Media event date: 
25 March 2020
Date published: 
25 March 2020
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

GEORGIA ROBERTS:

The National Cabinet has agreed to broader shutdown measures as the number of COVID-19 cases climbs. Businesses including beauty, tanning and nail salons will be forced to close from midnight tonight, and the Prime Minister Scott Morrison said real estate auctions, open house inspections, arcades, galleries, museums and play centres are also going to be required to close.

Mark Coulton is the Federal Member for Parkes and Minister for Regional Health. I spoke to him a little earlier.

MARK COULTON:

We really are at a very critical time in this crisis.

Our numbers of infections are starting to climb at a higher rate than we would like. We're starting to see cases coming up in regional centres. I'm not aware of any in the Far West but there's a couple in Dubbo and certainly Tamworth and other places. So, we are starting to see it in regional centres.

Just last night, with further restrictions on public gatherings, weddings, funerals, things like that, are an attempt to try and minimise the risk of spreading the infection - or slowing down the rate, I should say, is a better way of putting it.

So it's a real balancing act at the moment between keeping the economy going, keeping as many people as possible in their jobs, but keeping people safe and sadly we've seen, I don't think, the full magnitude.

Last weekend it sunk in when we saw so many people that were gathering in public places, in close proximity, and so that's why some of those harder decisions had to be made. But it's really important that I think everyone should treat themselves as if they are potential carriers and everyone else as if they are as well. And so, keep your distance.

If you can work from home, work from home. But not everyone can. If you are obviously in the mining sector or in retail, health, education, those things, you've got to actually go to work, but it does mean changing the way you actually interact with other people. And that's very strange for us. We're not used to being in such close proximity. It's sort of against human nature a bit. So, it is a conscious effort but it's important that we do keep that distance.

GEORGIA ROBERTS:

Minister, I do want to ask you, I mean, the trajectory of where we're heading, the numbers are frightening, to say the least. There have been worries over ICU beds in the cities. If we could just look at the number of beds here in the local health districts there, you- currently, only five ICU beds, the capacity for 10. I mean, looking at these figures, do you think- I mean, what's the answer? Will-

MARK COULTON:

Look, there's a couple of- well, the answer is a little bit broad. So one is that the Government is in the process of procuring more respirators so that more beds can be made available for respiratory conditions and that's what COVID-19 is.

The other thing is that, clearly, the majority of people who will become infected with the illness- it’s not a major sickness and mostly they can be dealt with by Telehealth, isolated at home. But for some people, they- not necessarily all but largely, they are older people or people with another chronic health condition, they will need this higher level of care. And so, they'll be utilising the local, obviously, beds at the hospital to bring in assistance. The Government's rolling out 100 respiratory clinics. I think Broken Hill will be in the mix. I think there's actually already been discussions in Broken Hill with health professionals as to how that might work.

But I was talking to the Royal Flying Doctor Service CEO Frank Quinlan a couple of days ago and they have a capacity to move people, if they had to go to a larger centre; if capacity is reached in a regional area. They're looking at actually acquiring more aeroplanes and maybe more pilots that aren’t being utilised at the moment if they need to break up their service. But they, as Frank said to me, they've got a 90-year history of treating every patient as if they are infectious and so, they're very good at moving these people around.

So there are different ways of approaching this. But the changes to Telehealth has meant that a lot of people won't need to go into a doctor surgery or the hospital. They'll be able to take advice from home and it’ll only be those that become very, very unwell that would need to go into a hospital.

GEORGIA ROBERTS:

Testing numbers, we know, are increasing. Also, the numbers of tests we actually have in the country hopefully will increase as well. Are there talks of sending more tests out to rural areas across Australia?

MARK COULTON:

Certainly the test kits are coming. And we’ve actually- Australia has actually tested, as a percentage, more people than any other country. I think we’re just under 150,000 tests now and the infection rate of those tests is less than one per cent. And so, we do have to be careful.

