National Cabinet met today to discuss our response to COVID-19 and the Omicron variant, approaches to test, trace isolate and quarantine including the use of rapid antigen tests (RATs) and the vaccine rollout and booster programme.
The Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly provided an update on the spread of the Omicron variant. Omicron case numbers continue to increase in Australia and globally. Omicron continues to show greater infectivity than the Delta variant, but with much less severity in terms of hospitalisations, ICU and ventilated patients.
Since the beginning of the pandemic there have been 1,195,158 confirmed cases in Australia and, sadly, 2,522 people have died. Australia’s fatality rate continues to be the second lowest in the OECD. Globally there have been over 315.4 million cases and sadly over 5.5 million deaths, with 2,265,922 new cases and 6,606 deaths reported in the last 24 hours. The Omicron variant continues to surge in many countries around the world. The latest advice is the Omicron variant is highly transmissible, but significantly less severe than the Delta variant.
National Cabinet reaffirmed the National Plan to Transition Australia’s National COVID-19 Response and continue work to suppress the virus under Phase C of the National Plan - seeking to minimise serious illness, hospitalisation and fatalities as a result of COVID-19 with baseline restrictions.
Lieutenant General John Frewen, DSC, AM, Coordinator General of the National COVID Vaccine Taskforce (Operation COVID Shield) provided a detailed briefing on the major expansion in Australia’s vaccination rollout.
To date over 45 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in Australia, including 346,349 in the previous 24 hours. This was the third highest daily vaccination total on record with record numbers of 254,112, boosters and 55,570 5 to 11 year old vaccinations.
Almost 95 per cent of the Australian population aged 16 years and over have now had a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, including over 99 per cent of over 50 year olds and more than 99 per cent of over 70 year olds.
More than 92.3 per cent of Australians aged 16 years and over are now fully vaccinated including more than 97.3 per cent of over 50 year olds and more than 99 per cent of Australians over 70 years of age.
Over 4.3 million booster doses have been administered. Australia has sufficient supplies of boosters, with 24 million mRNA booster doses in stock in Australia. Yesterday over 242,000 boosters were administered across Australia. Over 48 per cent of those eligible for boosters have had a booster and almost 42 per cent of Australians aged 70 years of age and over have had a booster in the last 9 weeks since the booster program commenced.
Vaccinations for 5 to 11 year olds commenced on Monday 10 January. In only three days over 140,000 vaccinations have been administered to 5-11 years olds accounting for 6.2% of all 5-11 year olds.
National Cabinet will meet again on Thursday 20 January 2022.
Rapid Antigen Testing
National Cabinet noted that testing for people suspected to have COVID-19 or close contacts will continue to be provided for free through joint funding arrangements between the Commonwealth and state and territory governments, utilising either PCR or Rapid Antigen Testing technologies.
National Cabinet noted that jurisdictions had placed significant orders for supplies of Rapid Antigen Tests with increasing numbers of tests available over coming weeks through state and territory clinics and the private sector. PCR tests continue to be available in all state and territory clinics with significant reductions in testing times across all jurisdictions.
National Cabinet agreed that priority access to the public provision of Rapid Antigen Testing is for health and aged care settings as well as people who are symptomatic, close contacts as well as vulnerable populations, such as remote Indigenous communities. The guidance for close contacts was updated on 30 December 2021, with close contacts defined as household contacts of confirmed cases.
National Cabinet agreed to the final arrangements for the Rapid Antigen Testing Concessional Access Program, funded jointly by the Commonwealth and states and territories.
Through the program, eligible Commonwealth concession card holders will be permitted to receive a maximum of ten free tests in a three month period with a maximum of five tests in any one month through participating community pharmacies. Eligibility will include people with a Pensioner Concession Card, Commonwealth Seniors Health Care Card, Department of Veterans' Affairs Gold, White or Orange Card, Health Care Card, Low Income Health Card.
Community pharmacies will be reimbursed a set amount for the unit cost of the Rapid Antigen Tests (which will be $10 plus GST per test initially, with ongoing review of unit prices). For each supply transaction processed for an eligible person under this program (minimum of 2 tests and maximum of 5 tests per transaction), an Administration Handling and Infrastructure (AHI) fee of $4.30 per transaction will be reimbursed to the pharmacy, consistent with current AHI arrangements under the Seventh Community Pharmacy Agreement. Community Pharmacies will be responsible for sourcing supply for the program as they do for non-subsided rapid antigen tests.
