Radio interview with Minister Butler and Stacey Lee, ABC Adelaide Breakfast - 14 July 2022

Read the transcript of the radio interview with Minister Butler and Stacey Lee, ABC Adelaide Breakfast on Rapid Antigen Tests, masks and Voluntary Assisted Dying

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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STACEY LEE:

We heard from South Australian health authorities yesterday that we are expecting another peak of our COVID cases, early next week, I think it was Tuesday is the expectation. Now the federal boss of the AMA is warning that there could be catastrophic outcomes for patients and we could see a huge increase in cases in their millions in the next week if the Federal Government doesn’t reverse its decision to provide free rapid antigen tests for concession card holders. The Federal Health Minister Mark Butler joins us this morning. Good morning, Minister.
 
MARK BUTLER, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE:

Good morning, Stacey.

LEE:

There has been a lot of criticism around following this decision and it is still around today - your decision to cut the free RAT kits rather that you are providing to concession card holders. Are you standing firm? Is there any chance you'll reverse this?
 
BUTLER:

Can I clarify some of the sort of misinformation I think that's around this. The first point to make, the really important point to make is that if you think you have COVID, if you have symptoms, if you've been exposed as a close contact, every Australian pensioner or otherwise will continue to get free tests - and that is not changing. We continue to fund on a 50:50 basis with all of the states across the country, free COVID testing arrangements and that is not going to change. If you need to visit a loved one at an aged care facility which requires a RAT test to go in, there will be free RATs supplied by the Australian Government there. Nothing is changing from a health perspective around free COVID testing across the country. What is changing is that, in the early part of the year, the Commonwealth and the states - this was a National Cabinet decision, including the South Australian Government, they decided to give concession cardholders, which includes pensioners, a stockpile of RAT tests for personal use. So, at that time - it was all very new - people at that time and over the last several months have been in a position where they might want a RAT test before they go to a family function or something like that. That program is coming to an end in July. We simply don't have a financial capacity to continue to fund these emergency programs forever. But I'm really concerned about the misinformation that some are putting out there. That if you suspect you have COVID, or if you've been in close contact or if you want to visit a loved one in aged care facility, there is not going to continue to be free COVID testing, because there will be. There is no change to that.
 
LEE:

But as you just said, the free RAT tests that you are giving to concession cardholders and pensioners - they'll no longer get that, and you say that nothing is changing in regard to testing. But yesterday on the afternoon's program, Sonya was exploring it and we've been talking about it here for quite a few days, the fact that some private clinical labs now aren't doing free PCR testing unless you have a GP referral because the federal government has cut the rebate for those private testing labs. So here in SA, I think it's Clinical Labs and Clinpath, you can't go to them anymore unless you have a GP referral. So, you might be saying that there's no changes but there are in fact changes in regard to some testing sites.
 
BUTLER:

I'm not aware of that and I'm happy to go away and look into that, because I'm not aware of any change in relation to that. What I can say, categorically, is that there is no change from the Australian Government's perspective about COVID testing arrangements across the community. Different state governments across the country have shifted the balance between PCR testing and RAT testing. There's no question about that. That's happened to different degrees in different states. That's ultimately a decision they're taking. Whatever decision they take, the Commonwealth continues to foot half of the bill for whatever COVID testing arrangements they have in South Australia or New South Wales or Queensland. And that is not changing. I'll go offline and check what you've just said about some of the private labs here in South Australia. I'm not aware of that at all.
 
LEE:

Okay, if you could, and if you could come back to us, that would be great because it is a change that occurred on the first of July and it has been of some concern for some people who have a private clinic quite close to them and it used to be convenient for them to go to that. They've been told they can only go to an SA health facility, which might be further away and if they don't have a car, it becomes even more difficult, because they need a GP referral and as you know, it's quite difficult to get a GP appointment at the moment.
 
BUTLER:

I'll go away and look at that. Around the country, different states have had different arrangements. SA pathology has just been a star performer really, here in Australia, and different states, some states, have had state government pathology providers they can rely upon. In other states, where they've been privatised, they haven't been able to do that, so states have contracted with some of the private pathology providers as well. I'll have to come back and check with you on that or whether you want to check with the state government. But from our point of view, there is no change to the way in which the Commonwealth Government funds a free testing arrangement across the country. We've got to have a position where people who think they might have COVID know that they can get tested for free and that is continuing.
 
NIKOLAI BEILHARZ:

You mentioned that this decision to change the availability of those 10 packs to concession cardholders has been driven by the financial side of things. Isn't it true, too though, that concession card holders are amongst those who feel financial hits more than anyone else because they quite often don't have as much money as others? Is it the case that the government really couldn't absorb this for the greater good?
 
BUTLER:

We understand that there are some hard decisions that are having to be made as some of the emergency period payments start to come off. This was a program that the former Prime Minister and all of the state premiers designed for six months. I don't think any of the state governments have budgeted for this program to continue beyond the 31st of July because it's not just funded by the Commonwealth. Here in South Australia, the state government picks up half the costs, over in New South Wales they do as well. I don't think any government across Australia budgeted to continue this beyond the 31st of July.

