke to her a short time ago. Minister welcome.

ANIKA WELLS, MINISTER FOR AGED CARE AND SPORT:

Good morning. How are you?

KARVELAS:

Good. Can you confirm the number of aged care facilities which currently have an outbreak? Is it the 700 The Guardian is reporting?

WELLS:

There's 819 nationally as of yesterday, Patricia. But we do count an outbreak as one resident or two workers, so an outbreak in a facility could mean and often does mean one resident has COVID.

KARVELAS:

According to this morning's report, deaths have risen from a weekly average of 69 to 91 last week. What are your figures and why are deaths rising so rapidly?

WELLS:

I have that we have had a very, very tragic 2141 deaths in facilities this year, which obviously is a steep rise from 2020 or 2021. But one of the reasons I convened the meeting on Monday was to talk about deaths in aged care and to make sure we were doing everything we could to absolutely minimise that this winter. And the advice I was given is that because of the number of cases nationally you know, because those statistics are just bigger across the board. It means that deaths in aged care are larger as well. If you look at percentages, we had a 30 per cent, a horrific percentage, in the first Victorian winter wave of deaths in aged care due to COVID, whereas deaths in aged care due to COVID now are only at sort of two to 3 per cent. So, the percentages are down but obviously let's not shy away from the fact that the numbers nationally are up.

KARVELAS:

What proportion of aged care residents have had a fourth vaccine shot?

WELLS:

So, I have good news there. One of the first things I did was write to all the providers to urge them to do the fourth winter dose and since then, so about six weeks on, we've had a 15 per cent rise in vax rate. So now we've got 70 per cent of our residents vaccinated with a fourth dose, which is a much higher rate than the country as a whole. So, can I use this opportunity to urge your listeners to please consider getting their fourth winter dose if they're in a position to.

KARVELAS:

Today you're releasing the government's winter plan for aged care residents what measures will you be putting in place to protect some of what are the nation's most vulnerable people?

WELLS:

So, this is, I guess, one of those things where I went from being you know, six weeks ago a backbench marginal seat opposition holder and people came to me to say, you know, last winter and the winter before I just don't feel like there's a plan. I don't feel like the government has a plan. It just feels very reactive. So now I've got the keys. I said, let's have a plan. Let's do a winter plan and we met on Monday, the CMO, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, the Aged Care Commissioner to make sure that no rock was left unturned in our response to the wave. So out of that, on Monday, we're launching the winter plan today and that response is in five parts, vaccination, antiviral access, proactive engagement, visitor and worker safety and infection control training.

KARVELAS:

And this week, the New South Wales Government eased restrictions in nursing homes, some other states have already done so does it concern you that this is happening on the cusp of what is a major outbreak? I mean, the Health Minister warning that millions of Australians who are about to be infected.

WELLS:

Absolutely, and that's why the Chief Medical Officer is speaking to his state counterparts out of our meeting on Monday to urge them to keep up your mask mandates even in aged care facilities. And I am writing to my state counterparts where I have written to my state counterparts about that actually yesterday, which is sort of part of the proactive engagement element to the winter plan.

KARVELAS:

So, you're asking them to keep the mask mandates in aged care. Are you making any other requests?

WELLS:

The federal government actually fund infection control training, so we're asking them to make sure that everybody takes that off and like I say, some people are still doing the mask mandate subsystem, individual approach and I know that the Queensland Premier, for example, has asked this to go back to National cabinet, so they can talk about a national approach and I enthusiastically encourage these matters to go back to National Cabinet so that we can get a national approach to this but I've written for everyone individually and the Chief Medical Officer continues to talk to his state counterparts about all this just to make sure that we are leaving no stone unturned.

KARVELAS:

Are you worried that restrictions are being eased and that will cost lives in nursing homes? Is that your fear?

WELLS:

Of course I worry about this, who wouldn't in my job, but I take medical advice, I take it very seriously. The Chief Medical Officer said, the best thing we can do is get the vax rates up. The best thing we can do is ensure that every resident has access to antivirals if they need it. And that's something I'll actually be talking to the providers about. I'm doing a hook up with more than 1000 providers, Aged Care Providers, I should say, on Monday to run through the winter plan.

KARVELAS:

Okay, so talk to me about the antiviral plan in each of the facilities. What does that look like?

