Omicron Surge Forces Australia to Redefine COVID-19 Response

By Kalinga Seneviratne

SYDNEY (IDN) — In July 2021 Prime Minister Scott Morrison told Australians to go out and get vaccinated as the Delta variant of COVID-19 spread across the world. They were assured that once double-vaccinated the lockdowns will be lifted. He said at the time “by Christmas Australia will be a different place” if fellow Australians follow his advice.

They did, and Australians went to vaccination centres set up across the continent to get vaccinated mainly with the Pfizer and Astra Zeneca brands. By December almost 90 per cent of the country was double vaccinated. Thus, lockdowns were lifted, and people started planning and booking their summer holidays—mainly within the country—as between Christmas day and Australia Day (on January 26) is the period when most Australians take their annual four-week holidays from work.

With the arrival of the Omicron variant COVID-19 cases across Australia have surged to over 20,000 as of December 30 forcing many Australians to cancel their holidays, and New Year’s Eve revellers to reconsider going out tonight. Furious hospitality industry owners and workers who have seen bookings cancelled in the past few days are demanding that the government reintroduce assistance to the sector which has been devastated in the past two years.

In a statement to the media on December 29, Wes Lambert, CEO of Restaurant and Catering Australia complained that the return of density restrictions is restricting the industry’s ability to recover from the lockdowns, and “businesses are struggling with thousands of cancellations when it should have been the busiest time of the year”, he said.

“We are not learning to live with COVID,” Lambert laments. “We are (a) highly vaccinated (nation), and we have a very low hospitalization rate. But this is not changing the hearts and minds of the government or consumers when it comes to restrictions.”

Australian Council of Trade Unions president Michele O’Neil is warning that workers are “having their hours cut, shifts cancelled and jobs ripped out from underneath them” as Australians isolate and change their holiday plans. She said it is increasingly tough for workers to find secure, well-paying jobs, with many forced into casual jobs “at an alarming rate”.

The federal government stopped the COVID disaster payments scheme for workers in November when lockdowns were lifted as Australia approached the 90 per cent double vaccination rate. Now there are calls especially by hospitality industry for a restoration of these payments. For that to happen the government needs to declare an area as a “COVID hotspot” and no area is currently under that category, even though the New South Wales (NSW) state recorded its highest ever daily COVID positive cases of over 10,000 this week for three consecutive days.

Australian experience is demonstrating that depending on vaccinations alone is not going to beat the COVID pandemic. Thus, on December 30, the so-called “National Cabinet” (consisting of the Prime Minister and State Premiers) met and agreed to redefine what is meant by a “close contact”. This is done to take fear out of the virus.

Speaking to the media after the meeting Morrison said that “Omicron has required us to take a new change to how we manage the pandemic (and) we have to reset how we think about the pandemic, and how we manage ourselves and things we need to do (as a government)”.

Thus, he said that a close contact will now be classified as someone who has spent four hours or more with a confirmed case in a household or household-like setting. Those contacts would only be required to quarantine for seven days and confirmed cases will also only need to isolate for seven days, and take a rapid antigen test on day six, before returning to work. The new definition is due to come into effect from today (December 31).

The hospitality and health sectors have been complaining about staff shortages because of the previous policy that required close contacts to keep off work for two weeks.

Morrison said the change in definition will mean less people will be lining up to get tested for COVID-19. “If you don’t fulfil this definition of a close contact then there is no need for you to be in that line,” he said. “You should go home. Go to the beach, go and do what you want to do. Read a book in the park.”

In NSW state there have been long queues forming at COVID testing centres for the past week with health workers complaining of fatigue, and many having to wait for days to get the results. This is due to neighbouring states such as Queensland—a popular summer holiday destination—requiring travellers to have a negative PCR result before crossing the state border.

NSW’s 39-year-old Premier Dominic Perrottet has criticized other state premiers for insisting on this requirement and he continues to insist, the metric people should focus on is hospitalizations, and ICU admissions. Since becoming premier two months ago he has often asked the media not to focus on daily COVID infection rates, instead to look at hospitalizations and ICU admission, which are provided by health authorities daily.

When COVID infections rose to 6324 on December 27, the hospitalization rate was only 520. Perrottet says the government is closely monitoring the state’s hospitals and will “tailor our settings where we need to”. He lifted all COVID restrictions in the state on December 23 but surging case numbers have forced the Premier to change his take on people taking “personal responsibility” by reintroducing mask-wearing in indoor settings, compulsory QR code check-ins and density limits in pubs and cafes.

Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Kelly has warned the country can expect even more COVID-19 cases after agreement to relax close contact definitions. “We will have more cases, there’s no doubt about that,” he told ABC. “It’s about using the resources we have wisely.”

These resources have been overwhelmed in recent days, with the PCR testing process plagued by queues and delays, and rapid antigen tests disappearing off shelves of pharmacies. With pandemic reset replacing PCR testing with rapid antigen tests in many settings, the government is looking at how to provide free rapid antigen tests for vulnerable populations. But Morrison says that there were no plans to make the rapid tests freely available for everyone, as has been done in the UK and Singapore. [IDN-InDepthNews – 31 December 2021]

Photo: Australian PM Scott Morrison making the national cabinet statement on December 30, 2021. Credit: Prime Minister of Australia Website.

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