Dire warning over Scott Morrison's Covid proposal: 'Adding fuel'

Australia's leading health experts have warned changing the 'close contact' definition will fuel the spread of the Covid outbreak that's already "on fire".

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Wednesday a proposal to redefine what it means to be a close contact would be considered during a snap national cabinet meeting.

Under this new definition, a close contact would essentially be a person who has spent more than four hours with a confirmed case in a 'household... or household-like' setting.

Mr Morrison said it would help determine what kind of test people needed to have and help ease the burden of the large volume of cases.

Nancy Baxter, an epidemiologist from The University of Melbourne, speaks on Sunrise about changes to the definition of a close contact.
Nancy Baxter has spoken out against the federal government's proposal to change the definition of 'close contact'. Source: Sunrise/Twitter

However Professor Nancy Baxter, who is an epidemiologist and head of The University of Melbourne's School of Population and Global Health, said this change was not going to slow the outbreak but fuel it.

"They're basically saying they're going to be limiting the isolation regime to household contacts. We know household contacts are at higher risk... of contacting Covid from the primary case," she told ABC's RN Breakfast.

"But as all of us are aware, after two years of experience with Covid, there are close contacts in other settings, specifically work."

Prof Baxter also raised concerns about the amount of cases that would remain undetected.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison during a press conference at Kirribilli House in Sydney on December 29, 2021.
Scott Morrison has flagged the changes which will be discussed at a national cabinet meeting on Thursday. Source: AAP

She said optics would be good for a period of time, with reduced lines at testing clinics and the rise in cases would "dampen" as fewer people were getting tested.

"But it's not going to change the fact that your outbreak's on fire and you're adding fuel to it," she said.

"When you think about the superspreader events that have happened, none of those will be identified through this definition.

"We're basically just saying that we are going to allow this to spread through the community, and unfortunately what I think will happen is we will overwhelm our healthcare systems... and then we're going to need to put in some major restrictions to try and get things under control."

Close contact definition 'confusing', AMA says

Prof Baxter is not the only one who expressed concerns over the federal government's proposal.

The president of the Australian Medical Association, Dr Omar Khorshid, said he was "confused" following Mr Morrison's announcement.

"Omicron spreads more easily than any other variant. It doesn’t care if you are a family member, a co-worker, a drinker in the pub or breathing the same air in a lift. Isolating close contacts slows spread. Isolating less people means faster spread," he tweeted.

"Surely we should be improving PCR (polymerase chain reaction) availability, rethinking the duration of isolation and using [rapid antigen tests] to allow exposed people to rejoin the workforce earlier and safely?

"Redefining close contacts will simply accelerate the outbreak. I don't think you could call the NSW experiment a success yet. Let's not give up on slowing the spread. Vacc[ines], testing and public health measures have worked so far and remain the best option for living with COVID."

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