Date published: 
1 July 2022
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

The Federal Government has ordered an urgent review of Australia's COVID-19 vaccine contracts as new some variants sweep across the country and case numbers remain stubbornly high. Data from the northern hemisphere suggests two new forms of Omicron are more transmissible and could produce more severe disease than the original strain. The review will be conducted by Jane Halton, a former Health Department secretary, and comes ahead of the meeting of Commonwealth, state and territory health ministers. The Federal Health Minister is Mark Butler and he joins me this morning. Mark Butler, welcome to the program.
 
MARK BUTLER, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE:

Thank you, Patricia.
 
KARVELAS:

What are your chief concerns around the availability of vaccines and the contracts the government signed?
 
BUTLER:

I don't have any particular concerns. What I want though as a new government that inherited all these arrangements is to make sure they are fit for purpose for the rest of this year and into next. As you've pointed out in your introduction there are a range of new subvariants as you say sweeping through the northern hemisphere and there are already taking hold here in Australia as well. On the plus side, though, we are seeing new vaccines being put into the market by Moderna and Pfizer that are particularly targeted at Omicron subvariants and new treatments as well, so I'm absolutely committed to making sure that we remain on the front foot getting priority access to the newest versions of vaccines and treatments for the Australian people over the coming 12 to 18 months.
 
KARVELAS:

Do you think we are prepared for the next year of the pandemic?
 
BUTLER:

Well that really is the work that I've asked Jane Halton to conduct to make sure that the arrangements that the former government struck that do see vaccines and treatments coming into Australia over coming months are going to remain fit for purpose. As I said, given that this virus is mutating and also new vaccines are coming onto the market as well.
 
KARVELAS:

You want Jane Halton is review to be completed in weeks, not months.  What will the process look like?
 
BUTLER: 

She'll be working very closely with the department, examining the arrangements that we have in place, probably also, I imagine, talking to those companies, Moderna and Pfizer in particular. I've had meetings with them this week to make sure that we have priority access particularly to under 5 vaccines that are starting to come onto the global market as well. So this will be a thorough examination from someone who I think is better placed than anyone in Australia to understand what's happening around the world. She's the co-chair of COVAX which is tasked with ensuring distribution of vaccines through the developing country. She's the chair of the group that is looking at epidemic preparedness and innovation driving a lot of the new innovation that we're seeing amongst vaccines. So she really is very switched on with what's happening around the world and in a great position to make sure that we're at the front of the queue.
 
KARVELAS:

You haven’t asked Jane Halton to investigate the vaccine rollout. Why not?
 
BUTLER:

I want to be looking forward. I want to make sure that we're prepared over coming 6 to 18 months for the rest of this year and into 2023, given what we can at least predict is going to happen with this this virus mutating, what's going to happen in the vaccine and treatments market. There will of course come a time, as the prime Minister and I've said on a number of occasions to look back and examine very broadly our pandemic response but that time is not now. We are still dealing with a very serious phase of the pandemic. We have thousands of people in our hospitals with COVID. We’re still seeing 300 Australians tragically die every week. So, looking back and examining what we did well and what we didn't do so well, will be something we have to do it some point, but we're not there yet.
 
KARVELAS:

Research indicates the two new Omicron variants, BA.4 and be a BA.5 could be more transmissible and could produce more severe disease. How effective are our existing vaccines against them?
 
BUTLER:

I think there's a level of confidence that our vaccines remain effective in preventing severe disease and hospitalisation, but I do encourage the almost 6 million Australians have only had two doses of vaccines to get out and get your booster. Really to be fully protected against any of the Omicron subvariants you really do need 3 doses at least of your vaccines. But we are starting to see evidence in the northern hemisphere where BA.4 and Ba.5 variants have been present for some time that there is a greater risk of reinfection. So even if you caught COVID in that big summer wave, the BA.1 wave, where millions of Australians caught COVID. If you've only had two doses, and even if you've had a case of COVID BA.1, you are potentially susceptible to reinfection over coming months. All of the health authorities do expect there to be a third wave of Omicron over coming months. I think the impact on our hospital system, whether there is a greater severity by this sub-variant is still not really well known. We are still trying to understand this subvariant across the globe, but we do need to prepare ourselves for another wave of increased cases.
 
