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Melbourne Press Conference on 13 December 2021, on International border reopening, Telehealth and Omicron variant

Read the transcript of Minister Hunt at the Melbourne Press Conference on 13 December 2021, on International border reopening, Telehealth and Omicron variant.

The Hon Greg Hunt MP
Former Minister for Health and Aged Care

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GREG HUNT:

Good morning. I’m joined by Dr Karen Price, head of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and I want to start by thanking our amazing GPs.

During the course of the pandemic over 22 million doses have been delivered by our primary care teams, in particular led by general practices in their own practices as part of the Commonwealth Respiratory Clinics.

And then, of course, they have assisted the work in so many of the state, territory and Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Service vaccination programs.

Today, as part of our ongoing response to COVID, I am delighted to announce that Telehealth will be permanent in Australia.

This is a quiet revolution in healthcare. It came about because of the pandemic, but it has changed the way Australian’s are able to access healthcare. Nothing beats face to face, but for so many Australian’s who might have problems with mobility – it might be older Australian’s, it might be people with some sort of mobility impairment, it might a young mum with a small child and unable to easily get to the doctor, it could be somebody who’s in a, a workplace environment where the time taken to travel to the GP for a repeat prescription simply may not be viable.

And so, for all of these reasons, as well as specialist consultations, we are extending Telehealth and making it a permanent part of the Australian landscape.

To date, there have been over 86 million Telehealth consultations since the pandemic began. And, we had a 10-year plan to bring on Telehealth. We were able to do it with the support of our GP’s and our specialists, in 10 days.

And what started as a temporary measure has changed the way in which Australian’s are able to access that healthcare as I, as I mentioned.

So far, over $4.4 billion has been invested in Telehealth consultations. What this will do is give Australian’s, and their GP’s, and their specialists a choice as to what is the optimal way to deliver the service going forward. And it is a very important role, face to face.

But equally, that supplementary role Telehealth can give people access when they need it and appropriate to their circumstances.

All up, this is part of an over $300 million package for primary care support and reform. That includes $106 million of additional funding for, for Telehealth. It also includes $58 million to extend the Better Access doubling of psychological services – a very important initiative.

It gives Australian’s access to more visits for their mental health to ensure that they have the treatment they need. We know that mental health challenges have been such a significant issue for so many Australians during the course of the pandemic, but thankfully, we saw – despite warnings to the contrary – an over 5 per cent reduction in the number of Australian’s who took their lives last year.

But there’s more to do. There is much more to do. We have to drive towards zero on that front of reducing the number of suicides, and never stopping as we approach that towards zero target. And this will help in protecting lives and saving lives.

In addition to that, some really important initiatives with regards to improving access to Medicare. We have, in particular, the new genetic testing for inheritable kidney disease; the genetic testing for cardiac arrhythmia genetic testing for inheritable cardio myopathy, amongst other things.

So, this is all about ensuring that our beautiful young bubs that are born have a better chance of being born without these conditions.

More generally, just to say, in terms of the vaccination programme, we're now at almost 40.2 million vaccinations - 93.3 per cent first dose, 89.3 per cent second dose, and almost 700,000 boosters. Again, well ahead of schedule, well ahead of anticipated results at this point in time.

Yesterday, along with Professor Brendan Murphy, we announced that Australia would open up for earlier boosters in response to the international evidence on Omicron from five months, that's now available subject to the provider's ability to, to commence that program.

And Moderna is now available as a booster. Brendan and I had our Moderna boosters yesterday, and so it's safe, it's effective, it helps to boost the protection, and its part of our national programme.

So if you haven't yet had your first dose, please join the club, please join the group of 93.3 per cent of Australians 16 and over. If you're due for your second, please come forward.

And if you're now eligible for a booster, please consult your, your GP, or pharmacy, or Commonwealth, or state clinic, or Indigenous Medical Centre.

