Australia will focus on ramping up the booster shot rollout rather than bringing back restrictions or mask mandates as it attempts to minimise the effects of surging Omicron cases.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters in Canberra that national cabinet had agreed to avoid lockdowns and that states and territories would co-ordinate more on border restrictions and agree to a universal definition of a casual contact.
But Mr Morrison called on state governments to avoid mask mandates as he said it was time to move to a “greater level of self-regulation” in our response to the pandemic.
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As for boosters, the Prime Minister said the government would leave it up to the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation to decide whether to shorten the interval between second doses and booster shots.
At the moment, people are eligible for their booster shot five months after receiving their second dose.
“So there’s been no change to the interval,” Mr Morrison said.
“That will be determined by the immunisation experts and no one else.”
Below, TND reviews the other major outcomes from the crucial national cabinet meeting.
Vaccination hubs to reopen
The state vaccination hubs that powered the original COVID vaccine rollout will be reopened to ramp up the booster rollout – with Mr Morrison saying the government had more than enough vaccines to meet demand.
Currently, only the Royal Exhibition Centre in Melbourne is still open and taking eligible walk-ins.
Expect more announcements from state governments in coming weeks.
Funding boost for GPs and pharmacies
The bulk of the booster rollout is currently being handled by GP clinics and pharmacies.
The government will increase the payment to these services by up to $10 per appointment to support the rollout through the holiday period.
“We think that’s important, particularly over the summer months, when normally, just like many other Australians, they’d be looking to take leave,” Mr Morrison said.
RACGP president Dr Karen Price welcomed the additional funding, but said it’s “not a panacea”.
“I will always welcome more support for general practice, but we need to remember that many practices are operating on wafer-thin margins, and some are actually losing money on the vaccine rollout,” she said.
Govt sticks to current booster shot interval
Despite New South Wales and Victorian leaders using the national cabinet meeting to lobby for a shorter interval between the second and third vaccine doses, the Morrison government made no changes.
This means Australians still officially need to wait five months after their second dose to be eligible for their booster shot.
Mr Morrison said such a decision would be up to “the experts at ATAGI”.
Experts around Australia have also called for the five-month wait to be reduced to four or three months to tackle the Omicron wave.
Advice sought on interstate travel testing
National cabinet has requested expert advice on whether interstate travellers should still be required to test negative before crossing the border.
This move is intended to ease the burden on COVID-19 testing clinics around the country, where some people have reportedly waited for up to nine hours to get tested.
The influx of patients – both close contacts and would-be travellers – has also massively extended the waiting time for test results.
In future, a rapid antigen test might suffice for interstate travel, or the requirement could be scrapped altogether for some states.
Following the meeting, Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan announced the state’s hard border would now apply to prospective travellers from all states and territories.
National definition for casual and close contacts
A panel of medical experts will propose a uniform definition across the country within the next fortnight, after which the national cabinet will meet again to review it.
“We cannot have different rules in different places about what a close contact is and what a casual contact is,” Mr Morrison said.
Morrison pushes back on mask mandates
Chief medical officer Professor Paul Kelly told state and territory leaders that masks were “strongly recommended” in indoor settings because they can minimise transmission without interfering with social gatherings or the economy.
But this is a decision that will be decided on a state-by-state basis, if at all.
Meanwhile, Mr Morrison made his second sunscreen comparison for the day – for which he was criticised for downplaying the effect of our individual choices on the wellbeing of others.
“In the same way as we go into the summer season, people will be slapping on the hat and slapping on the sunscreen – there’s no rule or requirement to do that, but that’s strongly recommended health advice,” Mr Morrison said.
“It’s in the same category.”
Experts warn Omicron still an unknown entity
Professor Kelly said although only about 500 COVID cases in Australia were confirmed to be the Omicron strain, the actual figure was likely much higher than that.
He believes more than half of the new cases in NSW last week were Omicron, and that time will tell how this wave behaves compared to Delta and other previous strains.
“It’s a very new phenomenon. We’re learning a lot. Every day we learn something new about Omicron,” Professor Kelly said.
“But there’s still some things we don’t know about it. And we also don’t know about how that is progressing in Australia in terms of, particularly, the severity issue.
“What we do know is that, as I predicted three weeks ago, it is a transmissible, very transmissible virus.”