Radio interview with Minister Butler and Neil Mitchell, 3AW Mornings - 12 July 2022

Read the transcript of the radio interview with Minister Butler and and Neil Mitchell, 3AW Mornings on Omicron third wave and response; antivirals; hospitalisations; masks and rapid antigen tests

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

Media event date:
Date published:
Media type:
Transcript
Audience:
General public

NEIL MITCHELL:

Today there are warnings from the health experts, they’ve ramped up. They say COVID is now the leading cause of death in Australia. A group called OzSage has outlined the plan for immediate government action. Now this group covers experts in all areas. Epidemiologists, infectious disease experts, sociologists, the whole lot. They’ve been formed to, as an independent type of watchdog if you like, to analyse and advise on the pandemic. In my view, some of what they’re suggesting should’ve been in place months ago and we’ll go through that in a moment. But on the line is the new Federal Health Minister Mark Butler. Good morning.
 
MARK BUTLER, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE:

Good morning.
 
MITCHELL:

Now, unfortunately there has been a bit of politics here in Victoria, can we strip it back? What is the modeling you've seen for the rest of the winter?
 
BUTLER:

I think all of the modelling states, different states are doing it, and we've had some done for us Federally as well. All of the modelling indicates that case numbers and hospitalisations have further to go over the next four to six weeks. We're going to continue to see case numbers rise, we're going to continue to see increased pressure on our hospitals. We're at around 4000 people in the hospital with COVID right now across the country. I think it's a little less than 800 down in Victoria. So per capita, it's running a little behind where New South Wales and Queensland are in Victoria but across the country, we expect it to climb. The best numbers I've seen are something like the hospitalisation numbers in January, so a little over 5000 probably. So, another 25 per cent or so. On the upside - and it's hard to see too many upsides at the moment because this is going to be a very difficult wave - on the upside though we expect Intensive Care Unit or ICU admissions to be markedly lower than they were in January. Probably still only about a third of the rate we saw in January. That's because in January although Omicron was driving the very big increase in case numbers because it's so infectious, there were still cases of Delta running through the community. The Delta variant people will remember from late last year and that was much more severe. It got into the lungs, and it was more likely to cause people to get into the ICU. We're going to see hospitalisation numbers which might get up around where they were in January, but fortunately not see anywhere near as many people in ICU. The difference of course…
 
MITCHELL:

What about deaths?
 
BUTLER:

I haven't seen projections on deaths. Some of the deaths, the fatality rate is markedly down on where it was last year per capita. It's running at about one in 1000. In 2020, it was as high as 30 in 1000 people who got COVID were likely to lose their life. But of course, we've got many, many, many more people getting COVID. Literally millions of people who have caught COVID on the official data we've got this year. I've seen it might be more than twice the official number have actually got COVID based on some of the sampling we do of blood donations and things like that. So, at the moment, still around 300 people are losing their life, tragically every single week. We haven't seen that number climb, but it’s still a very, very high number. And as you say we've seen some data out this morning that suggests that COVID is the largest killer of Australians this year, taking over coronary disease.
 
MITCHELL:

Look, you inherited this and I think this should have been done months ago. But do you know how many have died since you've been Minister - this sort of focus since you've become Health Minister.
 
BUTLER:

I haven't seen that precise number because of a couple of weeks lag. I'd say it's around 1500 though.
 
MITCHELL:

2216 on the official launch official figures we've got. That's 40 a day. 833 in Victoria.
 
BUTLER:

It's just a tragedy. It really is.
 
MITCHELL:

But why are people turning their back on it and saying, ‘Oh no, it's all over. It doesn't happen.’ Why is this such staggering lack of action across levels of government?
 
BUTLER:

I think deep into this third year of a pandemic, there is a level of fatigue across the community. And we're seeing this around the world that governments and health authorities need to reflect as they put in place measures to deal with this new wave. This is the third wave we're seeing just in 2022. What we've done, as we've come into government is trying to bring new energy as we said we would before the election to around the importance of the third dose. And we're talking about the fourth dose right now which is very important, particularly for older Australians. But there's still more than 5 million people who have gone more than six months since their second dose. That third dose is the critical one to give the big kick in immunity. We've expanded fourth dose eligibility; we've expanded access to these very effective antiviral treatments that can stop people ending up in hospital.
 
