MARK BUTLER, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: Thank you for coming out this morning. It's increasingly clear that we are in Australia facing a third Omicron wave just this year. The first one in January being the subvariant BA.1, then in April and May the subvariant BA.2 drove another wave of cases and hospitalisations. We're in the early stage of a new wave being driven by these new subvariants BA.4 and BA.5. The important thing to know about BA.4 and BA.5 is it's increasingly clear that they're able to evade the immunity that you might have got from having previously had COVID. We're seeing people who might only have had COVID several weeks ago being reinfected with BA.4 and BA.5, which is why the Chief Health Officers only on Friday announced that the reinfection period will be shortened from twelve weeks to just four weeks. What that means is if you had COVID and as short as four weeks after that, you're starting to experience symptoms, you should isolate and get tested as if you might have COVID again. This subvariant is driving a big increase in cases and we're seeing now a quarter of a million Australians with COVID today on official reports. That number is probably much higher given what we know about infection rates earlier. Almost 4000 people today are in hospital with COVID and we're seeing around 300 people every week lose their life. This is still a very serious pandemic.
Before the election campaign, Prime Minister Albanese said that if elected we would bring new energy to the fight against COVID. And we have done that. We have delivered on that commitment. Already we have agreed with the States to extend funding support to their state hospital systems, support that's worth almost three quarters of a billion dollars. We've launched an information campaign to promote the critical importance of getting booster shots, particularly that critical third booster shot, which still more than five million Australians haven't taken up in spite of the fact it's more than six months since all of those people had their second dose. We've also expanded greatly access to the fourth booster dose which can give particularly older Australians a bit of a boost in their immunity as we confront this BA.4 and BA.5 wave over the course of this winter. I've asked Jane Halton to conduct an urgent review into the adequacy of our existing vaccine and medicine procurement arrangements for COVID to make sure they're fit for purpose for the rest of this year, and into next year. And today, I'm pleased to announce that from tomorrow there will be a big expansion in access to these crucial COVID medicines that have proved so effective at reducing severe disease and relieving pressure on hospitals.
Up until now, it was very, very difficult to get access to these medicines in spite of the fact that the former government, to their credit, bought 1.3 million doses of those medicines. For up until now, they've essentially been sitting on shelves in warehouses instead of out there doing their job to prevent severe disease. From tomorrow, every Australian age 70 and over will have access to these medicines on the PBS. And for most of them at a price of just $6.80. For people under the age of 70 but over 50, if you have two risk factors that make you more vulnerable to severe COVID as well, you will also have access to these medicines under the PBS. If you're aged over 30 as a First Nations Australian, the same rules apply. For all adult Australians, if you have compromised immunity because you've been undertaking chemotherapy, or for a range of other reasons, you will also have access to these medicines. This will do enormous things to reduce the incidence of severe disease and relieve pressure on our hospital systems that are under such enormous pressure right now. This decision will finally get these medicines, these critical COVID medicines out of the warehouses and doing the job that they were intended to do, which is reducing severe disease and relieving pressure on our hospital system. Happy to take questions.
REPORTER: Is the reason that they're not available to people over 50 even though the fourth dose is also recommended for all Australians over 50. Is that a supply reason or what is the actual reason?
BUTLER: That is a decision of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee, the expert committee that oversees medicines. I took a case to that committee arguing for broader eligibility of these medicines and having got that advice, I've fast tracked that decision to take effect from tomorrow. The committee took the view that being aged 70 or over was in itself a risk factor of severe disease that justified access to these medicines automatically on the PBS. For people aged over 50 many of whom aren't at a particular risk of severe disease, if you do have those risk factors things like respiratory conditions like asthma, if you have some neurological conditions like dementia or have had a stroke and a range of other risk factors that your GPs will be very familiar with, you will also benefit from access to these medicines. Can I make the point though, that the critical thing about these medicines is to take them quickly. You need to take them within the first few days of COVID symptoms coming on. I urge people in these groups to have a discussion with your GPs to have a plan so that if you get a COVID positive test, you can organise a script to be sent to your pharmacy electronically, an e-script, and have someone collect those medicines for you. If you don't have someone who can do that the pharmacy can arrange a delivery to your home. But it's critically important that you get these medicines into your system early in the stage of having had COVID if they are going to be effective.
