Press Conference, Sydney NSW

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese
Prime Minister

ANTHONY ALBANESE, PRIME MINISTER: Good morning, thanks for joining me. Today the National Cabinet has met virtually to discuss the evolving situation with the COVID-19 pandemic, and we agreed on several new measures.

First, we heard from the Chief Medical Officer, Paul Kelly, who provided an update on the pandemic - including the new variants BA.4 and BA.5, and their potential impact - and the impact that that was having on hospital capacity and the broader health system in Australia. What was very positive was his report about a substantial increase in the number of people receiving their fourth shot - some 400,000 people in just recent days - and also the increased use of antivirals. These two measures are absolutely critical. So I begin by saying to Australians: if you are eligible to get a booster, get it. They're free. They help protect your health and help alleviate the impact of COVID, including the new variants. With regard to antivirals, we have substantial supplies and we need to make sure that they're used as well, and some of the measures that I'm announcing today aimed at doing just that.

The Commonwealth and the States and Territories remain absolutely committed to working together collaboratively to support the health response. All of the Premiers and Chief Ministers as well as the Commonwealth understand that we need to get the health outcomes right in order to protect people's health but also to protect our economy. When you get the health outcomes right, you protect jobs and you protect the economy, and we're all committed to that. The really positive thing as well today is working towards a much more consistent national approach. And that was agreed. Indeed, over the coming period, up until at least the end of September, the Commonwealth will meet with the States and Territories in that National Cabinet approach every two to three weeks, just to make sure that we're hearing the updated reports from the AHPPC and to respond as need be, to make sure that our approaches are consistent so that people can be clear about the messages which are out there.

In recognition of the risks associated with the more infectious new variants, we've agreed to reinstate the Pandemic Leave Disaster Payments to the 30th of September of this year. I said during the election campaign, repeatedly, that one of my things was no one left behind. And indeed I want to make sure that people aren't left behind, that vulnerable people are looked after, and that no one is faced with the unenviable choice of not being able to isolate properly without losing an income and without being put in a situation that is very difficult. So it is appropriate, given the increases that are there, that we reverse the decision which we inherited from the former government to cease this payment. And going forward, the States and Territories have agreed that this payment will be covered 50:50, a shared cost with the States and Territories. Previously, the States and Territories picked up the bill for temporary visa holders, that will also be shared 50:50. And they picked up the bill for business support that was in place and is no longer being provided.

This is a fair way going forward. All of the States and Territories, as well as the Commonwealth, understand that emergency payments are just that. They can't continue forever given the fiscal constraints that are on governments at all levels, but that this is an appropriate measure going forward. In addition to that, the Government will also reinstate the Crisis Payment for National Health Emergency until the 30th of September as well. This will ensure that those affected by COVID-19 isolation requirements who receive an income support payment or ABSTUDY Living Allowance who are in severe financial hardship continue to receive support during the winter period.

The Commonwealth has also agreed to create a new temporary telehealth item, so GPs can spend longer with their patients to assess their suitability for oral COVID-19 antivirals. The Health Minister, Mark Butler, met with the Royal Australian College of GPs and the AMA yesterday and worked through these proposals. We want to make sure that antivirals can be administered, where appropriate. In order to do that, this temporary telehealth facility, it is appropriate that it be established.

State and Territory Premiers and Chief Ministers also shared updates on what was occurring in their respective States and Territories, also noting the increased access to supplies of Rapid Antigen Tests. Of course, the Commonwealth has already picked up the tab - 50% of the costs of all the rapid antigen tests. And States and Territories are making sure that they're available, as well as the Commonwealth, through various measures that we have. All of the First Ministers also agreed that jurisdictions will utilise existing RAT stocks, funded through these arrangements.

The jurisdictions and the Commonwealth also agreed to provide that consistent health messaging out there, to encourage Australians to follow the recommendations that were provided by Professor Kelly. These include wearing masks indoors, where appropriate. When people are mixing and can't have social distancing, then that makes sense for that to be highly encouraged. Also, getting tested, practicing good respiratory hygiene and where people are contacts, or where it's appropriate, for people to work from home. These measures are important. We will get through this. It was also noted by Professor Kelly that the impact of the flu during this season has also placed pressure on the health system. The good news there, is that the impact of the flu is very much way past its peak going forward.

I'm very pleased with the outcome this morning, and I thank the Premiers and Chief Ministers for agreeing to the proposals that I put forward in discussions I had with them yesterday afternoon and last night. And I thank them for the early meeting this morning, in order to give certainty going forward. What this will do is provide security for people, make sure that we're looking after the most vulnerable, and make sure that people aren't getting left behind. That is something that will be a characteristic of my Government. Happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, why did it take so long to decide to reinstate the Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment. I mean, you could have made this decision before they expired. Were you convinced by the States and Territories.?

PRIME MINISTER: No, we didn't make the decision, the former government did, in consultation with the States and Territories. That decision was made prior to me being Prime Minister. I mean, it's a big call to say that I haven't acted quickly. What we've seen with this new wave of BA.4 / BA.5 is a changed health circumstance. When the health circumstances change, we've responded. We've responded collectively, together, the Commonwealth with the States and Territories, and that's appropriate.

JOURNALIST: What's changed your mind though? Because yesterday you were saying something very different on the pandemic payments. Was there something said that's changed your mind on this?

