Health authorities in Queensland are weighing up whether to follow the lead of other eastern states and relax isolation requirements for household contacts of COVID-19.
Health Minister Yvette D’Ath will meet the state’s chief health officer, John Gerrard, on Wednesday to discuss whether to take the step.
NSW and Victoria will scrap the requirement, along with a range of other COVID-19 restrictions, on Friday night. Ms D’Ath said there was merit to having the same rules across the country.
“I would have liked this to be a national decision where all state and territories implement changes at the same time to avoid any confusion,” she said.
The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee has previously recommended a nationally consistent transition to the removal of close contact rules.
Following the peak of the Omicron wave, it said quarantine could be replaced with frequent rapid tests, masks and avoiding high-risk settings.
Ms D’Ath’s briefing is expected to include an update on pressures in a health system affected by staff who need to isolate or quarantine.
“Obviously, we know lifting close contacts will help as far as getting more people back at work, both in the health system [and] in the broader community, and help businesses and the economy,” she said.
But the removal of the rules would inevitably lead to a jump in positive cases.
“That is a given and everyone needs to be prepared … when there (are) changes to the close contact rules,” she said.
Also on Wednesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the changes in Victoria and NSW reflected the fact that Australia “has come through this pandemic strongly”.
“I welcome the fact that in NSW and Victoria they are getting back to normal – hallelujah,” he said.
“We have been waiting a long time for these sorts of things and the rest of the states I’m sure will continue down that path.”
Victoria’s Health Minister Martin Foley said a raft of restrictions would ease from 11.59pm on Friday, after the state passed the peak of its second Omicron wave.
“That’s why we’re in the position of being able to take some important steps over the coming days,” he said on Wednesday.
Close contacts of confirmed cases will no longer have to quarantine provided they wear a mask indoors and avoid sensitive settings. They must also return five negative rapid antigen tests over the seven-day period.
NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet said the requirement for close contacts of COVID cases to isolate for seven days in NSW will end at 6pm on Friday.
Close contacts will have to undertake daily rapid antigen tests, wear masks indoors and work from home where possible.
They will also have to notify their employers and avoid high-risk environments such as hospitals and aged-care settings.
NSW will also move towards removing hotel quarantine and ditch the green dots indicating where to sit on public transport.
Although it was not the end of the pandemic, “it is a great day for our state”, Mr Perrottet said.
“It is also a day to reflect on what we have come through … let’s just focus on success for a moment,” he said.
Business leaders have been calling for the end to the seven-day isolation rule, saying it will ease staff shortages for businesses trying to recover from the pandemic.
“We have unemployment, thankfully at very low levels, but this has caused skills and labour shortages across Australia’s two largest economies and combined with that, we see rise in costs,” David Harding, from Business NSW, told the ABC.
“Particularly for small businesses, there’s been a lot of pressure on them to maintain the ability to open, and to add to that with one infection in the family taking out the whole family, this has been a real stress for small businesses for a long time.
“To see Friday coming and it lifted, we absolutely welcome it and congratulate the governments on this.”
However, clinical epidemiologist and head of the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, Nancy Baxter, said up to half of those who had a household contact with COVID-19 would likely contract the virus themselves.
“We need to protect people from those households contacts if we’re allowing them to leave home without isolation,” she told ABC TV on Wednesday.
“You’d want them to do RATs, you’d want them in masks and not just in any mask, in a high-quality mask like a P2 or N95.”
Employers should be required to keep those people isolated or physically distanced from other workers “because there’s going to be a high-risk of getting it into the workplace for these people”, she said.
“It is [politically] expedient for all of these things to be relaxed because it signals that COVID is over.
“The problem is COVID hasn’t gotten the memo … and what we’re seeing in Australia right now is … one of the world’s highest rate of new cases of COVID per day.”
Australia’s latest 24-hour COVID data:
NSW: 15,414 cases, 15 deaths, 1639 in hospital, 72 in ICU
Victoria: 10,628 cases, 14 deaths, 437 in hospital, 34 in ICU
Queensland: 8995 cases, six deaths, 594 in hospital, 25 in ICU
Tasmania: 1819 cases, 56 in hospital, two in ICU
South Australia: 4256 cases, two deaths, 252 in hospital, 14 in ICU
Northern Territory: 594 cases, one death, 44 in hospital, two in ICU