REPORTER: You say this professional expert board, you made a submission to them to expand it. Why did it need government minister to make such a request from an expert panel, given what's happening in the world?
BUTLER: The way in which this committee has operated for many decades is submissions are made. They're usually made by medicines companies, but for one reason or another that submission was not being made by other medicine companies who have delivered these very extraordinary medicines to the world. So, I took the unusual step of having the Commonwealth put a submission before this committee because we took the view it was that important to get these medicines, which we all have purchased as taxpayers, out of the warehouses into the community and doing the job we intended them to do which was bring down severe disease and relieve pressure on our hospitals.
REPORTER: Can I just rephrase the question; do you have a view on why it was necessary to do that? And are you disappointed for example that you had to make such a submission to such an expert panel?
BUTLER: I'm not disappointed but what I have said is we are going to do everything we possibly can as a government to get Australia through this winter as safely and as healthily as we possibly can. That's why we've acted so quickly to expand access to booster doses, fourth doses for a much larger population aged over 50. That's why we took this decision in relation to treatments. That's why we've rolled out an information campaign because frankly, the third booster dose campaign had stalled under the former government.
REPORTER: How can someone get access this, do they need a referral, can they simply just if they met the criteria, simply apply to get it, what's the process?
BUTLER: Like almost all medicines you will need a script from your doctor for this. It is important that you talk to your doctor about which of these medicines will be suitable for you. They do sometimes have particularly complex interactions with other medicines you might already be on. I encourage you to have a talk with your doctor before you might get COVID so that there's a plan. When you get tested positively, you can contact your GP over the phone. Tell them about your positive test, if they don't already know it, and ask for a script and be sent electronically to your pharmacy and have that medicine either picked up or delivered to your home.
REPORTER: What's the plan to maintain supply of the medicines. You've got 1.3 million courses. What's the plan for the forward supply?
BUTLER: Well, that's why I've commissioned Jane Halton who is better placed than anyone in this country to know what is happening globally around vaccines and treatments for COVID. She's the co‑chair of COVAX, which is the global body tasked with the job of making sure vaccines and treatments get into developing countries. She's also a chair of the committee that is that is really driving new vaccine technology around the world, real innovation in that. I've asked Jane Halton, an esteemed former public servant, to conduct an urgent review of our existing procurement arrangements for COVID vaccines and COVID treatments to make sure that they're fit for purpose, we have enough, and we have enough of the right type. Because this is a fast-moving pandemic still, the virus continues to mutate. There are new vaccine technologies that are coming on board that are going through the regulators globally right now. I want to make sure that we have sufficient and priority access to the best possible vaccines and treatments for Australia.
REPORTER: Wasn't part of the reason why in which the criteria was so strict particularly for antiviral medicine boards because the actual medicines themselves are incredibly expensive?
BUTLER: The medicines are not cheap. Each course costs a little over $1,000. That price has essentially already been paid by taxpayers, which under the former government, to their credit, I support their decision, ordered 1.3 million doses of those treatments. But at the moment the problem is they're sitting in warehouses, they're sitting on shelves because in my view the eligibility criteria at the time were too strict. Not enough we're getting out into people and preventing them from getting severely unwell and in many cases ending up in hospital.
REPORTER: Can I just follow on from the last question, with the review, part of the reason that you initiated it in the first place, are there any concerns regarding the actual distribution of vaccines or have there been any concerns raised to you about the efficacy of the program?
