TV interview with Minister Butler and Sarah Ferguson, ABC 7.30 - 14 July 2022

Read the transcript of the TV interview with Minister Butler and Sarah Ferguson, ABC 7.30 on Mask mandates, antivirals, telehealth, emergency pandemic leave, aged care.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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SARAH FERGUSON:

Federal Health and Aged Care Minister Mark Butler has warned millions of people will be infected by COVID in coming weeks, urging Australians to get boosters. But the Federal Government has come under fire from within its own ranks over the withdrawal of COVID support measures as case numbers surge. I spoke to Mark Butler a short time ago. Minister, we're seeing higher COVID infections than during last year's lockdown and those are obviously the ones we know about. Why aren't we talking any longer about mask mandates?

MARK BUTLER, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE:

The Chief Health Officers only met late last week. They issued a statement on Friday that didn't go to mask mandates. I think we have moved beyond society wide or broadly based mask mandates, at least. Instead, they issued their very strong advice that if you're in an indoor crowded space and not able to socially distance, that they strongly encourage you to wear masks. Obviously, though, there are still targeted mask mandates where there's a high risk of vulnerability to severe illness in aged care facilities in hospitals and the like. And also, in areas of high transmission, crowded areas like public transport and aeroplanes. But I think deep into the third year of the pandemic, we're moving beyond these broad-based government orders or mask mandates, if you like, and instead targeting our mandates and more broadly giving good advice to employers and to the community to make their own informed decisions.

FERGUSON:

Well, let me ask you this. What level of infections could cause that to change? Is there a contingency plan to reconsider?

BUTLER:

The Chief Health Officers meet very regularly, almost on a weekly basis, to exchange information about what's happening in their jurisdictions and to issue what we hope is nationally consistent advice. And they’ll continue to do that through this third wave. This is going to be a tough few weeks for Australia. Case numbers are rising, and hospitalisations are rising as well. That's a particular concern for all governments and for the broader community, which is why our priority actions have focused so squarely on reducing the incidence of severe diseases with a particular boost on the fourth dose of vaccine for people aged over 50 and very substantially expanding eligibility for antiviral medicines, which we know are so effective at reducing severe illness, but up until recently have been sitting on shelves in warehouses.

FERGUSON:

Let's just talk about those antiviral medications, because I know that doctors have asked you to reconsider the change to the Medicare rebate scheme, where you are, in fact, withdrawing some of the benefits for consultations that help get those antivirals into the community.

BUTLER:

What we've done is to implement a decision that was telegraphed many months ago, which is to limit phone consultations, to short and standard consults up to 20 minutes, which is about six out of every telehealth consults and then follow the advice that I've received which is for longer, more complex consultations over 20 minutes that there should be a face-to-face engagement over Facetime or something like that.

FERGUSON:

Forgive me, Minister. I'll break in there. Because the while it's true that the gold standard is for face to face, doctors right now, including the AMA and the College of Australian GP's, are asking you to reconsider the decision on those, the rebate for those longer consultations. And just to be clear, we're talking about some of the most vulnerable people in the community understanding the complex decision around taking antivirals. Why would you change that now?

BUTLER:

My advice is that those consultations can be done within the 20 minutes of the telephone consultation. I’m meeting with the AMA, with the College of GP's tomorrow. So rather than conduct this discussion through the media, we're going to have a direct, mature conversation and I'll listen to their case. I mean, I'm absolutely committed to making sure there is no restriction on people's ability to get these antiviral medicines. And that's why I worked so hard to expand the eligibility. We'll meet tomorrow if they’ve got a case to put that you do need more than 20 minutes over the phone rather than over something like Facetime or a video consult on your phone then, of course I'll listen to that case.

FERGUSON:

Labor MP Mike Freelander has joined New South Wales leader Chris Minns in calling for the government to rethink ending pandemic leave and some of the free tests. Is it time to reconsider, particularly on that question of ending pandemic leave?

