Minister Butler interview with Kieran Gilbert, Afternoon Agenda - 21 June 2022

Read the transcript of Minister Butler's interview with Kieran Gilbert, Afternoon Agenda on G20 Health Ministers meeting, COVID boosters for aged care residents and COVID vaccine for children under 5

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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KIERAN GILBERT, HOST:

To Federal politics now and the Health Minister, Mark Butler, has been meeting with his G20 counterparts to discuss the ongoing response to COVID-19. He's made the point that Australia is not yet through the pandemic, that it isn't over yet. Mark Butler joined me a short time ago, where I began by asking when he thinks the pandemic will finally be behind us.

MARK BUTLER, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE:

I think the truth is, Kieran, we don't know. I mean, here in Australia we're still seeing very high case numbers. There's almost 3,000 Australians in hospital because of COVID. We're seeing dozens of deaths every week, including in aged care facilities. So we're not past this virus yet. We're obviously into another stage with high levels of double vaccination, at least, more to do on boosters. Obviously, you know, considering a landscape next year with new vaccines coming onto the horizon.

BUTLER:

So I think what we've been discussing at the G20 Health Ministers Meeting is how we learn the lessons of the last couple of years, put in place new measures that not only help us through the remainder of this pandemic, but also equip us for the next one.

GILBERT:

But many of our viewers and I, certainly myself, and those around me, many of us have either had it, or are immunised, or both. In that context, isn't it now more endemic as opposed to the pandemic where no one was protected?

BUTLER:

It's a very different challenge we have now, but there's still huge pressure on our health systems. And, you know, we're in winter flu is back. There's all of the other conditions that people need support for, both in primary care and in hospital care as well. So you know, I'm really reluctant to say we're through this. It's all victory. We're obviously, at a very different stage, but there are still very serious pressures. I've said that I want to put some more energy into the booster program. We know there are 6 million Australians who are eligible for their boosters who haven't had it yet. You're not fully protected until you have three doses, and we know what that can do to prevent severe disease and hospitalisation, or even death. We've got to do better on the fourth dose in aged care. And we've got to do better in distributing the treatments, the extraordinary anti-viral treatments that are now available. They're on the PBS, they're just not getting to enough people who need them.

GILBERT:

It seems when you look at the overall success rate, over 95 per cent of adults, well, people over 16, have had double vaxxed. That's a huge achievement, isn't it?

BUTLER:

A huge, huge achievement. I'm really conscious we need to build –

GILBERT:

So we're coming from a strong place.

BUTLER:

A very strong position. Australians have done magnificently. Once the vaccines finally became available, they rolled up their sleeves, they, got the first two doses. As I've said, I really want to see a bit more energy in getting that third dose, because we know how important that is, particularly to protect against this Omicron variant, that's pretty good at evading the impact of the first two doses. But there's no question, we're at a very different stage in the pandemic to what we had been grappling with over the last couple of years, that worst experience.

GILBERT:

So we're closer to the end, certainly closer to the end than the start?

BUTLER:

Absolutely. But there are still challenges, and there's a lot of lessons to learn. And that's really been the big focus of the discussion with the G20 Health Ministers - chaired by Indonesia, our good friends, Indonesia - to make sure that we're better prepared next time we learn the lessons. There's lots of relatively straightforward things we can do to improve financing, particularly for low and middle income countries, because we know if the virus is still allowed to thrive in low and middle income countries and mutate, then none of us are protected until all of us are protected.

GILBERT:

Is it your advice, and this is not obviously based on expert analysis of the mutations, but the broader view is that each time there's a mutation, it's less severe. Is that accurate?

BUTLER:

Omicron is certainly less severe than Delta was, but Delta was quite severe. It got into the lungs. And we know particularly, because at the time it was becoming prevalent in Australia, our vaccination rates weren't yet that great. So there's no question Omicron appears to be less severe or is proving less severe than Delta, but it's much more transmissible. So we have very high numbers of cases. And that's why we've really moved to the stage of making sure in particular that vulnerable Australians who are at risk of severe disease, hospitalisation, or even death are fully protected with all three or even four doses of the vaccine, that they're able to get their hands on these wonderful new treatments that are now on the PBS that will massively reduce the risk of hospitalisation and death.

GILBERT:

Even in the aged care sector, I know there's work to do, but I think it's about 95 per cent of the aged care residents have had the booster as well, at least one booster. That's- again, that's quite a good base upon which to start, isn't it?

BUTLER:

It is a good place to start. But the experts have said it's now critical that they get the fourth dose. And so we're still only in the 50 something per cent range of aged care residents getting the fourth dose. There are hundreds of facilities that today have outbreaks. There are many, hundreds of cases amongst aged care residents, and we're seeing dozens of aged care deaths every week. So that simply isn't good enough. So now we've written to aged care facilities reminding them of the importance to put energy into this fourth dose program. I've asked for advice about what we can do. I mean, we are, after all, as a Commonwealth responsible for aged care. I want to see a better outcome on the fourth dose as well. But look, the aged care program has got to a very good place with that third dose, but we've got to do the next thing now, which is the fourth dose.

GILBERT:

So if the pandemic is not over, what do you want Australians to do? Is it all about getting those extra doses, the boosters, and so on? Because it seems our human behaviours, I mean we're back to quite a bit of normality in terms of going to the footy and shopping centres, whatever else. It's quite- if it's not back to normal, it's very, very close isn't it.

