Australians will need a referral to obtain a PCR test from January 1, in a major shift to the way the country deals with COVID-19.
Health Minister Mark Butler has released the national COVID health management plan on Monday, with changes to the way the country’s health services deal with the virus as cases once again surge.
Over 2023, Australia will transition to managing COVID-19 in a “similar way” to other respiratory viruses, moving away from bespoke arrangements.
Mr Butler said the plan would ensure the country’s health system has the “capacity and capability” to respond to future waves and variants; promote uptake of vaccination and treatments; and slow the spread of transmission.
“This plan strikes the right balance, we’re confident, to protect vulnerable Australians, to protect the integrity of our health and hospital system while transitioning safely out of the emergency phase of the pandemic,” Mr Butler said.
The plan also seeks to take pressure off hospitals by ensuring people can seek community care in the first instance.
GP-led respiratory clinics will continue throughout summer, before they are stood down at the end of February – but will be reinstated should they be required.
Over 2023, COVID-19 testing requirements will be aligned with arrangements associated with other respiratory illnesses, Mr Butler said.
From January 1, a referral from a medical or nurse practitioner will be required for a Medicare-funded PCR.
Low risk individuals who test positive on a RAT are advised to stay home where possible and avoid high risk settings. Low-risk individuals who live or work with people who are high risk, particularly for Covid-19, can get a referral if their symptoms persist even after a negative RAT.
High risk individuals will be prioritised for PCR testing.
Those considered high risk under the new plan include older Australians, First Nations people, people with a disability, people from culturally and linguistically diverse communities, people living in remote communities, people with complex underlying health conditions, and the immunocompromised.
Access to antivirals will still be available to eligible people following a positive test – whether by RAT or PCR.
Other key measures within the national plan include the vaccine program being extended through to December 2023, additional digital mental health services offered through to June next year, and support for aged care through to the end of next year.
The plan also stipulates the government will release a separate long-Covid strategy, to ensure the health system can support people who suffer from prolonged effects of the virus.
It comes as Covid-19 cases surge across the country, with NSW recording more than 40,000 new cases last week and 48 deaths with 1526 in hospital – 40 of whom are in intensive care.
Victoria averaged 682 daily hospitalisations and 28 daily intensive care admissions, and reported 27,790 new cases last week.
There were 15 deaths in the latest reporting period in Queensland, with 320 people in hospital with the virus.