All Australians over 70 with Covid will be eligible to take antivirals from Monday, after the health minister, Mark Butler, expanded access to the treatments.
Butler revealed that access will also be expanded to people aged over 50 with two or more risk factors for severe disease and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged over 30 with two or more risk factors.
In an interview with ABC Insiders, the health minister flagged increased usage of antivirals but reinforced the government is not in favour of broad-based mask mandates, requiring people to take vaccine boosters or restoring pandemic leave payments.
After two years of low Covid rates due to highly restrictive border policies and lockdowns, Australia is experiencing a surge of cases and a rising death rate, with more than 10,200 deaths since the start of the pandemic.
Since its election in May, the Albanese government has expanded public messaging campaigns for vaccine boosters and expanded eligibility for fourth doses.
Health authorities have also revised down their advice on reinfection periods from 12 weeks to 28 days, warning the new variants are associated with increased immune escape and we are likely to see rates of reinfection rise.
Butler said “Covid cases and hospitalisation numbers are climbing, particularly with the new variants”.
“The former Morrison government bought hundreds of thousands of doses of these medicines that have been sitting on a shelf instead of being used to help people who are at risk of severe illness,” Butler said in a statement.
“I’m pleased this will change, with millions more people now eligible for these treatments.
“Two antivirals are on the PBS, meaning these remarkable treatments that normally cost more than $1,000 will only be $6.80 for a concession card holder, and around $40 for everyone else.”
More than 73,000 Australians have already benefited from antiviral medicines, tablets or capsules, that can help stop Covid-19 infection from becoming severe if detected early and prescribed by a doctor.
Butler told Insiders the crisis is “very serious” with at least a quarter of a million people today with Covid, 4,000 people in hospital and a few hundred deaths every week.
“We expect case numbers to continue to climb for some weeks yet. We’re still relatively early in winter. Hospitals are under pressure from influenza as well as a range of other illnesses.”
Butler said the information campaign under the Morrison government portrayed third shots as “a nice thing to get rather than something that was critical to your protection against particularly these Omicron variants.”
Butler said there are 2.5 million people in their 30s and 40s who still haven’t got their third vaccine dose and five million people who had their second dose more than six months ago who are yet to get the third.
“The boosters are critical. Third doses are critical. If you have had that, by all means think about a fourth dose. If you’re over 50, it’s recommended you get a fourth dose.”
Butler poured cold water on suggestions boosters could be required, as primary doses were in many settings and occupations, by arguing at this stage of the pandemic “there needs to be maximum information to the community so they can make informed decisions themselves”.
There is “no advice to me we should introduce broad-based mask mandates”, Butler said, although they could be required “in aged care, in health facilities, on public transport, [and] in airplanes”.
Butler said the Albanese government had decided to follow the Coalition’s decision to end pandemic leave payments from 30 June, despite unions calling on Labor to reintroduce the payments to help people isolate.
“We are one trillion in debt and at some point emergency payments of this type have to be wound up as we move to a new phase,” he said. Butler committed only to “keep an eye on all of the developments in this pandemic”.
Butler said medical advice supported the decision to end telehealth for appointments longer than 20 minutes without face-to-face engagement.