Australia news LIVE: Doherty modelling predicts health system strain if COVID-19 restrictions not reimplemented to combat growing Omicron case surge

Australia news LIVE: Doherty modelling predicts health system strain if COVID-19 restrictions not reimplemented to combat growing Omicron case surge

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yesterday 5.00pm

The day in reviewBy Michaela WhitbournGood afternoon and thank you for reading our live coverage of the day’s events. If you are just joining us now, here’s what you need to know.

There has been no change to the interval between second doses of COVID-19 vaccines and booster shots, despite calls from NSW and Victoria for those doses to be made available more quickly. Australians aged 18 and up are eligible for a booster dose now if their second jab was at least five months ago. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said “ample” numbers of Australians were already eligible to receive a booster dose and had not had one yet, and making more people eligible now would not speed up the booster rollout. The Australian Medical Association had warned there were logistical issues with making more people eligible now for a booster shot.Prime Minister Scott Morrison at today’s press conference in Canberra.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Mr Morrison and Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly have urged Australians to wear masks indoors in response to the highly transmissible Omicron variant of COVID-19. “Whether it’s mandated or not, that’s what you should be doing,” Mr Morrison said. “Wear a mask in an indoor setting. You don’t need to be forced to do it. Think of Christmas Day when you’re going to see elderly relatives. Wear a mask.” Masks are mandated in a range of jurisdictions, including in all public indoor settings in Tasmania and the ACT and in many indoor venues in Queensland. They are also mandated in shops in Victoria, among other settings. NSW’s rules are the most permissive and masks are not required in retail or hospitality settings but are required on public transport, in airports and on planes, and for unvaccinated indoor hospitality staff.Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk.Credit:Getty

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk announced today that mask mandates will be extended to more indoor settings as the sunshine state recorded a further 186 cases of COVID-19. As of 5am tomorrow, masks will be required to be worn in theatres and cinemas and by hospitality staff. “In Queensland we already have masks that are mandatory in supermarkets and shops, on public transport and ride-shares,” Ms Palaszczuk said.

COVID testing queues at the Golf Course on Dendy Road, Brighton, in Victoria.Credit:Simon Schluter

Testing clinics in NSW and Victoria are under enormous pressure as asymptomatic people seek COVID-19 tests to comply with testing requirements to travel to most states and territories in Australia. All states and territories but NSW, Victoria and the ACT require interstate travellers to produce a negative PCR test result. Mr Morrison said today that the requirement had been imposed by the states and territories in question and was not demanded by the Commonwealth. Both NSW and Victoria have said the requirements are clogging up testing services.NSW recorded 3763 new cases of COVID-19, a new daily record during the pandemic, and two deaths. Yesterday the state recorded 3057 new cases of COVID-19 and two deaths. There are now 302 coronavirus patients in the state’s hospitals, up from 284 yesterday. Forty people are in intensive care, up from 39 yesterday. There were no changes to mask rules in the state. Meanwhile, Victoria recorded 1503 new COVID-19 cases and six deaths. Yesterday, the state recorded 1245 new cases of the virus and six deaths. There are 394 people in hospital in the state with the virus, of whom 70 are active cases in intensive care.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt in Parliament earlier this year. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt and Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Doherty Institute modelling presenting a worst-case scenario of 200,000 COVID-19 cases across the country a day was a “worst-case scenario” and not the likely outcome in Australia. The Chief Medical Officer said in a statement last night in response to media reports that the modelling involved one very early preliminary scenario and was underpinned by the following five assumptions, none of which were likely to be the case:That the Omicron variant is as severe as the Delta variant.An absence of hospital surge capacity.A highly limited booster program.No change to baseline public health and social measures.An absence of spontaneous behaviour change in the face of rising case numbers.This is Michaela Whitbourn signing off on the blog for today. I’ll be back with you from 8am tomorrow.

yesterday 4.36pm

Increasing payment to GPs and pharmacists for booster shots ‘not a panacea’: RACGPBy Michaela WhitbournIn case you missed it earlier, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced today that the payment to GPs and pharmacists for delivering booster shots of COVID-19 vaccines would be increased by $10 a dose, as the nation seeks to accelerate the rollout of boosters to eligible adults.

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) cautiously welcomed the announcement.

“Any funding boost is welcome,” RACGP President Dr Karen Price said. “We don’t know the full details yet but today is a good day for the nation’s GPs and general practice teams.”

RACGP President Dr Karen Price.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“However, this is not a panacea; it won’t solve every problem in front of us. General practices are under the pump and in coming months will face the challenge of vaccinating young children, a task that is more complex and time consuming than vaccinating adults and delivering booster vaccines.

“On top of all of that, we will be providing our usual care for patients. You must remember that we will be caring for patients with mental health issues, including those who have lived through six lockdowns in Victoria, as well as those people who, unfortunately but understandably, delayed or avoided care during the pandemic.

