Topics: COVID-19 response; vaccination rates; healthcare workforce; vaccination clinics; testing; support payments; rapid antigen tests; Old Parliament House damage; pathology testing providers;


01:05PM ACST


Simon Birmingham:  Thanks very much for coming along today. Much has been asked of Australians throughout two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Australians have responded magnificently by supporting one another throughout the pandemic by helping out looking after those who need assistance, by isolating where necessary, by getting tested where necessary, and perhaps nowhere more so have Australians responding so well than when it’s come to getting vaccinated. More than ninety one point five per cent of all Australians over the age of 16 are double dose vaccinated. Fully vaccinated having responded to that call to turn out and to do so, as they have in such amazing numbers.

Today is another significant day in Australia’s COVID-19 journey, when millions of more Australians have become eligible to receive the booster dose. As a country, we were one of the first in the world to provide for a population wide booster program. And crucially, we’ve been rolling out that booster program in numbers that have seen around 65 per cent of those who were eligible to receive a booster dose already having done so. That’s a couple million of Australians who have had their jab responded once more to the call, and people keep turning up day in and day out. We have now more than 10,000 outlets across Australia – pharmacists, GPs, state and territory clinics, where Australians can go and get that booster. And so for the many millions of extra Australians today who have become eligible as the time period to receive a booster has been brought forward to four months. We encourage you to respond to get out there and to get that booster. Be agile when you’re making the bookings because often vacancies will come up on a day by day basis.

Today, as many GP clinics, pharmacists start to scale up post New Year and Christmas operations again, new places will be being made available. Make sure that you respond by booking and getting your booster as soon as you possibly can. Yes, it may take a little bit of patience and perseverance at times, as we’ve all experienced, but crucially, the doses are there, they are available and the boosters are proving to be one of the best ways to enhance protections against Omicron.

Omicron has shown itself to be a virus that is around 70 per cent less impactful in terms of serious illness than Delta or previous versions of COVID-19. But that doesn’t mean anybody should be complacent. It means that people should help us out in terms of the increased cases we’re seeing from this more transmissible virus. By getting that booster and ensuring that you yourself are protected, that you yourself present the minimal possible risk to hospitalisation or to our health system because of those protections that you’ve got for yourself and therefore, for those loved ones around you. So please heed the message. Get the booster. Get out there and visit the pharmacies, GPs, the state territory clinics. They’re ready, they’re eager and they have the doses to be able to ensure that we can continue what is one of the world’s best vaccination programs here in Australia.


Journalist: We know there is enough vaccines. Are there enough healthcare workers to administer the vaccines though? Especially given the kids rollout will start next week.


Simon Birmingham: Australia’s healthcare workers are doing an incredible job with demands on them to support testing services, to support operation in healthcare services of treating those with COVID-19 and to support the administration of vaccinations in record numbers. Our health system has shown amazing resilience throughout this crisis and Australians continue to have confidence in the calibre and capability of our health system.

Our government has invested significantly in supporting states and territories to access additional hospital and health services and to expand their workforces. But yes, there are, of course, many demands on those health care workers right now. Please show them your gratitude. Show them your respect. Show them your thanks. And work with the many different options available to get those vaccine doses. It doesn’t have to be through a state and territory clinic or your local GP. Pharmacies are showing themselves incredibly eager and are scaling up their operations to really help deliver the booster program as widely and accessibly as possible.


Journalist: And how important is the state run vaccination clinics? Should they be doing more and pitching in more?


Simon Birmingham: All of the different avenues of distribution are crucial, whether it is the state clinics, the GPs or the pharmacies. But perhaps particularly the pharmacies that provide some of the greatest reach across suburban and regional Australia, where people can manage to get in there, they should really pursue those avenues. There’s no shortage of doses, we have ample doses that we can ensure are reaching in to all those pharmacies, all those GP and all those state and territory clinics that are administering, as well as having the doses ready to be able to ensure that we can start the childhood program of 5 to 11 year olds on time next week, with that additional surge coming through at the different channels of vaccine delivery.


