A separate $1.1 billion package unveiled by Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Sunday aims to help people who are “anxious, stressed and fearful” about risks to their health and safety during the crisis.
From this week, people will be able to consult with GPs, specialists, psychologists, psychiatrists and other health professionals over the phone or via video conferencing platforms instead of physically attending face-to-face appointments.
Announcing the $669 million boost for Medicare-subsidised telehealth, Health Minister Greg Hunt said “everything which can be done by telehealth will be done by telehealth” but it was important that face-to-face consultations remained available where necessary.
The bulk-billing incentive for GPs will be doubled and a new incentive payment introduced to ensure doctors’ surgeries stayed open to provide face-to-face services for patients who needed them.
Deputy chief medical officer Michael Kidd said a major risk during a pandemic was healthcare services collapsing, denying people with acute and chronic conditions the treatment they need.
“The measures put in place will ensure that the people of Australia continue to have access to high-quality general practice and other healthcare services available from their chosen providers,” he said.
Amid fears the COVID-19 crisis will lead to a spike in domestic violence, $150 million will go towards a range of counselling and support services.
These will include counselling support for affected and at-risk families; the 1800 RESPECT counselling service; Mensline Australia for men at risk of offending; a program for victims of human trafficking, forced marriage and slavery; and increased support for women and children to protect themselves at home.
Mr Morrison said the measures were for “those in the community who can be most vulnerable as a result of the changes that are taking place” as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.
Christine Morgan, chief executive of the National Mental Health Commission, warned that “home is not always safe” and urged people to make use of the services receiving extra funding.
A further $74 million will fund mental health initiatives, with the government’s Head to Health online portal a source of information on mental wellbeing during the crisis accompanied by a national communications campaign to raise awareness.
Funding will go to a dedicated coronavirus wellbeing support line, administered by Beyond Blue, for anyone experiencing difficulty because of the medical, economic and social impact of the crisis.
Existing mental health hotlines Lifeline and Kids Helpline – which have already experienced a surge in demand as the crisis escalates – will also get extra funding.
Lifeline is seeing numbers sitting about 20 per cent higher than usual at 3000 a day. In the week before last, 23 per cent of Lifeline callers wanted to discuss COVID-19; last week, the number rose to 39 per cent.
Kids Helpline, which serves callers aged 5-25 years old, has also seen surging numbers of calls relating to concerns about the pandemic.
The most common concerns Kids Helpline counsellors addressed were worry about navigating daily life in the event of self-isolation or shutdown, stress about the effects of the virus on others including family members, and stress about the virus and associated isolation measures triggering existing mental health or family problems.
Tracey Gillinder, spokeswoman for Kids Helpline operator yourtown, said “it is a good thing that kids are wanting to talk through any pandemic anxiety that they are experiencing right now”.
Under the government’s wellbeing package, there will also be funding for measures to support isolated older Australians, healthcare workers, Indigenous communities and charities providing emergency relief for vulnerable people.
People can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800, Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636, Mensline on 1300 789 978 or 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732.
Fergus Hunter is an education and communications reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Jenny Noyes is a journalist at the Sydney Morning Herald. She was previously a writer and editor at Daily Life.