I don't think any of us pretend that these decisions are not going to have impacts, but we've got a trillion dollars in debt. We've got an extraordinary range of budget deficits facing us, all through this decade, which we have to start getting down. We simply don't have the financial capacity to continue to fund every single emergency payment. What we've done is to really focus on the need, through this wave, to reduce the incidence of severe illness. That's why we've extended the funding arrangements to state hospital systems, it costs more than three quarters of a billion dollars for us to do that. At the first meeting of the National Cabinet, we've expanded the vaccine program earlier this week. We've expanded access to antiviral medicines which are highly effective at preventing people from getting severely unwell and potentially ending up in hospital. That is the real focus of our government right now to manage this wave.
 
LEE:

It's seven minutes to eight on ABC Radio, Adelaide. That is the voice of Mark Butler, the Federal Health Minister. Nikolai and Stacey also with you for breakfast this morning. I think the issue for a lot of people up until now Minister, is it's been pretty clear what the rules are for us. It's either you wear a mask or you don't wear a mask. You can get a test, you can use a rapid antigen on you could get a PCR or you don't have to. There will be restrictions or there's not restrictions. But now it's like the messaging is a bit confused. Please wear a mask but we're not going to require you to wear a mask, please do a test but we're not going to give you access to as many of them as we used to before. Is now the right time to be pulling back on some of those things as we're being told by health authorities in the states that we're about to ramp up and see an increase in cases? We're seeing a decrease in the availability of tests. We're seeing a decrease in pandemic payments. We're seeing a decrease in restrictions and mask mandates while we're being told we're going to see an increase in cases.
 
BUTLER:

We're deep into the third year of this pandemic and we've moved out of the emergency phase. The emergency declaration at a national level ended some months ago. And we're into a phase really where we need to manage the way in which we live with COVID. I think what you see is certainly targeted mandates for things like mask wearing so where there's a risk of exposure to vulnerable people, there is still a mask mandate in place in aged care facilities and health facilities, or where there's a risk of higher levels of transmission on public transport on aeroplanes and things like that. But beyond that, I think health authorities and the Chief Health Officers only met late last week, they have moved to a position really where people are going to have to make their own decisions about how they behave, how they protect themselves, and how they protect others around them. Very strong advice from the Chief Health Officers last week that, if you're indoors, particularly in a crowded space where it's difficult to socially distance, you should wear a mask and I've reflected that advice over the last several days. Now it's not an order from the government. It's not a mandate, covering every indoor space in the country. It's a very clear piece of advice that we would hope people, given the lessons we've all learned over the last two and a half years, would follow.
 
BEILHARZ:

If people don't, is there the potential to change it from advice to order?
 
LEE:

Well, I think there will inevitably be a mix of people following the advice and people not following the advice. I mean that is the nature of our society. I don't see us moving to a mandate. I really do think that we are really in a phase now - there will be targeted mandates, as I said to protect the vulnerable in some areas and where there really are risks of high levels of transmission. But society wide or broad base mandates, lockdowns, are things that we've moved beyond, and we've got to find a way of managing to live with this virus which is not going away anytime soon. Making sure that we have good vaccine and treatment programs to protect people who are vulnerable to severe illness and go into hospital or worse, that is what I'm thinking is where we're in now.
 
LEE:

Minister, we've got a text here from someone who calls themselves a “worried doctor in Norwood.” He said that the RATs only pick up 60% of Omicron infections. Are they as accurate when it comes to this new strain of Omicron as they were with earlier strains?
 
BUTLER:

I've heard a bit of commentary about this over the last 24 hours or so, I've not seen any advice about that. I'll ask my advisors about that. And clearly there are arrangements at the state level and SA Health will have advice about this. About getting a PCR test if you think that you have symptoms and a RAT is not showing up, but I don't want to substitute my views for what SA Health is doing in this state. Each state is doing something a bit different.
 
LEE:

Okay. I want to ask you while we've got you as well, the Federal Attorney General in The Australian today is looking at proposing changes to allow voluntary assisted dying advice to be delivered via telehealth. Is that something you're across and is that something that - this was after a request from the Queensland State government I think - is that something that if it does change would change here in South Australia as well?
 
BUTLER:

It is, it’s something that the State Health Ministers raised with me when I met them the week before last. There's a provision in Federal legislation that essentially makes it a crime to assist someone in dying over a telecommunications device, over a phone. And that was put in place by the Howard Government, really in the area that some of your listeners might remember is when Philip Nitschke was putting about his way of assisted dying. Since then, the landscape has changed dramatically. Every state now has voluntary assisted dying laws in place, even if they're not necessarily in operation yet, like here in South Australia. And all of the State Health Ministers raised with me, and I know some have raised with Mark Dreyfus, the Attorney-General, that their doctors in the jurisdictions are saying that the ability to implement those laws, passed by the parliament of those states is hampered by this long-standing Commonwealth piece of law. So, Mark Dreyfus and I've already had a talk about it. I've had a discussion with, as I said, the State Health Ministers including Chris Picton, and we're looking at ways in which we can move forward on it.
 
LEE: 

Okay, all right Minister, thanks for your time.
 
BUTLER:

Thanks, Sophie. Thanks Nikolai.
 
LEE:

Mark Butler the Federal Health Minister ABC Radio Adelaide.

 

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