Radio interview with Minister Butler and Patricia Karvelas, ABC Radio National - 15 July 2022

Read the transcript of the radio interview with Minister Butler and Patricia Karvelas, ABC Radio National on COVID emergency payments; National Cabinet and health advice.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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PATRICIA KARVELAS, ABC RADIO NATIONAL BREAKFAST HOST:

Mark Butler is the Federal Health Minister and our guest. Mark Butler, welcome to the program.
 
MARK BUTLER, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE:

Good morning, Patricia.
 
KARVELAS:

You were elected on a new type of politics and also trust. Why should people trust that you are putting their health first?
 
BUTLER:

I think the Australian community understands and indeed wants the country to move to a new phase in managing this pandemic. We're deep into the third year of the pandemic and as we continue to confront wave after wave - this is just the third wave in 2022 and we're only halfway through the year - my sense is the community wants to move into a different phase beyond community-wide government orders, community-wide mandates. That means potentially community-wide emergency payments. Instead, I think the community is asking for much more targeted mandates. We have them in place, for example, our mask wearing in aged care facilities and hospitals in areas of high transmission, public transport, and aeroplanes, plus programs that are laser-like focused on reducing severe illness, which is why we've expanded our support to the public hospitals program over the last several weeks, we've expanded the vaccine program for older Australians, we’ve hugely expanded access to antiviral medicines. This is the new phase of managing this pandemic.
 
KARVELAS:

But there's not a new phase. You've told us that millions of Australians are about to be infected. So, you're talking about a new phase but yet record infections. How does that compute?
 
BUTLER:

This virus continues to mutate, and people are continuing to get it. Thankfully, the vast bulk of people will experience very mild to moderate illness. But there are people at risk of severe illness which is our overarching focus. But when I say the new phase, we're not at the point, as we were even last year, of locking down a half or even two thirds of the country.
 
KARVELAS:

And nobody’s calling for that. What people are calling for - doctors, opposition, even your own side of politics, is that you keep the support so people can reduce transmission, so that the vulnerable don't catch this and don't ultimately clog up hospitals or even die. Will you revisit those decisions that you keep blaming on the previous government, but you're the government now?
 
BUTLER:

The point we've been making and the point I just tried to make then, Patricia, is as you move to a new phase, which doesn't have the same level of government mandate around people's behaviour, inevitably you have to start looking at these very large emergency payments that have been coming out of the budget essentially on borrowed money and the Prime Minister, the Treasurer and myself, other members of the government, have just been honest with the Australian people that at some point a decision needs to be made that you can't continue to borrow money to make these large emergency payments - society-wide payments - that essentially were a reflection of society-wide mandates and government orders. These are tough decisions, but we inherited a trillion dollars in debt and a budget that was massively in deficit as far as the eye can see.
 
KARVELAS:

So, wouldn't the logical thing be to look for savings, not in the health area where there's a health emergency?
 
BUTLER:

There is going to be a very difficult process that the government Expenditure Review Committee is going to have to go through to bring this budget back into something like balance. We can't continue to borrow money as far as the eye can see. And I can tell you as the Health Minister, Patricia, there is no end to the list of worthy, important things that we could be spending money on in the health portfolio. There's no end to it, but there is an end to the money and these decisions all have opportunity costs. If we continue to make these society wide emergency payments, it will make it much harder to get the budget back into a sustainable position, but also frankly, it will make it much harder to make other decisions around health.
 
KARVELAS:

When the previous government argued things needed to end based on the fiscal situation, which is exactly what you're doing in this interview, you were relentless in your rebuke, relentless, and yet you're coming on the show today and telling me that the situation, the budget situation, is the reason you're making this decision. Why should people trust that you're making the right decisions for their health, when you've just flipped. You've become elected, you've become a minister, and you've just flipped your arguments.
 
