Australia’s new vaccine rollout schedule revealed
While COVID-19 vaccination programs in more than three dozen countries have seen over 13 million people get the jab already, Australians will still have to wait until early March before the shots are available in this country.
In an exclusive interview with The Daily Telegraph, federal Health Minister Greg Hunt revealed the schedule, which is more ambitious than earlier government promises to have the program underway by late March. Priority is to be given to the elderly in residential aged care along with health, hotel quarantine and border workers including those in patient transport.
Mr Hunt said the campaign will begin with the Pfizer jab.
Up to 80,000 doses a week are set to arrive in Australia each week from later this month, after the Therapeutic Goods Administration grants provisional registration.
The Pfizer vaccine is the same shot already approved for use in a number of countries and the European Union.
Since December 19, virus-ravaged Israel has managed to inoculate more than one million people, giving 13 per cent of their population their first hit of immunity.
Mr Hunt, meanwhile, defended the government's more cautious approach.
"We will continue to review the medical advice," Mr Hunt said.
"In the same way that advice has allowed us to bring forward the time from the first half of the year to late March and now early March we will be guided by the medical advice.
"Not to do so would be utterly irresponsible and would risk the health of Australians."
Mr Hunt's comments came as others slammed the timeline, particularly as the latest round of pandemic-triggered border shutdowns have already cost the tourism sector billions.
Former South Australian Premier and ex-High Commissioner to the UK Mike Rann said from London: "It makes no sense, Australia has been a world leader during COVID, why would Australia push the pause button now?"
AstraZeneca's vaccine is anticipated to be in use by the end of March.
The new forecast for an October completion is due to both the swifter start and a change to the range of shots set to be used.
Eighty per cent of adults are willing to be inoculated against coronavirus, according to research done for the government, which is far higher than the 60 per cent rate required to achieve 'herd immunity' of the population.
The research found one of the biggest causes for hesitancy was worries around proper approvals and the cutting of corners.
Mr Hunt said in some parts of California, fewer than half of frontline workers eligible for a COVID vaccine were willing to take the shot due to safety fears. This included nurses and doctors.
"They were concerned about the approvals process," he said.
"That's why, for genuine safety, and for the perception of safety, and therefore the vaccine uptake, we are following the regulatory approval pathway as quickly as possible."
No country in the world has issued a general approval for a COVID-19 vaccine; only emergency approvals have been granted.
Australia was set to be one of the first to grant a general approval for the Pfizer vaccine, Mr Hunt said.
Still, some epidemiologists, federal Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, and many Telegraph readers want the vaccine rolled out now.
At the Burnet Medical Research Institute, experts have advocated for inoculating people at highest risk even before the approvals process is complete.
And a poll on The Telegraph website on Tuesday found nearly half of respondents favoured an immediate start.
Mr Hunt said an emergency rollout was possible under biosecurity powers, but only to avoid catastrophic rates of death.
He said such a move was so contrary to medical advice that it would be the most irresponsible decision by a federal government since the disastrous pink batts scheme that began hurriedly in 2009 under the Rudd Labor government.
Federal Labor leader Anthony Albanese recently accused the government of taking too long to roll out vaccinations after being slow to sign agreements with vaccine makers.
Mr Hunt refuted that claim, saying Mr Albanese had not asked for a vaccine briefing almost a year into the pandemic.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison also took aim at Mr Albanese, telling 2GB: "I talk to the chief medical officer every day. He hasn't.
"What's informing his views is only for him to explain because he hasn't been sitting down with our officials who are running this process," Mr Morrison said.
Mr Albanese was not available on Tuesday.
But Labor health spokesman Chris Bowen told this newspaper: "The Labor leader has had briefings from the chief medical officer. I've been in the room when they've occurred. They shouldn't be politicising briefings."
Additional reporting by Stephen Drill
Originally published as Australia's new vaccine rollout schedule revealed