Media event date: 
7 April 2020
Date published: 
15 April 2020
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

MARK COULTON:

Thank you. I’ve just come out of self-isolation for three weeks. I haven’t had the virus but I've decided to lead by example and have been working from home, managing the rural health aspects of the Federal Government's response to the coronavirus, the COVID-19. Also working in regional communications and also my role as local government.

I'm in Dubbo today because I'm en route to Canberra to pass the legislation that's so vital for the JobKeeper package to be able to be paid by the 1st of May. And obviously, my colleagues from Western Australia and Queensland, from states that are in lockdown are not able to get there. So even though it's a 10-hour drive, it's the safest thing for me to get there. There'll be 30 members of the Government; 21 members of the Opposition and some of the crossbenchers will be in Canberra tomorrow.

I think- I just want to comment in regional Australia, I think we've done very, very well. In the central west, the number of infections has been fairly stable. We haven't had any new ones for a couple of days. I think we need to be very, very wary of identifying the number of infections in a town because the most dangerous point with this virus is when you don't think anyone's got it. And when someone is identified, then they're no risk to anyone. They're in isolation, they're getting the best medical treatment, they've been advised mostly via telehealth.

And so everyone should be behaving like they are potential carriers and that everyone around them is potential carriers and if we do that and I think we're doing very, very well, then I think regional Australia is the best place to be.

With regards to communications, the extra allocation of data through the NBN Sky Muster has been well received; that generally, it's doing the job. I think that there’s a lot of pressure obviously on telecommunications with people working from home, their kids educating from home as well. So I've been working on the Sky Muster satellite now for all my voice communications, all my data now for the last three weeks and apart from one very severe thunderstorm when I lost it for 10 minutes it's worked very, very well.

So yesterday, the NBN Co announced that there would be a freeing up of data for medical centres so that with the absolute increase in telehealth, that we will see that that is not going onto the data limit of those medical centres. And if they instigate the call, that should take the pressure off individual patients as well. And telehealth has been a massive success across Australia, but particularly in regional Australia.

So look, I think at this stage, we're doing quite well. We are at a very critical time coming up to Easter. The temptation for people to want to visit family and friends is huge. People have been working from home. They're desperate to get out of the house, but now is not the time to do that. Now is the time to self-isolate. Think of ways to entertain yourself within your family and the more we can do that now, the quicker we will come out the other side and the less strain we'll put on the medical facilities in our regions.

QUESTION [Maddison Langley, Prime7 News]:

Yeah. Definitely. Just touching on Easter quickly. There’s- while we're on lockdown, not moving around, staying put, there's one member of the community people are quite worried about making an appearance. Can the Easter Bunny still come to our houses?

MARK COULTON:

Look, the Easter Bunny is the great survivor of viruses. They've been trying to- scientists have been trying to do away with the bunnies for years. He survived myxomatosis, he survived calicivirus. The Easter Bunny has no effect on coronavirus.

One of the reasons that the Government has freed up the restrictions around interstate transport was to make sure that there's plenty of eggs going into all the supermarkets. There's definitely no shortage of Easter eggs, kids. Anyone tells you that, they're not telling you the complete truth and the Easter Bunny is guaranteed to turn up on Sunday morning like he does every other year.

QUESTION [Maddison Langley, Prime7 News]:

Perfect. And just back to the JobKeeper program. I know there’s- you need to show a 30 per cent decline in turnover. There’s some small business owners in the region that have, you know, copped it in the drought. They're quite concerned that there’s not allowances for drought in that percentage. I mean they’ve already lost 75 per cent turnover, and 30 per cent isn’t really viable.

MARK COULTON:

Yeah. Look, I've had quite a lot of correspondence and conversations with businesses on that. Yesterday morning, I spoke to Treasurer Josh Frydenberg about this issue. He said that the Commissioner of Taxation will have a discretion to look at businesses that have had a reduced income because of the drought; in other areas it might be because of bushfire.

In some cases, businesses may not get their income in a regularly monthly instalment, they might get that in large chunks at different times of the year depending what those businesses are. So my advice is to put in the application. More information is better than less. Explain to the Taxation Department your circumstances and I know they have been instructed, and in the legislation have been given the opportunity to show discretion for individual businesses.

