GPs and pharmacists will receive an extra incentive to deliver booster shots during the holiday period while requirements for testing, what contacts should do, and which groups booster programs prioritise are all under consideration.
Federal, state and territory leaders and health officials met on Wednesday at a national cabinet meeting to discuss Omicron amid cases of the new COVID-19 variant rising ahead of Christmas.
Prime minister Scott Morrison told a press conference after the meeting that Omicron was a “new challenge” that governments were taking “very seriously”.
“[Our] response needs us to appreciate that with Omicron what we are dealing with is a much greater volume of cases,” Morrison said, adding so far higher cases did not mean “any significant impact on our hospital system”.
“They have been preparing well for challenges that may come,” he added.
With around 50% of eligible people having received a booster shot – mostly Australia’s older population – Morrison said the nation needed to ramp up its vaccination rates to speeds reached earlier in 2021.
Morrison announced an increase in payments to GPs and pharmacists by $10 per dose to incentivise primary healthcare services to continue to deliver jabs during the summer break, and urged state-run vaccination hubs to remain open.
National cabinet is also seeking advice from ATAGI on priority groups for boosters and what benefit a focus on younger people could bring.
“We are working steadily on the aged-care population and others, but we also know the Omicron variant moves very quickly amongst young people, so we will be taking more advice on those issues,” Morrison said.
But any decision to bring forward intervals for booster shots will be based on ATAGI advice, not politicians or chief health ministers, Morrison said.
Mask wearing in doors is highly recommended, but the prime minister stopped short of requiring state and territory governments to mandate masks indoors.
“Premiers will make calls about what’s the best way to encourage people to do that; some like to use mandates, others like to use that encouragement and rely on individual responsibility,” Morrison said.
“What matters is that people wear them, not whether people get fined or not.”
National cabinet is seeking to unify isolation and testing requirements for close and casual contacts, and seeking advice on states and territories removing PCR testing requirements for travel across domestic borders given the “unnecessary pressure” this puts on testing centres.
“It is important that we focus the PCR tests on close contacts and people who are symptomatic,” Morrison said.
Morrison said there would be further modelling done by the Doherty Institute, following earlier modelling that included a worst-case scenario.
Chief medical officer Paul Kelly said it was still unknown how Omicron was progressing in Australia – particularly regarding severity of the disease. Kelly said genomic testing showed more than 500 cases with Omicron but supported estimates that in NSW 60% of the daily cases had the new variant.
“Internationally those cases have doubled every two to three days so we will see large numbers of cases,” Kelly said. “We will continue to be looking very carefully as to what that means in terms of our hospitals, our primary care and indeed the rest of society.”