Journalist: Now there are really, really long delays for getting PCR tests. I’m sure you’re aware of that. Everyone’s been talking about it. Is there a triaging process underway to try and get these through and prioritised?


Simon Birmingham: The work that national cabinet undertook last week to try to make sure that Australians clearly understood the circumstances in which they should be getting tested. If you are clearly a close contact, if you aren’t clearly somebody who has symptoms, then yes, get tested. The work we are doing with states and territories to make rapid antigen tests freely available to those who need them in those circumstances through the different testing clinics and processes that are available to expand that capability. Australia is undertaking an amazing number of PCR tests over the last two years, and our testing rates in recent months have been some of the highest in the world, which is something that, again, we thank Australians for the patience and perseverance they’ve shown and all of those health care and pathology workers for the administration of that. The scaling up and diversifying that through the additional rapid antigen test kit channels that will be made available. But in the meantime, of course, if you have symptoms, if you do know that you’re a close contact, then take the steps as advised by your health services to get those tests and make sure that you are heeding the advice and equally, if there’s not [indistinct] reason for getting a test at present, then respect the fact that there are those who do really need it and do need to get those results faster.


Journalist: And people in Vietnam and Thailand can get a rapid antigen test for $5. Why are Australians paying over $30 for at home rapid tests?


Simon Birmingham: We’re making sure that that we have more supply coming into Australia over the coming weeks. We expect to see more than 100 million kits sourced for Australians to be able to use. We’re also working through the process of ensuring that for concession card holders and others, there are subsidies or discounts available to support their access. But perhaps most importantly, testing remains free for those who need it. If you are somebody with COVID symptoms, somebody with COVID or somebody who is clearly a close contact of people with COVID. Testing remains free. And different jurisdictions are working through the processes of triaging PCR tests and rapid antigen tests to support that. But testing there is free for those who need it in Australia.


Journalist: But there is, obviously, you know, we’ve had a lot of messaging. Not going to get PCR test on you unless you absolutely need to. There is a huge run on rapid antigen tests at the moment. Why wasn’t more planning done in December and January, knowing that we were all going to open up to make sure that we had those supplies that we really desperately need now?


Simon Birmingham: Obviously, Omicron has once again changed the COVID landscape incredibly significantly. The much more highly transmissible nature of Omicron has seen a surge in case numbers, well above what had been anticipated under modelling related to Delta. However, it’s important to stress that the severity of illness related to Omicron is showing to be around 70 per cent less severe than for Delta or other previous variants of COVID-19. And that should give people greater confidence in terms of our ability to maintain the type of health services and supports that are necessary. It has, however, put pressure on testing systems above and beyond delta type expectations. We’re responding to that by procuring more rapid antigen tests, by refining the definitions around assessing and testing, and to make sure that it is targeted to those who most truly need it and by ensuring that supports will be in place for those who need financial assistance in accessing rapid antigen tests.


Journalist: You were saying, obviously that for those we need it, testing is free. But because of these delays and the fact that so many people are close contacts, so many people have got COVID now. People are having to take a week, longer off work, waiting for tests or isolating if they’ve got COVID. What is the government doing to support those people who have had to risk huge amounts of work and are very vulnerable?


Simon Birmingham: So a pandemic leave disaster payment remains available for Australians who are in circumstances where they are losing hours of work and forced to isolate and I encourage Australians to access those support measures that are available. We’ve continued to ensure that we provide not only the support to our health system, but also the support to Australians in terms of loss of income where they need that extra assistance and helping hand to be able to get through economically, but also to be able to do the right thing by isolating if there is a chance that they may be at risk of spreading COVID-19.


And people are getting a lot of advice to gather together, you know, COVID preparation kits, you know, stock up on food if they have to isolate [indistinct]. That posing the same problems along with people who, you know, it’s very expensive to do that. What is the Government doing to help those people to make sure they’re prepared when they do have to isolate?