KARVELAS:

Minister the majority of Australians have only had 3 shots because the fourth dose has only been recommended for older Australians, or people with serious health conditions. I'm always overwhelmed with messages of people saying, I had my third shot a long time ago, I'm concerned about my safety. Will the fourth dose be considered for a broader range of Australians?
 
BUTLER:

Our Advisory Group on Immunisation which people have come to know as ATAGI is monitoring this question very closely and there is not at the moment as I understand it good evidence to indicate that younger people who don't have compromised immunity get much of a boost at this stage by fourth dose. And I think that's the view by their equivalents across the world at the moment, but they are monitoring it very closely. It is true that that most people had their boosters or started to get their boosters over summer even late last year for some of our healthcare workers. So I am concerned to make sure we are continuing to monitor the evidence of this and if there is a case for a broader application of a fourth dose over the second half of this year, for example, I'm confident that ATAGI will provide us with that advice.
 
KARVELAS:

Minister, you've asked the Department to do a better job at getting anti-viral drugs to COVID-positive patients. The previous government ordered around a million doses of two different drugs. Why aren’t they are getting to people who need them.
 
BUTLER: 

That's something that I'll be talking with state health ministers about today to get their insights on that. You know, we're getting different feedback from different groups, pharmacists and GPs and patients alike. I don't think still there's a great level of awareness about these treatments out in the community, which is why I've tried to talk about a lot over the last couple of weeks. I’ve asked my department to prepare an information campaign that will go out to the broader community to alert them to the fact, inform them of the fact that if you are vulnerable to severe disease there are these really effective new treatments that you can orally at home. Previously you have had to go into hospital and get antiviral treatment intravenously. But you have to do it quickly, you have to have a plan for when you get notified of a positive COVID test that you can contact your GP quickly, get a script for these antivirals, get that sent to the pharmacy through an e-script and get it delivered to your home very, very quickly. So lifting awareness, lifting information in the broader community and among GPs for that matter, is something we're very focused on. There is though the question that people are raising about whether the eligibility criteria could be brought in to bring in a broader group, particularly of older Australians who are of a particular risk of severe illness, and I think that's something that we'll be looking at over the coming weeks.
 
KARVELAS:

I want to move on to some other issues, why have you decided to allow the scrapping of Medicare rebates for telehealth consultations longer than 20 minutes. And what's your response to the AMA's criticism that it will disadvantage the most vulnerable people?
 
BUTLER: 

What we're seeing is a decision of the former government that telephone consults for very long consults, so over 20 minutes with your doctor will end on the 30th of June. They were originally intended to end last year but there was a 6-month extension granted by the by the former government. Now, it's important to say that if you have a longer consult with your GP remotely, you can still do that over video. There are very clear cases for a better clinical outcome if you can actually see your doctor and importantly for the doctor, see the patient over FaceTime or whatever.
 
KARVELAS:

Doctors are telling me this morning Minister that actually the telehealth, not video, but actually those longer consultations are necessary for vulnerable people. These are these are doctors who are actually working in this area. Why scrap it?
 
BUTLER:

I know and I've had those discussions with doctors as well. The important thing to say is that you can still have a phone consult with your doctor under 20 minutes and you can have a video consult from your home with your doctor of any duration. You know, the former government gave long notice of this, we are committed to making sure that the compliance measures that were intended to take effect.
 
KARVELAS:

You can’t talk about the former government, you could change the rules, you're the Government now?
 
BUTLER:

But we think there is a case for moving to video consultations for longer consults over 20 minutes. Initial consult with specialists we think should be conducted by video and doctors and patients have been given quite a deal of notice of that. Now, sometimes a shorter consult to follow up a test, for example that might be less than 20 minutes, is easily able to happen over telephone and that will continue to be the case.
 
KARVELAS:

Minister ACTU Secretary Sally McManus has criticised the government for confirming the end of pandemic leave disaster payments today. It means people isolating because of COVID will have to take sick leave or leave without pay for so many people in the economy. You say you're concerned about out the casualised economy. Are you worried this will mean people who are sick with COVID will just keep going to work?
 
BUTLER: 

Again this is another of a series of emergency measures that were due to expire on the 30th of June.
 
