National Cabinet met today to discuss a range of significant national issues, including our response to COVID-19, the vaccine rollout and booster programme and the Omicron strain. Since the beginning of the pandemic there have been 264,909 confirmed cases in Australia and, sadly, 2,162 people have died. More than 52.5 million tests have been undertaken. Testing has increased nationally over recent days with 1,910,354 million tests reported in the past 7 days. Globally there have been over 276.1 million cases and sadly over 5.3 million deaths, with 762,213 new cases and 7,797 deaths reported in the last 24 hours. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to surge in many countries around the world. Australia’s COVID-19 vaccine roll out continues to expand. To date 41.7 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in Australia, including 207,329 in the previous 24 hours. In the previous 7 days, more than 1.16 million vaccines have been administered in Australia. More than 94 per cent of the Australian population aged 16 years and over have now had a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, including over 98 per cent of over 50 year olds and more than 99 per cent of over 70 year olds. More than 90.7 per cent of Australians aged 16 years and over are now fully vaccinated including more than 96.2 per cent of over 50 year olds and more than 99 per cent of Australians over 70 years of age. Over 1.6 million booster doses have been administered. Australia has sufficient supplies of boosters, with over 20 million mRNA vaccines in stock in Australia. Yesterday over 156,000 boosters were administered across Australia. Over 50 per cent of those eligible for boosters have had a booster and almost 20 per cent of Australians aged 70 years of age and over have had a booster in the last 6 weeks since the booster program commenced. National Cabinet noted that 5-11 year old vaccinations are on track to commence on 10 January 2021. National Cabinet will meet again on 7 January 2022. Omicron National Cabinet received a detailed briefing from the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Professor Paul Kelly on the Omicron strain which was first detected in Australia less than four weeks ago. Australia has faced many challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic and Australians have always been up to the challenge. The Omicron strain is the next challenge facing Australia. Living with COVID-19 means living with COVID- variants. Evidence about the characteristics of Omicron is still emerging, but early trends seen both internationally and within Australia suggest Omicron has a current estimated doubling time of 2-3 days and case numbers are expected to increase significantly within a short time period. While Omicron shows an extremely rapid growth rate, it is uncertain if this is due to inherently higher transmissibility than the Delta variant, or if this is primarily driven by immune escape. However, early indications around hospitalisation, ICU admission and death show that Omicron could be far less severe than Delta and other variants. Importantly, after almost four weeks of Omicron in Australia, there has been only one confirmed Omicron case in ICU and no deaths. States and territories have confirmed that hospitals and health systems remain in a strong position despite rising cases - with all states and territory health systems working within capacity. National Cabinet agreed that no jurisdiction wants to return to lockdowns. Omicron - public health social measures responses Public Health and Social Measures have continued to help moderate the pace COVID-19 spread throughout the pandemic, and will continue to do so with Omicron. In response to the Omicron variant, National Cabinet has noted new AHPPC advice on public health response options and that individual jurisdictions would be making responses as appropriate. There is a strong recommendation for indoor mask wearing. While states and territories make decisions on requirements for mask use, all Australians are encouraged to take personal responsibility for wearing a mask. Mask wearing in indoor areas will be in addition to existing measures including strong personal hygiene and social distancing. Boosters National Cabinet received a detailed update on the Australia’s COVID-19 vaccination program from Lieutenant General John Frewen, Coordinator General of Operation COVID Shield Australians are stepping forward to get booster shots in record numbers. National Cabinet noted that the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) recommended that booster vaccines be administered to all people 18 years and over five-months after the completion of a primary vaccine course. Booster vaccines are a key pillar in our response to COVID-19 and play a central role in curtailing the developing Omicron outbreak. National Cabinet agreed that decisions on changing booster intervals is a decision for ATAGI. National Cabinet has sought further advice from ATAGI on which groups should be prioritised for booster shots as this will be important to reducing Omicron transmission in the community. To fast track boosters, National Cabinet agreed to significantly increase distribution capacity, with the aim of reaching Australia’s previous high daily vaccination levels. States and territories committed to increasing capacity at state clinics to previous peak levels during the vaccination program. The Commonwealth outlined that it will introduce a time limited booster incentive payment of $10 for Primary Care providers, including General Practices, Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services, community pharmacies and Commonwealth Vaccination Clinics, for administration of COVID-19 booster vaccines delivered under the Commonwealth Vaccination Program. The booster incentive payment will be effective from 23 December 2021, and cease on 30 June 2022. The additional payment will support flexibility for primary care providers to run additional clinics and to engage more staff. The payment will be made to primary care providers through existing payment mechanisms. Test, Trace, Isolate and Quarantine (TTIQ) National Cabinet agreed there is a need for consistent definitions for close and casual contacts across Australia. Given increasing Omicron case numbers, current definitions and arrangements are becoming less useful for implementing effective TTIQ, may deter people from checking in and require too much of the workforce to be in isolation. National Cabinet agreed that the Chief Medical Officer, consulting with AHPPC, will bring forward a consistent definition of close and casual contacts to the next meeting of National Cabinet including whether only limited close contacts are required to take PCR testing and home isolation. This will include specific advice on close contacts in health and aged care settings noting the impact on the workforce from furloughing a fully vaccinated staff; and advice on close contacts on domestic airlines, with home isolation of crews and passengers impacting operation and confidence in domestic travel. National Cabinet noted that the role of QR systems would change in the context of high caseloads, with a greater focus on the use of QR systems to provide information to people of the COVID situation in places they have been. National Cabinet further noted the significant impacts on TTIQ systems from testing for travel. Between one in four PCR tests in Victoria and one in five in New South Wales are tests for travel under state public health orders for travel to Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and Western Australia. National Cabinet agreed that the Chief Medical Officer, consulting with AHPPC will be tasked with providing consistent advice on testing priorities, including considering removing requirements for test for travel and use of RAT for travel. National Cabinet further noted that the Commonwealth Government will extend COVID-19 rapid antigen testing (RAT) kits to Residential Aged Care Facilities and short term restorative care (aged care services) in areas of high prevalence of COVID-19, as defined by the Communicable Disease Network of Australia (CDNA). RATs will be provided for screening of workers and to anyone who needs to enter a service including family members, when there is an outbreak to protect this vulnerable population.