The start of the Queensland school year has been delayed by two weeks and essential workers can now leave Covid self-isolation if they are in key roles, the state government has announced.
The state reported 18,000 Covid cases on Sunday, taking the total number of active cases to 80,563. There are 380 people in hospital with the virus and 22 in intensive care.
The premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, said it was too risky for children – who remain mostly unvaccinated – to return to school on 24 January when the Omicron outbreak is likely to be peaking.
Year 11 and 12 students will instead start remote learning on 31 January while all other students are scheduled to start back in classrooms on 7 February.
Students in Year 10 or younger will make up for the delay by doing an extra week of school at the end of the year in December.
“Queensland will be facing its biggest test over the next four weeks,” Palaszczuk told reporters.
“The peak will be in the last week of January to the first week of February. During that period of time, parents will not have sent their children to school. It is sensible, it is logical, to delay the start of the school year so children can be safe, children get vaccinated, and families can be safe.”
Children aged five to 11 can get vaccinated with Pfizer in Australia from Monday.
The state’s education minister, Grace Grace, said the two weeks of the delay would be treated as pupil free days and teachers would receive full pay. Schools will operate with skeleton staff so the children of essential workers can still attend from 24 January.
Grace admitted schools’ return could be delayed further depending on case numbers, hospitalisations and vaccination numbers. “I don’t think there’s guarantees at the moment for anything to be honest with you, but we want as much certainty as we can possibly provide,” she said.
The chief health officer, Dr John Gerrard, said of the 22 patients in ICU five were on ventilators. He said while the number of people in hospital was still low it would “escalate substantially” in the next seven days.
“So we’re talking in the thousands … and I’ve said that before,” Gerrard said on Sunday.
However, that may be curtailed if people get a vaccine booster shot when they’re eligible over the coming weeks.
About 45% of those eligible have had a booster, Gerrard said, and he’s yet to see any patients in ICU who have had a third jab. “I don’t know that I’ve seen any that have had three doses, but it’s very early so I don’t want to overstate that,” he said.
Ahead of the coming peak the government will also allow critical workers who are close contacts to leave quarantine in order to work.
The Queensland health minister, Yvette D’Ath, said the new classification would ensure food, power, water and fuel supplies would be maintained during the peak of Omicron.
The new classification applies to workers in health, emergency services, resources, mining, utilities, agriculture, fisheries, freight, logistics, public transport, teaching, essential retail such as supermarkets and stores in remote communities, major manufacturing, distribution and critical critical supply chains such food and petrol.
Employers won’t need to apply, but submit a list to the government, while the workers must be vaccinated, test negative to a RAT, wear full PPE and travel to their workplaces using private transport.