Cases across country are declining but could rise again with onset of winter and students returning to schools, experts warn
Australia’s expert immunisation advisers are still considering whether to expand the definition of “fully vaccinated” to mean three Covid jabs, while some state and territory leaders have indicated they may be approaching the peak of their Omicron waves.
National cabinet met for the 65th time on Thursday, with the capacity of the health system, the vaccine rollout and supply chains topping the agenda. As he did prior to last week’s meeting, Daniel Andrews raised his support for mandating a third or booster dose in order for an Australian to be considered fully vaccinated.
“This is not a two-dose thing, of two doses and a bonus,” he told reporters on Thursday as Victoria recorded 15 deaths and 13,755 new infections.
“International evidence, our own experience, the views of experts and hopefully the confirmation of both Atagi and national cabinet later today will mean that everyone knows and understands that this is a three-dose project.”
Andrews said he believed it “will be very soon be three doses to get the green tick” to enter restaurants, bars, cafes, hairdressers and beauty services. But the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (Atagi) is still considering its stance, with federal government sources indicating that advice will be finalised soon.
In a written statement issued on Thursday night, Morrison said national cabinet had discussed “approaches to test, trace, isolate and quarantine, including the use of rapid antigen tests (RATs) and the vaccine rollout and booster programme”.
Morrison said more than 7.1m booster doses had been administered to date. “More than 61% of Australians aged 70 years of age and over have had a booster in the last 12 weeks since the booster program commenced,” he said.
New South Wales health minister Brad Hazzard had earlier in the day pleaded with people to get a booster, saying the state’s rate of only 36% of eligible people getting a third dose was “ridiculous”. National cabinet also discussed difficulties in encouraging vaccination among Indigenous Australians, including misinformation in some communities.
Speaking in Moruya during a campaign visit on Thursday, the federal Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, also expressed support for a three-dose threshold to be considered fully vaccinated.
“We need to follow the health advice. And I have no doubt that over a period of time, it will be considered that you have to have a booster in order to be considered fully vaccinated,” he told reporters.
“We know that the protection reduces over a period of time. And I just encourage everyone who’s eligible to do so.”
After last week’s meeting, Morrison said the change had been an item of national cabinet discussion for some time, but would only be taken “on the basis of medical advice”.
While encouraging all Australians to get a booster, the prime minister said the “practical implications” of mandating three doses would be “limited”, and the federal government only supported booster mandates in certain health, disability and aged care settings.
“At this stage we’re not seeing … any lack of demand for getting boosters, quite the opposite. And so whether it became a third dose or a booster, I think you’d continue to see people turning up and getting it, and that’s the outcome we want,” Morrison said.
At Thursday’s national cabinet, states and territories reported that pressure on hospital and intensive care admissions was slowly decreasing. However, health experts have warned of an increase in Covid cases with the onset of winter, and the states also expect a rise in case numbers when surveillance testing of school students with the return to classrooms in coming weeks.
Australia recorded another 46,000 cases in the past 24 hours, including 17,316 in New South Wales, 11,600 in Queensland, and 1,953 in South Australia. While case numbers are decreasing from peaks over the holiday season, Covid deaths remain relatively high in some states, with 73 recorded nationwide on Thursday.
South Australia logged its equal-highest daily death toll with 13, while 29 fatalities were recorded in NSW.
In a statement after national cabinet, Australian Capital Territory chief minister Andrew Barr said his jurisdiction “has likely now reached the peak of this outbreak and should start to see a gradual decrease in hospitalisation in coming weeks”.
Barr also said he expected the ACT to add 16- and 17-year-olds to the booster program “shortly”. The federal health department said Atagi was “not currently recommending booster doses for people aged under 18”.
National cabinet reached in-principle agreement on truck licensing arrangements amid concerns about supply chain disruptions.
Morrison said that “as an immediate priority” all states and territories would enact measures to allow New Zealand citizens to use their equivalent New Zealand heavy vehicle licence in Australia for 12 months, before being required to obtain an Australian licence.
He said the states and territories would also extend similar arrangements to interstate Australian drivers “to ensure Australian drivers are not disadvantaged”. He characterised it as a “temporary Covid-19 response measure” to be reviewed after 12 months.
There are also plans to allow truck licence progression to occur on the basis of passing competency and skills tests rather than purely being based on time.
The federal government believes this will make truck licensing safer and faster, but this measure is not due to be in force until about mid-2022.
Morrison said national cabinet “noted that recent changes in isolation requirements for essential transport workers have significantly eased the pressure points for transport operators”.
National cabinet is due to meet again in two weeks’ time.