Frustration is mounting in Australia over low vaccination rates and changing advice on the AstraZeneca jab after outbreaks of the highly contagious Delta variant sent more parts of the country into lockdown.
The outbreaks have grown to about 150 cases, and have forced lockdowns in four major cities and renewed restrictions in several others.
Queensland imposed a snap three-day lockdown in its capital, Brisbane, and some neighbouring regions from Tuesday evening. Perth, the capital of Western Australia, began a four-day lockdown on Tuesday, joining Sydney and Darwin.
While the country has suffered 910 deaths and fewer than 31,0000 cases over the course of the pandemic – a fraction of the 181 million cases and 3.9 million deaths worldwide – the success has been hard-won. Australia closed its borders in March 2020 and has strict two-week hotel quarantine requirements for international arrivals. Melbourne, in Victoria, endured one of the world’s strictest, longest lockdowns in 2020.
But with less than 5% of the population fully vaccinated, Australia is lagging far behind almost every other developed country, fuelling fears that these sacrifices will be wasted if vaccinations are not stepped up dramatically.
On Monday night, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, widened the guidance on the AstraZeneca vaccine, saying those under 40 – rather than 60 – could receive the jab after consulting their GP.
Australians under 40 have so far been shut out from the Covid vaccine rollout as a result of concerns over blood clotting and a shortage of vaccines besides locally-produced AstraZeneca jabs, in which the government has invested heavily.
However, the president of the Australian Medical Association, Dr Omar Khorshid, said on Tuesday said he had been surprised by the move and did not endorse the prime minister’s announcement.
“It took us by surprise, and it’s hard to know how to take that announcement because I think it’s going to be a limited number of people to take it up, given that they would be going against the expert Atagi [Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation] recommendation,” Khorshid told Guardian Australia on Tuesday.
Queensland’s chief health officer, Jeannette Young, also emphasised that the position of Atagi remained unchanged, that “people under the age of 60 should preferentially get Pfizer”.
On Tuesday, Victorian state premier Daniel Andrews called for even greater restrictions on international arrivals, suggesting that the current cap be halved for the next three months to reduce the risk of further lockdowns and give the Australian government more time to increase vaccination rates.
As more than 20 million Australians, or about 80% of the population, faced lockdown and restrictions – for Darwin, the first lockdown since the pandemic began – the newly reinstated deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce, was fined $200 (£110) for failing to wear a mask inside a service station.
One “super-spreader event” that has led to the infection of multiple people points to the effectiveness of vaccines – and how a more effective procurement and rollout strategy would have prevented the latest restrictions.
Following a party held in western Sydney, 24 of the attendees tested positive for coronavirus. Only six people did not – and they were the only six people at the party who had been vaccinated.
The first known local infection of the main outbreak was a driver in Sydney in his 60s who transported international airline crew but had not been vaccinated.
The man told Channel Nine that despite his work putting him into contact with overseas travellers he had been afraid to get the AstraZeneca vaccine because of a history of blood clots in his family.