Radio interview with Minister Butler and Liam Bartlett, 6PR - 18 July 2022

Read the transcript of the radio interview with Minister Butler and Liam Bartlett, 6PR on Vaccines, COVID-19 emergency payments, economy, COVID-19 isolation period, National Cabinet and staff shortages in health.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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LIAM BARTLETT:

The Federal Health Minister Mark Butler joins us on the program this morning. Minister, good morning to you.

MARK BUTLER, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE:

G’day Liam. How are you?

BARTLETT:

I'm well thanks. Thanks for your time today. What do we do with all these vaccines, especially the Novavax doses?

BUTLER:

A couple of weeks ago, very shortly after I was appointed the Health Minister, I commissioned Jane Halton to conduct an urgent review of our procurement arrangements for vaccines, but also for antiviral treatments and medicines. We obviously inherited a whole range of different arrangements and I think it's not surprising that a new government would want an independent eye to have a look at that. To what extent is there going to be an oversupply - and Novavax is the obvious one that people are looking at there - to what extent are the vaccines that we have on order going to suit our purposes for the rest of this year, and into next year. And there's no one I think, in Australia who's better placed to conduct that review than Jane Halton. She's a former secretary of the Health Department here in Canberra, former Secretary of Finance. But importantly, she also chairs COVAX, which is the international body that was set up early in the pandemic to distribute vaccines, essentially from the richer countries where a lot of them are being developed, into poorer countries that obviously need them as well. And she's also the co-chair of something called the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness and Innovation, which is a bit of a mouthful, but it is funding at a global level, again, a lot of the innovation that's happening now for the next generation of COVID vaccine. She's got an eye on what's happened so far, and particularly what's coming down the road in terms of vaccines and treatments. She's going to provide me a report in the coming few weeks.

BARTLETT:

How long is the shelf life Minister? How long do we have to make a decision on this?

BUTLER:

There are different shelf lives for different vaccines, which is part of the reason for this review. There are also different shelf lives for some of the treatments that we've also purchased as a Commonwealth Government under the former government. To their credit, I applauded that decision for them to buy these highly effective antiviral treatments. A lot of them have been sitting in warehouses. Some of the decisions I've been focused on over the last 10 days have been to get them off the shelves and actually get them into the community, doing the work they can do, which is prevent people from getting severely unwell.

BARTLETT:

But are we talking about weeks or months or - what are we talking? With most of these vaccines for example?

BUTLER:

Mostly months, on the treatments where we're trying to examine whether we can push the shelf life out for these treatments, a bit further, obviously on a safe basis with all of the authorities looking at that properly. One of the things that has changed over the last little while, is that when we had surplus vaccines - say last year under the former government - there was a huge need in the developing world in Africa, but also in our own region in the Pacific, for vaccines as well. We were able to distribute surplus vaccines from Australia to developing countries in our region, or even into Africa. Other developed countries – Europe, the United States and so on were doing that as well. Now there's actually what the experts describe as something of a glut in vaccines worldwide. My advice from my own department – but also from the Department of Foreign Affairs - is there's just not the ability to offload and donate our surplus vaccines to other countries. The US, for example, has recently donated hundreds of millions of surplus doses of Pfizer to the developing world, which is a great thing, because we're not all protected until everyone is protected. But it just means that there are some challenges in dealing with our surplus vaccines, which, as I said, I've asked Jane Halton to provide the government some independent advice about, and that will be coming in the next few weeks as well.

BARTLETT: 

It's a tough one for all governments. You raise the point about the international stuff, but just at the end of the process, I suppose it's difficult when you first order them and given the way the pandemic rolled out, it was also difficult for a lot of administrations to make the decision. You just never know, is really the bottom line. But gee, the wastage just seems terrible, doesn't it?