QUESTION [Maddison Langley, Prime7 News]:

There's been a bit of confusion with that also state and federal packages, assistance packages. Does there need to be a bit of greater sort of – how to say it – transparency in the eligibility criteria? Some people are going: well, if this is just for COVID-19, I can't prove that or 30 per cent turnover, I’m an ag business, I’ve already suffered that.

MARK COULTON:

So look, we've got to understand that what we’re doing now is, as Federal Government, state governments and individuals, are spending large amounts of money to tackle this disease. This package is not designed to solve every other economic problem that we have in this country. We just do not have the money for that. But obviously, the COVID-19 is impacting on top of other issues and so where that's the case, it is. But it's not seen as a reform package for everything else that's going on. I think that's very, very important.

A lot of the- the Federal- sorry, the National Cabinet, the state leaders and the Prime Minister have worked out, I know for instance, with local government, three days ago the National Cabinet decided that state governments would be responsible for looking after the downturn in local government. That was agreed at the National Cabinet.

I had a phone hook-up will all the state and local government ministers late last week and it was agreed that they would put that to the National Cabinet. And that was the result that came out. So a lot of these things are decided at that level, but I can understand there's so much information coming out in such short succession that people are confused, they're bombarded with this information. The best thing to do is to go onto the website www.australia.gov.au or 1-300-020-080 for if you're not computer comfortable and get that information because there's a lot to scroll through whether it's information about your health or whether it's the economic packages, it's important to go there in the first instance, then you might have to seek help elsewhere if you still can't find what you want.

QUESTION [Kim Bartley, Daily Liberal]:

In terms of telehealth, I’m getting messages from my doctor saying he can do a telephone consultation with me. Is that part of the telehealth package?

MARK COULTON:

Yes, it is. So, look, there’s two things to this; if it’s something that can be dealt with over the phone the doctor now can claim that on the Medicare Benefits Scheme. And we're seeing large, you know, literally millions of people now are undertaking telehealth consultations. But it doesn't mean if you have an issue that you need to see a doctor, that you can't go to the doctor. So that's still very important that you, if you have a situation that requires urgent attention, please go to the doctor. But if it's a check-up, if it's a regular check-up that can be done. Doctors now, in conjunction with pharmacy, are working out how to do renewal of scripts online. So, it's important, if you can stay at home, do that on the phone, that's the best thing to do but it doesn't mean that you can't go to the doctor if you need to.

QUESTION [Kim Bartley, Daily Liberal]:

So the telehealth package covers telephone and teleconferencing?

MARK COULTON:

Yes. So, it is, mostly it's telephone.

QUESTION [Kim Bartley, Daily Liberal]:

Mostly telephone. So, I noticed that Marathon Health here in Dubbo was hugely effusive about the announcement about the telehealth package, they said it was 1.1 million or 1.1 billion.

MARK COULTON:

Yes. Yeah, it’s a billion, I think, yes.

QUESTION [Kim Bartley, Daily Liberal]:

Would they be accessing that for their clients?

MARK COULTON:

Yeah. Anyone can, obviously it has to have- it's now a provider number. So it’s a number, a service number, under the legislation that can come through. So, we are encouraging as many people as possible to do that. Obviously this was a proposal, it was being worked out in the longer term, it's been very much shortened in the timeframe of its implementation. The Royal Flying Doctor has been doing telehealth for some time. But large numbers of people, you do not have to live remotely, if you need a check. And in the first instance if you believe that you may have flu-like symptoms you are concerned about, that's the very first thing you should do is ring your doctor via the telehealth system.

QUESTION [Kim Bartley, Daily Liberal]:

Okay. So the curve is flattening a bit, are you worried that people will lose their focus?