Further implementation arrangements for the program will be published over the coming days following ongoing dialogue with the pharmacy profession.
The program to provide free Rapid Antigen Tests for concession card holders will become available through community pharmacies from 24 January 2022, noting that individual pharmacies will commence participation in the program as supply continues to become available in late January and early February 2022.
National Cabinet thanked community pharmacies and their representatives for their constructive efforts to date to implement this important program.
Anyone with COVID-19 symptoms and close contacts should attend a state clinic for free testing and not go to a pharmacy to receive a free test.
Essential Workers – Close Contact Furlough Arrangements by Sector and Workforce Impacts
National Cabinet received a detailed briefing from Secretary of the Commonwealth Treasury, Dr Steven Kennedy PSM on the impact of the Omicron variant on workforce availability.
Worker absenteeism due to symptomatic COVID-19 illness, identified asymptomatic infection and the required isolation of close contacts is impacting on critical supply sectors and supply chains across all states and territories.
Secretary Kennedy advised that current arrangements could see 10 per cent of Australia’s workforce including many workers in critical supply sectors withdrawn from the workforce. The potential impact of school closures on workforce absenteeism relating to caring responsibilities could see a further 5 per cent of Australia’s workforce withdrawn from the workforce.
The medical advice is that Omicron continues to show greater infectivity than the Delta variant, but with much less severity in terms of hospitalisations, ICU and ventilated patients. Given this it is important to continue to look at testing and isolation settings.
National Cabinet was briefed by the Director-General of Emergency Management Australia, Joe Buffone on the work of the National Coordination Mechanism (NCM) noting that transport, freight and logistics is a high priority. The Permissions and Restrictions for Essential Worker Interim Guidance will assist in workforce pressures across the supply chain. The NCM will continue to work with all sectors across the Supply Chain to maintain essential goods and supplies.
National Cabinet agreed to the importance of keeping critical sectors open and agreed to extend the furlough arrangements in place for food and grocery supply chain workers to other sectors.
National Cabinet noted that the changes made to furlough arrangements for food and grocery supply chain workers is starting to improve supply chains.
Each state and territory will implement these changes to close contact arrangements for essential workers under respective state and territory public health orders and equivalent arrangements.
Changes will be made as soon as possible, where they have not already been made under state and territory public health arrangements, to include essential workers in:
- All transport, freight, logistics and service stations
Changes will be made shortly, where they have not already been made under state and territory public health arrangements, to include:
- Health, welfare, care and support (including production and provision of medical, pharmaceutical and health supplies and pharmacy workers),
- Emergency services, safety, law enforcement, justice and correctional services,
- Energy, resources and water, and waste management,
- Food, beverage, and other critical goods (including farming, production, and provision but not including hospitality),
- Education and childcare; and
- Telecommunications, data, broadcasting and media.
A full list of sectors is attached.
National Cabinet agreed to further consider expanding these sectors to priority 2 cohorts, pending further health advice.
National Cabinet further endorsed the AHPPC Permissions and Restrictions for workers in health care and aged care settings to ensure close contact essential workers in these sectors are able to return to safely work and ensure continuity of care and effective operations.
National Cabinet agreed to seek advice from AHPPC on further measures including the role of symptom screening and monitoring in addition to PCR and Rapid Antigen Tests, as the next step towards longer term management of COVID-19 as an infectious disease.
National Framework for Managing COVID-19 in Schools and Early Childhood Education and Care
National Cabinet agreed the National Framework for Managing COVID-19 in Schools and Early Childhood Education and Care. The Framework is based on six National Guiding Principles:
- ECEC services and schools are essential and should be the first to open and the last to close wherever possible in outbreak situations, with face-to-face learning prioritised*;
- Baseline public health measures continue to apply;
- No vulnerable child or child of an essential worker is turned away;
- Responses to be proportionate and health risk-based;
- Equip ECEC services and schools to respond on the basis of public health advice and with support from public health authorities where required;
- Wellbeing of children and education staff to be supported.
All Governments will come back to National Cabinet next week to set out the practical implementation of this Framework so that families can plan with certainty. This will include detailed operational plans, such as mask wearing and surveillance rapid antigen testing, including for teachers.
*The Queensland and South Australian Governments have delayed the start to their school years by two weeks due to the forecast peaks of the virus in those states. These schools will still be open for the children of essential workers during this period.
Further information is available in the attached Framework.