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Health minister warns of new COVID-19 wave as he signals an end to emergency payments

Pandemic leave payments have ended ahead of an expected surge of COVID-19 cases but infected people must still follow directions to isolate at home for a week, the health minister says.

Mark Butler says the federal government does not have the financial capacity to continue funding what were intended as emergency payments, which came to an end on 30 June.

“We’re going to have to start moving towards more normal programs that support the Australian community and people have been on notice about that for some time,” he told ABC radio on Friday.
Asked if people without sick leave would go to work with COVID-19 if they didn’t have access to the government support measure, Mr Butler said he “hoped not”.

“We can’t continue forever to fund from the budget the gaps in the labour market that exist,” he said.

Yet the minister warned health authorities are expecting a third wave of Omicron cases and reinfections are likely due to a new variant.

Australians must get their boosters as soon as possible to protect themselves, he said as Victoria reported 12 deaths and 8,057 cases while NSW recorded 10,930 cases and nine fatalities.

“Even if you caught COVID in that big summer wave, where millions of Australians caught (it), if you’ve only had two doses … you are potentially susceptible to infection over coming months,” he said.
Mr Butler will meet with state and territory health ministers on Friday, where managing the coronavirus will be high on the agenda.

Ministers will talk about ways for more vulnerable people with COVID-19 to get access to antiviral drugs. Mr Butler said it was important to expand the use of the antivirals to help manage the pandemic.

“We’re getting feedback from pharmacists, GPs and patients alike (and) I don’t think that there’s a great level of awareness about these treatments out in the community,” he said.

“You have to have a plan for when you get notified of a positive COVID test so that you can contact your GP quickly (and) get a script for these antivirals.”

Review to consider new COVID-19 vaccines

A federal government review of Australia’s COVID-19 preparedness is about looking towards the future rather than focusing on past mistakes, Mr Butler said.

The review will be headed up by former health department boss Jane Halton, who will examine the pharmaceutical contracts for Australia’s COVID-19 vaccines and treatments signed by the previous government.
Mr Butler says existing vaccines and treatments are effective at preventing severe disease and wants Australians to have access to the best in new health measures.

As virus variations emerge and new vaccines enter the market, Ms Halton will ensure Australia is at “the front of the queue” when it comes to access, Mr Butler said. “I want to be looking forward,” he said.

“I want to make sure that we’re prepared over the coming six- to 18 months for the rest of this year and into 2023, given what we can predict is going to happen with this virus mutating.”

The health minister expects the review to be conducted in weeks and not months to prepare Australia for new waves of cases.
A separate review of the former government’s pandemic management will be undertaken in the future but not while Australia was still grappling with health challenges, Mr Butler said.

“We’re still seeing 300 Australians tragically die every week,” he said.
“Looking back and examining what we did well and what we didn’t do so well will be something we have to do at some point, but not yet.”

But Australians want the new government to hit the ground running, not reviewing, deputy opposition leader Sussan Ley said.

“I’ll be out there today urging people to get vaccinated where they haven’t been, and to remind them that the vaccines are safe, efficient (and) they work,” she told the Seven Network on Friday.

“That’s the most important thing for this government to focus on: protecting the population.”