BUTLER:

Of course. We said to the former government the year before last - so in the first 12 months of the pandemic, when we were in opposition - we said that all of the advice we were receiving from the experts is that you need to order a range of options. Particularly with new vaccines against a new disease because some of them won't work. Something will happen, what you can be sure of is that something will happen. Our criticism was that they didn't order enough vaccines early enough, which is why we ended up behind the rest of the world - through the course of 2021 - in vaccinating our population. But the other challenge is not ordering too much and, frankly, I'd prefer to be in a position where we ordered too much than ordered too little. It’s hard to get the Goldilocks right, if you like, and order precisely the right amount. But I think hedging your bets and making sure that there is redundancy in the scheme in case one vaccine didn't prove to be as effective as we'd hoped was the right thing to do. We now have to go through a process as government of making sure that our arrangements are fit for purpose. There are new vaccines coming on the market, for example where our authorities are now looking at the vaccines for under five-year-old’s. That's only just started rolling out in the last couple of weeks in the United States. So, we have to make sure we've got vaccines in preparedness for that. There are also new vaccines being developed by Moderna and Pfizer, the big two mRNA companies that are particularly targeting the Omicron variant and thought to be more effective than the original vaccines. So, making sure we're at the front of the queue, we're getting priority access to the cutting-edge technology is really what Jane Halton's going to advise us about as well.

BARTLETT:

We look forward to the results of that review. In the meantime, Minister, this morning there are calls around to reduce the COVID isolation period from seven days down to five. What do you think of that?

BUTLER:

There are different views about that around the world. The United States Center for Disease Control, for example, has had a five-day rule in place for some time that was quite controversial when it first happened. A lot of experts said that people were still infectious on day six and seven. So, there was no point isolating people for five days if they were going to get out and infect others in day six and seven, which is why we adopted a seven-day period here in Australia, which was the pretty standard position across the world.

BARTLETT:

But what's your view on it today? Are you tempted to cut it back or not?

BUTLER:

I don't have a view in the sense I'm not a health expert. Our health experts are not looking at cutting it back at this stage. There may be a debate later on. I think you would have heard a couple of people, including the New South Wales Liberal Premier, over the last couple of days for example, say it would be his view that some point later this year, we need a debate about that, we need a discussion. But right now, given where we are in the height of this third Omicron wave right now, it's really hitting Australia hard - very much hitting our hospital systems hard. Now is not the time to start reducing those protections.

BARTLETT:

Alright. I wanted to talk to you about these COVID leave payments. Your boss, the Prime Minister just said last week, we have to be fiscally responsible. He said, that's why they were stopped. And that's why that the present government - your government - had agreed that yes, they should be stopped, and they stopped them. And now they're back. Now does this mean you're being fiscally irresponsible?

BUTLER:

This was a hard decision either way, because, as you say, we've inherited a budget with a trillion dollars in debt and very substantial budget deficits. And at some point, the very big emergency payments which was set up really for the emergency phase of the pandemic, when you'll remember two thirds of the country was locked down and such, at some point they have to start to be pulled off. They can't continue forever. That's simply not sustainable for the budget. It starts to put pressure on all of the other things that government is expected to spend money on.

BARTLETT:

Sure does.

BUTLER

I think what we what we found over the course of the last week in particular, is the health advice from the Chief Health Officers around the country. It was provided to the Premiers, the Chief Ministers and the Prime Minister on Saturday morning, shows that this third Omicron wave - well it's the second Omicron wave for your state, Liam - because you didn't have the summer one that hit the eastern states in January. The third Omicron wave for the country is proving to be a big one. And it's putting a lot of pressure on the economy, on our hospital system. And so, on reflection the decision of the Prime Minister and the Premier's was that we needed to reinstate that payment for this three-month period, for this winter. But that would be a shared responsibility between the Commonwealth and all of the states - so funded 50:50.

BARTLETT:

Chris Richardson, you'd know his name - many of our listeners know his name - well respected economist. He says the move should be offset by budget savings, which makes a lot of sense. Which savings have you identified?

BUTLER:

This measure has not been offset in the way in which Chris is suggesting. Generally, the COVID emergency measures right through the pandemic have not been subject to the usual offset rules and fewer listeners. The offset rule essentially provides that new spending measures by the Commonwealth Government are supposed to be offset by new saving measures. So adding to the pile of debt.

That is the point Chris is making. But I think the view of the former government and the view we take as well, is that when you're in a once in a century pandemic, and you need to put in place measures to protect the community, to protect jobs, but also to protect people's health and lives. That you can't go through that same budget process. It's a one-off, once in a century emergency. And that is the approach that we took to this. But have no doubt, our Government, our Treasurer, our Finance Minister, Jim Chalmers, but also the Prime Minister, and all of the rest of us, are very focused on the fact that we need to start to get this budget back under control if we are going to be able to continue to fund all of the other health services, education services, fund the defense of our nation and all the rest - this budget is going to have to be put on a more sustainable footing.