MITCHELL:

Yes, and that's all welcome. I'd like to get to that in a moment - just on the hospitalisations though, the head of the AMA here in Victoria says the hospital health systems have been abandoned by business and the government. He says there is a need for masks, there is a need for working from home. If we get to those 5000 as modelled, which would seem probably likely, would seem almost certain, what is that going to do to our public health system? How does it continue?
 
BUTLER:

The difference I think is important for us to bear in mind. The difference between now and January is that we're in winter. Although a lot of the cases presenting in January were more severe because Delta was still running through the community, hospitals are also dealing with the usual spike in pressure that they get during winter. We've got the flu that is back, although the flu season seems to have been a little earlier this year than traditionally was the case, flu numbers seem to be dropping off a little bit. There is still substantial flu pressure on our hospitals and all of the other things that happen to hospital systems in the winter, so it's not really apples with apples. 5,000 is going to put very serious pressure on our hospitals, which is why we've extended our funding support which was due to drop off towards the end of winter. While we've extended our funding support to the state systems, I don't think anyone is under any doubt hospitals are going to face very real pressure over the course of the winter. After you've got 1000s and 1000s of doctors, nurses and other hospital workers are exhausted in the third year of the pandemic. This is going to be very tough now.
 
MITCHELL:

The bottom line is, and we've got problems with ambulances here in Victoria, has been shown people –
 
BUTLER:

Every state does.
 
MITCHELL:

Well, I think ours are worse if you look at the figures, but people here have died who should not have died. Are we in that sort of critical situation with hospitals? I mean, elective surgery might have to be cut back, correct.
 
BUTLER:

I think you're seeing elective surgery cut back in the north. Up in Queensland at the category two and category three elective surgery is being deferred. I'd be very surprised if there wasn't pressure on elective surgery lists in a number of states over the coming four to six weeks.
 
MITCHELL:

Is there a danger this could cost lives? This crisis in the hospital system? Lives that should not be lost?
 
BUTLER:

Look, it's hard to be precise about that. But this is going to place real pressure on the ability of our hospital systems to provide the care we want them to. There's no question about that. We see ramping of ambulances in every single state. Frankly, we were seeing it even before the borders opened in the, what we used to call, the COVID free states.
 
MITCHELL:

We were seeing it before the pandemic in Victoria.
 
BUTLER:

That’s right – our hospital systems are under pressure. We've got an ageing population. We've got more chronic disease. We've got substantial mental health presentations. So, look, I mean COVID is exacerbating underlying structural pressure on our hospitals.
 
MITCHELL:

I'd like to get back to that. But do you agree, given the nature of this crisis, people should work from home if they can?
 
BUTLER:

There was some advice the Chief Health Officers all get together pretty regularly and they got together last week –
 
MITCHELL:

They didn’t go that far?
 
BUTLER:

I think what they did was start to bring back this debate about a little bit more working from home and, and a stronger message on mask wearing - 
 
MITCHELL:

I'll read you out what they said, quote – I’ve got it in front of me. ‘Employers should review their occupational health and safety risks and mitigations. Consider the feasibility of some employees working from home.’ So, do you agree? Do you think if we can work from home we should? That’s all that they’re saying.
 
BUTLER:

Yes, I think we are going to go through a difficult period and if employers feel that there is the ability to continue their operations with that sort of change for a little period then I think the Chief Health Officers are providing good advice. But employers will have to consider that given the circumstances that they're facing now.
 
MITCHELL:

But, you see this is why the medical professionals are saying you've abandoned the hospital system. They're saying, ‘Work from home now.’ Urge people to work from home if they can. Don't mandate it. Urge it. Would you urge it?
 
BUTLER:

I don't think that that is the strong advice from the Chief Health Officers. I think what we need to do is monitor this week by week, as we see this wave develop and the Chief Health Officers are not only in their own jurisdictions advising their political leaders about what to do, but are also coming together and trying to formulate a national response to what is a national wave. We haven't seen it like this so much through the pandemic where different states have had different waves at different times. This is a national wave that's spreading right across the country.
 