Dr Price said the additional $10 showed the government was listening to the nation’s GPs and general practice teams, but the coming months would be challenging for many practices.

“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.

“Whether the additional funding will be enough for practices to at least break even as we enter this more complicated phase of the rollout remains to be seen. However, we will continue to advocate for a level of support that protects patients and allows GPs to get on with what we do best – providing world class primary care.”

yesterday 4.29pm

Singapore pauses quarantine-free travelSingapore will freeze the sale of tickets for arriving flights and buses under its quarantine-free travel program for four weeks from tomorrow, the government said, citing the risk from the fast-spreading Omicron COVID-19 variant.

Under the vaccinated travel lane (VTL) program, Singapore allows quarantine-free entry for fully vaccinated travellers arriving on designated flights and buses from about two dozen countries including Australia, India, Malaysia, Britain and the United States.

Australia’s quarantine-free travel corridor with Singapore took effect recently.

But no new tickets would be issued for people hoping to arrive from any of those countries from Thursday until January 20, the government said on Wednesday.

“Our border measures will help to buy us time to study and understand the Omicron variant, and to strengthen our defences, including enhancing our healthcare capacity, and getting more people vaccinated and boosted,” the Health Ministry said in a statement.

The government said it would also reduce the VTL quotas and ticket sales for travel after January 20.

Travellers already holding VTL tickets who meet all other requirements can still travel.

The government also urged people arriving in Singapore to minimise their social interactions, avoid large gatherings and eating out for seven days even if their tests, which they have to take every day for the week, are negative.

Singapore has confirmed 65 imported Omicron cases, along with a handful of local cases.

Reuters

yesterday 4.26pm

Northern Territory moves to introduce some rapid antigen tests for interstate travellersBy Michaela WhitbournThe Northern Territory has changed its COVID-19 testing requirements for interstate travellers, as testing clinics across the country report a huge surge in demand for tests.

Interstate travellers will still be required to undertake a PCR test in the 72 hours before arrival in the Top End, but tests that are also required on days three and six after arrival will now be rapid antigen tests and not PCR tests.

A COVID-19 testing site at Katherine in the Northern Territory.Credit:Krystle Wright

“The RAT test is much easier to use and it can be self-administered,” Acting Northern Territory Chief Minister Nicole Manison said.

Those who return a positive RAT result will be required to isolate and get a PCR test and contact the COVID-19 hotline.

Ms Manison said the changes were aimed at taking pressure off national resources and prioritising the turnaround of test results to symptomatic people.

The Top End recorded three new cases of COVID-19 in the community today, two of which were potentially infectious in public.

It brings the total number of cases to date in the so-called Katherine Cluster to 125.

The cases include a woman in her 50s who is a close contact of a previous case in the town of Barrow Creek. She was potentially infectious in the community.

A teenager from Katherine East who is a close contact of an existing case tested positive while in quarantine in the Centre for National Resilience and is not a risk to the community.

A child from Tennant Creek has also tested positive to the virus and may have been infectious in the community.

In light of the cases, a lockdown in Tennant Creek that was slated to lift at 5pm today has been extended to 5pm on Thursday.

Two other cases of COVID-19 were detected in travellers.

yesterday 3.56pm

Watch: Northern Territory COVID-19 updateActing Northern Territory Chief Minister Nicole Manison, Chief Health Officer Dr Hugh Heggie and Police Commissioner Jamie Chalker will provide a COVID-19 update shortly. You can watch it live here.

yesterday 3.42pm

WA becomes first jurisdiction to mandate third dose for workers subject to vaccine mandateBy Heather McNeillWestern Australia will be closed off from the rest of the country from Boxing Day after Premier Mark McGowan announced the border rules with the Northern Territory and Tasmania would be changed to ban all inbound domestic travel.

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Mr McGowan also announced the COVID-19 vaccine third dose, or booster shot, would become mandatory for all workers already required to receive the first two shots.

On the border reopening, Mr McGowan said the date remained February 5, pending a catastrophe, but restrictions could be ramped up due to the concern growing around the Omicron variant.

“Western Australia is in the best position possible to prepare for the arrival of the virus … being cautious has served us well,” he said.

“We are on track to open on February 5, but we will watch what happens in other states.

“In terms of when we do reopen, obviously we’ll look to have increased public health measures like masks.”

Read more here.

yesterday 3.29pm

About one in 1000 people getting tested pre-travel are found to be COVID-positive, PM saysBy Katina CurtisFurther on COVID-19 testing and travelling, Prime Minister Scott Morrison says about one in 1000 people who are getting tested so they can go interstate are found to be positive, compared with between 17 and 20 out of 1000 close contacts.

