School, transport vax mandates to go from tonight as COVID cases spike

COVID vaccination mandates for workers in the education and passenger transport sectors will be scrapped from midnight – as the state today recorded its second-highest daily caseload.

Unvaccinated teachers and school staff will be eligible to return to the classroom from tomorrow, provided they wear a mask at all times and take a government-provided Rapid Antigen Test daily, under new management directions for the sector.

It comes as SA recorded 5496 new cases in the 24 hours to midnight – second only to the 5679 it recorded on January 14 at the height of the Omicron surge – while hospitalisations increased by just 10 to 180, with eight people in intensive care and one on a ventilator.

The state also recorded two new deaths of people with COVID, a man in his 70s and a woman in her 80s.

State co-ordinator and police commissioner Grant Stevens told reporters this afternoon the mandate changes were “based on the advice we’ve received from agency sectors” – but said mandates across all sectors, including healthcare, would lapse once the emergency provisions giving him authority to issue directions were withdrawn.

He said that could take place within the current 28-day extension period, or at the end of it.

He said the “higher number” of daily cases “does fit with our modelling”, insisting: “It’s more about the hospitalisations than the actual case numbers.”

“Whilst the numbers are high in terms of daily numbers, it’s not outside of predictions,” he said.

“The key issue for us is hospitalisation rates and they’re within estimates at the moment as well.”

The easing of mandates in schools and the transport sector follow an earlier move to scrap the vax order for police.

The orders will be replaced with new rules for unvaccinated workers, with mask rules and daily RAT testing.

Chief public health officer Professor Nicola Spurrier took issue with the suggestion that mandates were being “scrapped” – despite eventually conceding unvaccinated staff would now be allowed to work at schools – arguing “we are using different risk mitigation”.

“I wouldn’t use the term ‘scrapping the mandates’ because it’s obviously being replaced by a CEO directive, so it still has the function of requiring all of the teachers and people that work in schools to be vaccinated,” she said.

“I think parents will understand there’s been a change to the way we operationalise the requirement for teachers to be vaccinated… we are using different risk mitigation and we have got higher rates of vaccination across our society.”

However, other authorities, including Education Department boss Rick Persse, repeatedly clarified that unvaccinated staff will be able to return to work from tomorrow – albeit under different conditions to their vaccinated colleagues.

Spurrier said she was “perfectly comfortable with the progression”, saying: “I can see to the future, and we cannot be using an emergency management declaration… we have to have another way of managing these mandates going forward.”

However, mandates in health, aged and disability care sectors will remain for now, with Spurrier saying “we are in the position of having to come up with different requirements” in those areas.

“We have to be looking at other tools,” she said.

Persse told reporters only 215 of the 31,200 staff in the sector had chosen not to be vaccinated, denying the move was a response to teacher shortages amid a spate of classroom contacts and COVID cases.

There were 562 teachers and 321 school services officers absent due to COVID-19 yesterday, including those infected and close contacts, while 4.1 per cent of students across the system reported absent for the same reasons.

“That’s not a motivating factor in this, this is something we’ve been working with the Commissioner on for months,” he said.

Persse will implement an interim managerial direction from tomorrow but will seek a week-long consultation on a new regime that stipulates staff in the sector require three jabs to be considered fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

He said “any [unvaccinated] staff coming back to the workforce will be required to wear a mask at all times and undergo a daily RAT test”.

“We’re happy to welcome them back but it will be under those conditions,” he said.

“Absolutely, we will welcome them back… as of tomorrow, provided they’re complying with those arrangements.”

He said there would still be certain environments where it was not appropriate for unvaccinated staff to work, including remote Aboriginal schools, disability units in special schools and teachers working closely with students who have underlying health conditions.

Stevens indicated the state was preparing for the end of its two-year emergency declaration, saying “we do need to transition away from that”.

“If you’re not vaccinated, there are other steps you have to take to ensure you do not pass the virus on to other people [but] vaccination is the best way to protect yourself and other people,” he said.

He said the mandates had been effective as “steps to get vaccination rates up as quickly as possible in appropriate sectors”.

“When the declaration under the Emergency Act ceases, all of these mandates will fall away,” he said.

“It’s not possible to forecast exactly when we think it might expire [but] I am considering where the opportunities are to revoke that declaration – either during the current 28 day period or at the end of it.”

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