BUTLER:

With respect, Patricia, that's not the argument I've made over the last five minutes. I have made an argument that there's a question of the sustainability of the budget that any government, whoever was elected, would have to start to grapple with given the economic circumstances we face. But I also made the argument that we have moved to a different phase in the pandemic. We are moving from a phase of society-wide government orders and mandates, and that will necessitate a decision around government-wide support payments. We're moving to a very different phase where there's much more targeted approach to mandates to protect the most vulnerable. There's a very targeted approach to make sure that additional spending which we have been deciding upon over recent weeks is targeted on supporting our public hospital system and access to antiviral medicines. These are the decisions we've been taking.
 
KARVELAS:

What could be more targeted than assistance for those who are infected so they can isolate?
 
BUTLER:

This is a tough decision. I understand that. And the position of casual workers, as a number of us have said over the last couple of days, has been an endemic problem in the labour market. Casual workers are having to stay away from work because of flu, because of a range of illnesses, and for years have been without government support or support from their employers. Many employers at this time are doing the right thing and providing support to their employees, and job security and improving paid leave for casual workers to annual leave and sick leave, is right at the centre of our workplace relations policy. But we just made the point of it, that at some point, whether it was now or in three months' time, taking off these emergency payments which simply can't last forever is going to be a difficult decision. I acknowledge that and I regret that.
 
KARVELAS:

You regret it, but yet you're in power, Minister, you can make a different decision. Why aren’t you at least deferring these decisions until after this winter danger has passed?
 
BUTLER:

As I said, at whatever time these decisions were made, this will have an impact. They are difficult decisions when you remove -
 
KARVELAS:

I don't mean to be rude and interrupt and I know I can sound like I am, I'm trying to be respectful. But what you're telling me doesn't make sense. It doesn't make sense to any of the listeners texting in because you're saying it has to come off at some point. Everyone accepts that things need to change at different points. But you're trying to make the change at a time where you're also telling us we're about to face the biggest wave we've faced. Millions of Australians to be infected. This is - all of the health people are telling us, that's not the right time, Minister.
 
BUTLER:

This is the time it was intended to come off. This is the time that we've decided it needs to come off.
 
KARVELAS:

Anne Ruston told me this morning - she’s in the opposition, she said that that was a decision they made, but now circumstances have changed. You've told us we've got this wave coming. Why don't you revisit the decision?
 
BUTLER:

Circumstances have changed, and we are we are looking to do everything we can to reduce the incidence of severe illness. That is the focus of this new phase of the pandemic; to reduce hospitalisations, to make sure that people can have the widest possible access to these new antiviral medicines that up until earlier this week were sitting on shelves in warehouses, and that is the focus of this new phase of the pandemic.
 
KARVELAS:

The Shadow Minister, she's certainly not the Minister, you're the Minister. The Shadow Minister Anne Ruston joined us, and she said that she wanted to know if this was based on the health advice and you should release it. Have you been advised that these supports are no longer necessary for the health of the country?
 
BUTLER:

I'm in regular contact with the Chief Medical Officer. The Chief Medical Officers from all of the jurisdictions meet regularly. They issued a statement only in the last several days that was focused on the things that I've been talking about, but also lifting the level of information and advice to the community to make their own decisions - to employers to make responsible decisions around working from home, to individual members of the community to make a decision to wear a mask in indoor spaces, particularly crowded indoor spaces where you can't socially distance.
 
KARVELAS:

Have they said it's okay to take off all those supports?
 
BUTLER:

You can read the advice from the chief health officers. It’s been public, it’s been published.
 
KARVELAS:

I'm asking you to tell our listeners because they can't read all of it. Have they told you don't need pandemic payments?
 
BUTLER:

That was not included in their advice. And look, I'm taking advice very regularly.
 
KARVELAS:

What do you mean? I just need to pin this down. What do you mean by it wasn't included in their advice?
 
BUTLER:

It wasn't a matter on which they provided advice.
 
KARVELAS:

You didn’t ask for it?
 
BUTLER:

Their advice was focused on the health programs that I and my health ministerial colleagues are responsible for - around vaccines, around testing programs, around our capacity in the hospital system, and around advice to the community, whether it's business or individual members, about mask wearing and working from home arrangements. That was the focus of the Chief Medical Officers.
 