Simon Birmingham: People shouldn’t feel any need to engage in panic buying or those sorts of things. That in Australia there are many different means of support that are available for people who may need to isolate. Financial support that’s there for those who have loss of income. As well as, of course, the opportunities to be able to have groceries or other goods delivered through usual commercial means. But also the extensive goodwill we’ve seen so many Australians helping out family, friends, neighbours and others to ensure that they are given the assistance they need through these times where they have to isolate


Journalist:  Has any costing been done on rapid antigen tests?


Simon Birmingham: We continue to work around the procurement of rapid antigen tests and as the prime minister’s made clear around looking at models to subsidise the availability of rapid antigen tests for more vulnerable Australians and Australians who may need financial assistance to access them and we’ll have more to say about that in coming days.


Journalist: So what will national cabinet be looking at tomorrow in terms of addressing the problem of access and costs of rapid tests?


Simon Birmingham: So the discussions we’re having between the Prime Minister and relevant federal ministers are really for deliberations and discussions of proposals the PM takes to national cabinet. What we want to make sure is that Australians who need to get tested can continue to freely get access to tests that are free for them in the circumstances where they need it, and that where Australians for screening or other purposes are looking to undertake testing arrangements that we provide measures that are equitable in terms of ensuring that Australians who may need some financial assistance to access those tests receive it in a viable way.


Journalist: But not everyone who needs a test can get one right now or not an affordable one anyway. When will this situation, this testing crisis, the pressure that’s being put on the system? When will that ease?


Simon Birmingham: We are seeing massive numbers of Australians getting tested, and that is a function of the fact that Omicron has seen such a surge in cases that despite the fact the severity of the illness is so much lower than for Delta or other variants, the transmissibility has driven a surge in testing requirements. That’s why we’re responding to it by ensuring that we’re clear about those who need to get tested and that we’re seeking to increase that availability of rapid antigen tests, as well as ensuring that there will be support available for those who need financial assistance in accessing those rapid antigen tests. We do thank Australians for the incredible show they’ve made continuing to get tested in record numbers and in some of the most significant numbers right around the world. And thank Australians for the patience they’ve shown, given the fact that Omicron has driven such a significant surge above Delta expectations in testing numbers at this time.


Journalist: Minister, just finally. Billions of dollars in JobKeeper went to companies that made a profit. Why can taxpayers foot the bill for that, but not for free rapid tests?


Simon Birmingham: We continue to provide free testing services to Australians who have COVID. Who think they have COVID, who are close contacts of people who have COVID, and those tests remain free.


Journalist: Arrests in Parliament House over the damage that was caused. Can we just keep thoughts on that?


Simon Birmingham: Criminal damage should always see appropriate punishment applied. I welcome the work of the Australian Federal Police and [indistinct] I’m confident the independent investigations of police and of the justice system will ensure that people who have done the wrong thing, are held to account and brought to justice, as should be the case.


Journalist: Just a quick question on we know Australian clinical labs have closed a lot of their testing facilities in Sydney today. There’s been a lot of testing closed here by Clinpath. And both of them are saying that they’ve just absolutely lost capacity. Is this an example of, you know, outsourcing that where the market has failed the community? Because now people have been waiting for hours and hours to try and get tests. They can’t go. There’s closures everywhere. What do you say to that?


Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s made perfect sense to use every possible pathology service available. Here in South Australia, SA Pathology has done an incredible job by handling the overwhelming majority of PCR tests in this state and by processing them in a very timely way the vast majority of the time. We see those private providers are juggling their capacity to undertake additional PCR tests with the fact that regular pathology services continue to need to be made available to Australians for all manner of other medical reasons too. I think we should acknowledge the fact, be they public pathology providers or the private providers, they’ve responded where necessary and but they also have to continue to do the rest of their jobs, too. That’s where the surge in capacity that governments have helped them with to be able to undertake these extra tests have been so important. But it’s why as we now into this new phase, with Omicron causing far greater numbers of cases and potential tests to need to be undertaken that we’re supporting that scale up of rapid antigen tests. Thanks, guys.