MINISTER FOR HEALTH, MARK BUTLER: Thanks for coming in this morning.
The Albanese Government came to government promising to bring new energy to the fight against COVID. And we've delivered on that. At the Prime Minister's first meeting at National Cabinet with his Premier and Chief Minister counterparts, he extended support to the hospital system which was due to expire next week and will now run to the end of the year at the cost to the Commonwealth of about $760 million.
We also moved quickly, particularly as the third Omicron wave over the course of winter started to peak. We moved quickly to expand eligibility for fourth doses of the COVID vaccine to Australians over the age of 50, in particular, and others who are vulnerable to severe illness. That saw hundreds and hundreds of 1000s of additional doses, fourth doses of the COVID vaccine administered to those groups.
We moved to expand the eligibility to the highly effective antiviral treatment, which saw hundreds of thousands of scripts of those antiviral treatments delivered over the last couple of months as well.
We brought new energy to the vaccination program in aged care, which was languishing at about 50% of that population having fourth doses, which was lower than the community wide fourth dose rate for over 65. That's now increased to more than 80%.
We rolled out information campaigns about booster campaigns that will be important for booster doses, and as you know, at the last meeting of National Cabinet over recent days, the Premiers, Chief Ministers and Prime Minister agreed to extend paid pandemic leave for people who are required to isolate because of COVID infections.
We are now in the steep downward slope out of this third Omicron wave. Since the peak of that wave in late July, case numbers are down by about 85%, hospitalisations are down by about 70%. The number of aged care facilities who are experiencing outbreaks right now is down by more than three quarters, and the mortality rate is down by more than a half.
But we need to be clear that COVID is still a very substantial threat to the community, especially to those who are at risk of severe illness. There is still tragic loss of life being felt by about 45 families on average every single day because of COVID. And there is still very real pressure on our health and our hospital system because of ongoing infections.
The Albanese Government is absolutely committed to providing the fullest possible support to secure our health and hospital systems, and to protect those in particular who are at risk of severe illness.
Today, I'm announcing $1.44 billion in additional COVID funding for either to extend measures which were due to expire next week, or to provide additional funding to measures which have been underfunded.
The first and the most significant announcement I make today is to protect aged care. The aged care support program has been providing funding support to aged care facilities to deal with the costs of the outbreak for some time, in particular that provides support to aged care facilities with the impact of COVID outbreaks on their staffing needs. That program though, was substantially underfunded by the former government when they funded that program in the March budget. I make no particular criticism of the former government. It is the fact that since the advent of the Omicron variant in particular the number of aged care facility outbreaks has increased very dramatically. We've looked at this and realised that we need to provide additional funds over the course of the rest of the year to secure aged care, and we've committed an additional $810 million to the aged care support program for the remainder of 2022.
We are also extending the program that was due to expire next week to allow PCR testing to be conducted in aged care facilities and provided within, at the most, a 24 hour turnaround. We're extending that program to the end of the year as well and the cost of about $35 million. This is critically important to ensure that vulnerable residents of aged care facilities who are suspected of having contracted COVID are confirmed one way or the other very, very quickly and if they do have a COVID infection are provided with effective antiviral medications, which dramatically reduce their likelihood of developing severe illness or a risk of death.
We are also extending the rapid antigen testing program for vulnerable Australians, which again was due to expire next week under this program. The Commonwealth has been providing on average over the last couple of months, more than 2 million RATs every single week to aged care facilities to allow those facilities to screen their workers and their visitors before entering the aged care facility, and a range of other vulnerable organisations like Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations, disability services, and the like. We will extend that program also to the end of 2022.
We're also committed to doing what we can to take the pressure off hospitals, firstly, to extend GP respiratory clinics. There will be around 100 general practice respiratory clinics continuing to operate, which otherwise would close next week, for the remainder of the year. Over the course of June and July, for example, these respiratory clinics saw about 200,000 patients either face to face or on telehealth, either to treat them, to prescribe antiviral treatments, or to test them for COVID. They're providing important support to the primary care system. And by doing that relieving pressure that would otherwise come on to our emergency departments.
We’re also extending an additional payment to general practice, in the event that they see a COVID patient in their clinic. A special MBS item, which has been in place for some time now of $25 to encourage GP’s to see particularly vulnerable patients who might have comorbidities and need a face to face consultation with their GP, instead of a telehealth consultation. Again, that program would have ended next week, and we've decided to extend that to the end of the year.
And finally, in the area of primary care, we are extending the long telephone consultation for GP’s as well to allow them to conduct long telephone consults for the purpose of prescribing antivirals for their patients as well.
I'm also announcing that we will restock the National Medical Stockpile, this stockpile has been a very important source, particularly of protective personal equipment or PPE, for the course of the pandemic. It is running low, and we need to restock it over the course of the rest of the year to meet demand over the course of the rest of 2022. But also to secure supply into next year. We're committing $352 million to restock the NMS – the Medical Stockpile - which will purchase more than 250 million individual items of PPE for the remainder of this year.