MITCHELL:

What was the attitude of the Victorian Chief Health Officer? Do you know?
 
BUTLER:

I don't know the attitude of individual officers. I get presented with the outcome of a meeting.
 
MITCHELL:

Okay, what about masks? Do you agree they should be more broadly used, should we be wearing masks indoors?
 
BUTLER:

I think all of us, and I'm no better than others, I think all of us have become a little bit complacent about mask wearing over the last couple of months. I think we've thought that as we got over the summer wave that things were going to be better for the rest of this year. But this virus continues to mutate and continues to throw different challenges at us. So, I think the wise advice from the Chief Health Officers was, if you're in an indoor space particularly crowded where you're not able to socially distance yourself, you should think about putting a mask on. They provide very substantial protection.
 
MITCHELL:

But Minister, that's not very strong. We’re talking about a crisis. Then we say ‘Oh, I'll have a think about putting a mask on.’ Why can't we simply say to the people of Australia, you should wear a mask indoors and we're not going to force you to but you should, we strongly recommend it. Why can't that be said?
 
BUTLER:

I think that really is the advice the Chief Health Officers. I think what Chief Health Officers - who have done an extraordinary job over the last two and a half years - are trying to do is to reflect in their advice the fact that there is a lot of fatigue out in the community. As you said, members of our community, particularly in states like Victoria, that have been hit harder than other parts of the country by this pandemic. There's a level of fatigue there about being told what to do. So, I think Chief Health Officers, political leaders need to make sure that they calibrate their advice for this third wave in just 2022 in a way that gets the best response and the best behavioral response from our community. I think the Chief Health Officers are working very hard at doing that. Now political leaders should follow that advice.
 
MITCHELL:

Ok, so the message from you is, if possible, work from home? If possible, wear a mask? What is it?
 
BUTLER:

I think mask wearing in crowded indoor spaces is something we should see return. I think I've we've, as a community, and I include all of us, myself in this, have slacked off a bit about mask wearing in indoor spaces. We know that that is effective. I don't see a position where governments are going to start sort of ordering people to do that.
 
MITCHELL:

Oh, no.
 
BUTLER:

I don't see that advice right now. I'm not sure that wouldn't be counterproductive given where the community is at. And I think communities across the world are in the same position.
 
MITCHELL:

Here is a cheeky suggestion. Next press conference you have indoors, why don’t you wear a mask onto the platform and take it off when you begin to speak? Maybe that'd be a message.
 
BUTLER:

That would be a message.
 
MITCHELL:

Think you might do it?
 
BUTLER:

And we’ve been talking about that only in the last couple of days.
 
MITCHELL:

Oh really? Good. So, the masks come back to press conferences, perhaps?
 
BUTLER:

Certainly. Sometimes I do my press conferences outside and I think all of us need to consider that this wave is something different to what we've faced over the last few months. Hospital systems are under particular pressure. I think that the thing here is we're trying to expand vaccinations. I do want to continue to make this, to send this message. If you haven't had your third dose, the first two doses are not providing you with much protection at all. You need that third dose, at the very least. If you're an older Australian, you need the fourth dose. It's still well over a million people over the age of 50 who haven't had their third dose, let alone their fourth dose. That really is just not good enough. People need to get that third dose to get their immunity up.
 
MITCHELL:

The Commonwealth controls airports, does it not?
 
BUTLER:

Broadly, yes.
 
MITCHELL:

Yeah. Have you got adequate ventilation systems in the airports?
 
BUTLER:

I haven't got advice about the ventilation systems in the airports. I've certainly been taking it about ventilation systems in airplanes. The advice from the Chief Health Officers very early in my time as a Health Minister, probably four weeks ago now, maybe three weeks ago, was to lift the mask mandate within airports. I think the view was, if there was no mask mandate in very crowded pubs, then in airports, it didn't really make sense, not to reflect the situation in hospitality. Certainly, in aeroplanes, those are governed by state public health orders. And I think every state accepted the advice of the Chief Health Officers, but certainly in places like aeroplanes, on public transport, in areas where there is a high risk of severe disease, like aged care facilities and health facilities, you do have mask mandates and I think that targeting of mask mandates to those areas should continue.
 
