Doctors fear relaxed Covid approach means next wave will smash health sector
The decision to loosen medical controls in Queensland’s public health response to Covid has doctors worried as clinical staff shortages show little sign of easing before the next viral wave hits, adding further stress to the community and a health system already severely strained.
(AAP Image/Luis Ascui)
With Queensland likely to surpass 2000 Covid deaths in coming days – with half that number recorded in the last three months – doctors and health experts have told InQueensland the timing of the new relaxed Covid approach is curious, given new daily cases remain in the thousands and another spike is still forecast to appear in December.
Queensland Health today reported 1794 new cases in the last 24 hours and one death, taking Queensland’s total Covid death toll to 1986. There are 12,751 active cases across the state, with 285 people receiving hospital care, with 12 in ICU.
Sixteen Queenslanders died from Covid on Thursday, the same day Health Minister Yvette D’Ath described the state as being in a “new stage of the pandemic” and that restrictions aimed at limiting virus transmission would be relaxed further.
D’Ath announced daily reporting of Covid statistics would be wound back and a blanket Covid-19 vaccine mandate direction for private health care workers would be lifted.
She also introduced a bill to Parliament that would weaken the influence of the chief health officer over pandemic controls, such as ordering lockdowns.
The flagged changes came a day after National Cabinet announced an easing of the Covid isolation period from seven to five days and ordered dropping mask-wearing mandates, including on planes and other high-risk settings.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the changes were necessary.
“It is, on the balance of where we’re at, a necessary change to take place and one that was supported by all states and territories,” he told ABC TV on Friday.
Rural Doctors Association of Queensland (RDAQ) president Dr Matt Masel said the timing of the relaxed measures was premature and offered no reprieve to health workers.
“It’s good to see the number of hospitalisations decreasing, but we need the numbers to stay low and for a sustained period of time to give the public health system any chance to recover,” he said.
“The reduction in case numbers is due in large part because of the strict measures that were put in place. It’s worrying that we’ve not seen any evidence that has informed this decision to relax things the moment hospitalisation numbers started to fall.”
Masel’s comments come after Australian Medical Association Queensland vice-president Nick Yim told the ABC the changes would put pressure on small business owners.
“This probably adds a little bit of confusion to the healthcare sector considering we’re mandating vaccinations in the public health sector, but we’re leaving it up to small business and the owners in the private sector,” he said.
“Healthcare workers under both sectors should be under the same legislation.”
Rural Doctors Association of Australia (RDAA) president Dr Megan Belot said her colleagues acknowledged that everyone wants to return to ‘business as usual’ as soon as possible, but not at the expense of causing another Covid wave.
“Unfortunately, we still have many thousands of Covid cases in the community and the last thing we need is for this to get further out of hand,” Belot said.
“It is possible with this recent change we will see another up-lift in cases, particularly in the short term.”
Belot said the five-day isolation applied only if people had no symptoms.
“So, if you are unwell, continue to stay home. People who work in vulnerable settings, like aged care and disability care, will still need to isolate for seven days,” she said.
“Unfortunately, it will often fall to employers and their management staff now to take responsibility for this and send anyone home who returns to work prematurely, in an effort to prevent other staff and customers being exposed.”
The RDAA will be taking part in a gathering of health professionals from across the Darling Downs this weekend in Goondiwindi, considered one of the largest rural medical conferences in Queensland.
Goondiwindi Mayor and former Queensland health minister Lawrence Springborg will open the event, before joining a panel discussion on rural health policy on Sunday where RDAA CEO Peta Rutherford will join via video from Canberra to reiterate her president’s concerns with the rush to return to pre-Covid normality.
“Covid has demonstrated the vulnerability in Australia’s health system, particularly across rural areas, with wide-spread shortages of GPs resulting in delayed patient care and increased presentations to Emergency services in public hospitals,” Belot said.
“Patients are presenting to their GP more unwell than previously, because Covid has created such increased demand on an ever-decreasing number of doctors. Patients often simply can’t get an appointment at an earlier date.”
Masel, who owns a GP clinic in Goondiwindi and will also join the panel, said it was an important time for the rural medical community to join together, with the last face-to-face event happening in 2018.
“There are a number of issues impacting rural medicine right now and events like the Gundy Muster are more important than ever because they bring the medical community together to support each other and share our concerns as well as our hopes and successes,” he said.
“On top of continuing impacts of the pandemic, we are currently facing a rural workforce crisis and RDAQ and other peak bodies are working hard behind the scenes to advocate for urgent government support to address it.
“We’re looking forward to the rural medicine policy forum this weekend where we will have the opportunity to hear directly from those being impacted.”
InQueensland state political reporter, Brad Cooper, the author of this article, has been invited to moderate Sunday’s panel discussion.