The national cabinet, comprising Prime Minister Scott Morrison and state and territory leaders, on Wednesday night also agreed that testing would be expanded to include hospital patients with fever and acute respiratory symptoms of unknown cause, at the discretion of the treating clinician.
States and territories have the discretion to expand their own criteria for testing in the future if they have capacity.
Currently doctors will agree to test patients only if they have returned from overseas in the past 14 days and developed a respiratory illness with or without fever, have been in close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case in the past 14 days and have symptoms or have severe community-acquired pneumonia and there is no clear cause.
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Mr Morrison said the enhanced measures would support efforts to quickly test and trace coronavirus in the community and slow the spread to save lives.
“Every extra bit of time allows us to better prepare our health system and put measures in place to protect Australian lives,” Mr Morrison said.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt stressed that Australia was seeing a very low numbers of positive tests.
“We have one of the broadest testing regimes in the world by per cent of population, but interestingly one of the lowest levels of positive tests and the highest levels of negative tests,” he said on Wednesday.
“What that says is we’re not just testing in big numbers, we are testing very broadly and scooping up a very high percentage of the population.”
National Cabinet endorsed the recommendation for states and territories to suspend all non-urgent elective surgery.
It agreed to extend the deadline for the suspension of semi-urgent category two and three elective surgeries at private hospitals to 11.59pm on April 1.
States and territories have vowed to continue to work with private hospital groups to ensure they can support efforts to protect Australians.
The changes will allow greater transition for the community to the new arrangements and ensure the national supply of essential equipment – such as masks, gowns, gloves and goggles for the healthcare workforce.
The group also agreed to implement nationally consistent public health directions, at the state and territory level, on self-quarantine for individuals diagnosed with coronavirus.
Rob Harris is the National Affairs Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra