The rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine in Australia has been brought forward to mid-to-late February with the Morrison government aiming to have four million receive the jab by March.
Announcing the accelerated rollout on Thursday, the prime minister Scott Morrison also indicated it would be up to the states and territories to decide whether the vaccine could be made compulsory for some groups, such as aged care workers.
Australia is aiming to complete Therapeutic Goods Administration approval of the Pfizer vaccine by late January, after which it will take up to two weeks to be delivered and up to a week for batch-testing. The AstraZeneca vaccine is expected to be approved in February.
Morrison set out a process to begin vaccination, with the first recipients being high-priority groups including 700,000 frontline workers in the health sector, border enforcement, hotel quarantine, aged care, and disability care; and residents of aged and disability care.
Morrison said starting with 80,000 vaccinations a week, Australia would aim to ramp that up in order to vaccinate four million people by the end of March.
The second tier of six million recipients is made up of Australians aged over 70, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders over 55, healthcare workers, younger adults with underlying health conditions and emergency services workers.
The third tier to gain access will be those aged 50 to 59, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders aged between 18 and 54. The fourth tier consists of the rest of the adult population, while children under 18, if recommended, will be the last to receive the vaccination.
As recently as 28 December, the health minister Greg Hunt said that the vaccination will be “free, universal and entirely voluntary”.
But on Thursday, Morrison revealed states and territories will need to achieve “national consistency in public health orders, which is the process by which any requirement to have a vaccine is made legal across Australia”.
He said that states and territories were yet to decide “where if, in any cases, there is a requirement to have that vaccine”.
Asked how this could be reconciled with earlier assurances the vaccine would be voluntary, Morrison replied: “It is voluntary. But that is an important discussion on the public health and safety that needs to be had with states and territories, who are responsible for public health.”
The comments leave open the possibility states could mandate the vaccine, but Morrison dismissed this as “over-interpretation”.
On Thursday the secretary of the health department, Brendan Murphy, recommitted that the vaccine will be free with “no barrier whatsoever” such as out-of-pocket costs.
On 23 December, the Labor leader Anthony Albanese called for an accelerated rollout of Covid-19 vaccines after they receive approval by the Therapeutic Goods Administration, a call later echoed across the political spectrum and by independent experts who want faster vaccination to respond to the UK super-strain.
At the time, Hunt characterised Albanese’s call as irresponsible, but has since announced two revisions in the vaccine rollout timetable.
Asked about repeated assurances Australia was at the front of the queue for vaccines, Morrison explained it had taken a “cautious” approach to preserve public confidence in the vaccines.
Hunt argued the rollout is in line with other countries that have opted against emergency approvals due to lower coronavirus case numbers, such as New Zealand, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.
“Safety leads to confidence, and confidence leads to higher vaccine take-up,” he said.
Ahead of a national cabinet meeting on Friday, the Victorian premier Daniel Andrews has indicated Australia is likely to adopt pre-flight testing and more constraints on international flight crews to prevent the UK super-strain spreading in Australia.
Andrews told reporters in Melbourne that he supports both pre-flight testing of passengers and for crew to be treated “like returned travellers”, meaning they would remain in quarantine at least until they had received a negative coronavirus test and possibly for a full 14 days.
Victoria will also push for daily testing of hotel workers – a “comprehensive strategy” that will ensure that any leakages from hotel quarantine “will have a one-day jump on us, not a week or 10 days”, he said.
Andrews said that people with the UK super-strain were infecting on average four other people, warning that the virus “will get away from us” very quickly if it is introduced to the Australian community.
The measures are being considered by the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, but Andrews said Victoria had “lead the charge” and he is “confident” the measures will be adopted at national cabinet on Friday.
Morrison was less definite, but said the discussion among chief health officers had been “very collaborative” and “if they are in agreement” national cabinet will likely adopt the measures.
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