National cabinet set to scrap quarantine requirements for all Covid close contacts

Federal health minister Greg Hunt also says it is most likely older Australians will need a fourth vaccine dose ahead of winter

Australian Associated Press

National cabinet is moving to scrap quarantine requirements for all Covid-19 close contacts as soon as possible, with urgent health advice being sought.

State and territory government leaders also agreed to a transition away from PCR testing for healthy people with mild respiratory illnesses, and instead promote voluntary self-isolation for this group while symptomatic.

Both moves were being reviewed by the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee.

A decision on whether some Australians need to receive a second Covid vaccine booster ahead of a predicted winter surge in infections is also set to be made within weeks.

The federal health minister, Greg Hunt, said advice from Australia’s vaccine advisory group could come through by the end of the month on whether a fourth dose would be recommended for people aged 65 and over.

Hunt said it was more likely than not a fourth dose would be needed for some groups of the population ahead of winter, when a spike in both Covid and flu infections is forecast.

“I can’t pre-empt the decision but … they are potentially going to recommend a second booster, which would be potentially the start of an annual program for people 65 and above,” Hunt told reporters in Canberra.

“We’re expecting that advice from Atagi within the next three weeks, if not earlier.”

It comes as the government announced $2.1bn to prepare for winter, which was agreed to by national cabinet on Friday.

The plan will involve $1.2bn to help protect residential aged care and disability care sectors, $356m to protect vulnerable population groups and a further $571m for vaccines.

Hunt said a scheme which provided free rapid antigen tests for concession card holders would be extended until the end of July this year.

So far, more than 5.5 million people have collected the free tests, with 20m tests distributed among concession card holders.

The health minister said despite a rise in Covid cases being predicted, infections were unlikely to reach the highs seen during summer at the peak of the Omicron wave.

“We saw an absolute peak in Omicron cases and we’re not expecting anything at those levels,” Hunt said.

“Covid infections are a little bit like a bouncing ball – the highest bounce is likely to have been in January and then will progressively decrease over time, but there will be a bounce as it goes into winter.”

Despite concerns of a new Omicron sub-variant being detected, deputy chief medical officer Sonya Bennett said preparations had been made to deal with new strains.

“What we’ve learnt over the last few years is we now have a range of tools in the toolkit … so we now have adequate and ready access to rapid antigen tests and adequate access to treatments for those at risk,” she said.

“We know that public health and social measures need to be implemented in the worst-case scenario.”

There were a further 30 Covid-19 deaths reported on Friday, including 10 in Victoria, seven in New South Wales, eight in Queensland, three in the ACT – including one historical case – and one in South Australia and the Northern Territory.

There were 14,034 new cases in NSW, 6,811 in Victoria, 5,005 in WA, 4,327 in Queensland, 2,503 in SA, 1,129 in Tasmania, 791 in the ACT and 273 in the NT.

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