Health authorities have given the green light for a “winter jab” to become available for millions of high-risk Australians, and pre-flight testing for arrivals will be scrapped under significant changes to living with the virus.
The federal health minister, Greg Hunt, announced international arrivals will no longer need to be tested for Covid-19 prior to travel after 17 April when the government’s biosecurity emergency determination lapses.
Hunt said international arrivals would still need to be fully vaccinated to enter Australia and wear masks on flights.
Hunt also announced that on Friday the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (Atagi) had officially recommended a second booster shot for adults 65 years and over, Indigenous Australians 50 years and over, as well as aged care and disability residents.
The booster jab will become available from 4 April for the eligible groups at pharmacies, general practices, state, commonwealth and Indigenous medical clinics in anticipation of a Covid surge.
On the same day, the commonwealth will begin rolling out its winter flu program to a similar cohort as well as children under five, pregnant women and Indigenous Australians of all age demographics.
“I’ve now received advice from the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation – and they’ve worked very closely with Professor Kelly – and they have recommended that there should be a winter dose, or second booster, or, in some cases, that will be known as a fourth dose, for particular groups of people,” Hunt said.
“We gave complete freedom to Atagi, and Paul and his team have worked very closely with the medical experts, and I thank them for their work.
“They’ve probably considered this more closely than almost any other decision, in reaching those outcomes.”
A fourth vaccine was previously restricted to severely immunocompromised people 16 years and over, between four and six months after receiving a first booster shot.
The new dose can be provided at the same time as an annual flu vaccine, with at-risk Australians encouraged to receive both vaccinations before winter hits.
It comes just days after the NHS in England recommended a fourth vaccination for a similar cohort, as Covid cases continued to spike among the elderly population.
South Korea and Israel are also recommending a fourth dose for elderly people and vulnerable cohorts, while Pfizer and BioNTech have emergency authorisation from the US Food and Drug Administration for a fourth dose among the over-65s.
New South Wales recorded 23,702 new Covid cases on Friday and seven further deaths. There were 1,182 people being treated in hospital with the virus, including 43 people requiring intensive care.
Victoria recorded 9,244 new Covid cases and nine deaths on Friday. There were 253 people hospitalised with the virus and 19 in intensive care.
On 10 March, the NSW health minister, Brad Hazzard, warned Covid cases were expected to double in the state within six weeks as the Omicron subvariant BA.2 spreads.
Since then, Covid cases have jumped by some 7,000 in NSW while hospitalisations have stayed relatively stable, as have the numbers of patients in intensive care beds.
“We are down to 24 people on ventilation for Covid in Australia, that’s down from 206 who were on ventilation in October,” Hunt said on Friday.
“And cases will rise and they will fall and at times we will see an increase in the number of people who are either in ICU … and our ventilation is key indicator.
“The system is strong, the system is robust, every state, every state and territory is prepared.”
It comes as the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) urges the commonwealth to launch a media campaign encouraging the general population to take up the booster shot.
While some 95% of eligible Australians have received their second vaccine, booster rates continue to lag. As of 13 March, only 65.6% of eligible people had received a third vaccine dose, while in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, just 49.4% had the jab.