Queensland’s COVID-19 testing rules make ‘no scientific sense’, expert warns, as tourism industry welcomes easing regulations

Queensland's watered-down new COVID-19 testing regime for arrivals fails to account for the faster infection time of the Omicron variant and travellers should be tested just before they cross the border, a leading infectious diseases expert has warned.

Key points:

  • Mary-Louise McLaws says travellers should be tested just before and a day after crossing the border, not 72 hours in advance
  • The scrapping of the five-day test rule yesterday came after testing clinics in tourist hotspots were overwhelmed
  • Tourism operators say the removal of the day-five test removes another barrier for visitors

Mary-Louise McLaws was responding to the Queensland government's snap move to scrap a requirement to test interstate travellers five days after they entered the state.

Interstate travellers now only have to get a negative PCR test 72 hours before they cross into Queensland, a move that has been welcomed by the state's frustrated tourism industry, but one that has angered New South Wales health authorities, where the tests are putting additional strain on that state's testing services.

Announcing the changes yesterday, Queensland's Chief Health Officer John Gerrard said he recommended the day-five PCR testing rule be scrapped after finding that only 0.6 per cent out of 24,084 tests of interstate visitors were positive for COVID-19.

That testing had been done in the seven days leading up to December 26 in south-east Queensland.

The "positivity rate" in that day-five test was so low it was "not contributing in any way to the safety of Queenslanders", Dr Gerrard said.

UPDATES: Read our round-up of the latest news on the COVID-19 pandemic COVID testing lines at Noosa Leisure Centre. (ABC News: Jessica Lamb)

However, Professor McLaws said that, due to the infectiousness of the Omicron variant, Queensland should be testing new arrivals just before they crossed the border, and again one day after entering the state.

She said testing people 72 hours before they arrived in Queensland was a waste of time because, with variants such as Omicron and even Delta, they could become infected within the 72 hours after being tested.

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"The 72-hour period to test makes no scientific sense with Omicron or Delta, and it needs to be scrapped, and people need to have a test before they board a plane or cross the border,'' said Professor McLaws, who also advises the World Health Organization.

"Omicron looks to be a 70 per cent faster multiplication of the virus."

Professor McLaws added that another test was still needed one day after people crossed the border to ensure they had not been infected during the travelling period.

Queensland Health has been contacted for comment.

On Tuesday, Queensland recorded 1,158 new cases of COVID-19, with no people in ICU and only six cases in hospital receiving care for COVID-19 symptoms.

Testing centres across Queensland struggling with demand Cars at COVID-19 testing queues at James Cook University in Townsville.(ABC North Queensland: Zilla Gordon)

The changes came as testing centres were being overwhelmed across Queensland.

In Townsville on Tuesday, resident Jim Greatorex, a close contact of a confirmed case, said he had given up trying to get tested after finding queues kilometres long at one venue and people being turned away by police at another.

Police told them they would have to try to get tested again on Wednesday.

"Even tomorrow, I think it's going to be a struggle," he said.

Pop-up clinics provided some relief but hundreds were also turned away on the Sunshine Coast.

Noosa resident Jo Braithwaite.(ABC News: Jessica Lamb)

Local Jo Braithwaite was in line about midday at the Queensland Ambulance service pop-up testing clinic at the Noosa Leisure Centre.

Her husband flew in from Fiji on Monday and they are both undertaking home quarantine.

They must have a test on day one and day 12.

The testing line at Murrarie stretched for more than a kilometre. (ABC News: Alice Pavlovic)

She said the couple had tried multiple testing sites, which were all closed.

"It's been tough … it's great to see this open."

Meanwhile tourism operators and visitors welcomed the new rules, while some called for further relaxations.

Patricia O’Callaghan says tourists will now be able to spend more time at local attractions.(Supplied: Townsville Enterprise)

Destination Gold Coast chief executive Patricia O'Callaghan said the announcement had removed another barrier for the tourism industry in the city and operators had been calling for the change.

"It means our visitors will spend more time at our world class-tourism attractions rather than waiting in line or for test results," she said.

"Every minute and every hour they can spend is more time experiencing the best of the Gold Coast."

Bella Casa Noosa resort manager Tahlia Spencer said the feedback from guests had been positive for the industry.

"People were frustrated with having to stop their beach holiday to go and line up in excess of three to four hours," she said.

Ms Spencer explained the day-five tests often came at the end of travellers' holidays and had even made some miss check-out.

Victorian friends Emma Peleg and Mark with Mark's children Mika and Max at Broadbeach on the Gold Coast.(ABC News: Heidi Sheehan)

Emma Peleg and her family have just arrived on the Gold Coast from inner-city Melbourne.

"We moved our trip forward so we could make sure we got here before any of the rules [changed] again," Ms Peleg said.

She said her family had not had a holiday in almost two years — so news that the day-five PCR test requirement had been axed came as a relief.

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Queensland Airports Limited chief executive Chris Mills said simplifying the process to travel was a step in the right direction, but full confidence would only return to the industry when testing requirements to enter the state were done away with.

"I think it's really positive news. It's certainly a step in the right direction. We've seen some good numbers coming through the airport. The simpler we can make the whole process, the less testing, the less requirements, the more people are going to be travelling," he said.

"In the last 10 days, we've had about 116,000 passengers come through the airport, which is more than the previous four months combined — so that shows that people are keen to travel.

"If the PCR testing requirement three days before travel is done away with, I think that will really motivate people to travel.

"It's just keeping it simple, not having to worry about queuing and getting tests. They're all the things that mean people will be able to travel and not be stressed."

Archie Jamieson, Gold Coast Skydive.(ABC News: Alexandria Utting)

Gold Coast Skydive operator Archie Jamieson said removing the requirement would make it easier for those who had started booking dives into 2022.

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"It will take a lot of pressure off the testing centres because it's been pretty out of control, the waiting times," he said.

"I know it's turned a lot of people off.

"It's one thing to say get one before you come but then people think, 'I've got into my holiday and now I've got to get another.'"

Also on the Gold Coast, entertainment guru Billy Cross said the high numbers in testing queues in the city prior to the day-five PCR test being scrapped showed just how many people were coming to the Gold Coast.

"I think the rapid antigen test is the way forward and we need more of them," he said.

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.WatchDuration: 6 minutes 19 seconds6m How to take a rapid antigen testWhat you need to know about coronavirus:

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Source: https://www.abc.net.au/news

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