WELLS:

Basically, we have procured enough for aged care, residential facilities, and we have along with additional PPE, dispatched it ahead of this anticipated wave. So that unlike previous winters, when everyone was scrambling, everyone was in a reactive mode. People couldn't get PPE, I heard dreadful stories about people having to share gloves and masks and things. Those stock issues are not there this time, those stock is waiting at facilities ready for use.

KARVELAS:

As the federal minister, what's your message to states on restrictions? For instance, are you alarmed that states like Victoria are openly ignoring health advice? There's been health advice to have masks for instance, mandated in certain sectors and they've ignored the advice.

WELLS:

A key part of our winter plan is infection control, and I think we should all be listening to the medical advice. It's certainly what I'm doing. And our Chief Medical Officer let's not run away from this, is really worried. He said he's as worried about this coming away, as he was in December.

KARVELAS:

Look, the sector continues to struggle with serious workforce shortages. The defence force has been providing support for nursing home struggling with staff this is due to wrap up I think on the 12th of August, yet this third wave is predicted to continue well into September. Will you review that?

WELLS:

Like you said it was a decision of the former government and the new government's confirming the decision, the requirements for when people need to isolate and for how long have been significantly reduced. And I think that this goes back to higher principles that I'm sure that you've spoken to the Treasurer Jim Chalmers about this, the budget is an absolute mess. We inherited a budget with a trillion dollars of debt. So, keeping to the plan of letting these payments expire two and a half years into the pandemic is a responsible thing to do. That noted, we will of course, continue to take advice from medical advisors.

KARVELAS:

Look, you mentioned the budget being a mess, and I really think we need to talk about priorities then, because even if you want to pay down debt or deal with the budget, there is a concern that's growing that doing it through the health spending or the COVID response is not the right decision when we're dealing with this big wave. Do you understand people's concerns that you are mismanaging the COVID crisis?

WELLS:

I understand that people think that it looks like we're cutting off health funding when in fact it's expiring, but I would make the point that this budget isn't just a mess, it's booby trapped. I mean, I have found just in my patch, which is but one part of an enormous health budget portfolio is there are measures that are due to expire, you know, 30 December and funding that's due to expire 30 December, that appears to have no rationale other than it made the budget bottom line look better in March, you know, when the Prime Minister announced it. So, if I'm having that experience in one little section of an enormous budget that was already publicly a trillion dollars in debt, I can only imagine what the health minister the treasurer, the finance minister are finding more broadly.

KARVELAS:

But isn't it going to cost more to the economy and people's lives if more people get sick?

WELLS:

But I think if you look at what Jim Chalmers has been saying on this and on health, specifically, health funding, specifically, he has been most disappointed by the health underspend and how much we have had to do in the health space since getting the keys and actually seeing the books properly. So, I don't think it's a fair narrative to say that we are cutting off health spending

KARVELAS:

With respect, the Minister is warning millions of people are going to get COVID and in a speech in February, you attacked the Morrison government for failing to provide free RAT tests to vulnerable people. Why, in government, have you decided that doesn't matter?

WELLS:

I was livid about the RATs in January and we wouldn't have got parliament till February, which is probably where you're talking about me talking about that in the parliament. Because everyone had a miserable January you couldn't get a RAT for love nor money. You also couldn't get you know, like the the PCR queues went for 8 to twelve hours. I've got young kids, all my friends have young kids people couldn't stand in a PCR queue for 12 hours with a one year old. So, people had COVID in January but don't actually know that for sure because they couldn't get a test to know like they just had to live as if they had experienced COVID. That's not where we are now. People can still get free PCRs people can still get free RATs from the state clinics from the federally funded respiratory clinics. So, one, free tests are still available without the same demand that we had in January of an eight hour queue to do it.

KARVELAS:

But if we're seeing, with respect, if we're seeing millions of people to be infected, we might see blow out again that's what happened in the last wave. Will you then step in and look at this measure again?

WELLS:

The stocks here now like, you're not going to have to go to a BP to pay 50 bucks for one RAT like people were having to do in January, the stock is here. You can get RATs today. For eight bucks each you can stockpile now if that was something that concerns you. So, it's just a different set of circumstances now and like I said, in the broader context of absolute mess of a budget, it's just not something that we can spend on we've got to spend money elsewhere, like antivirals for example. That's not something we had access to last winter but it's going to be so important to helping our aged care residents this winter.

KARVELAS:

Minister, thank you so much for your time this morning.

WELLS:

Always good to talk to you, Patricia

KARVELAS:

That's Anika Wells she's the Federal Aged Care Minister. And you're listening to ABC RN breakfast.

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