LACHLAN KENNEDY, HOST:
Welcome back. As we reported earlier, potentially life-saving antiviral medications will be available to older Australians experiencing COVID symptoms from today. At the same time, a growing number of experts are calling for mask mandates to return as BA.4 and BA.5 become the dominant COVID strains.
Joining us from Parliament House in Canberra to discuss is the Federal Health Minister, Mark Butler. Thank you so much for your time this morning. We are two and a half years into the pandemic, can you explain why now is the right time for these antivirals to become more widely available?
MARK BUTLER, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE:
The former government, to their credit, ordered 1.3 million doses of these very new, highly effective medicines. They are very effective in preventing people who are vulnerable to severe disease from progressing to that severe disease, from going to hospital and potentially even worse, losing their life to COVID.
The problem though is, for the last several months, those medicines have largely stayed on the shelves in warehouses, instead of getting out into the community doing their job to prevent severe disease. Right now there are about 4000 Australians in hospital with COVID who potentially could be prevented from getting there if they had the right medicines.
I put a very strong case to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee to expand that eligibility. And from today, everyone aged over 70 is eligible to get these medicines on the PBS. They probably only cost six or seven dollars for them and it could save their life, could certainly prevent them getting severely unwell. People over 50, if you have a couple of risk factors like respiratory illness or another relevant condition your GP can advise you about, you also will be eligible for subsidised medicines of this type.
So, for the people who do fall into those eligibility criteria, they'll want to know how they get their hands on these antivirals. What steps do they need to take?
You need a script from your GP. You should certainly talk to your GP because some of them do interact with other medicines you might be taking. So, it is important to have that discussion and GPs are generally encouraging you to have that discussion before you get COVID. If you are vulnerable for severe disease, you should have a COVID plan in the event that you test positive and one of the elements of that plan should be contacting your GP.
You should already have had a discussion with them to determine whether or not there are some interactions with other medicines you have, and they'll then be able to do a script, an electronic script, so ring them on the phone or do facetime over video. They can then send an electronic script to the pharmacy. You can have someone collect that medicine for you and deliver it to your home. Or if you don't have someone to do that for you, the pharmacy could deliver the medicine to you.
It's really important you take the medicine as soon as possible. It has to be taken very early on in your COVID journey to have that effect.
And on that final point there, the effectiveness is really tied to how early you can have it. Does that then not create some issues? Because we all know how difficult it is to get a doctor's appointment these days.
So, is it critically important, as you say, to have that pre-plan in place?
That's right. That's why it is so important to have a plan. I mean, you should also have a plan about what you have in your house, you know, having, you know, some Nurofen, some Panadol, lots of fluids, all those sorts of things.
And this should be one element. If you've pre-planned your discussion with the GP, then you can probably just ring them. They'll find out you've had a positive test and they can send an e-script off for you.
This this really is a game changer these medicines, they're very new. They've only been on the PBS for the last couple of months. Before that, to get antiviral treatment, if you were susceptible to severe disease, you had to go into hospital and be hooked up to an IV drip to get that. This really is a game-changer.
And I'm just really glad we've been able to widen the eligibility so that we can get those medicines off the shelves, out of the warehouses, into the community doing the job they were intended to do.
As you say, they are very new. What do we know about any anticipated side effects at all? Is there any backgrounder on that?
Well, no, there's not any evidence of that. But what I did say earlier is that particularly Paxlovid, which is a very effective drug from Pfizer, does have some complex interactions with other medicines you might be on.
That's why you can't just go into a pharmacy and get this. You need to have a discussion with your GP. Your GP will know what medicines you’re on, they've got a good list of those medicines that might interact a bit with these antiviral medicines, and they’ll just run through that and make sure that you're good to go.
Minister, can I ask you about the pandemic leave payments? As we know, under the former government, they're coming to an end. You've said they're coming to an end. Is now really the right time for it to come to an end? Because we know COVID is rampant right now and lots of people are off work, particularly casuals.
Unfortunately, Lachlan, there's no easy time to end these emergency payments. As you said, from last year and early this year, the former government and all the state governments, because they are signatories to that plan or were signatories, budgeted and decided that they've come to an end on the 30th of June.
And the really difficult position we find ourselves in is we can't continue to borrow money to fund what our emergency payments. I know this is hard. I know it's going to impact people and I deeply regret that.
But really, at whatever time you withdraw emergency payments of this time type, it is going to have an impact. And we are facing a trillion dollars in debt and really quite eyewatering deficits as far as the eye can see, we can't continue to fund these emergency payments forever.
Okay. And are you concerned as well about what we're seeing in the aged care system, particularly what we reported earlier, what's going on in Victoria at the moment with COVID just seemingly spreading once again through the aged care system?
Frankly, too often and tragically, over the course of this pandemic, the effort in aged care has been too little, too late. And I'm absolutely committed to doing everything we can to protect the most vulnerable people in our community.
We know those are aged care residents, people who, you know, worked hard, paid their taxes, raised their families for so many decades. They deserve our strongest effort.
Over the last few weeks as I've been the new health minister, I've really been pushing my department to make sure that we do better on getting the fourth dose of the vaccine into aged care facilities.
If we need to keep going back to the facility to mop up people, we weren't able to get the first visit or the second visit, then I've them they have to do that. This is a critically important way of providing that additional protection, that fourth dose as well. There is a range of other measures we have to put in place and aged care facilities are doing very well at this, RAT testing before you enter the facility, making sure everyone is wearing masks.
And we've pre-placed, if you like, these antiviral medicines we were just talking about earlier into aged care facilities so they don't have to go through the rigmarole of, you know, going to a GP, getting a script filled by the pharmacy, the facilities will have them on site that they can give to people who have tested positive for COVID immediately. But look, there are about 700 or more facilities around the country now who have COVID patients in them. That's about a quarter of the facilities. This is a serious concern for the government. We're doing everything we can to deal with it.
And hopefully these antiviral medications do the trick and save lives as well. Health Minister Mark Butler, we really appreciate your time this morning.