MARK COULTON:

I think it's a- we are at a very crucial time; I think we should be very proud of ourselves that we seem to be getting good results. I'm incredibly proud of the people in regional Australia, that we are doing as well as we are. Obviously, we have the advantage of being more isolated but that is also a disadvantage if we happen to have large outbreaks. But we do have- we are opening up 100 respiratory clinics around Australia, one of those will be here in Dubbo, probably open within a few weeks, to enable, should there be an outbreak, people can deal with that outside the main system. We've done a deal with the private hospitals, so even the hospital here in Dubbo has now been included in the response to the coronavirus outbreak and their staff and beds are all part of the major overall response to COVID-19. But if we just take our eye off what we're supposed to be doing with keeping our distance, only travelling when necessary; then the potential to have this flare up again is quite high. And obviously the smaller, more remote communities are more concerned because they're the ones that don't have the level of medical facilities that some of the bigger centres do.

QUESTION [Kim Bartley, Daily Liberal]:

So the respiratory clinic, does it have an official name?

MARK COULTON:

They're known as GP respiratory clinics. The first one was opened last week in Emerald in Queensland, a regional area. Today in Mildura, there’s one opening up, there's work being done on one in Dubbo, I believe Orange and Bathurst in this area, but there's also going to be several clinics that are mobile, so that in a smaller community if there happens to be an outbreak for one particular reason, then those resources – and that's under the management of a business that puts hospitals into poor countries, war zones and so they're very, very good at setting these facilities up very quickly. And at the moment they’re on track to be on time. At the moment we don’t have the level of concern an outbreak that would keep them going but when the time comes, and that probably will come, they'll be in place.

QUESTION [Kim Bartley, Daily Liberal]:

So where will the clinic in Dubbo be?

MARK COULTON:

Look, I'm not sure of the exact location. There is discussions now with a GP clinic as to where - they generally are co-located with a GP clinic.

QUESTION [Kim Bartley, Daily Liberal]:

So it will be co-located?

MARK COULTON:

Yeah. There is a- sometimes they’re in a, they can be in a community building, sometimes - the one in Emerald is in temporary, in dongas in the car park. They're all- there is there is a fever clinic here in Dubbo operating out of the hospital already, run by the Western Health District. So- but these ones are in conjunction with GPs.

QUESTION [Kim Bartley, Daily Liberal]:

And so what is their purpose? Are they just for people with COVID-19?

MARK COULTON:

Yeah. People who believe that they may be concerned about having symptoms. Obviously in the first instance still ring - don't just turn up to any of these clinics - ring and get advice. But if you have flu-like symptoms - for instance, the one in Emerald last week, I think they had a half a dozen cases of influenza, I think they tested three people out of 18 that went through it in the first day who may have been in contact with someone who's been overseas.

But the idea is if the number of infections increases, it's to take the pressure off the other facilities because in other parts of the world where they've had previous pandemics like SARS, more people die from other illnesses than the illness itself because the hospital system became jammed up with people that were- with that SARS pandemic.

So the idea is to keep the people with the COVID virus, as best as possible, away. At the moment there‘s only one per cent of people who have the disease are on respirators; 80 per cent of the people are being managed at home via telehealth. So there's no need to have a big rush on it, on our medical facilities but we're we are being prepared. We're better off to be over prepared than to be caught short and at the moment I think we're over prepared.

QUESTION [Kim Bartley, Daily Liberal]:

So, just to be clear, there's going to be a respiratory clinic set up in Dubbo, somewhere?

MARK COULTON:

Yes.

QUESTION [Kim Bartley, Daily Liberal]:

It may be connected to a GP’s clinic, it may be in an independent building? The idea of it is to take pressure off the hospital?

MARK COULTON:

Yes. Yes.

QUESTION [Kim Bartley, Daily Liberal]:

So people who suspect they have COVID-19 can go there and be checked out, maybe tested?

MARK COULTON:

Yes. Yes.

QUESTION [Kim Bartley, Daily Liberal]:

How much is that costing the government, do you know?

MARK COULTON:

A lot. Yeah, I think it's- I’m not sure of the exact amount per clinic but it's in the- it's in the multiples of millions of dollars to do that.

QUESTION [Kim Bartley, Daily Liberal]:

And the GPs will run it?

MARK COULTON:

Yes. Yes. Via the GPs. So-

QUESTION [Kim Bartley, Daily Liberal]:

So do they take- are they on a roster?

MARK COULTON:

Yeah. So there’s a contract drawn up by a- with a particular clinic, with the Government to provide that service and then funding comes from the Government for that clinic to set it up. 