BUTLER:

I've got the highest respect for Mike. He's added enormous value to the Parliament with his experience as a medical practitioner. All of us are getting feedback from our community that this is a tough decision. I’m getting those calls into my electorate office as well. At some point, though, emergency payments need to come to an end. It was intended those come to an end the end of June. And we're following up that decision that was made many months ago. I'm not going to pretend though that's not going to have an impact on the community. But equally, Sarah, I mean, there has to be an end to these very large emergency payments that are putting such pressure on the sustainability of our budget. We've inherited, as well as that scheme, we've inherited a trillion dollars in debt and deficits that run to tens and tens of billions of dollars each and every year.

FERGUSON:

Mike Freelander, as you know, is a doctor. He's talking to patients. He's in a part of Sydney where there's a great deal of financial stress. This man knows what he's talking about. He said he spoke to you, was hopeful of a change of heart. Is there a change of heart possible on ending the pandemic payments?

BUTLER:

As the Prime Minister and Treasurer have made it clear, this is this was a tough decision, but we've come to the view that that at some point these emergency funds have to end.

FERGUSON:

I'm sorry Minister. That wasn't my question. Mike Freelander spoke to you and said that he was hopeful of a change of heart. Is that is that what you led him to believe? That was there was a possibility of a change of heart?

BUTLER:

No, I think the Prime Minister and the Treasurer and other members of the Government, including myself, have made it clear that this decision was hard made. It's a tough decision which will impact the community. But frankly, whenever you make a decision like this, there will be an impact on the community.

FERGUSON:

Understood. So, did Mike Freelander misunderstand you?
 
BUTLER:

Well, you'd have to ask Mike that. I can't comment on that.

FERGUSON:

Are you concerned that removing those COVID payments will lead people to avoid testing and go to work even if they are infected?

BUTLER:

The public health orders are very clear that if you are COVID positive, then you need to isolate for seven days. Certainly, the public health orders at state level around close contacts have been relaxed very substantially over recent times. But it is important that if you if you test positive for COVID, that you follow the public health orders.

FERGUSON:

You say they're supposed to follow the mandates. How do you do that if you can't pay the rent or put food on the table?

BUTLER: 

This this has been a challenge for casual workers for a very considerable period of time, one that we're very focused on through our workplace relations policy. Casuals haven't had paid sick leave for a whole range of illnesses. Flu, COVID, many others besides. And that number has grown over the last decade or two. That's why right at the centre for our workplace relations policy is job security, is improving access to paid leave entitlements. But this is this is not a new problem in the labour market that came about through the pandemic. This has been a challenge that Labour is committed to addressing in the longer term.

FERGUSON:

I just want to ask you a question about aged care. One of the things that's happening right now is that the states are winding back the requirement for visitors to aged care being vaccinated. How do you explain that right now with rising case numbers that that that should happen?

BUTLER:

We want to review all of the different orders that states have in place for aged care facilities. Some of them flow from the public health emergency orders. That will, over time, I think, start to lapse because the emergency declarations around the pandemic are being lifted across jurisdictions.

As I said, the Commonwealth's emergency declaration was lifted a couple of months ago, just before the election. We'll make sure that all of the appropriate protections are in place for aged care facilities. Right now, from a Commonwealth perspective, that involves continuing to boost the number of fourth doses that are in place in aged care facilities. We're doing repeat visits there. Obviously, you need to be able to do a negative RAT test before visiting or working at an aged care facility. So, every week the Commonwealth distributes about two million RAT tests that are available to workers and to visitors free of charge, personal protective equipment and all those sorts of things. The vaccination requirement will still be in place, as I understand it, for workers in aged care facilities. But we'll review if there is any impact from states lifting their emergency declarations. The Commonwealth obviously will have to step in and fill that gap.

FERGUSON:

Minister, thank you very much indeed for the time.

BUTLER:

Thank you, Sarah.

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