Australia to move away from ‘COVID exceptionalism’ in 2023 plan

Australians will need a doctor’s referral for a PCR test at a private pathology clinic from January 1 next year, as Australia moves away from “COVID exceptionalism” even as the nation’s chief medical officer predicted regular waves of the virus for at least two more years.

Australians will still be able to get tests without a referral at state-run clinics, hospitals and respiratory clinics but by the end of 2023, they will no longer be bulk billed.

PCR tests will still be available at state-run clinics, hospitals and respiratory clinics.Credit:Chris Hopkins

Chief medical officer Paul Kelly said the threat of COVID was likely to be part of life for some time to come.

“The likely emergence of new variants, including those able to partially evade immune responses, means the Australian community can expect to experience new waves on a regular basis for at least the next two years,” Kelly said.

According to the national COVID plan for 2023: “Australia will transition to managing COVID-19 in a similar way to other respiratory viruses, moving away from COVID exceptionalism and bespoke arrangements”.

PCR testing, which remains more accurate than rapid antigen tests, will no longer be used as a surveillance tool like it was during the lockdowns of 2020-2021, but will instead be targeted to allow eligible patients faster access to antiviral treatments.

“There will be an ongoing need to evaluate and optimise how we test, who we test and when we test people for COVID-19 over the course of 2023,” the plan said.

“Over the next 12 months, COVID-19 testing requirements will be aligned with testing arrangements associated with other respiratory illnesses.”

Health Minister Mark Butler said the government’s priority was to minimise the incidence of death and severe illness.

“We will continue to protect those most at risk, while ensuring we have the capacity to respond to future waves and variants,” Butler said.

Health Minister Mark Butler said the government’s priority was to minimise the incidence of death and severe illness.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

While 72 per cent of Australians aged 16 and over have had at least three doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, the plan commits the government to securing new vaccines in future that could provide protection against emerging COVID variants and other diseases such as influenza.

Plans will go ahead to boost Australia’s vaccine manufacturing, such as the nation’s first mRNA lab, currently under construction in Melbourne.

Butler has come under fire following a decision to halve the number of subsidised psychology appointments available to people from next year.

People were able to access an additional 10 appointments following the initial lockdowns in 2020, on top of the 10 already available under the government scheme.

However, funding for the extra appointments will run out at the end of this year and will not be renewed.

Suicide Prevention Australia chief executive Nieves Murray has described this decision, which will halve the number of sessions that can be subsidised by Medicare, as “baffling and very concerning”.

Lifeline: 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467; Emergency services: 000

With AAP

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