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Victoria and NSW announce range of wind-backs of COVID-19 restrictions

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Seven-day isolation for COVID-19 close contacts, compulsory masks for primary school students and the vaccine mandate for venues will be scrapped in Victoria, while home isolation for close contacts, hotel quarantine and social-distancing requirements on public transport will be dropped in NSW, as COVID-19 vaccine mandates for some employees could also be relaxed.

A raft of Victorian restrictions will ease from 11.59pm on Friday after the state passed the peak of its second Omicron wave, health minister Martin Foley announced today.

“We know that there will be a long plateauing and tail to this BA.2 Omicron sub-variant wave,” he told reporters.

“But what we know is that we’ve passed the peak and we are able to look to this group of sensible measures being able to take us into a still-challenging winter.”

Under the changes, close contacts of confirmed cases will no longer have to quarantine if they wear a mask indoors, avoid sensitive settings and return five negative rapid antigen tests over the seven-day period.

Similar changes have been unveiled by the NSW Government.

Business groups have been calling for the seven-day isolation rule for household contacts to be relaxed to ease ongoing staff shortages.

It is (politically) expedient for all of these things to be relaxed because it signals that COVID is over. The problem is COVID hasn’t gotten the memo … and what we’re seeing in Australia right now is … one of the world’s highest rate of new cases of COVID per day.

Clinical epidemiologist and head of the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, Nancy Baxter

Positive cases still need to self-isolate for the full seven-day period in Victoria and masks will remain mandatory on public transport, in airports and health, aged care and justice settings.

In addition, Victorians will no longer be required to have two vaccine doses or show their vaccination status before entering pubs, restaurants, movie theatres and sports venues.

Premier Daniel Andrews previously said the state’s vaccinated economy could remain in place until 2023.

COVID-19 vaccine mandates for key industries such as healthcare, food distribution, police, emergency services and education will remain.

The state’s new pandemic-specific legislation shifted the power for changing COVID-19 restrictions from Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton to Foley.

Professor Sutton said health policy was transitioning to individual discretion, given the level of vaccination coverage in the community.

“We’ve got enough in-built protection as a community that further restrictions are not proportionate or necessary,” he said.

Victoria’s seven-day case average remains below 10,000, despite the state recording 10,628 new COVID-19 cases and 14 deaths on Wednesday.

Sutton said he believed the wave had plateaued, with daily infections falling 10 per cent over the past week.

“I think today’s a blip. It’s going to be a long tail and slow decline. We’re not going to see a dramatic drop in numbers,” he said.

The NSW changes announced by Premier Dominic Perrottet on Wednesday will come into effect from 6pm on Friday.

People who are household contacts of a positive case will no longer need to isolate at home for seven days, so long as they continue to test negative.

They should still work from home where possible and avoid high-risk settings such as hospitals and aged care homes.

NSW will move to end hotel quarantine and will remove the green dots on buses, trains and other public transport that indicate where to sit to maintain social distancing.

However, masks will still be required on public transport.

The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee had indicated it would be appropriate to drop some of the stricter restrictions once the current wave of infections had peaked.

NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant said the state was over the peak “but the plateau is quite a flat line and the decline is quite slow”.

The state recorded 15,414 new cases on Wednesday and 15 more deaths. Chant warned that authorities still expected community transmission to remain high and she urged anyone with symptoms to stay home.

Society would have to co-exist with COVID-19 but that didn’t mean ignoring the virus, she said.

People should also get a flu vaccine because the approaching influenza season is expected to be more severe than the previous two years, when people were under restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

While vaccinations have played an important part in protecting people, Mr Perrottet said previous mandates that employees be vaccinated would be dropped in some cases, with a shift to an occupational health and safety approach.

“We will move to risk-based assessments for employees based on the circumstances they find themselves in.

“I expect various circumstances where vaccines will be required,” Perrottet said.

The pandemic was not over but it was “a great day for our state” and the easing of restrictions was cause for reflection on the success of the state in dealing with COVID, the premier said.

“It has been a bloody tough two years for the people of NSW.”

The NSW Government would continue to monitor the situation and restrictions could return if circumstances changed, Perrottet said.

In NSW there are 1639 people with the virus in hospital and 72 in ICU.

Business leaders have been calling for the end to the seven-day isolation rule, saying it will ease staff shortages for businesses trying to recover from the pandemic.

Clinical epidemiologist and head of the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, Nancy Baxter says a quarter-to-half of people who have a household contact with COVID-19, will likely contract the virus.

“We need to protect people from those households contacts if we’re allowing them to leave home without isolation,” she told ABC TV on Wednesday.

“You’d want them to do RATs, you’d want them in masks and not just in any mask, in a high-quality mask like a P2 or N95.”

Employers should be required to keep those people isolated or physically distanced from other workers “because there’s going to be a high-risk of getting it into the workplace for these people”, she said.

“It is (politically) expedient for all of these things to be relaxed because it signals that COVID is over.

“The problem is COVID hasn’t gotten the memo … and what we’re seeing in Australia right now is … one of the world’s highest rate of new cases of COVID per day.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison welcomed the changes.

“In NSW and Victoria they are getting back to normal – hallelujah,” he said.

What COVID-19 restrictions are changing?

RULES CHANGING IN VICTORIA FROM 11.59PM ON FRIDAY, APRIL 22:

  • Close contacts don’t need to quarantine for seven days, as long as they wear a mask indoors, avoid “sensitive” settings and have at least five negative rapid tests over seven days
  • Vaccination mandates and check-ins for venues scrapped
  • Masks no longer required in primary schools, early childhood, hospitality, retail settings, or at any event
  • Hospital visitor restrictions lifted but masks still required
  • No testing for symptom-free international travellers on arrival, although it’s still recommended
  • No quarantine for unvaccinated travellers
  • People who have COVID-19 are exempt from testing or quarantining for 12 weeks post-infection, rather than eight weeks

RULES STAYING IN PLACE IN VICTORIA:

  • People who test positive still need to isolate at home for seven days
  • Visitor restrictions in care facilities – residents can have up to five visitors per day if they show a negative RAT or two visitors if no test is provided
  • Masks in public transport, airports, sensitive health, aged care and justice settings
  • Vaccine mandates for specific workforces such as health care, food distribution, emergency services and education

RULES CHANGING IN NSW FROM 6PM ON FRIDAY, APRIL 22:

  • Close contacts don’t need to isolate as long as they’re symptom-free. But for seven days, they must stay away from aged care, hospitals, disability services and correctional facilities. They also need to wear a mask indoors, take daily RATs if leaving the house, work from home where possible, and avoid vulnerable people
  • Vaccine mandates for key workforces are lifted, but staff in aged care and disability services still need to be vaccinated

RULES CHANGING IN NSW FROM APRIL 30:

  • No quarantine for unvaccinated international returning travellers, but they must take a RAT within 24 hours of arrival
  • Public transport capacity caps are lifted

RULES STAYING IN NSW:

  • People who test positive to COVID-19 need to isolate at home for seven days
  • Masks required on public transport, planes, indoors at airports, and cruise terminals.

AAP

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