It may be a new year but seemingly daily changes to COVID-19 policies including border controls, testing measures and vaccination requirements are clearly not a thing of the past.
With the Omicron variant spreading rapidly through several states and territories, government, health and industry stakeholders are scrambling to manage this new phase of the pandemic.
Below AREEA has collated key updates on COVID-19 policy changes and other developments.
Changes to testing requirements
On 5 January National Cabinet met to discuss the response to COVID-19 and the Omicron variant, new approaches to test, trace isolate and quarantine including the use of rapid antigen tests (RATs) and the vaccine rollout and booster programme.
National Cabinet agreed changes to testing requirements for all states except for Western Australia including:
- Removing the requirement for truck drivers to have rolling seven days tests.
- Testing will not be required before patients present to hospital.
- Confirmation PCR test will not be required after a positive RAT. Individual states and territories will provide further information on how a positive RAT will be recorded. Anyone who tests positive is encouraged to contact their GP for support as required.
- Testing before interstate travel will no longer be required except for Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia, with Queensland and Tasmania to review these requirements in the coming weeks. State testing clinics will not be able to be used for interstate travel purposes.
- A second post arrival test for international travellers will not be required except for Queensland, who will review this requirement when they reach 90 per cent double vaccination rate.
Booster dose interval shortened
Based on the advice of the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI), Australians who have completed their primary course of COVID-19 vaccination no less than four months ago, are now able to receive a booster dose.
The move to reduce the interval between a person’s primary course of vaccination and their booster dose from five months to four months will have seen approximately 7.5 million Australians eligible for their booster dose as of 4 January.
The Government will also further bring forward, as of 31 January, the interval for eligibility to three months, which will mean that more than 16 million people will be eligible for their booster at this time.
Unions lay out demands to PM
The Australian Council of Trade Unions has called for an emergency meeting with the Prime Minister, laying out its demands in relation to the “escalating Omicron crisis”:
- Rapid Antigen Tests be made free and accessible for all Australians, as quickly as possible, with tests prioritised for frontline workers until current supply failures are resolved.
- Paid Pandemic Leave be restored for workers who are close contacts with a work colleague.
- Workers be kept safe at work, including mask requirements to N95 or P2 standard, warning the PM that unions will fight any attempt to water down OHS laws.
- Restore income support for people who have been forced out of work and left without pay because of the onslaught Omicron, as well as financial assistance for businesses who have been devastated by the current outbreak.
Changes to pandemic leave disaster payment
Changes have been made to the Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment to ensure it aligns with recent changes to testing and isolation requirements agreed by National Cabinet.
Firstly, from Monday 10 January 2022, in line with the changes to testing requirements, Rapid Antigen Test (RAT) results will be accepted in addition to Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) results.
People will need to have advice of a positive test from a testing clinic or health professional or evidence that they have registered a positive result from a home-administered RAT with their state health authority.
Effective from 18 January 2022, people who have lost at least a day of work because they are isolating due to being COVID-19 positive, caring for someone who is COVID-19 positive or meet the definition of a close contact may be eligible for up to $750.
Third dose of COVID vaccine mandatory
From 5 February 2022, Western Australian workers who come under an existing vaccine mandate will be required to have a third dose as part of the mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy.
The third dose will be mandatory for all eligible workers in industries covered by a vaccine mandate through various Public Health Act (2016) Directions.
All employees mandated to be vaccinated for work purposes under the mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy must receive a third dose of an approved COVID-19 vaccine within one month of becoming eligible.
Details are contained within the Booster Vaccination (Restrictions on Access Directions) which was issued on 24 December 2021.
Changes to border controls
On 8 January 2022, Western Australia’s borders with Tasmania and ACT were both elevated to the ‘extreme risk’ category under Western Australia’s controlled border. Queensland and South Australia were upgraded to this category on 30 December 2021.
Under the ‘extreme risk’ category, travel from those jurisdictions to WA will not be permitted unless approved under the strictest of conditions.
