A day before national cabinet unanimously agreed to end mandatory isolation rules, the prime minister asked the nation’s top doctor whether it was a good idea.
Mandatory isolation will end from October 14, and while Australians are still strongly encouraged to stay home if they have COVID, it will be up to the individual to decide what they do.
Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly was asked by Anthony Albanese for his advice about the proposal and in response said, in a letter, the change was “a reasonable approach”.
But the nation’s health advisory committee, Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC), was not consulted.
So why are isolation rules coming to an end? Here’s the advice from Professor Paul Kelly.
The situation has changed
Australia is in a much better position now than it has been over the past few years.
Professor Paul Kelly said there has been a substantial decrease in cases, hospitalisations, intensive care admissions and aged care outbreaks.
Another factor he outlined in his advice was that there is “hybrid immunity” now because so many people have either had COVID or are up to date with their vaccinations.
He described the current situation as “stable” but stressed the pandemic was far from over.
However Professor Kelly said it is time to change how to manage the pandemic because there is now easy access to vaccines and antivirals, and a high number of people have had COVID, which provides another level of immunity.
“Isolation itself cannot be seen in isolation,” he said.
“It needs to be seen in the context of that high vaccination rate, high previous infection giving further protection, the availability of treatments, the availability of vaccines.”
So what should I do if I get COVID?
That’s up to you.
However Professor Kelly has strongly encouraged people with any respiratory illness and those who contract COVID to stay home while they have symptoms.
He stressed that there has been no change to the infectiousness of the virus and people still needed to be careful.
“The infectious period, we know the average is 2-3 days is the peak infectiousness,” he said.
“We have not changed the infectiousness of this virus, it remains infectious.”
There is no specific advice for what workers should do if their job is in a high-risk setting, such as aged care or hospitals, and Professor Kelly said that will be managed on a case-by-case basis.
“In terms of the occupational elements, particularly in those high-risk settings, that will remain a discussion with employers. Work health and safety elements apply for all sorts of infectious diseases, COVID should be seen like that,” he said
The federal and state governments will still provide pandemic leave support for casuals who work in aged care, disability care, Aboriginal healthcare and hospital care sectors in an attempt to encourage them to stay home.
What will happen once the rules are lifted?
No one knows.
Professor Kelly said health experts will monitor the situation closely.
“What I can say about the effect of this is that it remains to be seen and we will continue to be looking closely at that,” he said.
In particular, medical experts will keep a close eye on what is happening in aged care homes.
“Aged care is a really helpful way of looking at and monitoring the situation going forward because of the close attention we are giving to that particularly vulnerable setting and we will continue to do that,” Professor Kelly said.
During July and August, there were over 1,200 aged care facilities with outbreaks and as of yesterday, there were just over 200 aged care outbreaks.
Professor Kelly has said it is “highly likely” that there will be further waves of infection, and that will continue to occur for at least another two years.
“This is due to a combination of viral factors … human biology [waning immunity from infection and vaccination], human behaviour [lower adherence to public health messaging including mask wearing, staying home when sick] and environmental factors [winter seasons],” he said.
He also warned that Australia could be subjected to another variant before the end of 2022.
Could isolation rules come back into place?
Never say never.
There is currently no plan in place about what would happen if and when there is a surge in cases.
In his letter to the prime minister, Professor Kelly suggested the need for a transition plan to make sure Australia is prepared for any future surge in cases.
National cabinet has agreed one is necessary and Professor Kelly indicated this will be a job for both him and the AHPPC.
“It is important that we keep an option for a change to these settings in the future … be prepared to make different decisions,” he said.
What do other countries do?
The United Kingdom has no mandatory isolation rules in place.
In the United States, people are told to stay home for five days and in New Zealand the mandatory isolation period remains at seven days.
If you travel to Canada and test positive you must isolate, and those rules are different from the provincial or territorial rules.
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