Fewer Australians will be told to get tested for Covid, with most states backing a much narrower definition of a close contact, as a record 21,000 new daily cases were recorded nationwide.
The prime minister, Scott Morrison, cited “some very practical problems” caused by the more infectious Omicron variant – including the huge strain on the PCR testing scheme that had been at the centre of Australia’s response for two years.
Speaking after a snap national cabinet meeting on Thursday, Morrison called for a “reset” because it was unfeasible to “have hundreds of thousands of Australians or more taken out of circulation based on rules that were set for the Delta variant”.
The changes come on the same day the OzSage group of scientists and economists warned that a “let it rip” and “defeatist” approach to Covid would disrupt the health system and be felt most by vulnerable groups.
Morrison insisted he took “responsibility for the decisions we have taken” and flatly rejected OzSage’s advice that “a fatalistic approach will be fatal for some people”. The prime minister said: “I accept the chief medical officer’s advice.”
Under the new definition – expected to be adopted by all states and territories except Western Australia at this stage – a close contact is someone who lives with or has been in a “household-like” situation with a confirmed Covid-19 case for at least four hours.
Confirmed Covid-19 cases and close contacts will have to stay at home for seven days, with a rapid antigen test on day six in order to clear the way for them to return to the community.
“If you are anything other than a close contact, and you are not symptomatic, you don’t need to go and get a test,” Morrison said.
“Now, I know this is a bit different to what you have been hearing over the last couple of years. That is the gear change. That is the reset. That is what we need people to really understand.”
Morrison said the change would “ensure that our public health systems work as effectively to keep as many people are safe as possible”.
But the Australian Medical Association blasted the new definition, saying the move “appears to put politics over health” and would “accelerate the outbreak of Omicron”.
The AMA president, Dr Omar Khorshid, said authorities would “miss so many more cases with this new, more narrow definition of a close contact”.
“It seems national cabinet is prepared to bet that a massive Omicron outbreak won’t cause large numbers of hospitalisations,” Khorshid said.
The new rules are expected to come into effect at midnight on Thursday night in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, the ACT and South Australia – although SA will still maintain a 10-day isolation rule.
Tasmania is set to adopt the new rules on 1 January, and the Northern Territory is due to announce its plans in the coming days.
But the Western Australian premier, Mark McGowan, said his state was in a “very different” position from the states “with a high case load”, and still hoped to “eliminate” the current outbreak. WA reported just one new Covid case on Thursday.
McGowan said he had “agreed in principle” to the new settings proposed at national cabinet, but they would only be implemented “at a later stage” if needed.
Queensland’s chief health officer, Dr John Gerrard, bluntly backed the change to the definition of close contact. “If we continue to use our current settings, then all of us will be in quarantine, and the state won’t function,” Gerrard said.
As Queensland recorded 2,222 new cases, Gerrard also sought to prepare the recently Covid-free state to expect “tens of thousands of cases”.
He said “we are not going to stop the Omicron virus” but there were some things that could slow its spread – like mask-wearing and working from home if people could.
The federal Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, accused Morrison of “always playing catch up” and called for “some national leadership that has been sorely lacking”.
“People are worried, people are voting with their feet by not going out, by not going to restaurants, by not undertaking activity that they normally would in the lead-up, particularly, to New Year’s Eve,” Albanese said in Adelaide.
Morrison told reporters in Canberra: “Each and every day, I have focused on this pandemic to ensure that we have got the best possible settings that we can have, so I do take responsibility for the decisions we have taken.”
Australian health authorities on Thursday reported 21,343 new Covid cases, a new record for the country, including 12,226 infections in NSW, 5,137 in Victoria and 1,374 in South Australia.
The chief medical officer, Prof Paul Kelly, said Omicron was “very transmissible”, but data from South Africa – which had “the longest and most extensive experience” of the new variant – indicated a 73% decrease in severity compared with Delta.
He said Australia’s figure of 1,400 people with Covid in hospital out of the 110,000 active cases was “much lower than what we have seen before”. Currently 122 people were in intensive case.
Prof Robert Booy, an infectious diseases paediatrician at the University of Sydney, said that “for the vast majority, it will probably be fine” to reduce to seven the number of days after a positive diagnosis that a symptomless case could leave isolation.
“For people who do test positive who are asymptomatic five days after their test and are well enough to go back into the community, they’re unlikely to transmit any virus,” Booy said.
But Prof Nancy Baxter, head of the University of Melbourne’s school of population health, and a member of the OzSage executive, said the changes to the close contact definition would just fuel the outbreak.
She said the move “reflects the crisis that we’re in” and was a case of “Newspeak”, a term coined by George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four to describe propagandistic language that twists ordinary meanings.
“The lines for testing will get shorter, the cases won’t rise as quickly [but] it’ll just mean we aren’t identifying them,” Baxter said.
“They’ll be invisible until the hospitalisation rates start going up.”
The president of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, Dr Karen Price, said the testing, tracing and isolating system had “just collapsed”, so the use of PCR tests had to be rationalised.
“It’s to manage the resources better, which I understand, but it has to come with other, clear directions,” she said.
Michael Lydeamore, a lecturer in Monash University’s econometrics and business statistics department, said something had to be done because the system wasn’t coping. There would be a shift to “people choosing the right thing to do rather than being forced to do the right thing”.