‘Systems under strain’: Advocates make national cabinet appeal to ease Omicron pressures

By Melissa Coade

Friday January 28, 2022

Greg Hunt
Health minister Greg Hunt. AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Community services advocates have highlighted nine policy areas for the national cabinet to consider as a matter of urgency in response to Australia’s pandemic crisis. 

The peak body for the community services sector, the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) has sent an urgent letter to the national cabinet highlighting nine new priority areas that have emerged since they last wrote to the political leaders on January 12 this year.

Targeting the Department of Health and the Department of Education, Skills and Employment, the nine recommendations are:

  1. Directly mail Rapid Antigen Tests (RAT) to the public, with high priority to people who are concession card holders with permanent residencies.
  2. Provide adequate support and protection for at-risk populations in regional, rural and remote communities in Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory.
  3. Designate culturally appropriate and safe spaces for high-risk groups, particularly First Nations people, in consultation with local community leaders.
  4. Create safe spaces for isolation and quarantine in communities that have lower-than-average vaccination coverage in Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory.
  5. Ensure hospital systems have a ‘Vaccine Plus’ strategy that protects the workforce, patients and visitors and carers.
  6. Develop clear, accessible and digestible information and interactive support regarding home care for people who test positive for COVID-19, including how to monitor symptoms, obtain essential equipment and supplies, and what to do in case of worsening of symptoms.
  7. Provide emergency financial relief for early childhood education and care facilities faced with acute workforce shortages that are forcing temporary closures, as well as those facing enrolment withdrawals.
  8. Provide a clear and nationally consistent return-to-school plan, ensuring that all families, children and staff have ongoing, reliable and equitable access to essential medical items, including RATs and appropriate PPE, and that government schools are prioritised in any rollout of supplies.
  9. Establish mobile vaccination clinics to deliver vaccinations at government schools to children aged 5 to 15 years and any eligible staff requiring a booster. 

ACOSS also wants the government to adopt 51 recommendations, including the nine new policy recommendations.

Cassandra Goldie, CEO of the ACOSS network of more than 4,000 community organisations, said that news reports on Thursday that showed poorer booster rates in low-income postcodes demonstrated the pandemic was impacting the most vulnerable in the community more.

We’ll never be able to get the better of this virus as a community if we don’t have a clear and detailed understanding of how the virus impacts different populations and post codes,” Goldie said. 

“The federal government continues to refuse to release data that would make public the scale of the issues, and the deep inequities in who is being affected, and how.”

It was clear Australia was not ready to deal effectively with Omicron, she added, noting that there was also a critical need for better forward planning, crisis management and protestation of resources to support those most at risk.

“It’s still a mess, and only decisive and swift government action will remedy it,” Goldie said. 

“People with concession cards can’t find RATs on pharmacy shelves even after the government program has commenced. Parents are confused and stressed about what the return to school looks like for their children. People in regional, rural and remote communities remain extremely exposed to the ravages of COVID-19.”

The council reiterated its calls for the prime minister and other national leaders to set up a civil society COVID rapid response group. The ACOSS letter said that the proposed representative advisory group should be comprised of public health experts as well as representatives from the council, unions, business and other peak organisations, and work to address the ‘rampant spread of Omicron’.

“It is vital that governments across the country learn the lessons from the first two years of managing the pandemic, heed the updated advice and warnings of health experts and policy advocates, and adopt best practice strategies to mitigate the health risk, economic chaos and social disruption that accompanies the virus,” Goldie said.

“It is highly unlikely Omicron will be the last variant we face, and our experience of grappling with COVID-19 is far from finished. We simply must be better prepared.”

An appropriate advisory group was the only way to execute an effective whole-of-government response to the pandemic, ACOSS added.

“If Australia is to successfully navigate the Omicron crisis, it is imperative that all major representative groups work together closely, and with transparency,” the letter read.


READ MORE:

ACOSS: Government policy pushing people on lowest incomes ‘to brink’ during pandemic

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