Radio interview with Minister Butler and Chris Smith, 2GB Breakfast - 14 July 2022

Read the transcript of the radio interview with Minister Butler and Chris Smith, 2GB Breakfast on COVID-19 response, Rapid Antigen Tests, masks and working from home.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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Mark Butler is the Federal Health Minister, and he joins me on the line. Minister, thank you very much for your time this morning.

Morning, Chris.


I don't understand this. What's going on? You're making a very big deal about this third wave, as you should, and we should be concerned. You say there will be millions of new COVID cases, but at the same time, you're winding back some of our best weapons to fight it. Are you getting health advice or Treasury advice?

We're not winding back the best weapons to fight it. We're doubling down on our best weapons to fight it, which is why earlier this week, I expanded the vaccine program so that people over the age of 50 would have access to a fourth dose. All along, reinforcing the message that it's really important to get your third dose. There's still a lot of people who haven't got their third dose out there and that's the really big kicker for immunity.
We expanded the vaccine program, we've also substantially expanded access to antiviral medicines. They are critically important in preventing particularly older Australians from progressing to severe disease and hospitalisations. We've extended funding arrangements to the state hospital systems, costing more than three quarters of a billion dollars because we know the pressure that hospitals are under. Our focus is very much on stopping people getting severely unwell and particularly progressing to hospital or worse.

I think that's fantastic. Doesn’t it make sense to be consistent and increase and extend the free RAT program?

Can I just clarify a couple of things that I think have been lost in the commentary? The first thing is there is there is no change to the arrangement that if you if you have symptoms of COVID or if you've been exposed to someone with COVID as a close contact, you are entitled to get tested free of charge. That that is still the case. We still co-fund free COVID testing arrangements right through the country with all of the state governments, including New South Wales. And across the country, whether you're a pensioner or not, you can get access to free RAT tests or free PCR tests if you think you've got COVID.

Until July 31.

No, not at all and this is the problem, Chris, with this commentary. People are trying to frighten people that they're not going to be able to get tested free of charge if they think they've got COVID. And that is complete rubbish. It will continue right on. There's no change to the arrangements we've had as a Commonwealth with the states for some time and in some states, you can get access to a big group of RATs. In others if you have COVID symptoms or if you're a close contact, you can go into a station and get free RATs or get a PCR test, all free of charge and nothing changes there.
What happened in the early part of this year is that the former government, the Commonwealth Government, and the states - this was a National Cabinet decision, not a Commonwealth Government decision - set up a program to provide pensioners and concession card holders with a collection of RATs. Ten every three months. So, twenty free RATS over a six-month period essentially for personal use, because we knew that as we moved from the situation last year where there weren't many cases, it was serious. There weren't the millions of cases we've seen this year and we largely relied on PCR testing, we moved this year to a situation where people got used to using RATs. And, early in the year, people were taking a decision to do a RAT test before they visited family or before they went to a party or something like that.
We wanted to make sure at the time and state governments co-funded this to 50 per cent that concession card holders would have a stockpile for personal use. But it's really important to get this message out: If you need to get tested because you think you've got COVID or you've been exposed as a close contact, you will still get a free test. If you need to visit a relative or a loved one in an aged care facility which requires a RAT test first that will be free.
The Commonwealth is rolling out tens of millions of free RAT tests still to aged care facilities. I hope we don’t get to this, but if you need RAT testing at schools, they will be free. The health program around RATs continues free of charge for everyone.

In August can elderly people walk in and get a free PCR test?

There are different arrangements state by state. Some states are doing are doing RAT tests and some states are doing PCR tests and a mix. But what is what is important is you can get a free test. There’s no question. You can get a free test at the testing stations that are run by the states and co-funded by the Commonwealth, and that will not change after the end of July.

You're calling on Australians to consider working from home again while cases spike. In the last week, attendance at Sydney offices has dropped by 40 per cent. Business groups are outraged by that. They're demanding the country stays open. Have you thought about the economic impact of those warnings?

The Chief Health Officers came together last week, as you'd expect them to given what's happening with COVID around the country. And they deliberately didn't take a decision to ask for orders or for mandates.
We've moved beyond that, Chris. We're not in the era of lockdowns and those sorts of things. We want businesses and the community to make their own common sense decisions based on the best possible public health advice.
And what the Chief Health Officers said last week, and I was simply echoing, was that they were asking employers to consider whether there were work from home arrangements that could be put in place that would be suitable for their business. As you say, employers are already doing it. I'm talking to employers. They didn't wait for a meeting of the Chief Health Officers to do that. They're taking that decision themselves. Obviously, we'd all prefer that they weren't having to do that. But the point I've been making is this is not an order. This is not a mandate. I've said employers, if they if they talk to their employees and come to the view that there can be some working from home, that's a matter for them. And they will have heard the advice from the Chief Health Officers.

You're telling Australians to be more vigilant, wear a mask when you can't socially distance, especially indoors, wash your hands, etc. We’re not on track for mandates here, are we? We're not going to wind back the clock, are we?

No. And that's really something I've been trying to reinforce over the last several days. We are in a new phase of the pandemic. It's not behind us. This thing's not going away. It continues to mutate. We've got to keep up with it. It is still a race. We've got to make sure we've got the best possible vaccines, the best possible treatments, particularly to look after elderly Australians. But you know what? What we want is for people to be able to move to a point where they make their own choices. But they're good choices. They're informed choices by the public health advice. And that's why the advice last week was so important from the Chief Health Officers that if you are in an indoor space and you can't socially distance, you should put on a mask. And it's not an order. It's not a mandate. It's just good sense. It will protect you. It will cut down transmission, that number of cases that we are projecting over the course of the winter. And importantly, if there are people around you who are vulnerable to severe illness, well, hopefully they'll be wearing a mask. But also, it will reduce the chances of them getting severely unwell. But again, I think we've moved beyond this this sort of period where for understandable reasons, government had to control. Government had to regulate issued orders and mandates. We're in a different era now.

Finally, there's a push to slash the COVID isolation period from seven days to five days. It's been done in the United States. What are your thoughts on that?

I think this is a really careful decision for the public health officers to make. I mean, it was quite controversial in the US when they went to five days a little while ago, there was a view around the world, given that everyone does watch what the US does, they have some of the best public health authorities in the world.
There was a view that that was a little short and people were still infectious on days six and seven. So, I'm not aware that there's any move to change that advice in the foreseeable future here in Australia. But it's a very it would be a very important decision for the public health experts to make.

Very, very true. And you get paid the big bucks to make these decisions. Health Minister Mark Butler, thank you for your time.

Thank you, Chris.


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