But thanks to all of Australians coming forward. As I say, we're on the cusp of 700,000 boosters and we'll pass that during the course of the morning.

I'll invite Dr Karen Price, the President of the Royal Australian College of GPs. We’ll start with those on the phone, and any in the room.

Thank you.

KAREN PRICE:

Thanks, everybody. Thank you. I'd like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we gather today, being Ngunnawal land. I pay my respects to those people past, present and emerging, and acknowledge their spiritual connections to country.

And what a wonderful day in the history of general practice to welcome permanent Telehealth. The era defining episode of COVID has served to highlight just how intertwined health service delivery is with the health of the nation in a biological, cultural and economic sense.

Telehealth has been a remarkable and innovative solution which enables our country to stay as safe as possible. It allows patients with high risk medical conditions to stay at home during extended lockdowns with higher community COVID transmission.

It also enabled a significant number of GP’s with medical conditions themselves, or those who had family with vulnerable medical conditions, to keep working and to maintain that vital connection with long term patients.

For rural and remote regions where the RACGP has 80 per cent of the rural community GP workforce, Telehealth assisted rural doctors and their patients access appropriate care in a timely way.

Closing the Gap initiatives will also enable, due to this prescient implementation, be extending health service access using Telehealth. I know that Dr Sarah Chalmers, President of ACRRM and the RACGP’s own Indigenous Faculty under Professor Peter O'Mara, was particularly concerned regarding the need for extension of telephone Telehealth for Indigenous patients.

So the RACGP has been working hard with the Government in highlighting the needs of communities, especially those with more vulnerable patients for whom Telehealth has been lifesaving beyond the needs of an infectious diseases pandemic.

So this news of a permanent solution for a modern and busy world beyond COVID is very, very welcome. It is a great legacy and it's a great information to compliment usual GP care. Patients in the profession as a whole have been waiting and hoping on this announcement.

So the investment to deliver health services in regional and rural Australia was sorely needed, and Telehealth helped with that. As we know, everyone deserves access to high quality primary care regardless of their postcode, and addressing Australia's rural and remote GP workforce deficit is a top priority for the RACGP.

The RACGP was also pleased with Parliament’s formal distribution priority area review process for the Department of Health to address the doctor shortage crisis, and we welcome these changes.

Ministers worked with the RACGP for our, what, 10,000 GPs in rural areas regarding some of the challenges under the old DPA system. So this new adaption is very welcome and enables the Monash Modified Monash model three to four to have similar attractiveness to the MMM five to seven of some GPs.

It means more rural and regional areas will be able to utilise the DPA system when recruiting doctors for their region, and will have more choice of doctors to work in their local communities, and it will lead to increased access to general practice and primary care for regional and rural communities.

Along with the return of professional-led to the medical colleges, these sorts of adaptions will continue to build general practice capacity in a sustainable way for rural, regional and remote Australia.

The HECS-HELP Debt forgiveness, which we suggested to Minister Gillespie – although maybe great minds think alike – which are stratified to rural and regional areas, will add to the innovations that are known to attract and retain GP’s to the bush.

We know that no area can be without general practitioners, and we are in the most danger of running out of GPs, especially in the bush, so this is a welcome addition to a comprehensive range of levers.

We continue to see the pandemic wreak its challenges through all our patient communities; COVID-19 is a challenge we have shared with the world, our nation’s leaders, our health professionals and our communities.

We know that at Christmas, and holiday times in particular, mental health services are sorely needed, so the extension of enhanced better access of patients to psychiatrists, psychologists and GPs to December 2022 is also very welcome.

It is a recognition of the huge suffering that has occurred within the community due to ongoing uncertainty and the isolation of an international pandemic.

During these next few months, I hope that everyone has a chance to reconnect with the circles of family and friends, and very importantly with the inner core of their own sense of self.

During difficult and uncertain times, knowing you have a general practitioner you can turn to and they can help you further access care if needed, is simply excellent healthcare.