KARVELAS:

Okay, so just to be clear, the Chief Medical Officers haven't provided any advice about payments. Have they provided any advice about rapid antigen tests, concession accessibility?
 
BUTLER:

There's no change to the ability of people to get a test free of charge, whether it was a PCR test, or rapid antigen test if they have symptoms of COVID, if they've been exposed as close contacts of COVID. There is no change whatsoever to the ability of people to get tests free of charge. There is no change to the ability of people who want to visit a loved one at an aged care facility.
 
KARVELAS:

But you can no longer go to a pharmacy and get those free, concession cardholders and pensioners get those free rapid antigen tests, you can't get them. That’s what I’m referring to, as you know.
 
BUTLER:

Not after the 31st of July, but I want to be clear because that is not the health program. The health program for testing for people with COVID or who suspect they have symptoms or are close contacts does not change, that continues to be delivered by states co-funded by the Commonwealth and there is no change to that. The program you're talking about was put in place not by the Commonwealth but by the National Cabinet, co-funded by states and Commonwealth to the 31st of July, not aware any state government budgeted for it to extend beyond that. And that was essentially for concession card holders in the first half of this year to be able to put together a stockpile of rapid antigen tests, essentially for personal use. It's not the health program, which is about COVID testing people who might have symptoms or who might be close contacts or might want to visit an aged care facility. That remains in place and will continue well after the 31st of July, free of charge to everyone co-funded by the Commonwealth and delivered by the states.
 
KARVELAS:

Okay, so you didn't get health advice on all of these things that that the opposition is calling for you to release, so there's nothing to release, you're saying?
 
BUTLER:

The health advice from the Chief Health Officers has been released. I've been talking about it extensively, it's on the public record.
 
KARVELAS:

It doesn’t pertain to these questions I‘ve asked.
 
BUTLER:

I take health advice about all of the health programs that we have in place. The income support program you're talking about is not a health program. I take advice about vaccine programs, about the testing program, the capacity of our hospital system, the incredible need to expand the use of these antiviral medicines because that will have a huge effect on reducing hospitalisation numbers. That's something I'm talking to my Chief Health Officer about all the time. In addition to that, as I’ve said, I think what you've seen from Chief Health Officers over recent days is a real step up in their advice to the community. Not that they're imposing government orders or community-wide mandates. But for members of our community, including employers, to think very carefully about how they respond to this wave.
 
KARVELAS:

So, when might you reconsider some of these decisions? Is there a threshold at which cases get so high, hospitals are under so much pressure, deaths reach a certain rate where you make a decision that you need to revisit these decisions?
 
BUTLER:

Well of course, we're monitoring this situation on a daily basis. And the some of these decisions are government wide decisions, some of them are nationwide decisions taken by the National Cabinet. Some of these programs are administered by my Department, for example, the RAT program for concession cardholders, but ultimately were a decision of the National Cabinet earlier this year, as I said co-funded by the states. There are a range of points where these discussions take place to exchange information about what's happening on the ground, and to exchange ideas about how we respond to this third wave or the pandemic more broadly. National Cabinet will be coming together early on Monday morning. The Prime Minister's arriving back in Australia later today. And so, there are a range of points where either our Chief Health Officers or governments are able to come together, reflect on where we're at with this particular third wave and make sure we do everything possible to protect the community.
 
KARVELAS:

At that Monday meeting, could they be revisiting of some of these decisions on payments? Is that a possibility?
 
BUTLER:

Well, this is a National Cabinet decision, meeting of the first ministers, of the Prime Minister and the premiers, I think the most important thing that they want to do is to exchange information about where this wave is at in particular jurisdictions. It's impacting everyone, but it's impacting some a little bit earlier and a little bit harder than others. And I'm sure then that there may be ideas about how we can cooperate as governments to improve the protection of the community.
 
KARVELAS:

Thank you so much for joining us this morning Minister.
 
BUTLER:

Thanks, Patricia.

 

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