The federal government will spend $6 billion on a winter response plan, with a combined COVID-19 and influenza spike in infections predicted in coming months.
A further $1 billion will be spent on extending the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, as people prepare to receive second booster doses, while $546 million will go towards extending the Medicare Benefits Schedule for pathology items used for COVID testing.
The figures were revealed in Tuesday night’s federal budget, which also included undisclosed funding for a facility to make mRNA vaccines through a partnership with pharmaceutical giant Moderna.
The budget papers unveiled by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg showed COVID-19 community transmission will continue, with a predicted new Omicron wave expected to bring increased rates of absenteeism and put pressure on supply chains.
It described on particularly grim scenarios, where “a more virulent variant of concern emerges in the middle of 2022”.
“This outbreak coincides with the winter flu season and is assumed to lead to higher numbers of cases for a longer duration and more severe illness than the initial Omicron wave,” the budget papers read.
“As a result, at the peak of the outbreak, workforce absenteeism returns to levels similar to those experienced in January 2022.”
Intermittent Omicron waves are also predicted to occur beyond winter, but high vaccination rates are expected to lessen the potential impact.
While public health measures such as density limits and physical distancing are expected to be phased out, the budget has forecast they could be reimposed in a targeted way.
“Precautionary behaviour, such as reduced social mixing, and the direct impact of activity restrictions would result in weaker consumption and higher household savings than in the forecasts,” it said.
That would lead to slightly higher unemployment than currently projected.
Almost 20 million people across Australia have been jabbed against COVID-19. More than 95 per cent of the population aged 16 and over is fully vaccinated.
However, cases have risen steadily across Australia in recent weeks.
Tasmania reported a record 2324 infections on Tuesday, only to top that with 2472 and another fatality on Wednesday.
Western Australia has also had two consecutive pandemic records – with another 9754 infections on Wednesday. There were three more deaths reported in WA, although all occurred earlier than the previous 24-hour period.
Queensland cases have also jumped, with state Health Minister Yvette D’Ath confirming late last week the state was in the grips of a second Omicron wave. It is expected to peak in mid-April.
The state reported 10,626 cases and five deaths on Wednesday. It has 393 in virus patients in hospital, including 15 in intensive care.
Cases are up in Victoria, where the state ambulance service declared a two-hour “code red” on Tuesday night. Victoria Ambulance Union secretary Danny Hill said the service in metropolitan Melbourne had just 1 per cent of ambulances available for some time on Tuesday.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews is in the middle of a COVID-isolation period after testing positive earlier this week. State Industry, Tourism and Sport Minister Martin Pakula confirmed his positive diagnosis on Wednesday morning, while state Opposition Leader Matthew Guy is in isolation as a close contact.
Victoria’s 11,749 new infections on Wednesday were its highest daily number since February 4. There were also another seven deaths.
Across Victoria, there are 280 COVID patients in hospital, including 18 in intensive care.
In NSW, daily infections jumped to 25,235 on Wednesday – the highest number since its Omicron wave peaked in late January, although it has had several 24-hour totals in the low 20,000s in recent weeks.
NSW hospitals have 1301 COVID patients, including 46 in ICU. Another 15 fatalities were reported on Wednesday.
South Australia had its second-highest daily case number of the pandemic on Wednesday, with 5496 infections. There were also two more deaths.
There were another 503 cases in the Northern Territory, and another COVID death.