The isolation period for COVID-positive cases could soon be just five days. It’s even shorter elsewhere
Could the isolation period for COVID-positive cases be cut to five days? What are other countries doing?
A positive COVID-19 test currently means at least seven days indoors (and probably at least a few of those days in bed).
But with cases continuing to climb in much of the country, and workforce shortages causing problems in a number of sectors, more changes to isolation rules are being considered.
One of those measures is further cutting the mandatory isolation period for people with COVID-19, possibly as low as five days.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said the medical advice is not there yet.
But he has foreshadowed if that changes, and the nation’s health authorities say it is safe, it is a step that is likely to be taken.
Here’s what that might mean — and what’s going on elsewhere in the world.
What are the rules now?
Across most of the country, anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 must isolate for seven days.
It is a little different in some states; In South Australia it is 10 days, and in Western Australia it is until you are considered “no longer infectious” through testing.
Anyone living with you generally has to isolate too, unless they are exempt because of their job under recent changes to rules for close contacts.
You can usually leave isolation after seven days is up, if you are feeling healthy and well.
Isolation means proper isolation too. You can only leave the house for medical care or emergencies, and you must try to keep your distance from other people at home if you can.
Where did five days come from?
Some senior members of the federal government have been floating the idea of cutting the isolation period to five days.
Asked about the idea today, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said it was not happening yet but it remained under consideration.
“We’re going to take medical advice on that, and I know the Chief Medical Officer has many sleepless nights over this one because we ask him about it regularly,” he said.
“He is constantly talking to his colleagues overseas, places like Israel, the UK and many other places, to understand what the experience there is.
Mr Morrison said the current advice was that 30 per cent of cases remained infectious after five days, and the risk of changing the isolation period was too great.
But it is clear that may change as leaders look abroad for ideas.
What’s going on elsewhere around the world?
Just after Christmas, the United States made a dramatic move as it faced an enormous surge in Omicron cases and growing workforce shortages.
It halved the isolation period for COVID-19 cases from 10 days down to five, noting that many Omicron cases were asymptomatic and society had to continue functioning.
It sparked a similar rethink of isolation periods in a number of European countries, which cut their isolation periods from 10 days down to seven.
The UK this week cut its isolation period to five full days, with negative rapid antigen tests required on days five and six.
Germany too recently made changes, reducing isolation periods to five days (with a negative test) for workers in critical sectors, and seven days (with a negative test) for everyone else.
And some countries have cut their isolation periods even deeper.
In Singapore, those who test positive can leave isolation after 72 hours, as long as they are asymptomatic and test negative on a rapid test.
What do health experts say?
Australia’s seven-day rule remains clearly in line with international standards.
While some countries have relaxed rules further, others are sticking with longer periods.
Epidemiologist Catherine Bennett said reducing the isolation time was unlikely to lead to lead to more cases because people often contracted the virus days before they tested positive.
“The thing is, by the time people realise they have the infection — and it seems to be shorter infection with Omicron particularly if you’ve been vaccinated — it might mean that five days is actually more than adequate,” she said.
“That [five-day period] is going to cover most people for their infectious period, and for the ones that aren’t [covered they] will have a low level of infectiousness.”
Asked about the idea earlier this week, Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said he was watching what was going on overseas.
“Some are at seven [days isolation], some are at 10, some are still at 14,” he said.
“And both the CDC in Atlanta and the European equivalent in Stockholm admit there is no evidence behind [the decision to cut isolation periods].
“It is a decision of balance. It’s a decision about workforces and a trade-off with increased transmission in the community.”
National cabinet meets tomorrow. And as most states continue to grapple with workforce shortages, the issue is bound to be discussed again.