PRIME MINISTER: No, I wasn't. If you look at the front page of newspapers yesterday, I was saying that we would respond to advice which was there. I've said, consistently, that the decision was made by the former government to end these payments. That's not a criticism of them, they made those decisions based upon what the advice was at the time. I received a briefing yesterday from the Chief Medical Officer as well as the Secretary of the Department of Health. Based upon that advice, we've responded. We also said, consistently, that we wouldn't leave people behind. We're making sure that people are being looked after with this response.

JOURNALIST: Two things. September 30, is that a hard end date or could it be extended again? Second thing, on RAT tests. Why not a continuation of free RAT tests for concession card holders and pensioners, do they not need those as well given the situation?

PRIME MINISTER: No, it's been rolled out. If you want to a list of where you can get a free RAT test, I'm happy to provide them to you. New South Wales has made an announcement about that. WA is distributing them to anyone who wants them, not just concession card holders. In South Australia they're being distributed. They've been provided through aged care centres. They've been provided anywhere where you can go get a PCR. You can rock up there today and pick up a RAT test. There is no shortage of RAT tests in Australia, and the Commonwealth has paid for half of every one of them.

JOURNALIST: You have previously argued though that the Budget does need to be balanced...

PRIME MINISTER: And it does.

JOURNALIST:...and payments can't go on forever. So just picking up on that question about whether it will definitely end at the end of September, and just why you felt that you need to backtrack on that issue about the Budget?

PRIME MINISTER: No, there's been no change in position. The Budget is an issue, where we've inherited a trillion dollars of debt. There was a trillion dollars of debt yesterday, and there's a trillion dollars of debt today. We do need to act on this, and all State and Territory governments understand that as well. The truth is that we have real fiscal pressures on, and a number of measures were put in place that were temporary measures. They were temporary measures based upon the advice that was received at the time of the former government. We've received advice based upon this surge that is occurring. We want to make sure that people's health is looked after, and that vulnerable people are looked after. That's why I've made this positive decision today, it's been supported by the States and Territories, and I thank them for it.

JOURNALIST: Have you got a rough guess on how much it will cost by the end of September 30? I know it's a bit hard to say, but any estimates?

PRIME MINISTER: We do have estimates. It's expected that the share will be a share of just under $800 million. It's around about $780 million, to be shared 50:50 between the Commonwealth and the States and Territories. But we'll wait and see, in terms of the outcomes. The clear eligibility requirements are available, they're consistent with the previous eligibility requirements. They'll be available from Wednesday morning. If people want to apply, they can apply online. Or people who can't claim online, will be able to claim by calling 180 22 66. Don't call until Wednesday the 20th of July 2022 - systems will be established between now and then. Services Australia indicates that they'll be able to do that at that point in time. Because it's a new financial year, a number of people have sick leave entitlements that haven't expired, that are ready to go as well. In addition to that, a number of businesses have adjusted to the way that they deal with these issues. So it may well be that the cost is less. We hope that we can restrict the spread of this virus but it's expected, from the indication from Professor Kelly, that we can expect an increase in the number of cases over coming weeks. But the advice from the AHPPC is that it's likely to peak in August, and then will decline. That's why we picked September 30 to finish these payments. We'll continue to monitor the circumstances which are there.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, did you discuss reconsidering changing the isolation requirements, potentially from seven to five days? Because that's the key issue here isn't it, that people are legally required to isolate, it's not a choice of whether they can go to work?

PRIME MINISTER: They are. The advice from Professor Kelly is that whilst this surge is occurring, and whilst it is the case that for most people - particularly because people are vaccinated - the symptoms will be relatively mild, that now is not the time to change that advice. But that is something that will continue to be monitored and will come from the health experts, and people will listen to that.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, you mentioned cases are expected to peak in August. Did the Chief Health Officer have any modelling to show what kind of numbers we should be seeing? Do we have estimates on how high cases will get? Can you put a number on it?

PRIME MINISTER: It's not appropriate, some of these things are done in a way which is - to put a number on it, I'll allow the health experts to answer that, is probably the best way to do it. They expect that there are so many variables, in part it depends upon what actions people take. There will be less spread if people take more action. If more people wear masks, if more people get vaccinated, it will provide more protection. So I'd encourage - and certainly the Chief Health Officer as well as the officers in respective States and Territories - we'll encourage people to follow the health advice to take precautions. This is a very infectious disease. The Chief Health Officer likened it to the infection rate of measles rather than the previous variants of COVID, and that is something which is a sobering thought for people. So I would encourage people to follow the advice, to make sure that they engage in social distancing, to make sure that they wear masks indoors if they're in crowded areas. There are still some measures in place, for example, wearing a mask is mandated in specific areas - in aged care, in areas like on public transport here in New South Wales. So I'd encourage people to follow that advice.

JOURNALIST: Can you provide a little more detail around these longer telehealth consults for antivirals? Is there an end date on that, is it just for antivirals, or is it for any telehealth consult over 20 minutes?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it's not just for antivirals because some of the telehealth consults will be about whether it’s an antiviral or what the health concerns are. It will last until the end of October this year, is the proposal. We'll put out all of the detail in full documentation this afternoon so people will be able to see that. Thanks very much.