Scott Morrison has ruled out mandating mask-wearing indoors after meeting with State and Territory leaders during an emergency meeting of National Cabinet over the Omicron outbreak.
The Prime Minister said on Wednesday that the snap meeting was “very positive, practical and co-operative” and that National Cabinet agreed on “three areas to move forward”.
These include mask wearing, boosters, and the “test, trace, isolate and quarantine” approach.
“Mask wearing in indoor spaces in public areas is of course highly recommended, whether it’s mandated or not,” he said.
“Australians are common sense people and they know what they need to do to protest their own health.
“All of these practical things that we can do, we encourage all Australians to be doing whether you’re in Western Australia, up in the Northern Territory, down in Tassie or in Queensland. Omicron moves fast.”
Mr Morrison said the Omicron variant posed a new challenge to the country with infections expected to surge in coming weeks, but that hospitals were coping so far.
“Omicron, we all agree, presents another new challenge, but we have faced so many challenges already during the course of this pandemic,” he said.
“On each occasion we’ve worked together to ensure that our response across the country and across governments has been able to deliver one of the lowest death rates in the world from COVID.”
He went on to say vaccination hubs need to be reactivated and booster shots being fast-tracked from five months to four will be a decision by ATAGI.
“There’s been plenty of discussion about whether the interval should be five months, four months, three months… that will be a decision for the vaccination experts,” he said.
“That is not a decision for myself as Prime Minister or the Premiers and Chief Ministers.
“There are ample numbers of people that need to go and get their booster that can be supported by the vaccination program.”
National Cabinet also agreed to take advice from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee about abolishing PCR tests to enter States including Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania for travel to alleviate testing resources.
“We have all seen the terrible queues and the long waits people have had,” Mr Morrison said.
“Some 25 per cent are not symptomatic… they just want to travel to another State. This is putting unnecessary pressure on the testing system.”
The Prime Minister also announced an increase of payments to GP and pharmacies for vaccine appointments by $10 per shot to encourage them to keep working over the holiday season.
He said his main message to the Australian public was to “stay calm and get boosted”.
“One of the main things we agreed on today is we do not want to go back into lockdowns,” Mr Morrison said.
“Australians have worked really hard to have this Christmas together and we want to protect that.”
During the meeting, State and Territory leaders agreed a common definition was needed of what a casual contact constituted.
“We cannot have different rules in different places about what a close contact is and what a casual contact is,” Mr Morrison said.
“There is even an argument which says that there shouldn’t be any requirement to have a casual contact definition at all.
“What matters is how you’re managing those close contacts and how they’re defined and what you have to do.”
Australians can also expect to see QR codes playing a “different role in the future”.
“The QR code system is not being used to police people or to impose sanctions on people,” the Prime Minister said.
“What it’s being used to do is to ensure that people can be alerted through the QR code system about if they’ve been at a particular place where an infection has been identified.”
Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly said the Omicron variant was a “very new phenomenon” and the world was still “learning” about it.
“Every day we learn something new about Omicron but there’s still some things we don’t know about it,” Mr Kelly said.
“We also don’t know about how that is progressing in Australia in terms of particularly the severity issue.
“What we do know is that as I predicted three weeks ago, it is a transmissible, very transmittable virus. Here in Australia. We’re now over 500 cases have been diagnosed through that genomic testing.”