What are the new rules in Australia on Covid isolation, close contacts and testing? |

Federal, state and territory leaders have met to agree on a uniform definition of what makes a close contact at a snap meeting of the national cabinet on Thursday, implementing new rules for how people are to isolate and when they should get tested.

Speaking to reporters afterwards, Scott Morrison said Omicron was a “game changer” that has “overtaken the country in just a month” and required a “reset”.

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“Omicron requires us to undertake a change of how we are managing the pandemic, and we need to reset how we think about the pandemic, and how we manage ourselves and the things we need to do as governments,” the prime minister said.

As case numbers skyrocket and queues for testing grow, the changes are designed to take the pressure off PCR testing and limit the amount of time people spend out of the workforce if they are not seriously ill.

What is the close contact definition?

Previously there was no agreed definition between the various states and territories, but the main thrust of the uniform rule is to reduce the number of people defined as a close contact and do away entirely with the concept of a “casual contact”.

“Except in exceptional circumstances, a close contact is a household contact or ‘household-like’ of a confirmed case only. A household contact is someone who lives with a case or has spent more than four hours with them in a house, accommodation or care facility setting,” Morrison said.

The change is similar to what had been flagged in recent days and also includes residential care facilities as a “household-like” setting. Morrison was at pains to point out that it only applied to contact with a “confirmed case”, that is, someone who had received a positive PCR test.

“So, you are only a close contact if you are effectively living with someone or have been in an accommodation setting for more than four hours with someone who has actually got Covid – not someone who is in contact with someone who has had Covid,” he said.

Those who meet this definition will then have to isolate and test – though when to test and how to test has also changed.

What happens if I’m a close contact?

Anyone with symptoms should get a PCR test.

Under the new arrangement, a confirmed case must isolate for seven days from the date their infection was confirmed with a test. On 31 December the goverment changed the rule on testing announced the previous day, removing the requirement for a rapid antigen test on day six of isolation.

“If confirmed cases remain symptomatic, they should remain in isolation. Anyone with symptoms will continue to seek a PCR test,” it said in a statement.

Someone who discovers they are a close contact but is not showing any symptoms must test with a rapid antigen test.

If the test is positive, they must then have a PCR test. If that comes back positive, the person obviously becomes a confirmed case themselves.

A close contact who returns a negative test must still isolate for seven days from the date of exposure, as symptoms may still show. On day six, they can take a rapid antigen test, and may leave isolation if it is negative.

The exception is in South Australia, which, while adopting the definition, will still require a 10-day isolation period.

“What this does is significantly change those who need to be going and getting in a queue,” Morrison said.

If I am not a close contact, can I still get tested?

No – unless you are a close contact or have symptoms, you will not be able to get a free PCR test in the way that has been normal practice for the past two years. Morrison made clear the intention was to reduce the number of people in queues for PCR tests, although it is unclear how many of those people fall into the category of what he called “the worried well”.

“If you don’t fulfil this definition of a close contact then there is no need for you to be in that line,” Morrison said. “You should go home. Go to the beach, go and do what you want to do. Read a book in the park. Follow all the normal, commonsense things that you would do, monitor your symptoms, follow the Covid-safe practices, make sure you have booked for your booster, do all of those sorts of things – but there is no need for you to be in that line.”

Those people of course can still take a rapid antigen test bought over the counter from a supermarket or pharmacy, but Morrison made clear RATs would only be provided free under certain specific circumstances at state hubs.

When does the change come into effect?

From midnight on Thursday, in all states and territories except Tasmania, the Northern Territory and Western Australia. Tasmania will adopt the change from 1 January, while the Northern Territory and Western Australia will make separate announcements in the coming days.

Morrison confirmed that the changes will apply to…

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