New prices will be introduced beyond next week for pathology PCR testing, that we'll see the cost of a PCR paid by taxpayers reduced by about 20%, reflecting the fact that input costs which were very high in the early part of the pandemic for private pathology companies who are conducting PCR tests, have reduced over the last couple of years. And it's right, the taxpayers are able to save some money with new prices.
And finally, we'll be extending funding for vital communications campaigns to make sure that as this pandemic continues to develop, the community is kept up to date with the best possible information for them to make responsible choices. All of this is an incredibly important investment in the public health of Australians, as this pandemic continues to develop.
JOURNALIST: The disability sector released a white paper a fortnight ago calling for a specific strategy for people with a disability, but they say the paper has been largely ignored or characterised as alarmist. Have you read, are you aware of the white paper?
BUTLER: That’s question that should be directed to Minister Shorten. He and I are working very closely, particularly in relation to the impact of the COVID pandemic on people living with a disability, and particularly in disability residential services. Questions about the white paper around disability should be directed to Mr Shorten.
JOURNALIST: It's still a health issue. And this paper details the experience of people who are too scared to leave their home because of the measures around the safety of the community with COVID-19. And they're calling for more robust strategy like mask mandates for disability care workers and ventilation. What is the government going to do to protect these people so they can come out of their homes again?
BUTLER: The measures we're announcing today include a range of important measures to protect the most vulnerable in our community in this pandemic. People who are older, people who are immunocompromised, people who are living with a disability, who are particular risk of severe illness.
And what I've said over the last few months is that our principal focus in this phase of the pandemic is to protect those who are at risk of severe illness, and whether it's access to good testing, access to antiviral programs, in reach programs to vaccinate people in residential facilities, either disability or aged care residential facilities, this remains a really important focus of our government.
JOURNALIST: Over the course of the pandemic, ministers have repeatedly said that support payments and etcetera won't stay forever. The new end date you've set is for the end of the year for most of these measures that you just announced, do you expect the shackles will be lifted off by the end of the year?
BUTLER: There will be a need to retain some measures over the course of 2023, I'm very sure. And so over the course of the rest of this year, we will be considering the need for measures to be extended beyond the end of calendar 2022. And we'll have more to say that about that later in the year.
JOURNALIST: You just mentioned that PCR tests still remain subsidised, do you expect that that will be one of the longer lasting measures?
BUTLER: PCR tests are available through the Medicare system in the same way that other pathology testing before and during the pandemic has been. The change we've announced today is to reduce the cost of that PCR testing to taxpayers, so reduce the MBS item, which reflects the fact that input costs for PCR pathology have reduced. They were very high in the early part of the pandemic when inputs were hard to source and were very expensive on the global market. But we think that there's good reason to reduce that. Of course, pathology testing is supported by the Medicare system, separate from the pandemic and in the pandemic. So there will be pathology testing beyond the end of this year. But we'll have a look at the rate of that over the course of coming months.
JOURNALIST: There’s now an ambulance ramping crisis in most Australian states. We know that the national shortage of GPs is playing into that. What are you doing to fix that problem, and how urgently can you act on it?
BUTLER: In the health sector, I've said on many, many occasions that we have no higher priority than rebuilding general practice. General practice is in a parlous state, after almost a decade of cuts and neglects to Medicare by the former government, particularly six years of a freeze on a Medicare rebate that imposed enormous financial stress on general practice, even before the additional pressures imposed by the pandemic. This was the centrepiece of our election platform in health at the last election earlier this year.
Only next week, I'll be meeting again with the Strengthening Medicare Task Force which brings together doctor’s groups, nurses groups, patients and others, to advise government on the investment of a $750 million Strengthening Medicare Fund that will be in next year's budget.
We have 50 urgent care centres that we've committed to rolling out. We're in really good discussions with all state governments, including the state government here in South Australia, about the way in which those urgent care centres will be delivered.
We've got a program in rural general practice, worth $146 million, which we'll be rolling out $220 million of grants to strengthen general practice to improve their ability to see patients to deliver digital health.
But I know that it's not going to be quick or easy to rebuild general practice after 10 years of neglect. I know that fewer and fewer junior doctors or medical graduates are choosing general practice as their career - it's less than 15 per cent now - which is the lowest number on record. We've got a lot of work to do, but I'm committed to rebuilding general practice, because that's the backbone of our health care system.
JOURNALIST: What kind of disruption are you expecting to elective surgery nationally on Thursday, it was revealed on radio this morning in South Australia alone that two thirds is expected to not go ahead?
BUTLER: I think people understand that Thursday is a particularly important day to mourn the loss of the Queen, the Queen of Australia. And that will have an impact on the community. There's no doubt about that. But this is an incredibly important day for us to mourn the loss of the Queen, and beyond that to move on.
JOURNALIST: Long COVID is a ticking time bomb just with the number of people who've had infections. I understand there's a parliamentary inquiry at the moment. What's the government's broader view about service provision and a strategy given the number of people expected to be sick with this over the next couple of years?
