National Cabinet is moving to scrap quarantine requirements for all COVID-19 close contacts as soon as possible, with urgent health advice being sought.
Australian leaders also agreed to a transition away from PCR testing for healthy people with mild respiratory illnesses, and instead promote voluntary self-isolation for this group while symptomatic.
Both moves are being reviewed by the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee.
Australians could also find out in a matter of weeks whether they need to receive a second COVID-19 vaccine booster ahead of a predicted winter surge in infections.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said advice from Australia’s leading vaccine advisory group could come through by the end of the month on whether a fourth dose would be recommended for people over 65.
He said it was more likely than not a fourth dose would be needed for some groups of the population ahead of winter, when a spike in both COVID and flu infections is forecast.
“I can’t pre-empt the decision but … they are potentially going to recommend a second booster, which would be potentially the start of an annual program for people 65 and above,” Hunt told reporters in Canberra on Friday.
“We’re expecting that advice from ATAGI within the next three weeks, if not earlier.”
It comes as the Federal Government announced $2.1 billion to prepare for the current winter, which was agreed to by national cabinet on Friday.
The plan will involved $1.2 billion to help protect residential aged care and disability care sectors, $356 million to protect vulnerable population groups and a further $571 million for vaccines.
Hunt said a scheme which provided free rapid antigen tests for concession card holders would be extended until the end of July this year.
So far, more than 5.5 million people have collected the free tests, with 20 million tests distributed among concession card holders.
The health minister said despite a rise in COVID cases being predicted, infections were unlikely to reach the highs seen during summer at the peak of the Omicron wave.
“We saw an absolute peak in Omicron cases and we’re not expecting anything at those levels,” Hunt said.
“COVID infections are a little bit like a bouncing ball – the highest bounce is likely to have been in January and then will progressively decrease over time, but there will be a bounce as it goes into winter.”
Despite concerns of a new Omicron sub-variant being detected, deputy chief medical officer Sonya Bennett said preparations had been made to deal with new strains.
“What we’ve learnt over the last few years is we now have a range of tools in the toolkit … so we now have adequate and ready access to rapid antigen tests and adequate access to treatments for those at risk,” she said.
“We know that public health and social measures need to be implemented in the worst-case scenario.”