While it was hoped that the pandemic would simply fade to the periphery as vaccinations increased and booster shots began their roll out, it’s instead become clear that Covid-19 isn’t going anywhere. And while previous years have seen us bunkered indoors and staying within a strict radius so as to see case numbers decrease, the fact remains that the pandemic isn’t something that is going to go away. Instead, we can only learn to live with it; minimising both our own risk and those within our community, and doing all we can to limit symptoms and ensure a healthy return to normality should we become infected.
As much of the Australian population looks to booster shots following vaccination, the national cabinet will now debate current Covid isolation requirements, with NSW premier, Dominic Perrottet, intent to see it reduced from seven days to five, in accordance with settings in the United States, United Kingdom, France and Germany.
For some, it would be a welcome change and allow them to return to work sooner and other activities, not to mention enjoy much-needed socialisation that many have found difficult while stuck in isolation and lockdown. But as many have been quick to express, there are concerns reducing isolation requirements could see infections increase. Here’s everything you need to know about the proposed changes and what it means for case numbers.
What are the current isolation requirements?
While each state and territory government set their own isolation rules, the national approach is one that enforces seven days’ isolation after a positive test result. This has already been reduced from the previous 14-day isolation period, which came to be halved in December of 2021.
NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet has been calling for the mandatory isolation period to be reduced to five days, saying as a result of the seven days people are experiencing significant wage losses. “We will naturally discuss and debate those things tomorrow and hopefully we’ll have a strong outcome,” he said.
Meanwhile, Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, also has expressed support to the shift should it be backed by health officials. “I think the time is right for us to get fresh advice,” he said. “Nobody enjoys isolation. Nobody wants rules on there longer than they need to be.”
South Australian premier, Peter Malinauskas, expressed he was also “open-minded to this change, subject to the health advice,” but said consistency across Australia was essential. “Clearly, as the pandemic evolves, restrictions – including isolation requirements – will need to be adjusted.”
What does it mean for the pandemic leave disaster payment?
Currently, people forced to isolate and miss work may be eligible for up to $750 a week under the pandemic leave disaster payment. Both Perrottet and Andrews have said this payment must remain as long as isolation rules are in place.
Will a shortened isolation period result in increased infections?
According to Professor Catherine Bennett, chair of epidemiology at Deakin University, a change from seven days to five would have a “marginal” impact. As she explained to The Guardian, current Covid variants have a shorter incubation period and likely a shorter infectious period, so a small cut to isolation won’t necessarily result in any big changes to infection cases. And, given the highly vaccinated population we have here in Australia, it’s worth noting that many asymptomatic cases are already not isolating.
“Most people who are infectious are out in the community. We’ve got a bucket under a waterfall; it has helped to reduce the waterfall but not much. This is putting another hole in the bucket that already has holes in it. Most people are not shedding virus at seven days. The ones who are are at the tail end of infection.”
According to Bennett, reducing the isolation period may not correlate to a direct spike in infections, but positive cases must be given more education about wearing masks, working from home and avoiding high-risk locations like hospitals and nursing homes in the week after leaving isolation.
How does Australia’s rulings compare to other countries?
Across the world, isolation requirements differ considerably. In German, it’s just five days, while France lowered its isolation period from 10 to seven days, allowing people to leave on day five should they test negative. Japan’s isolation period remains at 10 days for those with symptoms and seven days for those who are asymptomatic.
In the US, the isolation period has been halved from 10 days to five, while the UK removed the legal requirement to isolate back in February. Both countries have experienced a significant spike in infection rates however, but as Professor Alexandra Martiniuk, epidemiologist at the University of Sydney told The Guardian, it’s difficult to link the two.
“Was it really the policy around isolation that led that to happen? Was it that that’s when Omicron arrived? Was it that somehow people started testing more, or they started a system to report RATs at home instead of just PCR [tests]?” she said. “[In] UK and [the US] similarly, it’s a challenge to look at their policies and observe the facts and then translate that into anything meaningful to us…It is very hard to gauge what is causing what any more.”