Current context of COVID-19
On 5 May 2023, the World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General announced the determination of the International Health Regulations 2005 (IHR) Emergency Committee for COVID-19 that COVID-19 no longer constituted a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC).
The WHO Director-General stated COVID-19 remained a serious threat to global health and, while countries should avoid complacency, it is time to transition from emergency mode to managing COVID-19 alongside other infectious diseases.
Epidemiological data supports this position. COVID-19 remains a serious infectious disease but is no longer a public health emergency. We can expect continuing waves of infection across the next few years, but at this stage current and emerging variants pose similar risks to other circulating Omicron strains. Continued uptake of protective behaviours such as vaccination and other mitigation strategies are now more appropriate than an emergency response.
The primary aim of COVID-19 vaccination continues to be to reduce the risk of serious illness and death. Current vaccines are very effective in preventing serious disease (including death) in most people, but COVID-19 still poses a significant health threat to older Australians and people with multiple co-morbidities.
With the wide availability and uptake of vaccination and oral treatments for COVID-19, the risks for the Australian population have reduced and public health measures taken by the Commonwealth, state and territory governments have changed accordingly.
Australia has shifted to managing COVID-19 consistent with other common communicable diseases, focusing on prevention, reducing transmission and management of serious illness, hospitalisations and death.
On this basis, the AHPPC supports the Chief Medical Officer’s assessment that there is no longer a need for COVID-19 to be considered a CDINS.
What does the removal of a CDINS mean for the COVID-19 public health response in Australia?
Removal of the CDINS declaration acknowledges that COVID-19 no longer requires national emergency coordination and cross government arrangement of response activities and communications under the high-level crisis management arrangements outlined in the Australian Government Crisis Management Framework.
Most national coordination and response measures that were implemented as part of the CDINS (e.g. international border restrictions, universal isolation and quarantine requirements, and enhanced infection prevention and control) have already been stood down in Australia, in alignment with WHO advice.
COVID-19 remains a public health threat
COVID-19 poses continuing risks for some people in Australia, especially older people, aged care residents, people with disabilities and people with serious health conditions. Advice on protection against COVID-19 should be seen in the context of protection against other respiratory viruses which also pose risks to some people. People should stay up-to-date with recommended vaccinations. Those at high risk of severe disease may wish to consider wearing a mask when in crowded indoor settings during periods of increased respiratory viral transmission/activity and meet with others in well-ventilated spaces. People who are eligible for antiviral treatments are encouraged to have a plan to access testing if they develop symptoms and to access treatment as soon as possible if they have a positive COVID-19 or influenza test.
All people in Australia should continue to be mindful of the symptoms of COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses and stay home when unwell to minimise transmission to other people. Wearing a mask when visiting settings with people at higher risk of serious disease such as aged care facilities, particularly in times of high respiratory viral activity, should be considered to reduce the risk to others.
A range of measures to respond to COVID-19 are not linked to the CDINS and will continue as outlined below.
Vaccines and Treatments
COVID-19 vaccines remain free and widely available for everyone in Australia.
There are two COVID-19 oral antiviral treatments listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) – nirmatrelvir and ritonavir (Paxlovid®) and molnupiravir (Lagevrio®). The removal of the CDINS declaration will not affect the availability of these medicines through the PBS.
The Australian Government, through the National Medical Stockpile, continues to deploy supplies of personal protective equipment and rapid antigen tests to populations more vulnerable, including through residential aged care homes and Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services, along with COVID-19 treatments which also go to all state and territory health departments for supply to high priority populations.
Remaining vigilant to changes
The Australian Government along with states and territories will maintain targeted surveillance through well-established national and sentinel surveillance programs. Surveillance will focus on monitoring key indicators, including syndromic information, disease severity, SARS-CoV-2 variants and impacts on high-risk groups. This will ensure that the spread and effect of COVID-19 is effectively monitored so we can respond to changes and new variants as they occur in a proportionate way.
Data and reports on COVID-19 will continue to be published and updated regularly. As our response to the pandemic evolves, the availability and reliability of particular metrics, such as case information, has decreased. COVID-19 reporting will transition to focus on indicators with the greatest public health relevance. In addition, recognising that week-to-week changes in data do not demonstrate clear trends, reporting frequency will be reduced to allow more meaningful assessments of disease transmission and impact over time. This will bring COVID-19 reporting more in line with other infectious disease reporting.
In recognition of the shift to managing COVID-19 consistent with other common communicable diseases, several published AHPPC statements on COVID-19 will be archived.
The AHPPC will continue to monitor developments and will issue updated guidance should future developments warrant it.