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He says states requiring tests could shift to asking for rapid antigen testing tomorrow if they wanted.

Earlier today, Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said she would consider changing requirements to the rapid tests after January 1 and upon taking expert health advice.

Mr Morrison said there had been strong discussion about the impact these requirements had on the testing capacity of other states.

“There is no AHPPC [Australian Health Protection Principal Committee] medical expert panel consensus opinion which says you must have a PCR test to travel from one state to another,” he said.

“States are the ones imposing those public health orders.”

yesterday 3.14pm

Jurisdictions to move to common definition of COVID ‘casual contact’By Katina CurtisState and territory leaders agreed at today’s national cabinet meeting to move to a common definition of casual contacts of confirmed COVID-19 cases and rules for what is required of them.

They have asked the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, led by Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly, to draw up a definition and return with recommendations when national cabinet next meets in a fortnight.

“You cannot have different rules in different places of what a close contact is and what a casual contact is,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.

Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly today.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“What matters is how you’re managing those close contacts and how they’re defined and what you have to do if you are someone in that situation.”

Leaders are also seeking further advice on the use of QR codes for checking in and contact tracing, and the testing regime especially for interstate travel.

Mr Morrison said up to one in four people in the long queues for PCR testing around the country at the moment were not close contacts or showing symptoms, but rather were trying to comply with the travel rules imposed by Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Western Australia.

He said those testing requirements were decisions taken “unilaterally” by state governments and were not required by the Commonwealth government.

The advice will cover whether testing is required at all or whether people can move to using rapid antigen tests for travel.

The Prime Minister said it was important to focus PCR tests on people who were close contacts or had symptoms instead of tying up resources because of requirements imposed by other state governments.

yesterday 3.04pm

No change to interval between second COVID vaccine doses and booster shotsBy Katina CurtisThere has been no change to the interval between second and third doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, which remains five months at this stage.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said leaders have asked the expert advisory group ATAGI (the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation) to provide more advice on the booster program, including special consideration about younger people, who were the last group to be eligible for vaccines and among whom the Omicron coronavirus variant is spreading quickly.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison today.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“There’s been no change to the interval; that will be determined by the immunisation experts and no one else,” Mr Morrison said.

“Whether it’s five months or six months or less than that, the response from all of us as governments is exactly the same and that is to increase those daily dosage rates.”

He said “ample” numbers of people were already eligible for booster shots in Australia and shortening the interval between second and third doses “doesn’t get boosters into arms any quicker”. It could, in fact, end up crowding out those who most needed them.

Booster shots are only available to adults at this stage, if their second dose was at least five months ago. Earlier, Mr Morrison noted that because of the way the vaccine rollout started out with the most vulnerable people, they were by default the focus of the initial booster program too.

Mr Morrison reiterated that Australia would not be returning to lockdowns as COVID-19 infections rise across the country.

yesterday 2.58pm

Australians should wear masks indoors ‘whether it’s mandated or not’: PMBy Katina CurtisPrime Minister Scott Morrison says the Omicron coronavirus variant presents another new challenge and is expected to lead to “a much greater volume of cases”, as he urged Australians to wear masks in indoor settings.

He said the country’s hospital systems had been able to cope with demand so far “but of course they’ll be tested”.

The highly transmissible strain of the virus had been in Australia for less than four weeks, he said, and “we are well prepared for Omicron but we are not taking it anything other than seriously in our responses”.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison arriving at today’s press conference.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

NSW does not require masks to be worn in most indoor settings, including shops, but masks are required in shops and a range of other indoor settings in Queensland, Victoria and Tasmania.

Mr Morrison said each state and territory leader would detail how their state will act on recommendations from medical experts on how to slow the spread of the Omicron variant that were discussed by national cabinet today.

But speaking after the meeting, Mr Morrison urged everyone to wear masks in indoor public spaces: “Whether it’s mandated or not, that’s what you should be doing.”

Mr Morrison has likened mask-wearing to wearing sunscreen, in comments that have attracted criticism from the federal Opposition. He said “mandates are enforcement mechanisms”, which require resources to be applied to enforcement.

Mr Morrison said some premiers would make decisions to mandate masks while others would “encourage” residents to take that step.

“Wear a mask in an indoor setting. You don’t need to be forced to do it,” Mr Morrison said. “Think of Christmas Day when you’re going to see elderly relatives. Wear a mask.”

Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly, said masks should be worn indoors.

Mr Morrison said leaders were “taking Omicron very seriously” and that it presented a new challenge, particularly because the speed at which it spreads means a much greater volume of cases.

“Although we have seen an increase in the number of cases we have not yet seen any significant impact on our hospital system,” he said.

Mr Morrison also announced the payment to GPs and pharmacists for delivering booster shots of COVID-19 vaccines would be increased by $10 a dose.

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