Australian Government Response to COVID-19: Announced 11th March 2020

This blog is part of a series relating to the economic impacts of the COVID-19, novel coronavirus outbreak of 2020.

On March 11th, the Australian federal government released its ‘Coronavirus Health Support Package’ as a response to the ongoing public health crisis of COVID-19. The package involves a $2.4 billion investment in a range of measures designed to address the challenges presented by the spread of the virus. Australia has had over 100 cases confirmed so far from a reported 20,000 tests. The package comes after an earlier announcement of a new standalone cost-sharing agreement between the federal government and states and territories to a 50-50 split of public health costs incurred after January 21st, increasing the federal share from the typical 45-65 split arrangement.

Health Minister Greg Hunt and Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the contents of the package which includes the following measures:

  • Additional funding to address increased workforce demand in the health sector
  • Making it easier for those with health training to re-enter the workforce more easily in order to meet additional demand for health services
  • $206.7 million to open 100 pop-up respiratory clinics, allowing support to occur individuals outside of the hospital and GP setting
  • $107 million for Medicare-funded and bulk-billed pathology test that will check for COVID-19 and the flu, as well as additional funding to ensure the elderly can access from nursing homes and residential facilities
  • $101 million for nursing homes to hire workers and train staff in infection control
  • The Federal Government estimates this will cost $170 million, while additional money will also be made available to ensure the elderly can be tested from the comfort of their nursing homes.
  • Additional $50 million to staff Coronavirus Health Information Line and Health Direct Helpline to ensure phones are answered promptly
  • $30 million in funding for vaccine, antiviral and respiratory medicine research
  • $1.1 billion to cover the purchase of new protective equipment (masks, gowns, hand sanitizer etc.) for health care staff and patients, as well as purchasing additional antivirals and antibiotics for the national stockpile
  • $100 million for a new bulk-billed telehealth service to ensure vulnerable people can access ordinary care without being at risk of infection
  • $30 million to fund a prescription ordering and delivery service for those who are vulnerable to infection and those under self-isolation conditions

The government has suggested that further measures may be announced as the situation progresses. These announcements come in addition to further travel restrictions being imposed on regions at the centre of the outbreak, such as China, South Korea, Iran, Japan and now Italy. Doctors from the Doherty Institute, the Australian lab responsible for first growing and sharing a copy of the virus outside of China, (who first copied the virus but did not share results with the World Health Organisation or others) have continued to encourage a collaborative approach in the global community, including the rapid sharing of data and other real-time information across the global community in order to better understand the spread and management of this public health emergency. 

The question that must be posed is to what extent will the incentives provided be sufficient to entice individuals with health training to re-enter the workforce. The number of general practitioners (GPs) in 2018/19 nationally was 37,642, with 149.5 GPs per 100,000 population having grown marginally in the past three years [1].  For two thirds of these GPs – they are located in major cities and in 2015 the average age of GPs was 57 years [2]. This is also a profession where the motivation needs be more than financial. To what extent will this be coupled with other inducements for them to step forward – will it be the element of seeing this as a national duty or responsibility? 

Australia had previously supplemented its need for medically trained workforce by bringing in international medical doctors and nurses. This is an avenue that would be most difficult to access given the current climate.

  1.  Australian Department of Health (2020), Health Workforce Data – General Practice Workforce providing primary care services – method for counting the number of services using MBS data. [Accessed 11 March 2020].
  2. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2016), Medical practitioners workforce 2015, Cat. No: WEB 140, [Accessed 11 March 2020].

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