Isolation periods are slashed, people previously considered “close contacts” let free, and the testing system overhauled under the latest plan to tackle COVID-19.
Epidemiologists slammed some changes as “dangerous” saying the government is going to “fan the fire” of Australia’s rapidly spreading COVID-19 cases while prioritising livelihoods over lives.
“Without the release of AHPPC’s advice, it is very difficult for us to share the Prime Minister’s confidence that this move will assist in keeping Australians safe and healthy,” the AMA statement read.
Their warning came as the World Health Organisation told world leaders to prepare for a “tsunami” of coronavirus cases due to the simultaneous circulation of the Delta and Omicron variants.
Parts of Thursday’s announcement from the national cabinet meeting were welcomed by business and hospitality leaders, however, as they said changes to the definition of ‘close contact’ and shorter isolation periods would provide relief for bosses struggling to find enough staff.
But they also wanted to know why more Australians would not have access to free rapid testing – after the Prime Minister stressed the government would leave it to the private sector to sell most of the kits.
Here’s what you need to know about what Scott Morrison has repeatedly sold as a “gear change” to deal with the Omicron variant.
We’ve also broken down what the new rules mean for you if you’ve been exposed to a positive case.
‘Unscientific’: Epidemiologists slam changes to close contact definition
The new rules mean most Australians will only need to isolate if they spend more than four hours with a positive case.
Leading health experts are not happy about that change.
Head of Biosecurity at Kirby Institute, Professor Raina MacIntyre, slammed the new “close contact” definition as “shocking” and “dangerous”.
“The research shows that 15 minutes of close contact is enough to get infected, but also the current definition is extremely narrow, and it’s going to exclude a lot of people who are at risk,” Professor MacIntyre told The New Daily.
“What we need right now is increased investment in public health and resources and infrastructure. What we’ve seen is the opposite, a dismantling of resources and infrastructure.”
UNSW epidemiologist and infectious diseases control expert Professor Mary-Louise McLaws echoed Professor MacIntyre’s warning.
“It’s highly unscientific and I can only think it is somehow due to the fact that contact tracing is now becoming impossible,” Professor McLaws told The New Daily.
Professor McLaws said the decision to wind back who is considered a close contact was a “financial move”.
“I don’t believe this is a health-related response,” she said.
“There is absolutely no evidence that four hours will … give you any more severe infection than three minutes or 15 minutes.”
An epidemiologist at the University of Sydney, Professor Alexandra Martiniuk, said while the new definition was beneficial to the mental health of those who have been caught up in quarantine and isolation, it was “concerning” to see government officials go against so many “up-in-arms” health experts.
“But everything, all the signs in me and all the people I trust who are epidemiologists, clinicians and scientists, they say no way, this four-hour rule, it’s much too lenient,” Professor Martiniuk said.
“From a disease perspective, it’s got the potential to fan the fire …[epidemiologists] certainly can imagine there will be people who will become positive and not isolating.
Professor Martiniuk said health experts did not understand how the “risky” changes were beneficial to the health and safety of Australians.
Isolation changes welcomed by business and hospitality
The announcement of shortened isolation periods comes as good news for Australian businesses, industry leaders say.
Restaurant and Catering Australia CEO Wes Lambert said any shortening of isolation periods for close and casual contacts will help the hospitality industry’s critical staff shortage.
“It’s better to have a shorter period of isolation, because that means businesses can get back to doing business faster,” said Council of Small Business Organisations Australia CEO Alexi Boyd.
But Australian Council of Trade Unions president Michele O’Neil said she was concerned the announcement could create confusion in workplaces.
The definition of close contacts, which only applies to people who share household or household-like settings with positive cases, leaves “great uncertainty” for people who work with others for longer periods of time, Ms O’Neil said.
On Thursday, Mr Morrison said close contacts could only be from a “house, accommodation, or care facility setting”, and refused to label other settings, such as childcare centres, as high risk.
Thursday’s update also did not include any mention of paid isolation leave – something Ms O’Neil said needs to be reintroduced for people losing income while isolating and paying for rapid testing.
Charging for rapid testing is ‘failing Australians’
Industry leaders also slammed part of the latest national COVID-19 plan update as a failure, as it brought confirmation RATs will not be provided for free to workers outside of aged care and healthcare sectors.
Mr Morrison said this decision was made to encourage the private industry, including pharmacies and supermarkets, to stock RATs.
“What’s important is that [the private market] have the certainty that they know that governments aren’t all of a sudden going to go around and start providing [RATs] free to anybody and everybody,” Mr Morrison said.
“They’re not going to go and order quantities to have on their shelves if they fear the risk of that occurring.
“And what I’m being very clear about to them today is the governments of Australia – Commonwealth, state, and federal – are not going to do that.”
Following the announcement, Ms O’Neil said the Prime Minister was putting the interests of business above public health.
“The Prime Minister, once again, is failing Australians on what they need during this pandemic,” she said.
“It’s clear that rapid antigen tests should be free and widely available.”
Mr Lambert said he was hopeful that states such as New South Wales would still step up and provide RATs or funding for small businesses to “ensure that they don’t bear the burden” of medical tests.
On Wednesday, NSW ordered an additional 30 million RATs, adding to the 20 million expected to arrive next month.
Victoria has also ordered 34 million RATs, and although how they will be distributed is yet to be determined, the state is already handing out free rapid tests, including to students and staff exposed at schools.
Mr Morrison did confirm RAT tests would start to be offered at official testing centres for eligible close contacts.
What the new rules mean for you
From midnight on Thursday, Victoria, NSW, South Australia, Queensland and the ACT redefined close contacts.
A “close contact” now refers to people who have spent four or more hours in a household or “household-like setting” with a confirmed positive COVID-19 case.
Tasmania will follow on January 1, with the Northern Territory and Western Australia expected to accept the new definition in coming weeks.
The changes mean you won’t be considered a close contact after a quick coffee with a friend who later tests positive, but will be considered a close contact if that catch-up was at home and turned into a four-hour gabfest.
If you live in one of the five states and territories that have agreed to the new definition of close contact, you won’t have to spend as much time locked up at home.
Confirmed positive COVID-19 cases will now only be required to stay at home for seven days (10 in South Australia), and obtain a negative rapid antigen test on the sixth day.
Asymptomatic close contacts will only need to get a PCR test after a positive RAT test, but will still need to isolate for seven days from the date of exposure and return a negative RAT on the sixth day.
Symptomatic close contacts are required to get a PCR test and isolate for seven days as well.
If you are still completing a longer isolation period from before Thursday’s changes, you’re in luck – you are free to go out from Friday onwards if you have met the new requirements.