Another reminder that healthcare underlies every activity of every day for everyone. Better access to mental health services is part of preventative healthcare, that keeps people going and supports them through the very rugged times that we’ve all had.

Genetic testing expansion is also a very timely innovation; it has just recently - I noted a patient of mine going through this, and be diagnosed with a preventable heart condition based on genetics.

This test has quite possibly saved their life due to a new type of genetic test, and as a medical practitioner I am watching this very fascinating science evolve, and welcome the Government’s innovations that fund the best and most practical of research that has real world effects.

The RACGP is committed to working with the Government to deliver the healthcare that Australia needs, and resourcing healthcare in the community has never been more important.

I would like to thank the Minister today for the recognition of the vital role of general practitioners. I have been on record commending the Minister for his evidence-based approach to healthcare during the pandemic, and I know that he has listened to the RACGP on the evidence that general practice is the bedrock of any advanced healthcare system.

We want to ensure the health of our nation, so we must not run out of GPs. Today’s initiatives will begin to address the chronic complex care, mental health care and remote care that specialist GPs are able to do within every community of Australia.

We are the healthcare coordinators to every other medical discipline. I look forward to continuing engagement with the Government on the future of Australia’s primary care system, helping to enable quality, team-based care to be centred on every patient, both as an individual and as part of a community.

I salute our practice staff, practice managers, our nurses and our allied health team members in- working in primary care with us during one of the era-defining moments for healthcare in recent history.

Most of all, I would like to thank once again, thank my GP colleagues for the tremendous work they have performed during the pandemic, and the quiet and solid way they go about looking after their patients. I know in primary care we stand together as always ready to deliver for our communities, and these resources will begin to contribute to a sustainable future for general practice.

Thank you.

GREG HUNT:

Thanks so much. But I have to say that, Karen, it was actually the RACGP that proposed the health fee waiver for those in rural areas, so that’s just a great example of collaboration. More doctors for the bush, better access to mental health services, permanent telehealth.

I might start with Rachel and then Josh.

JOURNALIST:

Thanks, Minister. I’ve got a couple of questions, if I may?

GREG HUNT:

Sure.

JOURNALIST:

Are we still, firstly, on track to reopen the international border on December 15 to skilled migrants and students?

And secondly, just for a little bit more clarity on the Telehealth decision, what specialties exactly does that include? And are all those Telehealth items going to be permanent, say, for psychology and psychiatry as well?

GREG HUNT:

Sure. So, two things there. The first is about the, the reopening of the borders for students and for, for skilled labour on 15 December. Yes, we are on track for that, that’s been reconfirmed over the weekend.

So, we said on 29 November that we, we’re intending to reopen on 15 December. That has been through the National Cabinet process.

Victoria is taking steps yesterday, and so that reopening is scheduled, will be going ahead, and has been reaffirmed over the weekend in consultation with the Prime Minister, the National Cabinet discussion, and the advice from the Chief Medical Officer. So, that’s still ongoing.

Then in terms of Telehealth, it's a continuation of the existing measures across the work of GPs, allied health and specialists. And I want to thank everybody for their involvement in that.

All of the different parts of the medical community have played their role, but the RACGP has been our, our principal partner on that front and well supported by ACRRM and the AMA. Josh.

JOURNALIST:

Yeah. Thanks, Minister. One on vaccines. British Government scientists, over the weekend, published a pre-print study which said: that the people who received two doses of AstraZeneca that- like, there was no protective effect of vaccination against symptomatic disease with Omicron from 15 weeks after the second dose.

Do you feel less- in less than four months - I know that you’ve had AstraZeneca yourself - but considering millions of, especially older Australians, have also taken AstraZeneca, do those findings concern you? And is there a case, potentially, for bringing boosters any further forward for people who have taken AstraZeneca?

