The Aged Care Minister has admitted she is worried about states and territories easing COVID restrictions in residential facilities as cases surge nationally.
Anika Wells said facilities across Australia should retain mask mandates, as some jurisdictions moved to ease restrictions in aged care
Her comments came as the government launched its winter plan to help protect those in aged care from COVID-19, including increased vaccination, antivirals, visitor safety and infection control.
“Of course I worry about [restrictions being eased] and who wouldn’t in my job? But I take medical advice, I take it very seriously,” she told ABC radio on Thursday.
“The chief medical officer is speaking to his state counterparts … to urge them to keep up mask mandates, even in aged care facilities.”
On Thursday, NSW Health announced it was about to dump requirements for families visiting loved ones in aged care homes, who will no longer have to be vaccinated for COVID.
The relaxation of visiting rules comes into effect from Monday, after chief health officer Kerry Chant signed off on changes to the public health order.
Individual aged care facilities can choose to keep vaccination requirements for visitors, while staff will still be required to be fully jabbed.
Visitor limits, which were set at two adults and two children a day, are also being scrapped, and downgraded to a recommendation.
The changes bring NSW vaccination requirements into line with rules in place in Queensland and Victoria.
But while while vaccination rates have increased in aged care, outbreaks from the virus continue to rise.
As of Wednesday, 819 aged care facilities across the country had COVID outbreaks.
The weekly average of deaths in aged care with the virus has also risen, from 69 to 91, with 2141 deaths in facilities so far this year.
Ms Wells said a unified approach in aged care was important to help prevent further spread.
“I enthusiastically encourage these matters to go back to national cabinet so we can get a national approach to this,” she said.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese insisted the federal government would work closely alongside states and territories on measures to curb infections.
As case numbers across the country spiral due to more infectious subvariants, Mr Albanese said COVID continued to provide “real challenges”.
“We are encouraging, along with state and territory government, rules to be applied where commonsense applies,” he told the Seven Network.
“If you can’t socially distance then people should consider wearing a mask, and we’ll continue to engage through the states and territories. I’m in constant contact with them.”
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has asked Mr Albanese to call a meeting of national cabinet so state leaders can be briefed by the chief health officer about the deteriorating COVID-19 situation. She said NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet supported the idea.
“We’re all on the one page, and you know, the pressures are obviously across the nation, they’re not just in NSW and Queensland,” Ms Palaszczuk told Seven’s Sunrise program on Thursday.
“We just want the up-to-date information, which is what we used to regularly get.”
Health Minister Mark Butler has warned “millions” of people could be infected with the virus in coming weeks as it spreads in winter.
The government has come under fire for its decision to end the scheme allowing concession card holders to receive 10 free rapid antigen tests every three months, as well as payments for workers needing to isolate from their job.
Mr Albanese has defended the decision, arguing the government has provided further support for the health sector.
“We inherited those cut-offs across a range of decisions from the former government … we also inherited $1 trillion of debt,” he said.
“We have added three months’ health funding for the state and territory governments … because the pandemic continues to have an impact.”
Meanwhile, a cruise ship carrying more than 120 confirmed cases of COVID will return to Brisbane on Thursday after two scheduled stops in NSW.
The majority of cases on board the Coral Princess are among crew members. About 10 COVID-positive passengers were prevented from disembarking in Sydney on Wednesday.
People who tested positive on board were likely infected before they joined the ship, NSW Health said.
Australia’s latest 24-hour COVID data
Victoria: 11,283 cases, 20 deaths, 771 in hospital with 34 in ICU
NSW: 14,235 cases, 36 deaths, 2001 in hospital with 56 in ICU
Tasmania: 1844 cases, one death, 125 in hospital with four in ICU