KARVELAS:

But the emergency isn’t over?
 
BUTLER:

We've got a trillion dollars of debt is simply not the financial capacity to continue to fund these emergency measures forever. You know we've made with made that clear. We've looked at this closely. State governments, employers and the general community had quite a deal of notice from late last year that this this extraordinary emergency measure was going to expire on the 30th of June.
 
KARVELAS:

But Minister, you are still required to isolate at home for seven days if you are COVID-positive but you don't actually have the emergency payment anymore. How is that consistent, if the government legally is requiring people to isolate at home, not leave their homes but they are actually taking the risk of not having pay. How is that fair?
 
BUTLER:

It will at some point in this pandemic, and we are reaching that point, we are we are going to have to start lifting emergency measures. The Commonwealth has lifted its emergency setting up from May and we're going to have to start to move towards more normal programs that support the Australian community and people have been on notice about that for some time.
 
KARVELAS:

Well, why are people still required to stay home for seven days, though. In that context is that part of the emergency over?
 
BUTLER:

That is still a matter that is determined by public health authorities at state level. There have been very significant changes to close contact arrangements over recent months and there has been a good deal of notice that at some point in this case, with this measure on the 30th of June we’d be moving back to normal programs.
 
KARVELAS:

It's inevitable that people who are casual and will lose pay will work, isn't it?
 
BUTLER: 

Look, this is a situation very broadly in the labour market that applies to all illnesses. There's not the ability of the taxpayer to continue to fund every gap in the labour market for people who don't have access to sick leave.
 
KARVELAS:

Sure, but we don’t treat COVID the same way as other illnesses yet, so that's where the inconsistency is. So ultimately do you concede that there's a risk that people will go to work because they fear missing out on getting paid?
 
BUTLER:

Well there are a range of illnesses that people have that don't allow them to go to work. Now, we've had emergency measures in place for some time. They were always due to expire on the 30th of June. We don't have the financial capacity to continue funding them forever.
 
KARVELAS:

With respect you’re not answering my question. Will they go to work?
 
BUTLER: 

We hope not. You know they will, there will be orders for them not to. Now we have a very clear view about improving security of employment and particularly paid leave entitlements for the vast number of people who don't have that. Tony Burke's made that clear now for some time but we can't continue forever to fund from the budget the gaps in the labour market that exist there.
 
KARVELAS:

Just finally Minister and I'm speaking to the health Minister Mark Butler. I have to ask you about something that I know many women have texted in very concerned about. We know that abortion access in Australia is not universal, despite it being effectively legal. It can cost between $300 to $600. Even more for some women. Do you support Medicare funded abortion?
 
BUTLER:

I think you're right to point out there are very different arrangements in different parts of the country. In some states these services are largely provided free of charge. And there are differences not only between states but obviously, between regional communities who always have more difficulty accessing health services than the big cities. You know, the women's health strategy that was put in place in 2020 identifies equitable access to reproductive health including termination services as a key measure and I'm working with Ged Kearney on ways in which we can actually put those words into practice. Ged, who is the Assistant Minister for Health has asked particularly to take charge of women's health issues, and I know she is very keen to make sure those words are actually translated into practice.
 
KARVELAS:

Ok, so is this a discussion and you mentioned Ged Kearney’s role but you'd like to open up the states and territories to make abortion more easily accessible and affordable for women?
 
BUTLER: 

I think what we've seen over the last couple of years is a range of debates through state parliaments to effectively equalise law relating to terminations across the country and I think pretty much everyone in Australia is glad we don't see the sort of political contest over this issue that we're seeing in the United States at the moment. There's no difference of view between the major parties at a national level about this. The woman's right to choose is a well settled proposition in Australia, there's no prospect of a court interfering with that, as we've seen in the United States. So what we're dealing with here really is the challenge of translating that right to choose into reality on the ground for people and I know that although we've come a long way over the last couple of decades, with new services, new products like RU486, PBS rights for that, Medicare rights, there are still differences across the country. And I know Ged and I are determined to work through those differences and that might involve some discussions with health ministers at a state level.
 
KARVELAS:

Thank you so much for joining us Minister.
 
BUTLER:

Thank you, Patricia.

 

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