GREG HUNT:

Sure. So, Karen and I were briefed by Professor Paul Kelly, the Chief Medical Officer, on this. I believe it is called a pre-paper which has been released in the United Kingdom. The advice from the, the CMO, Professor Kelly, really boils down to three elements.

Firstly, it’s likely and we are still in the early stages that Omicron is a, a highly transmissible variant – that’s not a surprise to anybody. Secondly, and we expressly tested this with Professor Kelly this morning, the advice continues to be that all of our vaccines provide strong, clear protection against serious illness, hospitalisation and loss of life. I think that’s a very important point.

The evidence on transmissibility, that's under consideration, and I’ll let Professor Kelly and the team at ATAGI do their work and to consider.

But they have considered all of the international evidence and their determination was to bring forward the boosters by one month. And they’ve had extensive reviews of the whole range of international evidence in coming forward to that.

But as ever, just as Karen said, we’ll continue to follow the, the medical evidence, and if there were additional advice, we’ll follow that advice.

But I have to say that ATAGI met at length and in great depth in reviewing this. But the critical point from Professor Kelly this morning, only just a few minutes before joining you, was that the strong, clear evidence is that all of the vaccines continue to provide very clear coverage against serious illness, hospitalisation and loss of life.

And then the final area, of course, the third variable, is the severity of the disease. And again, Professor Kelly and the international evidence are cautiously optimistic that the Omicron variant is showing clear signs of being milder.

Now, again, more evidence is required. It's too early to call out definitively, but the evidence is growing that it may well be more transmissible on the one hand, strong protection against serious illness and hospitalisation and loss of life on the other hand.

And then finally that, as a variant, it may well be milder. And that could turn out, as many international sources have indicated, to be a quietly positive development for the world.

And then just coming to the room.

JOURNALIST:

Thank you. Just on Telehealth appointments. Will the rebate for those appointments be the same as in person appointments?

GREG HUNT:

So, no change to the existing arrangements. Karen, you might want to talk about this from your perspective as a, as a practicing biller.

KAREN PRICE:

So, in general practice we use these as an adjunct to usual care, and as I said, often for vulnerable patients. So, in terms of the rebate, it’s not as much as a in person, face to face care. But it enables us to continue that care.

So, we often use it in an adjunct way, that means that we use it to check on people, we use it to inform them, we use it to keep them going.

So, for those patients with mental health concerns, there’s also some allowance for a slightly longer consultation. So, we are hopeful that will continue to evolve and, and it’s used by GPs in appropriate ways, in conjunction with the usual care.

JOURNALIST:

Is there a message to patients, perhaps, not put a Telehealth appointment over an in-person appointment if they are able to present in person?

KAREN PRICE:

In general, I would say a face to face is, is a better way to approach your GP if you're able. And sometimes people aren't sure, so that’s also appropriate to provide a Telehealth consultation.

And in some cases they presented on the phone with a rash, and it’s been difficult to imagine how I could diagnose that accurately, so I’d ask them to come in. So that’s, you know, that’s the way it can sometimes work.

JOURNALIST:

Minister can I just ask you, how much pressure does this hope to alleviate from our hospitals at this time?

GREG HUNT:

So, the combination of measures of Telehealth; of the capacity for rapid antigen testing; of electronic prescriptions; all of these measures which have, have been developed through the pandemic are about taking pressure off our hospitals, but also keeping our primary care system safe.

In particular, of course, you can imagine that where there are patients that have, that are going through a period of isolation for COVID, being able to receive the consultation from the, the doctor after an initial diagnosis from their home keeps the patient safe, keeps the community safe, but also keeps the, the doctors and their practice staff safe.

So, these combination of measures - of Telehealth, rapid antigen testing, electronic prescriptions, home medicine delivery – they’re all about taking pressure off the hospitals, and supporting patients, and providing access.

Alright. Thank you everybody, and a particular thanks to Karen and the College of General Practitioners. Thank you.

 

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