Thousands of Australians face the prospect of being unable to board flights home for Christmas as wait times for COVID tests balloon out.
The Northern Territory, Queensland and Tasmania are still asking passengers from ‘high risk’ areas to test negative via a PCR test 72 hours before departure, alongside many other international countries. However, a surge in Omicron cases has caused long queues and results to take days to process.
The testing chaos has also caused aviation staff to be forced to isolate, leading to flights being cancelled or delayed. On Thursday, 80 services departing and arriving in Sydney had already been cancelled.
A Jetstar spokesman told the Sydney Morning Herald, “Unfortunately like many people in Sydney and Melbourne, a large number of our frontline team are being required to test and isolate as close contacts given the increasing number of cases in the general community, and as a result, we have had to make some late adjustments to our schedule.
“We appreciate the frustration this causes, especially as customers are travelling for Christmas, and sincerely apologise for the impact these changes are having on travel plans.
“We are working to minimise any delays and re-accommodating passengers on flights as close as possible to their original departure times across both Jetstar and Qantas services.”
Virgin said while it was operating hundreds of services today with little to no impact, it apologised for any passengers affected by changes.
In the last week, 25,355 people have tested positive in NSW, with 164,000 tests being carried out on Thursday alone, while 9 News has reported Adelaide residents waiting more than nine hours for the procedure to be administered.
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Earlier this week, Australian Aviation reported how the Queensland government refused to drop its testing mandate, or quickly switch to lateral flow tests that can be administered at home.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison called on states to drop their requirements to free up resources for symptomatic people and close contacts.
“We’ve all seen the terrible queues and the long waits people have had,” Morrison said after Wednesday’s national cabinet meeting.
“Some 20 to 25 per cent of those people waiting are not symptomatic, they’re not a close or casual contact. They just want to travel to another state.
“This is putting unnecessary pressure on the system.”
Morrison said there was a “very good discussion” at national cabinet about testing requirements for interstate travel, including the possible switch to accepting rapid antigen testing (RAT) instead of PCR tests, but no changes have been agreed. SA has though dropped its mandate altogether.
“There was a positive discussion, and the medical expert panel will give further advice on whether testing is required at all for travel, or if we can move to the more simple measure of RAT which will reduce those queues,” he said.
However, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has said that her state won’t drop its testing requirements for new arrivals into Queensland and argued that only 10 per cent of tests performed around the country are for interstate travel purposes.
Palaszczuk did say that her government might look to accept rapid antigen testing as an alternative, should it be accepted by the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC), although not until the new year.
“We are happy to get some further advice from AHPPC about rapid antigen tests. If this is approved, we may legalise them in the new year from 1 January but between now and the new year, we will require those PCR test for people coming into our state,” she said.
NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard also urged Queensland and the other states to reconsider and said “tourism testing” was straining lab capacity.
“Tourism tests are getting in the way of actually looking after patients and clinical outcomes,” he said.
In Victoria, COVID response commander Jeroen Weimar claimed that more than a quarter of all PCR tests being conducted were for the purposes of interstate travel, and said the system was becoming clogged up over a “bureaucratic reason”.
“It is not a highly productive way to use a PCR testing system,” he said.
“The additional queues and waiting times that we’re seeing at the moment are a byproduct of that. We hope to move to a more sensible arrangement in the very near future.”
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