You can’t just test everyone. You really need to have been possibly in touch with someone that has had the virus or you’re feeling unwell yourself.

So we can't just test everyone because you could test clear this week and be infected next week. So it would be nice to have the assurance of being tested but that's not the answer. But we do have the test available for those that need it.

We do have a rate of infection that is going up but the number of deaths is very, very low.

Sadly we've lost eight people so far but that rate is quite low and the testing rate is quite high. So we can't just blanket test everyone because it's not really going to help that much, but we need to have the tests available for those that are- have been possible contacts or find themselves unwell.

GEORGIA ROBERTS:

Minister, quite a big question here but I do have to ask it - are our regional and rural health providers and hospitals up for this challenge?

MARK COULTON:

Look, it is going to be a challenge for them but I think- yes, I think they are. I think that in the Far West, Broken Hill is well equipped. They have a very good workforce. They- a broad workforce from the Royal Flying Doctor, to the hospital, to the other private clinics in town, and I think that with Maari Ma [Health] - there is a broad range of health services.

It'll be a matter of all of- everyone working together, pulling their weight with the extra assistance coming in from the outside when it's needed.

So with the changes to Telehealth, it means that some doctors who are recently retired, maybe doctors who are pregnant, have young children, who probably can't be working in a surgery can man the Telehealth lines and so we can bring people in there. We can bring in recently retired. We're looking to bring in people who are out of the workforce, nurses, allied health workers and doctors as well.

There's a whole range of issues that are happening at the moment and being pursued to fill in that space. And so we have had a little bit more breathing space in in the Far West because of the isolation.

Now, isolation is a huge advantage in this but it also means that we have to manage the rate of infection because we need to have tried to handle as many people within the community as we can without having to transfer people out.

GEORGIA ROBERTS:

If you are just joining us, I'm chatting with Mark Coulton, your Federal Member for Parkes. You’re listening to ABC Radio Broken Hill, Georgia Roberts keeping you company this morning.

Minister, moving now to job losses. We saw major job losses in the city on Sunday night. I guess lots of people found out they'd be losing their jobs from the Prime Minister as he addressed the press and the nation. Obviously those people who have lost their jobs will be able to access funding on- an excess funding on Centrelink. Will there be anything given to those in rural and regional areas? Any further money- will they be able to access any further funding?

MARK COULTON:

Look, there's quite a large package, and that went through Parliament on Monday night late, it was passed through Parliament.

There is assistance there for businesses to try and keep people employed, keep their employees in.

Obviously, there's the extra rate of assistance for those that need to go onto assistance. There's also assistance for those- there was a bit of confusion earlier on for people who were on Youth Allowance, who were studying and have lost their part time job because of a lot of those folk in the restaurant and catering industry.

So, there is a broad range of people like that.

We are looking as a government at businesses, helping them sort of mothball them if you like, because the real challenge is to try and keep people going as best we can, but make sure that we’ve still got everything in place when we come out the other side of this, so that we can I believe that all the information is that- when we come to the other side, these things will probably pick up fairly well. In regional Australia, we've had- the irony of this, Georgia, is that we've had a good break in the weather over a lot of Eastern Australia.

We should be- with the water now coming down the river, we should be seeing a massive influx of tourists and all the other outside income that our towns rely on, and we're not seeing that. So, we’ve got to try and keep people in, we've got to try and care for them as best we can.

But we need them there so that when we come out the other side of this, we can get back into full stride as quickly as we can.

GEORGIA ROBERTS:

Minister Coulton, thank you so much for your time this morning.

MARK COULTON:

Happy to talk to you. It's a very, very difficult time. None of us, certainly in the last 100 years, have seen anything like this. I think our community is doing very well, and I will try and keep you updated if any changes come through.

GEORGIA ROBERTS:

Federal Member for Parkes and Minister for Regional Health, Mark Coulton there. You’re listening to ABC radio Broken Hill.