BUTLER:

And isn't that a great thing?

GILBERT:

Absolutely.

BUTLER:

You know people are able to get about their lives, they're seeing each other if they'd been sort of blocked from travelling from state to state or even overseas. My sister's coming back for the first time in a couple of years from England with her new baby. So these are all wonderful stories being told all around the country. But we can't let our guard down. You know, boosters are important. That third dose means you're fully protected against the Omicron variant. Vulnerable people should be getting their fourth dose, they've been identified, and we've got to make sure those treatments are as widely distributed through the community as possibly can be. We also know we've got to be vigilant. We've got to look out for other variants over the coming little while. But the clear agenda for this year is quite apparent. How do we get through winter? We know we've got influenza as well to deal with. We know our hospitals are under very, very real pressure and can't really deal with any more cases than they're currently getting from COVID. So the pathway through winter is pretty clear, I just want to lift our energy around that.

GILBERT:

So it seems you want to be vigilant to get through these next few months, particularly a vulnerability with the colder months upon us. Do you want kids aged six months up to five to get vaccines as well? Is that what you're hoping to see?

BUTLER:

The TGA, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, that's done such a terrific job over the last two and a half years, under very real pressure, great people. They're doing great work. They're now having a look at the Moderna vaccine for under 5-year-olds. It was only recently approved over the last couple of weeks by the Food and Drugs Administration, the equivalent administration in the US, and over the last 24 or 36 hours by the US CDC. So I'd expect that vaccine to start being put into the arms of very young Americans over the coming days. It'll probably be a few weeks for the TGA to go through their processes. It will then go to the Advisory Committee on Vaccines.

GILBERT:

Do you think parents might be a bit cautious about the really younger ones?

BUTLER:

Ultimately that is going to be a matter for parents. I mean, we're seeing much lower rates of vaccination for COVID amongst the five- to 11-year-olds, for example, than we saw for 12- to 15-year-olds. 12- to 15-year-olds are about 80 per cent first dose, maybe 60 or 70 of the second dose. It's a much lower rate for five- to 11-year-olds. What I would say to parents to think about with their under-five-year-olds is their influenza vaccine. I mean, under-fives are a high risk population for influenza, particularly if they're under two. And those vaccination rates at the moment are running a little bit behind what we saw before COVID. So when parents are thinking about how to protect their under-five-year-olds, I'd be thinking about influenza right now.

GILBERT:

And you mentioned the TGA and praised their work. Do you think- I mean there's been a bit of speculation around Brendan Murphy, the Health Secretary, that he might be going. Would you like him to stay on? What's your read on his performance? He copped a fair bit of flack during the pandemic, but it couldn't have been an easy job.

BUTLER:

Look, our public health officials across the country at a Commonwealth level, at a state level, particularly those states that had very big waves, have performed extraordinarily well. They've been a credit to our country. You know, they've been under a lot of pressure from politicians, from media, from protest groups, but they've all kept their eye on the main goal, which is keeping their community safe.

GILBERT:

And what about Dr Murphy? There's been a bit of speculation about him. Is he going to stay on, or?

BUTLER:

I've just seen that as speculation in the media.

GILBERT:

Would you like him to stay on?

BUTLER:

He's doing a great job. But I think all of our officials in the Department of Health and the authorities like the TGA have served Australia admirably.

GILBERT:

Okay. The Royal Commission, you've said that it would be unthinkable not to have a deeper look at the pandemic and the spending, the enormous spending, the loss of life and so on. One of the things that I look back at that period, I'm sure this is something that you will reflect on a lot as well, is the shadow pandemic, as Pat McGorry calls it; the mental health impacts have been a massive component of this, haven't they?

BUTLER:

They have, and it's going to have a long tail. We know that as well. I remember when I was Mental Health Minister under the last Labor government, we saw a very long tail arising out of the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria, an incredibly traumatic point-in-time event. But for more than two years after that we saw highly elevated levels of mental distress in those communities, and we can unfortunately expect that to happen for the next few years as well. So there's no question - this pandemic, even if we are getting to the end of its worst phases, is going to have a long tail. The shadow pandemic, as Pat McGorry has called it, but also long COVID, which we know from research here in Australia and around the world is afflicting many, many millions of people. Brain fog, fatigue, the inability to get out of bed and get about daily life is impacting vast numbers of Australians and people across the globe. So there will be real pressure on our health system for quite a while to come.

GILBERT:

When do you want to see that enquiry up and going? How soon would you expect it to start?

BUTLER:

I don't think it's the time to start discussing that while we're still really, you know, dealing with quite substantial challenges from this pandemic. I've said that we are in this winter, it's hitting our aged care system, our health systems very, very hard right now. We're at a different phase to what we saw over the last couple of years, but we're not through it. And I think all of us would expect to get to quite a different phase in the pandemic before we started looking at a process that looked back. There'll obviously have to be a lot of consultation as well with stakeholders. State governments played obviously a central role in the pandemic response, a magnificent role. So this would be quite a process just to get up and running, and I think the timing will be important. We're not there yet.

GILBERT:

Mr Butler, very much appreciate your time. Thank you.

BUTLER:

Thanks, Kieran.

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