Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has assured that people with a heightened risk of COVID-19 will still be able to get free PCR tests.
Under changes to the national plan to deal with the virus, a referral from a medical or nurse practitioner will be needed for patients to receive a free PCR test at locations not run by a state or territory government.
State- or territory-operated PCR clinics will be able to accept patients without referrals, with the government extending 50-50 funding arrangements for jurisdictions choosing to keep them running.
The changes are part of a $2.8 billion reworking of the country’s pandemic response plan, which aims to treat COVID like any other respiratory virus.
While the prime minister said there was less demand for PCR tests than at previous heights of the pandemic, those more at risk would still be able to be tested without charge.
“PCR tests will still be very much available to people who are immunocompromised and to people who are vulnerable,” he told ABC Radio on Tuesday.
“What is occurring is that, upon the advice of the health professionals, (we are) gradually moving towards treating this like other respiratory diseases.”
Access to antivirals will be provided following a positive PCR or rapid antigen test.
Older Australians, Indigenous people and those with a disability will be prioritised for PCR testing.
Opposition health spokeswoman Anne Ruston said clear messaging was needed to keep people safe.
“We all accept that we are going to have to live with COVID but the best thing governments can do is to be consistent,” she said.
Australian Medical Association president Steve Robson said it was important to ensure testing remained accessible for vulnerable people, as well as those financially disadvantaged or distant from a doctor.
Prof Robson said the changes were going to come in while a COVID-19 wave was occurring.
The government will also be halving the number of subsidised psychology appointments available to people from next year.
Prof Robson said the mental health changes should also be carefully monitored to ensure the vulnerable were not affected.
Disability advocate Dr Beth O’Brien said it was important to provide broad access to tests.
“While I recognise that the announcement has said people with disability and other high-risk groups will be able to continue to get PCRs, it’s also about the people around us,” she said.
Ms Ruston said the extra appointments were still needed for large numbers of people.
“The government really needs to come clean on why it’s made a decision at this time when we know people are still very much in need of the supports.”
Young Liberal Movement federal president Clark Cooley said young Australians would be impacted.
“Young Australians will be especially affected by these cuts as we face a national youth mental health crisis,” he said.
Meanwhile, NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard has tested positive to the virus for the second time this year.