BUTLER: The reason I commissioned this review is I don't think it's remarkable that as an incoming government that we would want to have an independent review of arrangements that we were not a part of finalising. These were arrangements that we inherited, finalised by the former government to carry us not just through the rest of this year, but well into next year as well. I want some independent assurance that they are the right arrangements. Not just for today, that they're working well today but will work well for us over the rest of this year and into next year. As I said there are some pretty fast-moving developments. As people probably understand there are new vaccines coming on track now that are in the process of being considered by the regulator the TGA for under five-year-olds. I want to make sure we've got enough doses of that. There are also new types of vaccine that Pfizer and Moderna have developed that particularly target the Omicron variant, again, I want to make sure that we've got good access to those vaccines as well. This is a fast moving pandemic still, we're in a different phase, there's no question, but still, there's it's a fast-moving pandemic. It's a race to keep ahead of it. And I'm committed to making sure that we win that race.
REPORTER: Do you accept and are you concerned about the fact that some people won't test and won't isolate and will continue working because there's no longer any pandemic leave payments?
BUTLER: The orders at state level across all states and territories are still that if you test positive, then you are required to isolate for seven days and I urge everyone to continue to follow the public health orders. The isolation rules have been significantly relaxed by all state jurisdictions and territory jurisdictions in relation to close contacts but there is good reason why most states and territories continue to ask COVID positive patients to isolate.
REPORTER: If you need the money, if you're in one of those insecure or casualised jobs, what do you do?
BUTLER: As I've said earlier morning, these emergency payments were designed by the former government and by all state and territory governments that co-fund the old disaster payment scheme to come to an end on the 30th of June and unfortunately, we can't continue to pay emergency payments forever. We still we have a budget that we've inherited, that is a trillion dollars in debt. It has eyewatering deficits as far as the eye can see. And we simply don't have the financial capacity to continue what are emergency style payments forever.
REPORTER: Can I just ask you two questions if I may. Firstly, given this new wave coming, what's your view on any new restrictions that may or may not be needed? And what's your view about employers or employees working from home?
BUTLER: On the first point, the Chief Health Officers only met late last week and issued a statement on Friday. They have not changed broadly any advice to government, particularly to state governments about mandates or restrictions. There are of course, still targeted mask mandates in place on public transport, in health facilities, aged care facilities, and on aeroplanes just to name a few and they remain in place, they are particularly targeted at preventing severe disease in very high-risk areas of transmission. But Chief Health Officers also made the point though that masks are protective and if you are indoors, in a crowded environment where there is not the ability to socially distance, they encourage you to wear a mask if that's at all possible.
On working from home, the Chief Health Officers also did say to employees that they should think about allowing people to work from home. That ultimately is going to be a matter for businesses to work through given their economic circumstances right now. And I imagine they're giving consideration to that.
REPORTER: Can you give us an insight into your correspondence with the states. Obviously, every state is going to take its own pathway when it comes to restrictions and mask wearing etc. Do you know if there's any states in particular that are considering toughening restrictions whether it be here in South Australia or Victoria, for example?
BUTLER: No, I'm not aware of any state or territory at the moment that is considering a substantial change in their current restrictions. As I said all of the Chief Health Officers of every state, every territory, and the Commonwealth met last week and issued a statement on Friday, and there was no significant change to their advice in that statement.
REPORTER: Do you think our masks for this third wave probably played the ultimate role in terms of whether it be a mandate in some settings or just up to the individual?
BUTLER: As I've said a couple of times in the last few days, we are in a different phase, in this pandemic, we're now deep into the third year of the pandemic. We have a heavily vaccinated population with more than 96 per cent of over 16-year old’s having had two doses. I'd like to see the booster rate increase. There's no question about that but we are in a good position in terms of that baseline vaccination level. The advice appears to be that what should be in place are targeted mask mandates for those areas where there is a particularly high risk of transmission or where there were there are large populations who are vulnerable to severe disease and they remain in place.
REPORTER: So, do you believe that there is a need to increase restrictions, or do you think that at this stage of the pandemic, it simply comes down to personal responsibility?
