Under-40s will finally be allowed to get the AstraZeneca vaccine if they want it, while aged care workers will have to get at least one vaccine dose by mid-September, as Australia moves to “war game” its bungled vaccine program.
Scott Morrison, who spent more than two hours with the nation’s premiers and chief ministers in an “emergency” national cabinet meeting on Monday evening, emerged to announce long called-for changes to the commonwealth’s vaccine rollout.
“I can’t stress enough that the major frustration here is the virus,” Morrison said. “That is the major thing working against Australia.”
The more contagious Delta variant has spread to at least five Australian jurisdictions in the latest outbreak, which has also caused Sydney and surrounding areas to lockdown as NSW deals with its most serious Covid situation since the pandemic began.
With adequate supplies of mRNA vaccines not due until the end of the year and less than 5% of the population fully vaccinated, Morrison announced under-40s could now request AstraZeneca from their GP, with the commonwealth agreeing to indemnify doctors who administer the vaccine.
“If they are willing to go and speak to their doctor and have access to the AstraZeneca vaccine, they can do so,” he said.
“So the answer is yes, they can go and do that.”
In April, the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (Atagi) recommended Pfizer be the preferred vaccine for Australians aged 50 and under, due to ongoing concerns about the risk of blood clots. This was revised earlier in June to make Pfizer the preferred dose for people aged 60 and under.
After discussing it for the third time, the national cabinet also agreed to mandate vaccinations for aged care workers, 18 months into the pandemic. The federal government will provide $11m in grants to allow workers in the system to take time off, if needed, to be vaccinated or deal with any side-effects.
A target of mid-September has been set for all aged care workers to have their first dose of the vaccine, in a system similar to the mandatory flu vaccine.
Covid testing for all workers, including associated workers, involved with hotel quarantine, and transport, will become mandatory, after gaps were discovered in the NSW system.
People leaving hotel quarantine will also have to be tested two to three days after they depart, and low-risk domestic travellers will no longer quarantine next to higher-risk international returned travellers.
The meeting was also Daniel Andrews first since he badly injured his back earlier this year and he wasted no time inserting himself back into the conversation, pushing, along with Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, for a discussion on the future of hotel quarantine, with the Delta variant proving even more challenging to contain in the shared circulation facilities.
That’s to be discussed at the next meeting, which was to be held in person for the first time since the pandemic began, in two weeks’ time. But with Covid once again affecting much of the country, the in-person meeting has been switched to virtual, with leaders unsure of how the situation may change.
Facing increasing exasperation from the premiers and chief ministers, as well as the public, at the bungled vaccine rollout, lockdowns, and lack of pathway out of the pandemic, it was a somewhat-defensive Morrison who faced the post-national cabinet press conference.
The prime minister blamed the pandemic, and the virus for Australia’s situation, pointing to issues other countries, most notably the UK, were still experiencing, while declining to outline how Australia would join those countries in re-opening while living with the virus.
“One of the reasons why Australia is in such a unique position compared to the rest of the world is Covid is riddled through all of those countries,” he said.
“Their opportunity to ensure that the absolute calamitous impact of this virus and the new strains doesn’t impact on them is much more limited than us here in Australia, because of the success we’ve had to date.
“It would be unwise to surrender up that advantage at this point and preferably at no point. But that is a decision that would have to be made in the next year I would think.”
Morrison also said he understood the frustrations, but would not be budged from his current course.
“I know when you’re maybe midway, maybe further, through the course of this pandemic, we can grow tired and frustrated and anxious,” he said.
“I understand that. That is a perfectly normal response. But how should we go forward? Do we give into that?
“Or do we continue to show the same determination that we have showed, particularly over that first year in the pandemic and more?
“We’re able to come through and Australia was able to achieve a result in saving lives and livelihoods like virtually no other country in the world. I’d be encouraging Australians to hang in there. We don’t have a choice.
“The pandemic is still upon us. It’s the pandemic, that’s the reason why these things are happening and happening not just in Australia but in all places around the world.”
He ended the press conference with a plea for Australians to “hang in there”.
“Whether you’re the prime minister or you’re driving a cab or you’re working in a hospital, or you’re on a bus or a tram or anywhere else, we have to keep going, Australia,” he said.
“That’s my point. We’ve got to keep going and I know we will keep going and we’ll get there together as always.”
Morrison, who has received two Pfizer vaccine doses, will remain in quarantine at the Lodge until the end of the week.