LISA MILLAR, HOST: Australians are being urged to get their COVID booster shot, amid a warning from the nation's Chief Medical Officer of more waves this year. Anyone over 18, who hasn't had a booster or contracted the virus in the last six months will be able to get a fifth dose within weeks. Health Minister, Mark Butler joins us now. Good morning to you, Minister. Welcome to News Breakfast.
MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE, MARK BUTLER: Thank you, Lisa.
MILLAR: The rates of vaccination have been pretty low still. Only 44 per cent of those eligible have had a fourth vaccination. So, does the Government have a goal of how many people it would like to see vaccinated?
BUTLER: Obviously, as many as we possibly can convince to take up this opportunity. As you said, adults can now go out and get their additional dose from the week after next - February 20 - to top-up their protection. The community wide take-up of the fourth dose, as you say, is not particularly high but in those groups where we're particularly focused on getting that protection, it actually has been very good. So for people in their late 60s and 70s, more than 70 per cent of them have got their fourth dose. For people over the age of 80, it's around 80 per cent have had their fourth dose. That really is the target group population, because the Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, our immunisation experts in their advice to me this week, reinforced that it really is people over the age of 65 that are most vulnerable to severe disease, hospitalisation and death. They are really the primary focus of the vaccination program. We want everyone to take up the opportunity, but really, the strong focus, the strong recommendation for the fifth dose is for those groups over the age of 65.
MILLAR: Yeah, you've said there will be an education campaign. How are you going to ensure that those within communities actually get the message? When are you going to start something that targets them?
BUTLER: That campaign is in its late stage of development. We'll be rolling that out very soon, and we're very, very focused on the need to make sure that it reaches all Australians, culturally linguistically diverse Australians. We’re working with First Nations communities on a campaign that reaches them as well. So this will be, I'm sure, a very effective campaign, that also reflects the fact that we're now into the fourth year of this pandemic. We need to make sure messages are fresh and messages are resonant with the way that people feel about the pandemic in the fourth year.
MILLAR: Do you think that Australians can expect to get a vaccine every year now?
BUTLER: There's been a really interesting debate around the world, including recently in America, about whether we are settling into the sort of seasonal rhythm you come to expect, for example, with flu. And all of the authorities, including ours, have taken the view - we're not there yet. We're not at a point where the virus has stablised to be able to say that there will be a regular rhythm of vaccination. We're unfortunately still at the point where we're going to have to monitor this, monitor it closely, and see as the year progresses, as we potentially, probably, encounter other waves and find more evidence about what works to fight this ever changing virus, whether there will be or when there will be another vaccination round. We all hope that we get to a point where there's stability in this virus, but we're not there yet.
MILLAR: Can I turn to the Medicare rebate. Again in question time, you were highlighting the gap and how expensive it is for people to get to the doctor. You and the Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, keep saying - well look, wait for the budget. Why are you waiting for the budget? You've got members within your own party who are coming out and saying this is a critical issue right now and why are you waiting?
BUTLER: We are rolling out measures right now. A couple of weeks ago, the Prime Minister and I were down in Tasmania working with the Tasmanian Liberal Premier on a really innovative way to support new GP trainees in rural and regional Australia. We're going to try to see that roll out right throughout the mainland as well. I've written to Health Ministers about that. Last week we were in Perth –
MILLAR: I'm talking about the rebate, with respect. Because I know that there are things that you're doing, but it is the Medicare rebate that's got people activated?
BUTLER: It's not just the rebate that had people activated. It's the way that Medicare works. The clear message from all of the groups represented on the Strengthening Medicare Taskforce is that you can't just put more money into the existing system, because the existing system was designed for a very different time and a very different disease profile. I've said we're not just going to put more money into the existing system that's not working for people now - an older population with more chronic disease. We've got to change the system as well, which is what we're going to do in the budget in May. We've got the money allocated. It was committed in the October budget. It's there, ready to be spent. But we need to spend it wisely. We're not just going to chuck money at the existing system. We need to change the system to reflect the needs of Australians in the 2020s.
MILLAR: And just on private health insurance - the insurers are delaying putting up the premium increases which were approved by the Government but look at how people are struggling. Are you concerned that people are just going to pile out of private health and put more pressure on the public system once those increases come into play?
BUTLER: The average increase this year will be 2.9 per cent. Substantially lower than the 10-year average, which is about 4.4 per cent. I worked very hard with the insurers to keep that increase to the lowest level possible. And as you say, a number of insurers, I'm very pleased to say, have decided to delay the introduction of that increase until later in the year. I mean, people make their own decisions, obviously, about their household budgets. We've worked very hard, though, to keep that increase to the lowest level possible.