BUTLER: There's no advice to me to increase the restrictions beyond what they are right now. There's no advice contained in the most recent meeting of the Chief Health Officers.
REPORTER: Should we be worried, Minister?
BUTLER: I think all health authorities and all health ministers, I met with them over the last 10 days are worried about the increase in hospitalisations in particular because in its own right it is a substantial number. There are now about 4000 Australians in hospital with COVID but beyond that bare number, there is also the additional pressure hospitals are facing right now because of influenza and a range of other respiratory illnesses. That's why we are acting so quickly to lift that rate of booster vaccination that is so important in preventing severe disease, but also expanding the access to antiviral treatments which we know are highly effective for people who are vulnerable to severe disease in preventing them from proceeding that way, and ultimately ending up in hospital.
REPORTER: Is there any new modelling to suggest how high the BA.4 and BA.5 wave will go?
BUTLER: There are different pieces of modelling at different state levels. I know the South Australian government, the Chief Health Officer here has talked about that modelling here. There are projections that could indicate this third wave could get up somewhere between as high as the second wave we saw in April and May and the first wave which was particularly high in January as border restrictions really started to be lifted around the country, and we saw that first subvariant of Omicron. I think all Chief Health Officers agree we're still in the early stage of this wave, we're likely to see continued increase in case numbers, which is why we're so focused on trying to prevent severe disease amongst those case numbers, because that will place very severe pressure on our hospital system.
REPORTER: Is part of the problem, particularly with hospitalisation is that, obviously the variants are continuing to evolve. For example, this fourth dose, that it doesn't necessarily protect you, in terms of the level of protection against a new strain, that it is just going to keep evolving?
BUTLER: The fourth dose is particularly for people aged over 50, especially people aged over 65 is very important. We've got that health advice. I encourage people, because there's a lot of people who haven't yet had their third dose including people over 50. There's about 1.3 million people over fifty that still haven't had their third dose and I really encourage you to get out and get that dose because that's the big kicker, that's the thing that really lifts your immunity against severe disease but it's clear as well, the fourth dose will give you a boost. And that boost is an important right now because of the of the phase of the pandemic we're going through this additional third wave.
REPORTER: Is Ms Halton's remit including looking at the pharmaceutical board's involvement in such decisions to potentially change the decision-making process to yourself or cabinet or anyone like that?
BUTLER: The role of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee in medicines is well established; it's been in place for decades. It's unusual for Commonwealth submission to that committee for an expanded listing for any medicine. But these are unusual times, which is why I did it. The Halton review only goes to the adequacy of the existing procurement contracts or procurement arrangements that the Commonwealth Government has around vaccines and around medicines for COVID.
REPORTER: Australia is the second most expensive country in the world when it comes to childcare, what's the government doing to address that problem?
BUTLER: One of the centrepieces of Anthony Albanese's platform for government was to revolutionise access to childcare, to make it much more affordable for all families because this is a critical tool for workforce participation particularly for mothers but for families more broadly. We also know that the first five years are potentially the most important years of a human's development. So having quality early childhood education is not just critical for workforce participation but also for early learning development.
REPORTER: When it comes to the Western world, do you think what your government's putting on the table is going to make, obviously your intention is to make it more affordable. When we compare Australia to the rest of the world, will it go far enough?
BUTLER: We're very convinced that this policy will bring us up to world's best practice in terms of affordability but also in terms of quality.
REPORTER: What do you what do you make of the Greens' calls to broaden the powers of the federal anti-corruption watchdog?
BUTLER: Attorney General Mark Dreyfus over the last few weeks, really as soon as he was appointed Attorney General, has been reaching out to other members of parliament in the Senate and in the House of Reps and having very constructive discussions with them about our plans for an independent commission against corruption. This is again a centrepiece of Anthony Albanese's platform for government. We are committed to bringing a bill into the parliament this year and the Attorney General will continue to have those fruitful discussions with all parties across the parliament and all the independent members.