Calls are growing for changes to Covid-19 self-isolation rules as businesses and hospitals face a staff shortage crisis.
Under current rules in most Australian states, close contacts of a Covid case have to isolate for seven days even if they test negative.
The rules put about 2,000 healthcare workers out of action in NSW alone, leading to staff shortages at hospitals, aged care centres, and GP clinics.
Hospitality venues have reported struggles to get enough staff due to close contact isolation. Pictured: A cafe in Sydney’s Bondi last week
Businesses including restaurants, bars and cafes are also struggling with staff amid the rapid spread of the more infectious Omicron variant.
NSW recorded 6,324 new cases on Monday while Victoria detected 1,999 new infections.
NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard said he was in discussions about changing the isolation requirements for health staff because the shortages were becoming more unsafe than the risk of extra Covid spread.
‘I’m certainly in deep conversation over probably the last week… about whether or not it’s viable to have staff coming back sooner,’ he said.
‘If you’re erring on the side of caution, it would certainly be an area that you could say ”probably this would be a safer option than having no staff”.’
The rules for the general population could be eased in the New Year.
Staff are seen arriving at RPA Hospital in Camperdown. There are calls to reduce Covid isolation testing requirements
Virus experts also backed calls for changes, including UNSW Professor Louise Mary-McLaws, who said daily rapid antigen tests for close contacts could be an alternative.
‘Given that the taxpayer has been paying for PCR tests, the taxpayer needs to support (rapid antigen tests),’ she said.
‘Everybody should be given at least seven a week and for free… If you want to use more, go ahead and buy them yourself.’
ANU infectious diseases expert Sanjaya Senanayake also said the huge volume of cases being recorded means politicians have to re-think testing and isolation requirements.
‘We had 6,500 cases yesterday in NSW. That means we’ve got about 60,000 to 120,000 contacts to trace within 48 hours. That’s not feasible. Yeah. We have to think differently,’ he told Nine News on Monday.
In the UK – which recorded 122,186 new Covid cases on Friday – vaccinated close contacts do not have to isolate but are advised to conduct rapid tests every day for seven days.
The Victorian Government placed a large order for rapid tests and is considering removing the PCR testing and isolation requirements for certain types of contacts to ease pressure on testing centres and labs.
Under the plan, household contacts and people with symptoms would still need PCR tests, according to The Age.
Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox said Australia should adopt a more relaxed model for close contacts to help ailing businesses.
‘While multiple PCR testing stays in place for internal travel and while many jurisdictions have such broad definitions of close contacts, Australians and our economy will remain hobbled by Covid overreactions,’ he said.
Testing queues have blown out to several hours long in Sydney, partly due to travel testing requirements. Pictured: Testing in Bondi, eastern Sydney
The close contact regime led to disaster on Christmas Eve when Jetstar and Virgin cancelled about 120 domestic flights due to staff shortages, ruining Christmas for thousands of families.
Planes were grounded as airline staff got caught up as close contacts and also had to wait days to get the all clear to return to work.
Hundreds of Jetstar and Virgin passengers suddenly found their holiday plans in dire straits as they were notified late on Thursday night of the mass cancellations, with dozens of flights scrapped between Sydney and Melbourne.
Last week, Health Minister Greg Hunt announced earlier booster shots to tackle Omicron.
From January 4, boosters will be brought forward to four months after the second dose, down from five months.
Then from January 31, people can get boosters after three months.
About 7.5 million Australians will be eligible for their booster shot come January 4.
This will jump to 16 million at the end of the month once the time frame is dropped to three months.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese used their Christmas messages to thank Australians for standing together and supporting each other during the pandemic.
‘This pandemic continues to buffet us (but) Christmas is a time of hope and we are an optimistic people,’ Mr Morrison said.
Mr Albanese said Australians deserved to have a happy Christmas after a challenging two years.
‘With our borders opening up again, we’re getting back together. Off the Zoom and actually back in the room with family, friends and loved ones,’ he said.