QUESTION [Kim Bartley, Daily Liberal]:        

So it’s just one doctor’s surgery that will run it?

MARK COULTON:            

Yeah, yep. Correct.

QUESTION [Kim Bartley, Daily Liberal]:

Do you know who that doctor’s surgery is?

MARK COULTON:            

No, but I can probably tell you – I’ll check before we leave – I’ll just make a phone call, I just don’t know off the top of my head.

QUESTION [Maddison Langley, Prime7 News]:

Alright. Lastly, I just have a question sent into me from Sydney. Regional television has been asking for some time for legislated changes, now we’re in a crisis. Do you support a financial leg up [indistinct]?

MARK COULTON:            

Look, I’ve been made well aware of all levels of the media in regional Australia, from local newspapers to community radio, to television. I’ve had several meetings with the CEOs of the three regional television stations and I’m well aware of their concern. They’ve actually had a meeting with Minister Fletcher and I think that it’s really important that we keep those regional services. In country towns, communication between- within the community are very, very important. Television is a very big, important part of that and I’m very well aware of the stresses they’re under and also the solutions that they are putting forward. And so, I’m very supportive of their proposal and that’s being worked through now.

QUESTION [Maddison Langley, Prime7 News]:

Perfect, thank you.

QUESTION [Kim Bartley, Daily Liberal]:              

Can I just go back to the respiratory clinics for a minute? Will it take walk ins? Or will they-

MARK COULTON:            

Yes. Yes, it will, but it’s generally best if people ring because if you can be managed over the phone, then it’s best if you don’t go out.

QUESTION [Kim Bartley, Daily Liberal]:

And you talked before about - you thought the country would recover better than the city - and you talked about how the rain here has boosted industry. Can you talk to that?

MARK COULTON:            

Yes. Look, I think the great irony of where we are at the moment is that, this is the most optimistic I’ve seen the rural sector for many, many years. And as we speak, because the farming sector, the transport sector, the livestock sector and the mining sector can largely work independently, we’re not seeing any fall back in production. So right across regional Australia now, there's a massive job going on now, preparing for a winter crop plant, probably as big a crop as we've seen for a long time. There’s been over a foot of rain in some places, in Coonamble, Walgett, places that haven't had a crop for several years are now in full preparation for planting. Some farmers are under financial stress trying to find the funds to do that, but they will. And ultimately, you know, the Rural Investment Corporation is getting a lot of applications from farmers looking for funds to plant that crop. But because the industries that underpin regional Australia haven't been impacted, we've seen businesses that have, obviously hospitality, retail, and things like that have been. But the engine room of regional Australia is still going full steam ahead and I think that will hold us in very good stead coming out the other side of this.

QUESTION [Kim Bartley, Daily Liberal]:

You mean agriculture?

MARK COULTON:

Yeah, agriculture and mining.

QUESTION [Kim Bartley, Daily Liberal]:

And you talked about communities being isolated as well, like Dubbo’s separate from Orange, Bathurst from Narromine.  And that helps with COVID-19?

MARK COULTON:            

It certainly does and we can obviously, the smaller communities where people lose their anonymity and so that, you know, they’re more caring and people are more comfortable in these areas. And I think that the small number that we’ve had, mostly have come from people who have been overseas or connection to that. They have been managed. But sadly we’ve had some deaths in the central west and that’s, you know, an absolute tragedy for the family involved. But I think by and large, we’re going okay, but it’s only because we’ve been doing the right thing up until now.

QUESTION [Kim Bartley, Daily Liberal]:

If you had a crystal ball; when do we see the end or when do we see the pause button on COVID-19?

MARK COULTON:            

That’s the real challenge, because the better we do health wise the more we’re stretching out the economic stresses. You know, we need to keep people well, we need to keep our hospital systems so that they’re manageable. So, that means that we will probably need to manage this for some time. So hopefully we can lift restrictions on, I think, people are getting used to self-isolating, we’re doing that here today. I think bit-by-bit we will, but I can’t see that that’s anytime in the near future. It’s certainly a matter of weeks or months, not days away.