Interview with Edwina Bartholomew, Sunrise

03 Jan 2022
Prime Minister

EDWINA BARTHOLOMEW: Joining me now is Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Prime Minister, good morning to you. 

PRIME MINISTER: Good morning Edwina. Happy New Year.

BARTHOLOMEW: Happy New Year to you. Lots to get to this morning. Let's start with that warning from paramedics and health authorities. We are being repeatedly told to look at ICU rates, but that doesn't really tell the whole story of the COVID crisis in our hospitals. A lot of worry out there in the community. Are you confident our health system can actually cope? 

PRIME MINISTER: This has been the major topic of premiers and chief ministers and I over the last two years, whether it was at the start of the pandemic and getting that surge capacity in place for hospitals for the worst that we might have feared at that time. Getting the ventilators, all of these things, all of those, all of those arrangements are still there. Right through to today where we have 51 people who are on ventilators across Australia, just around 148 who are in ICU. But what's important with the paramedics and particularly call outs and calling these triple 0 numbers, I was having this discussion with the New South Wales Premier, is that people only need to be calling that number if you have a medical emergency. Having some COVID symptoms, this is not a medical emergency. And it's important that with the rising case numbers we see, that the severeness of this illness is already being shown to be around 75 per cent less than what we saw with Delta. So rising case numbers is part of the Omicron variant, part of the new phase of the pandemic we're in. And so it's important just to monitor those symptoms, and the government is obviously providing those tests for those who are required to have them. Otherwise, it's just a matter of just monitoring those symptoms and then going about your business and observing all the commonsense controls and protections. 

BARTHOLOMEW: Well, there are plenty of people at home doing that right now because daily case numbers are going up, but testing rates are variable as well. We're hearing more people actually, Prime Minister, are skipping the PCR tests because they're riding out their illness at home with little support. Do you think the COVID situation here in Australia is actually much worse than we even realise, given that people aren't bothering to get tested? 

PRIME MINISTER: No, I don't think so. But what I think is people are managing their health. What we know is that this virus is less virulent and this strain is far less virulent of what we saw with Delta. The majority of cases that we're seeing in hospitals are people who are unvaccinated. You want to end up in hospital, the most likely way to end up there from COVID is not to be vaccinated. The second most likely reason is that they have Delta not Omicron. Omicron is overtaking now, the Delta variant of this virus. The Omicron cases that are finding their way into the health system are very, very, very small. And it's the same thing we're seeing, particularly overseas in the United Kingdom, where we've seen ICU rates and we've seen those on ventilators are remaining quite flat, despite the fact that even hospitalisation numbers have risen and even more so, case numbers. So we have changed now, and we have to stop thinking about case numbers and think about serious illness, living with the virus, managing our own health and ensuring that we're monitoring those symptoms and we keep our economy going. I mean, we've got almost half a million jobs have come back into the economy since the lockdowns lifted from times back in August, when it was at its bottom. So people getting back into work. The changes we've made to testing and close contact definitions are seeing businesses open up again, people getting back into jobs, people managing their exposure to the virus. I mean, most of us now probably know someone who has had COVID, and that wasn't the case at early parts of the pandemic, and we know the overwhelming number of cases they are telling them that it's been a mild illness. That doesn't mean to say it can't put pressure on the hospital system. It can. And that's what we're working very closely with the premiers and chief ministers to make sure those resources are there. 

BARTHOLOMEW: Prime Minister, one of the key ways that people can manage their own illness is through rapid antigen tests. You ruled out making them free last week because of the impact on the pharmacies and private business. But now we see price gouging on tests across the country, charities can't access them to do their key work, people can't afford them. Will you review plans to make them free and not just for aged care and the areas that you're responsible for?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we already make them free to everyone who is required to have one. Anyone who has to have a rapid antigen test, one is provided free and of course, PCR tests are provided free as well. They're also tax deductible. But we're at another stage of this pandemic now where we just can't go round and make everything free. We have to live with this virus. This isn't a medicine, it's a test. And so there's a difference between those two things. They are available at $15 and we are working on arrangements, as I flagged two weeks ago, for concessional access to those who are pensioners and others. And we'll be working through those issues. I'm heading down to Canberra today to do further work on that, and we hope to be in a position to be able to finalise those arrangements this week, as I've already flagged some weeks ago. So concessional access, we understand the need for that and we'll be doing that 50/50 with the states and territories. That was part of our meeting that we had last week. And so we can go further forward on that, just like we'll go further forward this week on managing the health workforce. We've already taken some decisions to get more aged care workers back and off being isolated and furloughed. There's more work to be done there. That needed further analysis by the health officials to ensure we got those settings right. And so we'll work those through this week. That's the task for this week. But when it comes to this pandemic, we've had JobKeeper, we've had business supports, we've had the COVID disaster payments. We've invested hundreds of billions of dollars getting Australia through this crisis. But we're now in a stage of the pandemic, where you can't just make everything free because when someone tells you they want to make something free, someone's always going to pay for it and it's going to be you. 

BARTHOLOMEW: Well, at the moment it us with those rapid antigen tests. We appreciate your time this morning, Prime Minister, we know it's a big year ahead with the election looming. Enjoy the rest of what appears to be a little bit of a break before we get right back into it. Thanks for your time. 

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you very much Edwina,  good to be with you.