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Where’s the public health messaging, Health Minister?

Alison Barrett writes:

Views differ about the best way to manage Australia’s current COVID situation, with some focused on vaccination and antivirals, and others urging a comprehensive, multi-faceted public health campaign and wider systemic health reforms.

The ongoing Croakey series has also shown that COVID is impacting certain groups of people disproportionately, including people living in aged care facilities, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and people living in more economically disadvantaged areas of Australia. People in precarious employment and accommodation also face additional challenges.

Fundamental questions about equity are at stake. If we are to be an equitable society, should we not do much more to reduce the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic? Shouldn’t we as a community ensure all Australians are able to participate in society, and to have safe access to indoor spaces including in healthcare and aged care? Shouldn’t we be doing much more to ensure equitable access to vaccines and antiviral treatments?

Croakey asked the Department of Health and Aged Care and several independent members of parliament to respond to concerns raised by the series.

A spokesperson for the DOH told Croakey in a statement that the Australian Government continues to prioritise work on COVID and is committed to minimising the impact of COVID-19 and, in particular, protecting the most vulnerable in the community.

The Government’s response to the pandemic “continues to be informed by leading experts, including the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC)”, they said.

Chair of the Standing Committee on Health, Aged Care and Sport Dr Mike Freelander told Croakey he has been working with Health and Aged Care Minister Mark Butler and the DOH to continuously monitor the situation “with a particular focus being on how policy and clinical guidance is shaped going forward, whilst also improving health outcomes and increasing awareness of COVID and long COVID in the community”.

Freelander said that “coming into government during the ongoing battle against COVID but with a society that was increasingly opening back up again is a challenge for any government to grapple with; however, I believe that we have dealt with this incredibly well”.

He also said that a Royal Commission into Australia’s COVID response is necessary for “shaping further responses and policies regarding COVID, long COVID, as well as managing future pandemics”, but that it must not be done “in a partisan way”.

Independent MP Dr Monique Ryan agrees that a formal review of Australia’s COVID response is required “to prepare ourselves for further COVID” and future pandemics, and says the Albanese Government “is not providing effective public health leadership on the prevention or spread of COVID-19”.

The full statements by DOH and Freelander are at the end of the article. Ryan’s full statement will be published separately.

The response to our series suggests that many people want the Government to be more proactive in communicating with the public on pandemic strategies and in acknowledging the ongoing COVID toll.

Public communications

Acknowledging this is only a snapshot of all of the Health Minister’s public communications, Croakey reviewed Butler’s media releases between 1 January and 19 July 2023, and found that of 88 media releases published, 16 mentioned ‘COVID’ and/or the ‘pandemic’ in the main text. Six included the word COVID in the headline.

No statements referred to public health measures to minimise COVID infections, and four statements acknowledged the need to protect people at greatest risk of severe COVID.

Four media releases announced changes to vaccine and/or antiviral protocols or additions to the Pharmaceutical Benefit Scheme.

Two were in response to COVID-related reviews – one announcing additional funding for long COVID research following the tabling of the Senate Inquiry into long COVID and repeated infections; and another accepting the seven recommendations from Professor Jane Halton AO’s review of Australia’s COVID-19 vaccine and treatment procurement. One media release was about the independent review of National Hospital Funding Agreement.

Two were about the requirement for travellers from the People’s Republic of China to undertake COVID-19 testing before travel to Australia at the beginning of the year. Three media releases were about changes to positions in the Department of Health and Aged Care.

Federal Government response

Comments by a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Aged Care:

Has the Government backed away from its promise to hold a Royal Commission into COVID? If not, what is the expected timeline for holding the RC?

The Prime Minister, the Hon Anthony Albanese MP, has indicated the Australian Government will undertake, at an appropriate future time, an inquiry into Australia’s COVID-19 response.

The timing of any national inquiry must be well considered, noting Australia is still experiencing COVID-19, with heightened risk of health service strain from respiratory diseases during winter months.

Why is the Government ignoring these calls for action? What will it take to prioritise COVID? How many deaths need to occur before you prioritise action?

The Australian Government continues to prioritise work on COVID and is committed to minimising the impact of COVID-19 and, in particular, protecting the most vulnerable in the community.

The Australian Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be informed by leading experts, including the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC).

Why aren’t you advocating for COVID prevention?

It is anticipated that Australia will continue to experience waves of COVID-19 for years to come. A proportionate approach, ensuring public health measures are implemented as needed and are not overly restrictive during periods of low infection, is being taken.

The Australian Government’s response to COVID-19, as well as measures taken by state and territory governments, has evolved in line with changes to the epidemiological situation, the emerging technologies for disease control, and the evidence base.

