Families visiting loved ones in NSW aged-care homes will no longer have to be vaccinated against COVID-19, under changes approved by the state’s chief health officer.

The relaxation of visiting rules comes into effect from Monday after Kerry Chant announced changes to the public health order.

The move has been criticised by the Australian Medical Association, which says it sends the wrong signal as the state heads towards a third wave of COVID-19 infections.

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Individual aged-care facilities can choose to keep vaccination requirements for visitors, while staff will still be required to be fully vaccinated.

Visitor limits, which were set at two adults and two children a day, are also being scrapped, with that requirement downgraded to a recommendation.

Facilities will have to consider guidance from Dr Chant in managing visitors, including screening and rapid antigen tests, as well as making use of outdoor spaces for visits.

The changes bring vaccination requirements into line with Queensland and Victoria.

“However, NSW Health continues to urge all visitors to stay up to date with their vaccinations, as this will give them the greatest protection against severe illness,” the department said on Thursday. 

Vaccination rates among staff and residents of aged-care facilities remained high, NSW Health said.

The change in aged-care regulations follows Dr Chant’s warning last week that the state was headed for another wave of COVID-19 infections, with cases expected to surge to levels last seen in January when the virus was rampant.

She urged everyone to keep up to date with vaccinations.

“The virus has changed … we need three, or in some cases four, doses to provide the best protection against getting very sick,” Dr Chant said last week.

NSW AMA president Michael Bonning said the changes sent the wrong message “at a point in time when we’re seeing a known and rising surge of COVID cases”.

He said elderly people remained vulnerable and were more likely to have severe disease from COVID.

“It sends a bad message to the sector, that … there are fewer restrictions but also that we are not trying as hard to protect people,” Dr Bonning said.

NSW Opposition Leader Chris Minns supports the changes.

“This decision has been made at the highest level,” he said.

“I also understand it may be subject to review if circumstances change radically.”

There were 36 COVID-related deaths reported in NSW on Thursday, along with 14,235 new cases.

More than 2000 people are in hospital with the virus, and 56 of those are in intensive care.

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