AMA welcomes Albanese’s decision to extend Covid-19 pandemic leave payments after national cabinet meets

by Tory Shepherd
Prime minister Anthony Albanese says support will continue until the end of September amid winter Covid wave set to peak in August

The Australian Medical Association has welcomed the federal government’s backflip on emergency Covid payments, and says they should say in place as long as necessary.

“They should never have been removed,” president Omar Khorshid said.

Covid patients will have access to the payments until the end of September, the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, announced on Saturday.

Albanese was under pressure over the decision to end the $750 payment for those who do not have access to sick leave, and reversed that decision after Saturday’s snap national cabinet meeting.

He said the initial decision to end the payments was the former government’s and that circumstances had changed. A new Covid wave had begun, and would peak in August, he said, adding that the government had responded to health advice and would ensure vulnerable people were looked after.

“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,” he said.

The payment will be available from Wednesday until 30 September, with the costs covered 50-50 with the states.

“We need these supports to be in place as long as they’re necessary to support Australians doing the right thing,” Khorshid said.

“They supported the most vulnerable of our workers from being able to do the right thing, to keep off work for a full week after a positive diagnosis for Covid to help protect their co-workers and other people in a workplace from contracting the disease.

“If you don’t have the support in place to do that, how can you expect people to could the right thing?”

Khorshid also welcomed the announcement that telehealth appointments will be available to people who may need access to antiviral drugs until the end of October, but said the move didn’t go far enough.

The government announced in June that a range of telehealth services would no longer be provided.

“The reality is that many Australians who don’t have access to video calls do need to access their doctor, whether they be a specialist or a dental practitioner, by telehealth and as of 1 July, around 70 item numbers were cut from Medicare that allowed access to telehealth and none of those have been reinstated,” Khorshid said.

The AMA president also said that if reintroducing mask mandates became necessary, such a move should be supported by state and territory leaders as well as the federal government, and that while other countries have shortened the Covid isolation period to five days, the evidence showed people were still infectious for up to seven days.

Albanese said national cabinet would continue to meet every two to three weeks as the winter surge hits.

“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 and also to protect our economy,” he said.

“When you get the health outcomes right, you protect jobs and protect the economy. We are all committed to that. The really positive thing as well today is [we are] working towards a much more consistent national approach.”

Albanese said there was “increased access” to rapid antigen tests.

“States and territories are making sure that they are available as well as the commonwealth through various measures that we have,” he said.

“All of the first ministers also agreed that jurisdictions will utilise existing rapid antigen test stocks funded through these arrangements.”

Albanese and his ministers had argued that the payments and distribution of free RATs were always going to be discontinued after being implemented by the former Coalition government, and that the $1tn budget debt meant the spending could not continue indefinitely.

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The health minister, Mark Butler, argued during the week that emergency payments had to be reconsidered as the pandemic entered the “next phase”.

But as the latest Covid surge began and Butler warned that millions of people would be infected, health experts, state leaders, unions and others demanded that the measures should be kept in place.

Albanese said they would reverse the decision “inherited from the former government”.

Albanese also urged people to get their booster shots, and to talk to their doctors about accessing antivirals. He said the current Covid surge would peak in August, and that mask wearing in crowded indoor areas was highly encouraged.

People should continue to get tested, practise “good respiratory hygiene” and work from home where appropriate, he said.

“These measures are important. We will get through this.”

Albanese had come under fire for suggesting sick people should just work from home, a measure that is not available to many employees. He then announced the national cabinet would meet on Monday to consider pandemic support, but on Friday brought the meeting forward to Saturday.