Australia’s political leaders will meet to redefine a COVID-19 ‘close contact’, and establish parameters for the use of rapid antigen tests.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has called an emergency national cabinet meeting for Thursday, bringing the scheduled forum forward by a week.
It comes as Australia obliterated its previous daily COVID-19 infection record, and as states struggle with testing capacity and rising hospitalisations.
“We’re going through a gear change when it comes to how we manage testing arrangements, the definition of close contacts, how we furlough staff and isolate people who are impacted by cases,” Mr Morrison told reporters on Wednesday.
The close contact definition that will be presented to national cabinet will set the threshold at four hours of contact with a positive case within a household setting.
“We just can’t have everybody taken out of circulation because they just happen to be in a particular place at a particular time,” Mr Morrison said.
Chief medical officer Paul Kelly said the new guidelines focused on “the biggest risk”.
“We’ve seen a long wait for people to get their results. Frankly, if you have to wait for eight hours in a queue and then 72 to 96 hours to get a result, it’s not fulfilling any useful public health function and it’s delaying proper clinical care.”
There will also be a pivot from heavy reliance on PCR to rapid antigen tests.
Mr Morrison said changes to how close contacts are handled would mean there would be a seven-day quarantine period which would end if the person posts a negative rapid antigen test on day six.
A second rapid antigen test would then be taken on day 12.
Mr Morrison said the federal government is working on a funding arrangement with the states to provide rapid antigen tests for free, but states would remain in charge of the rollout in the same way as PCR tests.
“In other casual settings, it’s a matter of going off to the chemist,” he said.
Subsidies for rapid tests are yet to be confirmed.
“The treasurer and I are discussing … concessional access in the private market,” Mr Morrison said.
“When you start providing tests through other methods, you need to be very clear about where and who.”
Both NSW and Victoria have ordered millions of the tests and already promised to provide them for free, but they won’t be available until the end of January.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese accused the prime minister of passing the buck on testing to the states.
“We have the NSW government trying to purchase rapid antigen tests that will be available, wait for it, at the end of January, when we have a crisis right now,” he said.
“We have businesses that are unable to open. We have people that are waiting day after day to get the results of the tests and we have some people who simply can’t get tested so they are just staying isolated.”
States and territories continue to report record numbers of COVID cases, with more than 18,000 across the country.
There were 11,201 new cases reported in NSW on Wednesday, almost double the state’s previous record and just 53 short of the number recorded nationwide on Tuesday.
In Victoria, the number of cases jumped by 1029 on Wednesday to a record 3767.
Five deaths were reported in Victoria, and three in NSW.
There were 1589 cases in Queensland, 1471 in South Australia, 138 in the ACT, 55 in Tasmania, 19 in the Northern Territory and two in Western Australia.