BARTLETT:

I don't know how you're going to do that. Let's face it. Look at the situation at the moment, the Reserve Bank is trying to take money out of the system, homeowners are being hit with interest rate rises, because there's been too much stimulus and you're pumping more money back in - it doesn't make a lot of sense economically, Minister.

 BUTLER:

The money we're pumping back in, to use your phrase, is essentially covering the wages of particularly low paid casual workers who are required by government to isolate for seven days and for whom there would otherwise be no income. So, it just allows them to continue to pay their rent and pay whatever other outgoings they have. It's not money that's likely to provide any extra stimulation to the economy. We know there's a lot of stimulation in the economy already which is why we're seeing inflation jump quite considerably. But this is really a measure just to keep people afloat during a period of isolation that's imposed on them by the government.

BARTLETT:

You mentioned advice - the advice that was provided to you and all the state leaders - and formed part of that decision at the weekend. The modelling from the Burnet Institute hasn't been made public, but it is publicly funded. Why won't you release that?
 
BUTLER:

I saw the comments by the head of the Burnet institute this morning, Brendan Crabb, - a man I've known for many years and for whom I have the greatest respect - and I am going to take some advice about that. As you know, we're a new government. We've inherited a range of protocols from the former government. Many of which are very sensible, but all of which I think is proper that a new government review and consider. So when I heard Brendan Crabb say that this morning, I made a note myself to seek some advice from my Department about that.

BARTLETT:

He says he's uncomfortable with the secrecy - the public need to understand the pandemic. I think that's pretty fair, isn't it? You are the Minister now, you're in the box seat. You can make the changes.

BUTLER:

That’s right. I understand the point. But as a relatively new minister, these things have been brought to my attention and I'm glad that Brendan Crabb made those comments that he did this morning. He, and so many other health experts and epidemiologists, as well as our frontline workers, have just been extraordinary, not only in providing care to people as they've confronted this terrible illness, but explaining it to those of us who don't have clinical qualifications. I'm not a doctor, myself. So, having people like Brendan Crabb, and all of the doctors and nurses and other health workers across the country, educate us and explain to us what this illness does, and how it how it operates, has been very good fortune for the rest of us.

BARTLETT:

Talking about frontline workers. I saw - I know it's a long way from Perth, Minister, but I saw some of the pictures this morning on staff shortages. Some of the nurses, many nurses - Westmead and also Blacktown hospitals - walking off the job this morning. Big protest scenes in Sydney. Are you worried about staff shortages in health? I mean, we have the same issues over here, but are you worried about the staff shortages right around the country?

BUTLER:

I'm deeply worried about it. But, all of the Health Ministers, including Amber-Jade Sanderson, the WA Health Minister, had another hook up yesterday afternoon. We had a really good meeting face-to-face – I think the first Health Ministers face-to-face meeting for a long time - a couple of weeks ago, and I think all of us have workforce right at the top of our list of concerns. It's always been challenging to make sure that we've got enough doctors and nurses and health workers in our system, and Australia has always relied upon a mix of locally trained health workers and overseas trained. But right now, the shortages are very severe. Partly because the borders have been closed for so long. Also, because so many thousands of health workers are hit every week right now by COVID, like the rest of us, so they're required to isolate. So, we're focused very much on that - we're moving to monthly meetings as a group of Health Ministers and workforce is going to be one of the big items on our agenda. There is no single silver bullet to suddenly fill our hospitals with doctors and nurses. We are going to have to look at bringing more in from overseas in the short term - because you can't just pluck them off trays locally - but in the longer term, in the medium and long term, we are going to have to have a good hard look at whether we're training enough doctors and nurses, and whether we're training them in the right areas. General Practice, for example is one of the areas I'm particularly worried about. There just aren't enough new medical graduates choosing General Practice as their preferred career. And so, if people think it's hard to get in to see a GP now - and it is harder than it's ever been in my view - it's going to get harder if we're not able to come to grips with some of these challenges.

BARTLETT:

Minister, I know you're flat-out but I really appreciate you taking the time to have a chat to our listeners this morning. Thanks very much.

BUTLER:

My pleasure.

BARTLETT:

That's Mark Butler, The Federal Health Minister on the morning program.

 

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