COVID-19 testing rule changes on the way

Andrew Brown |

COVID-19 testing rules could be changed as early as next week as the government looks to deal with rising virus cases across the country.

Following Thursday’s national cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Scott Morrison indicated a future shift in surveillance testing and mask wearing as more Omicron cases emerge.

It comes after national cabinet agreed on allowing employees from more sectors to be able to return to work, even if they are listed as a close contact of a positive case, but workers will need to return a negative rapid antigen test beforehand.

The definition for essential workers was expanded to include health, emergency services, energy and resources, transport and logistics, food production, education, childcare, telecommunications and media.

National cabinet agreed to the changes in a bid to solve widespread supply chain issues, caused by large numbers being COVID-positive, or forced to isolate.

Treasury officials told national cabinet previous arrangements would lead to as many as 10 per cent of the essential workers not being able to go to work.

The number was expected to rise to as much as 15 per cent should schools not be able to reopen at the start of the year.

Supply chain issues have led to major supermarkets imposing product limits on certain items, such as chicken, sausages and toilet paper.

The prime minister said isolation changes were necessary as the country deals with the Omicron variant.

“This is a constantly moving target. We know what we have to hit: keep our hospitals going, keeping our health system strong and keeping as many people at work,” Mr Morrison told reporters in Canberra.

“This is a very delicate balance that needs to be constantly recalibrated.”

Meanwhile, concession card holders will be able to access free rapid antigen tests at pharmacies from January 24.

The scheme will allow for those with a concession to receive 10 free rapid tests during a three-month period.

Despite widespread shortages of rapid tests nationwide, Mr Morrison again ruled out free tests for everyone.

“Our position hasn’t changed,” he said.

“The focus of the rapid antigen tests should be, as we’ve set them out firstly for health care and aged care workers, and then for those who are symptomatic and close contacts.”

Since the start of the vaccine rollout for five to 11-year-olds on Monday, more than 142,000 children in the cohort, or 6.2 per cent, have received their first dose.

Wednesday was a near-record day for vaccinations, with 346,000 doses administered, 254,000 of them being booster shots.

Thursday was the deadliest day of the pandemic, with 57 fatalities recorded.

Of those, 22 were from NSW, 25 from Victoria, six in Queensland and four in South Australia.

Nationally there were more than 150,000 virus cases reported on Thursday.

NSW had more than 90,000 infections, however, that included backdated positive rapid antigen tests since the start of the year.

There were more than 37,000 new cases in Victoria, nearly 15,000 in Queensland, 3669 in SA, 1020 in the ACT, 1100 in Tasmania and 550 in the NT.