Only people who have spent four hours in a household setting with a confirmed case of COVID-19 would be considered close contacts under a new definition being proposed by the Morrison government.
The national definition will be presented to state and territory leaders at national cabinet on Thursday and, if accepted, fewer Australians will have to self-isolate.
Close contacts would also only be required to quarantine for seven days if they posted a negative rapid antigen test on day six of their isolation.
A second test would then be taken on day 12.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said a narrower definition of a close contact was needed as testing clinics were unable to meet demand and strict isolation requirements were causing too much disruption.
He said too many people were being asked to take PCR tests and self-isolate given data had shown Omicron to be less severe than Delta.
“We can’t have everybody just being taken out of circulation because they just happen to be at a particular place at a particular time,” Mr Morrison said.
“The uncertainty of that, the impacts on the economy, and particularly given the fact that we are not seeing this impact on our hospital system, means that it’s an impractical way to live with the virus in this next phase.”
Record-high case numbers
Mr Morrison said the national cabinet meeting had been brought forward by one week due to surging Omicron cases and lengthy queues at testing clinics across the country.
Hours before he held his press conference in Sydney, New South Wales reported 11,201 new COVID-19 cases and Victoria reported 3767.
A record 18,243 cases were reported across the country, with Queensland and South Australia also each recording more than 1000 cases.
The surging case numbers have forced people to wait for hours at testing clinics and for even longer to receive their results – prompting NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet to call on all state premiers to relax testing requirements for interstate travellers.
On Wednesday, the Queensland government appeared to heed those calls.
Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said on Twitter that Queensland would accept rapid antigen test results from interstate travellers required to test negative before entering the state from January 1.
South Australian Premier Steven Marshall, however, said testing clinics in SA would immediately stop providing PCR tests for those needing a negative result to enter other states, saying resources would be prioritised for symptomatic cases and close contacts.
This means South Australians who need to test negative within 72 hours of arriving in Queensland are unlikely to be able to travel there before the New Year.
Rapid antigen tests
Queensland’s gradual acceptance of rapid antigen tests (RATs) is part of a broader national pivot away from PCR tests in response to surging case numbers.
Mr Morrison said the federal government is working on a funding arrangement with the states to provide rapid antigen tests for free, but states would remain in charge of the rollout in the same way as PCR tests.
“In other casual settings, it’s a matter of going off to the chemist,” he said.
Subsidies for rapid tests are yet to be confirmed.
“The Treasurer and I are discussing … concessional access in the private market,” Mr Morrison said.
“When you start providing tests through other methods, you need to be very clear about where and who.”
Both NSW and Victoria have ordered millions of the tests and already promised to provide them for free, but they won’t be available until the end of January.
Morrison accused of passing the buck
Labor leader Anthony Albanese accused the Prime Minister of passing the buck on testing to the states.
“We have the NSW government trying to purchase rapid antigen tests that will be available, wait for it, at the end of January, when we have a crisis right now,” he said.
“We have businesses that are unable to open.
“We have people that are waiting day after day to get the results of the tests and we have some people who simply can’t get tested so they are just staying isolated.”
The Opposition Leader’s comments came as Australian Medical Association vice president Chris Moy revealed the association had called on the government to develop a plan for rapid antigen tests before reopening.
“At this critical time, when the PCR testing system is crumbling and we need access (and equity of access) and clear policies for the average person to know when to use them, people can’t get them and there is a confusion when they should use them,” Mr Moy tweeted.
“At [the] beginning of [the government] plan to open up, AMA asked and advocated for a clear plan to ensure access for RATs and clear policies for their use, for this very time which was predicted.”