BUTLER: I’ve said we need a national focus on Long COVID. Long COVID is hard to diagnosis, it's hard to treat. There are many, many dozens of different symptoms that have been identified in the medical literature, as longer symptoms associated with COVID - on one count as many as 200 different symptoms.
We don't know yet really what the true prevalence and scale of long COVID is here. Australia's experience of COVID is different, for example, to the experience in countries like the UK and the US, where there were vast numbers of cases before vaccines were widespread. There's some cause to think that ours will be a slightly different experience to the UK and the US.
But there's no question it is going to be a very substantial pressure on our community, on individuals and on our health system. That's why I'm very pleased that the House of Reps Committee on Health, chaired by Dr Mike Freelander has chosen this as their first inquiry, this is an incredibly important piece of work for them to conduct.
Alongside that I've asked the Department of Health and the Chief Medical Officer to start work on a focused response to long COVID here in Australia.
But this is undoubtedly going to be a pressure on the community and the health system for some time. And I'm committed to making sure that we can do everything to understand that as is possible. There are there are particular services, long COVID clinics in the states, including here in South Australia, as I understand it, they are under pressure, frankly, because of the scale of this phenomenon across the community. There are obviously also primary care general practice services that are able to provide support to people who are experiencing long COVID. But as I said, even health professionals are still coming to grips with the scale of this in terms of numbers, but also the diversity of symptoms that patients are presenting with.
JOURNALIST: Just on hospital Funding in South Australia, Tasmania, leading a push for permanent 50/50 funding with the Federal Government. Is that something you're willing to consider just in light of all of the issues that health symptoms are nationally are facing at the moment?
BUTLER: The best thing we can do as a Commonwealth to take pressure off our hospital systems right now is to rebuild primary care or general practice, to strengthen aged care - put nurses back into nursing homes. Those are two very, very serious pressures that that I know state governments are saying are on their hospital system. To ensure that people are able to get care within the community when and where they need it instead of presenting to emergency departments. Rebuilding general practice developing urgent care capacity in the community is what the Commonwealth should be doing right now. There is a five-year funding agreement that still has some time to run, that all of the states signed on to with the former government that runs to 2025. We will start renegotiating that agreement in the second half of next year, and those negotiations will proceed as usual.
JOURNALIST: On the long COVID, you acknowledge the pressure that those service providers are under right now people need those services now. Did you consider allocating more money from this amount to those services to see more people?
BUTLER: Primary care and general practice will be the main port of call for patients who are experiencing longer symptoms of COVID or long COVID. That is a demand-driven system: MBS Medicare systems. So primary care is there to support those patients. States have also set up clinics for long COVID, in particular, across the across the country. And so that's matter for them, whether they expand those or continue at the current rate. But we are committed to making sure there is there is a national strategy brought to bear on long COVID and that will develop over the coming months.
JOURNALIST: Can I ask you a question around the government-funded study into the immune response of people with COVID around the country. Will researchers be going to Aboriginal communities to test and evaluate the response of people in more remote areas, given in the Northern Territory 90% of the people that died from COVID came from remote Aboriginal communities, will that be part of this research?
BUTLER: There are a number of projects that are currently funded by the Commonwealth into long COVID. I don't have the details of all of those off the top of my head, but I want to come back to you on that, if you'd like. But we certainly want all of our research projects to be as diverse and as broad as they possibly can be, as we begin to understand really the scale of long COVID and the best way in which to respond to it.
JOURNALIST: That Medicare Taskforce that will be meeting, will that be looking at ways to bring Medicare rebates in line with inflation?
BUTLER: I don't want to preempt, really what doctors and nurses groups and patient groups want to bring to that taskforce, and what advice the taskforce might ultimately deliver to the government. There are obviously some themes that are already pretty prominent in those discussions. They're not new. They were part of the 10 Year Primary Care Plan that was developed under the former government, but had no funding attached to it. It was announced by the former government in March, but as I say, had no funding to deliver the recommendations of that Primary Care Plan. That Primary Care Plan and my discussions with those groups since that time, for example, have reinforced the importance of multidisciplinary care teams in general practice. What does that mean? That means more nurses, more allied health professionals available to patients in general practice. That's certainly a focus. Better digital health capability in the primary care system. Obviously, the financial pressure on general practice is a continuing theme, but I really don't want to pre-empt the outcome of the discussions that are progressing in a really mature, constructive way.
JOURNALIST: Minister, you mentioned an extension of funding towards communication campaigns, how much of that is going towards multicultural communities?
BUTLER: We haven't developed, obviously, the campaigns that will be funded by the funding. I'm only announcing today this funding that will run through the course of the remainder of the financial year, so $42 million for community campaigns for the rest of this year and the first half of 2023. I’m committed to making sure those campaigns are very targeted. We've already been running over the last few months, for example, campaigns directed at First Nations communities.
I’m also keen, though, to explore the way in which we can target communications campaigns better to Culturally and Linguistically Diverse communities to make sure that those communities are given the fullest possible information about their choices around vaccines, around treatments, and around good COVID-safe behaviour in their communities.