MITCHELL:

Minister, the free RATs for pensioners and concession card holders are due to expire at the end of July. Would you look at extending that?
 
BUTLER:

I think that expiry, I think, is about the right time.
 
MITCHELL:

Really?
 
BUTLER:

When that was introduced, we had a very ferocious debate you might remember, at a time when RATs were incredibly hard to get. I remember visiting almost every chemist in my electorate and there's a lot to try and find –
 
MITCHELL:

But hang on, we're talking about a new wave and how bad it's going to be, but pensioners will still now have to pay for their RATs? In a couple of weeks?
 
BUTLER:

If you let me finish - the price has come down dramatically. They were running on average at sort of $24 - $25 per test if you could get them in January, to now down to about $8 a test. Pensioners and concession cardholders can still get their allocation of up to 10 tests before the end of this month, which should carry them through for a period of time. There are still free RATs, there are so many RATs in the community right now, Neil, and state governments are providing them for free. I think the Victorian Government provides free RATs to people as well. They're available if you're visiting an aged care facility. I think you can still access five free RATs from the Victorian Government. A range of other state governments have these programs too. So, I think the problem we were facing in summer has largely resolved itself.
 
MITCHELL:

Have we got plenty of Novavax?
 
BUTLER:

I think we've got enough Novavax for the demand. I think the demand that we expected when Novavax was finally approved, hasn't really come to pass so I’ve got no –
 
MITCHELL:

Is it right that we’ve been throwing some out?
 
BUTLER:

I haven't got that advice.
 
MITCHELL:

Are you aware that manufacturers are now saying it does also surprisingly, have an impact on the subvariants? That you can actually use it for these sub-variants?
 
BUTLER:

I think we're seeing a whole lot of developments in vaccine technology around –
 
MITCHELL:

No, this is the existing Novavax - works on those sub variants. Have you seen that research?
 
BUTLER:

I haven't seen that research that hasn't been provided to me, but I'll go away and have a look for it.
 
MITCHELL:

It's been released by the company and they're surprised themselves that it works on the new variant.
 
BUTLER:

I'll go and have a look at that. I get provided with research every day and that hasn't been provided to me.
 
MITCHELL:

Have we got plenty of antivirals?
 
BUTLER:

We've got plenty of antivirals and then the problem with the antivirals is that they’ve been stuck in warehouses, not getting out because I think the eligibility conditions were too strict. We’ve fixed that. But still, I think we need to do more on awareness. So, I've asked my department to prepare a strong awareness campaign to get the message out. I mean, these are highly effective if you take them early on. And you're at risk of severe disease, your chance of getting severely unwell and ending up in hospital is markedly reduced.
 
MITCHELL:

Minister, I really thank you for your time. Just finally, in the modeling we're talking about is there any talk of how many COVID waves we can expect this year? Does anybody know that?
 
BUTLER:

I just want to be honest, Neil I don't think anybody knows that. I mean, we will by the end of this wave literally have millions and millions and millions of Australians having had COVID. But the thing about this, this new sub-variant BA.4 and BA.5 is that you can get reinfected with them and you can get reinfected relatively quickly, which is why the Chief Health Officers reduced the reinfection period from 12 weeks. So previously, it was thought if you got COVID, you are pretty much bulletproof for 12 weeks. They’ve brought that down to four weeks, just four weeks now. That's how quickly you can get reinfected. So just because you had Omicron earlier this year, does not mean you're not going to get it again with this new sub-variant. Get out and get your boosters, practice good social distancing. All those messages we've come to hear over the last two and a half years still apply.
 
MITCHELL:

Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it. Thank you for talking to us.
 
BUTLER:

Thanks Neil.
 
MITCHELL:

Mark Butler, the Federal Health Minister

 

Related ministers:

Help us improve health.gov.au

If you would like a response please use the enquiries form instead.