This has seen a shift towards the management of COVID-19 consistent with other infectious diseases, focusing on prevention and management of serious illness, hospitalisations and death.

COVID-19 communications campaigns ensure Australians continue to receive early advice on changes to public health risk and the best ways to protect themselves and their families. These campaigns focus on vaccination, preventative behaviours and raising awareness on early access to treatments.

What is the Government’s response to the Inquiry on long COVID and repeated COVID infections? What is the expected timeline for implementation of recommendations made in the report?

The findings from the Inquiry into Long COVID and Repeated COVID Infections (the Inquiry) were tabled on 19 April 2023, in a report titled “Sick and Tired: Casting a Long Shadow.”

The Committee provided nine recommendations aimed at building understanding and awareness of long COVID and strengthening support for people living with long COVID.

The Department of Health and Aged Care (Department) is currently reviewing these recommendations and will lead the Australian Government response to the inquiry, anticipated to be provided in late 2023.

Have there been any developments on the national plan? What is the expected timeline for this? Will the national plan address prevention of COVID and repeated COVID infections as a strategy to prevent long COVID?

The Department is developing a National Plan to complement the Australian Government’s response to the Inquiry.

The National Plan will be informed by the Committee’s final report and recommendations, and is expected to be finalised in late 2023.

The National Plan seeks to address key priorities including supporting post-acute sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 infection (PASC) research; improving primary care-based models of care; and informing the health sector and community.

The Department continues to recognise the importance of measures aimed at reducing the incidence and severity of COVID-19 infection, and through this the number of people who develop PASC, also known as long COVID.

This includes public health initiatives to improve vaccination and booster rates, particularly amongst priority populations, as well as work to increase community understanding and participation in protective behaviours that limit the spread of COVID-19.

For more information about the Government’s ongoing COVID-19 response, please see the National COVID-19 Health Management Plan for 2023.

Ongoing work

Response from Federal Member for Macarthur Dr Mike Freelander:

Is the Labor Government getting the balance right on COVID communications?

Coming into government during the ongoing battle against COVID but with a society that was increasingly opening back up again is a challenge for any government to grapple with, however I believe that we have dealt with this incredibly well. Minister Butler, the Department of Health and I have been continuously monitoring the situation, with a particular focus being on how policy and clinical guidance is shaped going forward, whilst also improving health outcomes and increasing awareness of COVID and long COVID in the community.

Particularly, following the publication of our inquiry recommendations, Minister Butler announced a further $50 million for research into long COVID, which is in addition to additional funding supports from the Albanese Government for research into long COVID, amounting to an additional $19.6 million.

What more can be done to prevent transmission / minimise the impact of COVID?

As per the findings of our inquiry, it is important to make access to anti-viral medication easier for people and even with restrictions having been reduced already, there is more to do in increasing accessibility.

Ongoing developments in medication to treat and manage COVID infections is greatly assisting infected patients by limiting the impact of COVID on their bodies and reducing both recovery times and long-term implications.

I am also working in Parliament to discuss ways and means to prevent and minimise transmission and COVID infections going forward, including recently hosting a Clean Air Forum with my co-chair of the Parliamentary Friends of Preventive and Public Health, Dr Helen Haines MP, to discuss indoor air quality with stakeholders and fellow Parliamentarians. This is important, as clean indoor air is important not just for aerosol-spread viruses such as COVID, but for other respiratory illnesses such as asthma too. An additional roundtable on this topic will be hosted in Parliament in the coming sitting weeks.

Clean indoor air is very important for our community and this is a matter that both State and Federal Government’s can act upon.

I do believe a Royal Commission into our COVID response is necessary as it will be very important in shaping further responses and policies regarding COVID and long COVID, as well as managing future pandemics. It is imperative however that this is not done in a partisan way.

What would you like to see be done with the findings from the inquiry into long COVID and repeated infections?

I was very proud of the work by the Committee and those who made submissions regarding their experiences with long COVID, which were reflected in the inquiry findings and recommendations.

As mentioned above, the Minister for Health and the Department have been very supportive of the Committee’s work and are reviewing and acting upon our findings. I was also very pleased to see stakeholders such as the RACGP and Lung Foundation Australia publicly show their support for the recommendations, particularly in relation to training and support for GP’s managing patients with long COVID and dealing with research and treatment of respiratory illnesses.

Any other comments for Croakey readers?

I am very proud to be part of a government that has an ongoing commitment to further pandemic management, including our government’s commitment to a CDC which is a very important project and will play an imperative role in our ongoing pandemic management.

From Unite Against COVID on Twitter

‘Official information and updates from the NZ Government about COVID-19’

Watch video here.

Previously…


See Croakey’s archive of articles on prevention

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