A plan to further scale back access to PCR testing and mental health support has disability advocates worried.
On Monday (12 December), the Federal Government released its pathway forward for managing the pandemic as waves of COVID-19 are expected regularly over the next two years.
Australia’s chief medical officer Paul Kelly said the severity of these waves was still unclear.
The 2023 pandemic management plan touted a $2.9 billion investment in COVID-19 measures and outlined how the virus would begin to be treated like other respiratory diseases.
The government confirmed that vaccines would continue to be secured and booster uptake would still be encouraged.
It also revealed mental health appointments would revert back to 10, the number provided before the pandemic.
In 2020, the Morrison government doubled the number of Medicare-funded mental health sessions available to patients each year from 10 to 20.
Monday’s plan further stated COVID-19 PCR testing would require a medical referral from January next year.
However, the Department of Health has since stressed that PCR testing will still be free to those who need it and current arrangements will remain essentially unchanged next year.
Patients may, however, need a referral from a doctor or nurse practitioner to get a Medicare-funded PCR test.
People will be able to access COVID antivirals after returning either a positive PCR or RAT test.
The plan stated that low-risk individuals will no longer be required to seek PCR testing.
ACT Health has confirmed it will continue to provide PCR testing from 1 January at the Garran testing clinic.
Testing will be available for people who work in high-risk settings or provide in-home aged care or disability care, have a referral from their GP or another clinician, are unable to use a RAT or have had a negative RAT but still have symptoms (you can test again in 24 hours using a RAT or have a PCR test).
Anyone who does not meet these criteria will instead receive a free rapid antigen test.
ACT Health said it is working with the Commonwealth Government to understand what these changes mean for Commonwealth-funded testing facilities in the ACT.
Disability advocates are concerned by the 2023 plan.
CEO of Advocacy for Inclusion Craig Wallace told Region that any further scaleback of access to PCR testing could make it even more difficult for vulnerable people to access antivirals, which are so needed.
“That means people who are vulnerable to COVID-19 are even more so because they don’t know if people around them have tested positive,” Mr Wallace said.
“Even in the ACT, there is no longer drive-through testing available which means people with transport and mobility issues can’t access it.
“The access pathway for antivirals also remains unclear.”
Advocates are also worried about the mental health toll years of being effectively trapped in their homes has had on the country’s most vulnerable and, ultimately, they don’t believe governments are still effectively responding to the pandemic.
“We don’t advocate for lockdowns, but we do advocate for there to be efforts to control the transmission of COVID-19 so it becomes like the measles and outbreaks are stamped out,” Mr Wallace said.
“We need guaranteed rights for people who are sick, vulnerable and immunocompromised to get through this and have continued safe access to health facilities.”