Relaxed COVID restrictions don’t mean we can relax - Grattan Institute

Last week my sister got COVID, so I couldn’t see my niece because she was a close contact and had to isolate at home.

This outraged a two-year-old who had been promised a family Easter egg hunt. It was a bigger setback for her mum, who couldn’t work and had to do full-time parenting while struggling with COVID symptoms.

Under new public health rules in the ACT, NSW, and Victoria, it would be different if this happened next week. One of the biggest changes is that close contacts won’t need to isolate, provided they have negative rapid tests and no symptoms.

The changes come as COVID cases are falling and hospitalisations seem to be nearing a peak. It’s a relief for employers struggling to fill shifts, and will take pressure off families like my sister’s, with benefits to the economy and many people’s wellbeing and mental health.

But the costs are real. For some, they will be devastating. If they were introduced a month ago, these changes would have had a bigger impact – but they will still increase infections, instances of long COVID, and deaths. Hospital staff already on the brink of burnout will be anxious about a possible surge in demand. People at higher risk might feel like they’re being left behind.

Weighing up the benefits and costs is hard, especially when they keep changing. At this point in the pandemic, there isn’t a “right” answer. But the easing of restrictions in the capital and the two most populous states leaves us with a bigger question: what comes next?

It might seem paradoxical, but relaxed rules don’t mean we can relax. Here’s what should happen now.

First, we should strengthen rapid testing, the cornerstone of the new regime. Tests need to be available to everyone, but they cost around $8 each at the chemist. People on concession cards can get 10 free tests over three months, which won’t be enough if they’re exposed several times in that period. The tests also vary in accuracy, with some missing a positive case around one in five times. Once we can manage it without limiting supply, the Therapeutic Goods Administration should approve only higher-accuracy tests.

Second, we should vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate. Our vaccination rate has slowed to a crawl. At current rates, it would take nine months for everyone eligible for a third dose to get it. We need to rebuild momentum by promoting vaccination heavily, reaching out to groups with lower uptake, and setting targets to make sure aged-care residents get their recommended fourth dose.

Third, we should ventilate, ventilate, ventilate. Australia needs a clear national plan to improve ventilation in high-risk settings.

Above all, we must not let looser restrictions lull us deeper into complacency. It might be the last thing we want to hear, but our governments need to keep reminding us that the pandemic isn’t over, and restrictions aren’t a one-way street. If rates of severe illness and deaths rise again, governments may need to tighten restrictions again.

And it’s not all about governments. Each of us should take sensible steps to reduce the risk to ourselves and others. The rules are the minimum, not the maximum. If you’re in a crowded space, wear a mask. If you’re planning to spend time with elderly relatives, take a rapid test. If you’re sick, stay home.

My niece had negative rapid tests throughout her isolation. But whatever the rules said, we would have kept her away from her grandparents, who are in a high-risk age group. All of us can make tiny but collectively important decisions to keep each other safe – like shifting the Easter egg hunt back a week.

Peter Breadon

Health Program Director
Peter Breadon is the Health Program Director at Grattan Institute. He has worked in a wide range of senior policy and operational roles in government, most recently as Deputy Secretary of Reform and Planning at the Victorian Department of Health.

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