ABC RADIO NATIONAL BREAKFAST HOST, SARAH DINGLE: With COVID numbers in China still soaring, Australia has joined countries like the US, Japan and India in mandating testing for people arriving from China. The Government has announced that travellers from China to Australia will be required to take a pre-departure COVID-19 test and show evidence of a negative result. Australia's Health Minister Mark Butler says this decision was taken out of an abundance of caution. I'd now like to welcome the Minister back to the program. Good morning.
MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE, MARK BUTLER: Good morning, Sarah, Happy New Year.
DINGLE: Happy New Year. Minister just two days ago, the Chief Medical Officer and the Prime Minister both said there was no need to put restrictions on people travelling from China. What has actually changed in that time?
BUTLER: We've seen a number of countries across the world take decisions, which as you said were started several days ago to introduce pre-departure testing, so requiring travellers from China to show a negative test before boarding a plane. I think very significantly for the Australian Government, we also saw the World Health Organisation point to what they've described as “an absence of comprehensive information” about the situation in China over the course of the weekend and they’ve said that decisions like the ones that I announced yesterday and have been taken by many countries across North America, Europe and Asia were “understandable” in light of that lack of information.
What we need to know is quite what is happening there. Countries at the moment and for some time have been sharing pretty much in real time the genomic sequencing of COVID cases that are being reported in their countries. Australia certainly does it, pretty much the rest of the world do as well. But the World Health Organisation has pointed to the lack of that data from China as being very significant barrier to us understanding, for example, whether a new variant of COVID might emerge through this very significant wave that is underway in China. And that's why, out of an abundance of caution, and not withstanding that there's a broad consensus among our Chief Health Officers in Australia that there's no imminent public health threat: that we're very well positioned right now in the fight against COVID here in Australia. I have taken this decision out of an abundance of caution, along with a range of other measures to improve the level of data and information that we can access about what's happening in China.
DINGLE: Sure, but the lack of hard data coming out of China has been known for some time. China stopped publishing daily COVID infection rates about a week ago. Is it just that the World Health Organisation has now voiced its concerns that you've decided to change your policy?
BUTLER: No, over the last several days I have been considering what the rest of the world has been doing. Certainly, the World Health Organisation views that were expressed over the weekend were very important for me. You know this, at the end of the day, is the most significant international health body. It expressed its concerns about the absence of comprehensive information and I have also been taking advice from the Chief Medical Officer, who has also been consulting his state and territory colleagues as well. So with that broad array of information the government has taken this decision. It's a modest balanced decision. There's certainly no restriction on travel between China and Australia. Indeed, I've said a number of times that we warmly welcome the resumption of travel between China and Australia. The lifting of border restrictions by China on the 8th of January, so next week, will have a very significant impact on Australian communities. I know there are hundreds of thousands of Australians of Chinese descent who are desperate to see friends and relatives they haven't seen, other than on a screen, for months if not years particularly as we head in to the Lunar New Year period, which is so important for the Chinese community.
But I know also tourism businesses, universities who are desperately keen to see international students from China return to campus, rather than doing their studies on a screen, are really keen to see this resumption of travel as well. So we don't want to interrupt that resumption, we're keen to see it happen. But we also want to make sure that this modest, balanced measure helps us to gather data that's currently absent from the international community.
DINGLE: Going to the detail of what you're now proposing, is it a PCR test or rapid antigen test that travellers from China have to do and test negative before they arrive here?
BUTLER: We're working through that final detail right now. As you know the decision doesn't come into effect until the 5th of January, which is Thursday, and the requirement will be to have a test within 48 hours of departure and over the very near future.
DINGLE: 48 hours between Thursday, that's tomorrow. You need to know these things, don’t you?
BUTLER: Those details are being finalised, right now, they'll be published very shortly, including on the Smartraveller website and including in language - so in Mandarin and Cantonese - as well as English obviously, as well.
DINGLE: Is there any evidence whatsoever to suggest that China does have any new variants of COVID?
BUTLER: There is no evidence right now and the evidence does suggest that the main driver of this very large wave in in China is a variant of Omicron, really, which your listeners will be unfortunately very familiar with, because it's driven pretty much all of the COVID cases in Australia and around the world for the last 12 months. It's a variant called BF.7 which is a derivative of the BA.5 variant of Omicron which has been the main driver of COVID cases in Australia for the last 6 or 7 months, so it's a variant that we're familiar with that has been in Australia for several months - BF.7 - and as I said there's a broad consensus there's no imminent public health threat.
