The Victorian government says it will back a nationally consistent approach to COVID-19 isolation rules, as NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet asks the national cabinet to scrap the requirement in a move towards “personal responsibility”.

One scenario under possible consideration by state and federal leaders would require workers in high-risk settings to isolate – to minimise the risk of outbreaks in aged care and hospitals, for example – but end the rule for others.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and his NSW counterpart, Dominic Perrottet, have joined forces for various causes recently.Credit:Justin McManus

A Victorian government spokeswoman said that the pandemic declaration – the legal instrument that the state uses to enforce public health orders – would only be kept while it was necessary. The declaration is due to expire in two weeks unless Premier Daniel Andrews extends the powers into the November state election.

If the requirement to isolate were removed, Victorians would be left with nearly no COVID rules.

COVID-19 has been trending down in Victoria and across the country. Last week, the state recorded an average of 1480 daily cases, down 15 per cent from the week before.

Victoria reached a winter peak of 14,312 cases a day on July 21.

Australians currently need to isolate themselves for five days after testing positive for COVID-19, reduced from seven days about a month ago, and health leaders around the country will debate on Friday whether to ditch the mandate entirely.

A Victorian government spokesman said health advice would be taken on board before a decision was made, in line with other states.

“Given high rates of vaccination and the ultimate need to normalise and treat COVID-19 as a respiratory condition, national consistency is incredibly important, and we look forward to hearing from the chief medical officer of the Commonwealth at national cabinet on Friday,” he said.

“We’ll continue to work constructively through national cabinet to ensure consistency across Australia, and have the best measures in place to support Victorians.”

Victorian Health Minister Mary-Anne Thomas, who spoke at a business lunch on Thursday, did not address the mandatory isolation debate but said increasing public freedoms in 2022 had challenged the state’s health services.

“This year has been in many ways the most difficult of all, because as those of us outside the health service system have enjoyed greater freedoms, that’s meant there’s been more COVID in our community, and it’s our healthcare workers who have really borne the brunt of that.”

Perrottet said on Thursday that Australia needed to move away from public health orders and towards personal responsibility.

“I believe we need to get to a point where if you’re sick, you stay at home, and if you’re not, you get out and about and enjoy life,” he said.

Perrottet said he had already discussed the matter with some state counterparts and would lobby for the isolation period to be removed on Friday.

South Australian Premier Peter Malinauskas said national consistency and health advice were key to making any decisions.

ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr said isolation restrictions were only recently eased following a significant drop in transmission and “any change should be measured and gradual”.

The Tasmanian and Northern Territory governments both said they would listen to the health advice to find the right balance, as did Western Australia, with a spokesman for Premier Mark McGowan saying he would not preempt the discussion at national cabinet.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese held his first national cabinet meeting in June.Credit:Rhett Wyman

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk was unable to be reached for comment on Thursday afternoon.

Burnet Institute director Brendan Crabb, who opposes the change to isolation rules, said the idea that allowing more people to be infected with COVID-19 was “good for business” needed to be challenged.

However, the infectious disease researcher said he felt his views were now a minority.

“The fact we’re headed for 20,000 deaths this year, I would have thought, normally, [that] would be front-page news. Imagine a big wave hit the coast, and we lost 20,000 people. It would be the biggest news story in Australia.”

Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton’s most recent advice to the premier regarding the pandemic declaration, provided on August 29, said isolation requirements were necessary and that COVID-19 would pose an ongoing public health risk in the immediate and medium-term future.

He referred to August 2022 modelling by the Victorian government that found the winter wave would have been 50 per cent more deadly without isolation, mask or rapid testing rules.

“A recent survey of the Victorian community indicated that in the absence of pandemic declaration requirements, voluntary case isolation could fall to one-third of current levels,” Sutton said.

Sutton said one-quarter of respondents did not get tested while experiencing symptoms in August, and one-third did not report a positive rapid antigen test to the Department of Health.

But he acknowledged the declaration and public health requirements cannot be extended indefinitely.

The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, which advises the national cabinet on COVID-19, said it was reasonable for community sentiment to be considered when weighing up changes to isolation rules.

It said the government would also have to consider what would happen in the face of a new surge of cases, a need for ongoing testing and how workplaces would manage COVID-positive staff.

Allen Cheng, professor of infectious diseases and epidemiology at Monash University and former co-chair of Australia’s vaccine advisory group, said if mandatory isolation laws were lifted, the onus would fall on workplaces to enforce their own rules about when employees should come back to work and whether testing is mandatory.

“If one workplace says, ‘just come back to work’, and the next workplace says, ‘you can come back in three days’, you can see how that could cause confusion,” Cheng said.

“Is it reasonable to require this from the community at this stage of the pandemic?”

Cheng said it was much easier to abolish rules than reinstate them.

“It would be very difficult, if we have a surge in cases in December, to then tell everyone they needed to go back into mandatory isolation [if they test positive]. I hope [national cabinet] is having those discussions now, rather than having to make those decisions on the hop,” he said.

Epidemiologist James McCaw said he believed Australia was entering the “end phase” of the pandemic.

But if mandatory isolation was scrapped, he said it was crucial people still get tested and report COVID cases so governments could respond accordingly.

“For instance, if there was a variant that appears that is more virulent – which is a possibility – we need to know about it and that requires people to test and report,” McCaw said.

Mask mandates, one of the last remaining rules, were lifted on public transport and in taxis last Friday.

On Thursday, the Therapeutic Goods Association said children aged six months to five years old had been approved for Pfizer COVID-19 boosters.

With Angus Thompson and Tom Rabe

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