Exemptions for approved travellers will be further restricted to Commonwealth and State officials, Members of Parliament, Diplomats, and specialist or extraordinary circumstances determined by the State Emergency Coordinator or the Chief Health Officer.
Rule change to ensure critical work goes ahead
Critical Queensland workers will be able to provide essential services while they are classified close contacts, provided they meet strict health criteria.
Workers will need to be fully vaccinated and must wear a mask. They must be asymptomatic.
Critical or essential workers who are eligible and are able to work during the usual close contact quarantine period will be required to:
- travel to and from work in a private vehicle
- while travelling and working, wear appropriate PPE
- maintain personal hygiene (hand washing etc)
- undertake regular symptom surveillance
- undertake a RAT on Day 6, consistent with the requirements for all close contacts.
If at any stage they develop symptoms, they need to return to quarantine immediately.
A ‘critically essential worker’ will be defined as someone employed in one of the following industries, who must be in the workplace to do their job:
- emergency services, including Police
- the resources sector
- agriculture and fisheries production
- freight and logistics
- public transport
- essential retail such as supermarkets and stores in remote locations/communities
- major manufacturing, distribution, and critical supply chains (for example food and petrol).
Third dose of COVID vaccine mandatory
Under new pandemic orders coming into place at 11:59pm Wednesday 12 January, workers in key sectors who are already required to be fully vaccinated with two doses must get their third dose before being permitted to work onsite.
This will apply to healthcare, aged care, disability, emergency services, correctional facility, quarantine accommodation and food processing and distribution workers (excluding retail). Workplaces must sight and record proof of vaccination. It will not apply to workers who have a valid medical exemption.
Workers eligible for a third dose on or before Wednesday 12 January will have until Saturday 12 February to get their third dose. Workers not yet eligible for a third dose will be required to get it within three months and two weeks of the deadline to receive their second mandatory dose.
Note: the Victorian mandate does not include resources sector employees.
Pandemic declaration extended
Premier Danial Andrews has extended the pandemic declaration to apply to the state of Victoria from 11.59pm Wednesday 12 January for three months.
The declaration was made under section 165AE of the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 after consultation with and consideration of advice from the Minister for Health and Acting Chief Health Officer.
In making the declaration the Premier was satisfied on reasonable grounds there was a serious risk to public health throughout Victoria due to the coronavirus disease, including the rapid spread of the Omicron variant leading to significant case numbers not previously experienced in Victoria. This risk requires continued public health and other protective measures.
The extended declaration also mandates the formation of the Independent Pandemic Management Advisory Committee of experts and community representatives to advise on pandemic response and management.
Steps to reduce testing queues and transmission
Under new pandemic orders people who test positive on a Rapid Antigen Test (RAT) will be considered probable cases and be subject to the same requirements as confirmed cases from a PCR test – they must isolate immediately for seven days and notify their contacts.
It will be mandatory to report the result of a positive RAT to the Department of Health through an online form or by phone – ensuring people can access the care and information they need, including monitoring for worsening symptoms and financial support for isolation.
New South Wales
Critical worker self-isolation exemption guidance
From 9 January 2022, some critical workers are now permitted to leave self-isolation to attend work, only if they have no COVID-19 symptoms.
The exemption only applies to critical workers who are specified in the exemption, and who would otherwise be required to self-isolate for 7 days as ‘close contacts’ under the Public Health (Self-Isolation) Order (No 4) 2021.
A worker will only be eligible for the exemption if their employer determines that:
- a) their absence from the workplace poses a high risk of disruption to the delivery of critical services or activities; and
- b) they are unable to work from home.
The list of critical workers is set out in the critical worker exemption rom the Public Health (COVID-19 Self-Isolation) Order (No 4) 2021 (No 1) published on nsw.gov.au.
Note: exempt sectors include agriculture, manufacturing and transport, but not mining.