Australia’s new Covid rules: isolation recommended but not required | Coronavirus

From 14 October, people who test positive to Covid will no longer have to isolate, following a unanimous decision by national cabinet on Friday.

The decision has divided epidemiologists, with some arguing it is safe to drop the mandatory requirements, while others say it will only increase cases.

Here is everything you need to know about what you can, and what you should, do now:

What is changing?

From 14 October, Australians who have tested positive to Covid will no longer be required to isolate at home for five days.

The change in public health rules will be rolled out by state and territory governments.

However, people who work in high-risk settings will not be able to return to work for five days after testing positive, and the official health advice for all workers is still for people to work from home or avoid going to work if they test positive and have symptoms.

The difference is, from 14 October, most workers will not have access to pandemic leave payments. National cabinet announced that the payment will end for everyone except workers in high-risk settings, which include the aged care, disability care, Aboriginal healthcare and hospital care sectors.

What was behind this decision?

Australia’s chief medical officer, Prof Paul Kelly, said ending mandatory isolation periods was “a reasonable approach” that “recognizes we are in a very low community transmission phase of the pandemic”. He said it was time to end “Covid exceptionalism”, where it is treated very differently from any other infectious disease, but left open the door to reversing the decision, saying the health advice may change.

National cabinet ends Covid-19 mandatory isolation orders and payments – video

In his letter to the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, Kelly wrote that removing the isolation requirements “would not materially detract from Australia’s pandemic response”.

He cited the high underlying immunity within the population, as well as access to antivirals, as reasons behind the changing health advice.

What do I do if I test positive?

Some epidemiologists have recommended that people continue to voluntarily isolate if they test positive. Prof Michael Toole from the Burnett Institute says if you test positive and are symptomatic, it is safest to “isolate for at least a week”.

“A large study in the US found that after five days, 50% of people were still infectious,” he says. “At 10 days, virtually no one was infectious.”

What if I have Covid and need to go to work?

If you are a casual worker and cannot afford to miss shifts, then wear a well-fitted face mask when you return to work, Toole says.

“If you work in a local bakery[and] say you’ve tested positive and you’re not sick, you have to tell the owner ‘I’m going to wear a mask for seven days’,” he says.

How do you know if you are still infectious?

The best way to know if you can leave the house without passing the virus on is by using a RAT test, says Prof Catharine Bennett, the chair of epidemiology at Deakin University.

“Recent studies tend to suggest they’re not as good as picking up early stages of infection, particularly with people without symptoms,” Bennett says.

“The RAT’s best use is in telling you when you’re no longer infectious.

“If you tested positive and you’ve avoided socializing, you’ve avoided work, and you have no symptoms – if you swab and get a negative test result you’re probably OK.”

What should workplaces do to protect employees?

To keep everyone safe, workplaces should follow the health departments’ advice and make sure people who are sick stay home, Bennett says.

“If they’re still infectious, it’s still much smarter, it’s wise, to have them work from home if they can,” she says.

“Still, managing infection risk in workplaces will be important.”

She says the best thing people can do is wear a mask in crowded places and practice social distancing where possible.

“All of those things that everyone has learned over the last three years still matter,” Bennett says.

She warned that hard and fast public health rules may be needed if cases surge again.

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