But what the World Health Organisation pointed to is the lack of information that would allow us to identify very quickly the emergence of that new variant, and that's really the reason why we've taken this measure, along with many, many other countries around the world, out of an abundance of caution. As well what we'll be doing is looking to introduce wastewater testing from aeroplanes that land in Australia. That's an Australian innovation that's been picked up by America and some other countries. That again gives us a good line of sight, if there are COVID cases coming into Australia, what the variants are in and very early information about the possibility of a new variant emerging as well.
DINGLE: But no new no evidence of any new variants in China, to date. Some leaders in the Chinese-Australian community were warning last week that any restrictions specifically for those coming from China would be discriminatory. Do you understand those concerns, given the racism with which this pandemic began in Australia? And what do you say to Chinese Australians?
BUTLER: Of course we are very alive to the need to treat people across the world very fairly and we haven't taken this decision lightly. I want to stress that there's no restriction on travel from China. All we're asking is that there be a COVID test submitted before departure, as I've said earlier in this interview, we warmly welcome the resumption of travel between China and Australia. Many Chinese Australians and many businesses and universities across Australia, as well as the Government, have been waiting for this day for really the only significant country in the world where travel has continued to be restricted - for that country to open up, is something that we welcome.
But this is a modest, balanced measure in line with countries across North America, Europe and Asia - pretty much all of the countries to which we would usually compare ourselves - have done something similar to what we've done or exactly what we've done. And we're confident this will give us that access to information that the World Health Organisation has said this currently lacking.
DINGLE: In Australia more than 80% of us are believed to have been infected with COVID at some point, we are living with COVID. If we are relying on vaccination now, where is the ad campaign reminding us to take up our third and even our fourth shots?
BUTLER: When we came to Government, we've been talking for some time about the absence of an information campaign, particularly in that crucial first several months of 2021 when boosters really started to come onto the market. I was concerned that there was this sense settling in Australia that two shots of the vaccine was fully vaccinated. So we did introduce an information campaign over the course of winter that I think was very important, particularly in lifting the rates of third doses and then ultimately fourth doses for the more vulnerable cohorts in the community, particularly older Australians. But we're also looking at the need for community information campaigns as we lead into the first part of 2023 and we start to prepare for winter 2023, which might seem a long way away right now is we're enjoying summer but is something that we're preparing for right now.
DINGLE: Minister, as of yesterday, on another topic, subsidised psychology visits have gone from 20 to 10. Can you honestly say this will have no detrimental impact on those who we know have already flagged that they have mental health issues?
BUTLER: The first thing I'd say about that is that this was always a temporary measure to reflect particularly the COVID lockdown period. It was a measure designed by the former government to expire on the 31st of December, so a couple of days ago. It was never designed as a permanent change to the Better Access scheme which gives Medicare rebates for access to psychological support services.
But also it's important to say that at the time this change was put in place by the former government, a number of mental health experts said that it was likely to actually make access to psychology services worse - not better – in spite of the name of the program being Better Access. And the evaluation that I received very late last year, over the last couple of weeks, confirmed that that was the case: it actually made access to psychology services worse for significant cohorts of the community, particularly those cohorts the evaluation said who need it most. Tens and tens of thousands of Australians were locked out of access to psychology support because some people were getting more.
So this is a good program, there's no doubt about that. I've said that for many years that I've been involved in mental health, but it's also a program that often leads to very significant inequalities in the community. It's a program that doesn't deliver a lot of support to people in poor communities or in rural and regional Australia. The evaluation I received a couple of weeks ago confirmed that again. And that's why I have convened a whole bunch of groups, including a lot of groups who you know who were appreciative of the additional 20 services, they were good for their businesses, I have no doubt about that. They'll be coming together at the end of January with me to talk about ways in which we can deal with the challenges that were identified in that evaluation: that is to make a good program more equitable, make sure it's also providing support to those communities the evaluation said need it most, who have much higher levels of mental distress than the average in the community.
DINGLE: Minister, thank you for your time.
BUTLER: Thanks, Sarah.