Radio Interview with Minister Butler and Chris Smith, 2GB Breakfast – July 14, 2022

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Date published:

July 14, 2022

Spectators:

General public

CHRIS SMITH:

Mark Butler is the Federal Minister of Health, and he joins me on the line. Minister, thank you very much for your time this morning.

MARK BUTLER, HEALTH AND ELDERLY CARE MINISTER:

Hello Chris.

BLACK-SMITH:

I do not understand this. What’s going on? You’re making a big fuss about this third wave, as you should, and we should be concerned about that. You say there will be millions of new cases of COVID, but at the same time you are rolling back some of our best weapons to fight it. Do you receive health advice or treasury advice?

BUTLER:

We don’t use the best weapons to fight it. We are doubling down on our best weapons to fight it, which is why earlier this week I expanded the vaccination program so that people over 50 have access to a fourth dose. Throughout, reinforcing the message that getting your third dose is really important. There are still a lot of people who haven’t had their third dose and that’s the really big boost for immunity.

We have expanded the vaccination program, we have also greatly expanded access to antiviral drugs. They are critically important in preventing particularly elderly Australians from progressing to serious illness and hospitalizations. We extended funding agreements to state hospital systems, which cost more than three-quarters of a billion dollars because we know the strain hospitals are under. Our goal is to prevent people from becoming seriously ill and especially from going to hospital or worse.

BLACK-SMITH:

I think it’s fantastic. Doesn’t it make sense to be consistent and grow and expand the free RAT program?

BUTLER:

Can I just clarify a few points that I think have been lost in the comment? The first thing is that there is no change to the arrangement that if you have symptoms of COVID or have been exposed to someone with COVID as a close contact, you have the right to get tested for free. That’s always the case. We are still co-funding free nationwide COVID testing arrangements with all state governments, including New South Wales. And across the country, whether you’re retired or not, you can get access to free RAT tests or free PCR tests if you think you have COVID.

BLACK-SMITH:

Until July 31.

BUTLER:

No, not at all, and that’s the problem, Chris, with that comment. People are trying to scare people by telling them they can’t get tested for free if they think they have COVID. And that’s completely pointless. This will continue right away. There is no change in the agreements we as a Commonwealth have had with the States for some time and in some States you may have access to a large group of RATs. In others, if you have COVID symptoms or are a close contact, you can go to a station and get free RATs or get a PCR test, all for free and nothing changes there.

What happened at the start of this year was that the former government, the Commonwealth government and the States – this was a decision of the National Cabinet, not a decision of the Government of the Commonwealth – have set up a program to provide retirees and concession card holders with a collection of RATs. Ten every three months. So twenty free RATS over a period of six months essentially for personal use, because we knew that coming out of the situation last year where there were not many cases, it was serious. There haven’t been the millions of cases we’ve seen this year and we’ve relied heavily on PCR testing, we’ve moved this year to a situation where people have gotten used to using RATs. And, at the beginning of the year, people made the decision to take a RAT test before visiting family or before going to a party or something like that.

We wanted to make sure at the time and the state governments were co-funding this at 50% that concession card holders would have stock for personal use. But it’s really important to get this message across: if you need to get tested because you think you have COVID or were exposed as a close contact, you’ll still get a free test. If you need to visit a relative or loved one in an aged care facility who first requires a RAT test, it will be free.

The Commonwealth is still rolling out tens of millions of free RAT tests to aged care facilities. Hopefully it won’t come to that, but if you need RAT tests in schools, they’ll be free. The health program around the RATs continues free of charge for all.

BLACK-SMITH:

In August can senior citizens come in and get a free PCR test?

BUTLER:

There are different provisions from state to state. Some states do RAT testing and some states do PCR testing and a mix. But what is important is that you can get a free test. There is no question. You can get a free test at state-run, Commonwealth co-funded test stations, and that won’t change after the end of July.

BLACK-SMITH:

You are calling on Australians to consider working from home again as cases rise. Last week, footfall in the Sydney offices fell by 40%. Business groups are outraged. They demand that the country remain open. Have you thought about the economic impact of these warnings?

BUTLER:

The Chief Health Officers met last week, as you would expect given what is happening with COVID across the country. And they deliberately did not make the decision to seek orders or warrants.

We’re past that, Chris. We are not in the era of confinements and that kind of thing. We want businesses and the community to make their own common sense decisions based on the best possible public health advice.

And what the health directors said last week, and I was just echoing, is that they were asking employers to look at whether there were work-from-home arrangements that could be put in place and that would suit their business. As you say, employers are already doing this. I talk to employers. They did not wait for a meeting of chief health officers to do so. They make that decision themselves. Obviously, we would all prefer that they didn’t have to. But what I said is that it is not an order. It’s not a warrant. I told employers, if they talk to their employees and come to the conclusion that there may be work from home, that’s their business. And they will have heard the advice of the Chief Health Officers.

BLACK-SMITH:

You tell Australians to be more vigilant, to wear a mask when you can’t socially distance, especially indoors, to wash your hands, etc. We’re not on track for warrants here, are we? We’re not going to go back in time, are we?

BUTLER:

No. And that’s really something that I’ve been trying to reinforce over the last few days. We are in a new phase of the pandemic. It’s not behind us. This thing is not going away. It continues to mutate. We have to keep up. It’s still a race. We need to make sure that we have the best possible vaccines, the best possible treatments, especially to care for older Australians. But you know what? What we want is for people to be able to move to a point where they make their own choices. But they are good choices. These are choices informed by public health advice. And that’s why last week’s advice from health directors was so important that if you’re in an indoor space and can’t social distance, you should put on a mask. And it’s not an order. It’s not a warrant. It’s just common sense. He will protect you. This will reduce transmission, this number of cases that we expect over the winter. And most importantly, if there are people around you who are vulnerable to serious illness, well, hopefully they will wear a mask. But also, it will reduce the chances of them getting seriously ill. But again, I think we’re past that kind of period where, for understandable reasons, the government had to control. The government had to regulate the orders and warrants issued. We are in a different era now.

BLACK-SMITH:

Finally, there is pressure to reduce the COVID isolation period from seven days to five days. It was done in the United States. What do you think about this?

BUTLER:

I think that’s a very prudent decision for public health officials to make. I mean, it was quite controversial in the United States when they went to five days a short time ago, there was an opinion around the world, given that everyone is watching what the United States is doing. United, they have some of the best public health authorities in the world.

There was an opinion that it was a bit short and people were still contagious on the six and seven days. So I’m not aware of any movement to change this advice in the foreseeable future here in Australia. But it would be a very important decision for public health experts to make.

BLACK-SMITH:

Very, very true. And you get paid a lot of money to make those decisions. Minister of Health Mark Butler, thank you for your time.

BUTLER:

Thanks Chris.

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