News National Free, phone-based COVID-19 consultations to form part of $2.4 billion health plan

Free, phone-based COVID-19 consultations to form part of $2.4 billion health plan

Trained staff will talk to suspected patients via Skype, WhatsApp or FaceTime. Photos: AAP
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Pregnant mums, over 70s and cancer patients will be offered “free” bulk-billed consultations over phone, video link or WhatsApp to help stop the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

GPs will be able to treat coronavirus patients over the phone or video link, and fever clinics will be established across Australia under the first tranche of a $2.4 billion health plan to be announced by the Morrison government on Wednesday to tackle the worldwide health crisis.

It comes as the global death toll topped over 4000 by Wednesday morning and there was a significant rise in the number of confirmed virus cases in Australia.

Six new cases had been recorded in New South Wales by Wednesday morning and another four in Victoria. Most of the people who have tested positive in the past two days had recently travelled overseas to Europe and the US.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the new plan to help Australians would assist vulnerable people who may be concerned they are exhibiting symptoms.

It follows complaints of patients being charged up to $350 for coronavirus testing and ‘pop up’ drive-through testing by GPs in car parks.

“This package is about preventing and treating coronavirus in the coming weeks,” Mr Morrison said.

“Australia isn’t immune, but with this $2.4 billion boost we’re as well prepared as any country in the world.

“Our medical experts have been preparing for an event like this for years and this is the next step up in Australia’s plan.”

The new Medicare payments for at-home care for coronavirus sufferers and vulnerable patients will begin on Friday and will be fully bulk-billed (free) and allow medical, nursing and mental health medical staff to deliver services over the phone via video conference including via FaceTime, Skype and WhatsApp.

Those eligible for the scheme will include:

  • People isolating themselves at home on the advice of a medical practitioner
  • Those who meet the national triage protocol criteria for suspected COVID-19 infection after consultation with the national or state hotlines, registered medical or nursing practitioner or COVID-19 trained health clinic triage staff
  • People aged over 70
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged over 50
  • Patients with chronic health conditions or who are immunocompromised
  • Parents with new babies
  • Pregnant women.

The plan will also include new respiratory clinics or ‘fever clinics’ to treat people with symptoms.

They are being billed as a “one-stop shop” for testing of people concerned they may be showing symptoms.

The Morrison government said the aim of the clinics was to divert people with mild or moderate coronavirus symptoms away from hospital emergency departments and GP clinics and reduce the risk of the virus spreading.

The clinics will be able to treat up to 75 patients a day over the six-month spike of new coronavirus cases.

The government will also announce a $30 million national communication campaign to provide “timely, factual and consistent information is provided to prevent and mitigate the impacts of coronavirus”.

“We’re ensuring our health system is well prepared and has the resources it needs for our fight against coronavirus,” Mr Morrison said.

News of the first tranche of the novel coronavirus package came as the AFL revealed its games could soon be played in empty stadiums to prevent the spread of the coronavirus at mass gatherings.

AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan raised the prospect as the first case of human-to-human transmission within the Victorian community was confirmed on Tuesday.

He said the games would go on, even if the crowds were not attending.

“If mass gatherings are suspended, then we’ll play games in stadiums with no crowds,” he said.

“We’re also working on other protocols to protect not only players and staff but our members and supporters.”

Across Australia, 106 people had contracted the coronavirus by 9pm on Tuesday.

But the Morrison government remains under fire for not taking action to help casual workers.

Attorney-General Christian Porter said on Tuesday casual workers are already paid extra in lieu of sick leave if forced to take two weeks of unpaid leave.

“Many people would have already made provisions for that because of course the purpose of casual employment is that you’re paid extra in lieu of the types of entitlements,” Mr Porter said.

“If it is the case that large numbers of people in particular industry sectors by virtue of the casual nature of their employment are having these types of problems and that is something we’re aware could happen, that is something that can be responded to, likely through the welfare system, but there might be other options.

“We’re not going to jump to a solution in anticipation of a problem that is broad before that problem has arisen or we reasonably know that it will arise.”

Speaking after a meeting of unions, business leaders and government on Tuesday, ACTU secretary Sally McManus told The New Daily that the pressures on casual workers were immense and could lead to workers shunning testing for the virus.

“Any response that does not stop casual workers from being financially penalised for doing the right thing, getting tested and isolating will totally fail,” Ms McManus said.

“Many will avoid getting tested and will go to work sick and this will spread the virus, especially as they are working in industries such as healthcare, retail and hospitality.”

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