Health Minister Mark Butler has announced changes to pandemic testing regimes and mental health support, as an updated national plan warns Australia can expect new waves of COVID-19 on "a regular basis for at least the next two years".
Mr Butler on Monday released the national COVID-19 management plan for 2023, with an investment of $2.8 billion in special COVID measures and a shift away from "COVID exceptionalism", towards managing COVID-19 in a similar way to other respiratory viruses.
"This plan strikes the right balance, we're confident, to protect vulnerable Australians, to protect the integrity of our health and hospital system while transitioning safely out of the emergency phase of the pandemic," Mr Butler said.
Under the plan, testing for COVID-19 will no longer be regarded as a surveillance tool but will be "more targeted" and used to ensure quick access to antiviral treatments. Patients may need a referral from a doctor or nurse practitioner in order to get a Medicare-funded COVID PCR test from January 1 next year, but the Department of Health has stressed that PCR tests will remain free for everyone who needs them.
COVID anti-virals will be able to be obtained after a positive PCR test or RAT.
"There is no public health requirement or recommendation for low risk individuals to seek PCR testing," the plan states.
Any drive-through testing centres still in operation and GP-led respiratory clinics do not require a referral.
The plan will have a particular focus on protecting at-risk community members: people in aged care, First Nations people, the disabled, multicultural communities, people living in remote communities, people with complex underlying health conditions and the immunocompromised.
While it has extended funding for COVID measures such as the 50/50 funding arrangements for state PCR testing clinics, it is ending the additional 10 subsidised psychology sessions.
In what Suicide Prevention Australia has called "baffling", Mr Butler has announced the Better Access program is being scaled back from the temporary pandemic measure of doubling to 20 visits in 2020, as not everyone had been able to access it equally.
An independent evaluation by the University of Melbourne found the extra Medicare-funded visits aggravated existing wait-lists and aggravated barriers to access.
But Suicide Prevention Australia CEO, Nieves Murray said the move removes additional supports was 'disappointing' and came at a time when distress in the Australian community is high.
"The decision to remove extra mental health supports at a time when interest rates are rising, housing pressure is growing and distress is high is baffling and very concerning," she said in a statement.
The Institute of Clinical Psychologists is also "very disappointed" by the decision and say practitioners will now be "scrambling" to make alternative arrangements for clients.
The Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly advised the community can expect to experience new COVID-19 waves on a regular basis for "at least the next two years".
"The severity of future waves may be milder, placing less pressure on the health system," he advises. "This, combined with improved immunity and hybrid immunity from repeat infections and targeted vaccinations, would reduce the clinical impact and result in fewer Australians suffering severe illness and death."
The AMA is also disappointed in the package for failing to extend the 50-50 COVID-19 public hospital funding agreement between the Commonwealth and the states and territories, which ends on December 31.