Government declares Covid emergency phase ‘behind us’

The federal government has released its $2.9 billion Covid Health Management Plan for 2023, with health minister Mark Butler declaring “the emergency phase of the pandemic is behind us”.

Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly

The plan provides a strategic framework for transitioning government programs and funding out of the emergency stage of the pandemic.

As part of this, from January 1 Covid admissions to Australia’s hospitals will be funded in “the standard way under the National Health Reform Agreement” Mr Butler said, signalling what the AMA said marked the end of the 50-50 funding agreement between the states and the Commonwealth.

PCR tests will also be restricted to people who get a medical referral from next year, the document says, adding there is no requirement or recommendation for low risk individuals to get a PCR test.

“Testing for Covid-19 will no longer be a surveillance tool but will be more targeted and used to ensure quick access to antiviral treatments,” Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly says in the plan.

“From 1 January 2023, to obtain a Medicare-funded PCR test you will require a referral from a medical or nurse practitioner.”

GP respiratory clinics will be put on a ‘retainer arrangement’ after March.

Mental health sessions cut

Controversially, subsidised consultations with pyschologists will be cut from 20 back to 10 per person, with the minister saying evaluations showed the additional sessions hadn’t had any appreciable clinical impact, but had aggrevated waiting times.

“The baseline mental health reported in the evaluation was almost identical between those who have received the additional services and those who had not,” he told reporters.

The AMA said the package had failed to extend a critical lifeline to public hospitals. President Professor Steve Robson described the decision to pull funding for covid admissions as bewildering and called on the government to reconsider it.

“Covid-19 is not over, no matter how much the federal government wishes it was,” President Professor Robson said.

“It is a deadly and debilitating disease which is playing havoc with lives and the health system. The health minister should immediately reconsider his decision not to extend the 50-50 COVID-19 funding.”

Two more years of covid variants ahead

Dr Kelly said the Covid threat was continuing to evolve and predicted the emergence of new waves for at least two years.

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

However he said the severity of future waves may be milder.

Preparatory work was underway to establish an Australian CDC that would boost emergency response capacity, strengthen prevention, communication and national coordination, and enhance collaboration across all levels of government, he said.

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