Australia has abolished mandatory isolation periods for those infected with COVID-19 from October 14, except for those in some high-risk settings.
But some have warned Australia could be “sleepwalking” into disaster.
The announcement was made by the Prime Minister Anthony Albanese following a meeting of the National Cabinet of state and territory leaders today.
Individual states and territories will legislate to end the isolation requirement, which was set at a minimum of five days.
Australia’s chief medical officer Professor Paul Kelly was asked to provide advice prior to the meeting and indicated the change to isolation rules effectively marks an end to the government’s emergency response to the pandemic.
Albanese and Kelly likened the current state of COVID-19 to other infectious diseases – like influenza – which do not carry with them legal requirements to isolate from others.
Next month, the World Health Organization may decide the disease is no longer a public health emergency of international concern.
But despite the abolishment of mandatory isolation for all but those living or working in high-risk settings (like aged or disability care), Kelly stresses the pandemic is not over.
“This is a context-specific and timing-specific set of recommendations. It recognises that we are in a very low community transmission phase of the pandemic here in Australia,” Kelly says.
“It does not in any way suggest that the pandemic is finished. We will almost certainly see future peaks of the virus into the future as we’ve seen earlier this year.
“At the moment we have very low rates of both cases, hospitalisations, intensive care admissions, aged care outbreaks. We also have, at the moment, very high hybrid immunity from previous infection, as well as high vaccination rates.”
Medical experts voice their concern
Several experts have voiced their opposition to the move to relax isolation, among them Victoria’s chief health officer Professor Brett Sutton who said “Sleepwalking into COVID is not a strategy I would recommend. Still much remains uncertain.”
That sentiment was echoed by Burnet Institute director Professor Brendan Crabb AC.
“There’s a lot at stake, thousands of lives and widespread long-term disability. There’s no magic shield for the most vulnerable.”
While there have been noted decreases in case numbers, deaths and hospitalisations, the slow trickle of third and fourth dose boosters among the eligible population is cause for concern among experts.
At present, 7 in 10 Australians have had their first booster, and just over 4 in 10 have had another.
“The idea that COVID isolation can be dropped because the pandemic is behind us supports the erroneous conclusion that COVID-19 is a mild disease and there is nothing for us to worry about,” says Professor Jeremy Nicholson, who is Pro Vice Chancellor of health sciences at Murdoch University and an Emeritus Professor at Imperial College London.
“From a scientific point of view there is no evidence whatsoever that we are yet through the evolution and development of the virus, and the general lack of testing does not help us much with estimating true transmission rates, and in many cases, even disease prevalence.
“Vaccination rates are also waning and therefore population immunity is steadily dropping. Hospitalisation rates are a good measure of the impact of the disease, and it is true that this has dropped substantially in many places. There is however no guarantee that this will continue as winter approaches in the northern hemisphere.
“COVID-19 is still a dangerous long term health threat. Political wishful thinking and selective use of scientific data has been the cause of many of the worlds COVID related problems over the last couple of years- and even though the world has taken such a huge knock, it seems that the lessons will never be learned.”
What restrictions – if any – are left?
There are very few restrictions affecting individuals that remain in Australia.
In general, states and territories require a mask be worn in public hospitals, private health facilities, residential care facilities or hostels.
Household or close contacts of a positive case are also required to wear a mask when inside a place that is not their own residence.
Some states and territories require proof of vaccination to enter high-risk settings.
Matthew Agius is a science writer for Cosmos Magazine.
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