The private health sector has welcomed the federal government's decision to ease restrictions on elective surgery.
Prime minister Scott Morrison made the announcement with health minister Greg Hunt and chief medical officer Professor Brendan Murphy following a meeting of the National Cabinet on Tuesday.
The recent decision to shut down all but category one elective surgery was made as preparation for the worst-case pandemic scenario under which tens of thousands of people would be presenting to hospitals with COVID-19. It led to the effective temporary nationalisation of Australia's 30,000 private hospital beds and the integration of its workforce into the public health system.
The federal government said the decision to ease restrictions from 27 April on elective surgery follows the sustained flattening in the number of cases of COVID-19 and its acquisition of medical supplies like ventilators and face masks.
The restrictions will be lifted in what governments described as a 'staged and controlled process' that will need to balance elective surgery with maintaining the capacity to treat COVID-19 patients.
The National Cabinet endorsed advice from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC), which is chaired by Professor Murphy, that established guidelines for selecting what elective surgery to conduct.
Restrictions will be eased on procedures representing low risk and high-value care, for patients who are at low risk of post-operative deterioration and children whose procedures have exceeded clinical wait times, IVF, endoscopic procedures, screening programs and critical dental procedures.
Hospitals will initially recommence one in four closed operating lists, with a focus on category two and some category three, and the federal government also announced a national a study into the asymptomatic carriage of COVID-19 in elective surgery patients.
The announcement was welcomed by a range of groups with Private Healthcare Australia describing it as "good news for Australians who are living in pain and discomfort."
According to chief executive Dr Rachel David, “Consumers can be assured that health funds will work closely with private hospitals and surgeons to safely and efficiently clear the backlog of elective procedures. Health fund members will have access to timely surgery, their doctor of choice and continuity of care.
“Australia’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic had been effective in flattening the curve, enabling the staged resumption of elective surgery earlier than anticipated. This decision will help manage short term pressures on the health system, secure the jobs of essential health workers in the private sector and reduce the post pandemic wave of pent up demand for surgery which may yet eventuate."
The Australian Private Hospitals Association said patient safety and wellbeing will be central to the phased return to elective surgery.
“Private hospitals welcome the controlled return of elective surgery, which must be conducted so patients, health care workers and other hospital staff are as safe as possible," said CEO Michael Roff.
He added, “We agree with the National Cabinet’s approach and look forward to resuming surgeries that will have a dramatic effect on the quality of life for many Australians.”
The Medical Technology Association of Australia also welcomed the announcement and the industry's contribution to working with governments to secure additional medical supplies.
“MTAA has been working closely with the Government to help secure the PPE supplies required to ensure the smooth running of our healthcare system, and we are proud to have played an important role in enabling a return to elective surgery,” said MTAA CEO Ian Burgess.