July 11, 2022
LACHLAN KENNEDY, HOST:
Happy to see you again. As we previously reported, potentially life-saving antiviral drugs will be available for older Australians with symptoms of COVID from today. At the same time, a growing number of experts are calling for the return of mask mandates as BA.4 and BA.5 become the dominant COVID strains.
Federal Health Minister Mark Butler joins us from Parliament in Canberra for a chat. Thank you very much for your time this morning. We are two and a half years into the pandemic, can you explain why now is the time for these antivirals to be more widely available?
MARK BUTLER, HEALTH AND ELDERLY CARE MINISTER:
The former government, to their credit, ordered 1.3 million doses of these brand new, highly effective drugs. They are very effective in preventing people who are vulnerable to serious illness from progressing to that serious illness, going to hospital, and potentially even worse, losing their lives to COVID.
The problem, however, is that in recent months these drugs have largely sat on warehouse shelves, instead of making their way into the community to do their job of preventing serious illness. At present, there are around 4,000 Australians in hospital with COVID who could potentially be prevented from getting there if they had the right medication.
I made a very strong case to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee for expanding that eligibility. And starting today, anyone over the age of 70 is eligible to get these drugs on the PBS. They probably only cost them six or seven dollars and it could save their life, it could certainly prevent them from getting seriously ill. People over the age of 50, if you have a few risk factors such as respiratory disease or another relevant condition that your GP can advise you on, you will also be eligible for subsidized medicines of this type.
So for people who meet these eligibility criteria, they will want to know how they get their hands on these antivirals. What steps should they take?
You need a script from your GP. You should definitely speak to your GP as some of them interact with other medications you may be taking. It is therefore important to have this discussion and GPs usually encourage you to have this discussion before you get COVID. If you are vulnerable to serious illness you should have a COVID plan in the event you test positive and one part of that plan should be to contact your GP.
You should have already had a discussion with them to find out whether or not there are any interactions with other medications that you have, and then they can do a script, an email script, so call them on the phone or do some facetime video. They can then send an electronic script to the pharmacy. You can ask someone to pick up this medicine for you and deliver it to your home. Or if you don’t have someone to do it for you, the pharmacy could deliver the medicine to you.
It is really important that you take the medicine as soon as possible. It must be taken very early in your COVID journey to have this effect.
And on that last point, efficiency really has to do with how quickly you can get it. Doesn’t that create problems then? Because we all know how hard it is to get a doctor’s appointment these days.
So is it extremely important, as you say, to have that pre-plan in place?
It’s true. This is why having a plan is so important. I mean, you should also have a plan of what you have in your house, you know, having, you know, Nurofen, Panadol, lots of fluids, all those sorts of things.
And that should be an item. If you have planned your discussion with the GP, you can probably just call them. They will find out that you tested positive and they can send you an electronic script.
It really is a game changer these drugs, they are very new. They’ve only been on PBS for a few months. Before that, to get antiviral treatment, if you were at risk of getting a serious illness, you had to go to the hospital and be hooked up to an intravenous drip to get it. It really is a game changer.
And I’m really glad that we were able to expand the eligibility so that we could get these drugs off the shelves, out of the warehouses, into the community doing the job that they were supposed to do.
As you say, they are very recent. What do we know about the anticipated side effects? Is there an information document on this?
Well, no, there is no proof of that. But what I said earlier is that Paxlovid in particular, which is a very effective drug from Pfizer, has complex interactions with other drugs that you might be taking.
That’s why you can’t just go to a pharmacy and get this. You need to have a discussion with your GP. Your GP will know what medications you are taking, they have a good list of those medications that might interact a bit with these antiviral medications, and they will go over that and make sure you are good to go.
Minister, can I ask you about pandemic leave payments? As we know, under the former government, they are coming to an end. You said they were coming to an end. Is this really the right time for this to end? Because we know COVID is rampant right now and a lot of people are off work, especially casuals.
Unfortunately, Lachlan, there is no easy time to end these emergency payments. As you said, since last year and the beginning of this year, the former government and all the state governments, because they are signatories to this plan or were signatories, have budgeted and decided that they would end on June 30.
And the really difficult position that we find ourselves in is that we cannot continue to borrow money to finance our emergency payments. I know it’s difficult. I know this is going to have an impact on people and I deeply regret it.
But really, whenever you withdraw emergency payments like this, it will have an impact. And we’re facing a trillion dollars in debt and truly staggering deficits as far as the eye can see, we can’t keep funding these emergency payments indefinitely.
OK. And are you also concerned about what we’re seeing in the aged care system, particularly what we reported earlier, what’s happening in Victoria right now with COVID that seems to be spreading through the system again elderly care?
Frankly, too often and tragically, during this pandemic, the effort in eldercare has been too little, too late. And I am absolutely determined to do everything we can to protect the most vulnerable people in our community.
We know they are elderly residents, people who, you know, have worked hard, paid their taxes, raised their families for so many decades. They deserve our greatest efforts.
Over the past few weeks, when I was the new Minister of Health, I really pushed my department to ensure that we did better by getting the fourth dose of the vaccine to aged care facilities.
If we have to keep going back to the facility to clean people up, we couldn’t get the first visit or the second visit, so I told them they had to. This is an extremely important way to provide that extra protection, that fourth dose as well. There are a range of other measures we need to put in place and aged care facilities are doing very well, RAT tests before entering the facility, making sure everyone is wearing masks.
And we’ve pre-placed, if you like, those antiviral drugs that we were talking about earlier in senior care facilities so they don’t have to go through the hullabaloo of, you know, go at a general practitioner, have a script filled out by the pharmacy, the establishments will have one on site that they can give immediately to people who test positive for COVID. But look, there are about 700 or more facilities across the country that now have COVID patients. This represents about a quarter of installations. This is a serious concern for the government. We are doing everything we can to deal with it.
And hopefully these antiviral drugs will do the trick and also save lives. Minister of Health Mark Butler, we really appreciate your time this morning.