Tackling growing vaccine hesitancy, supply and speeding up the rollout will be the main focus of the renewed bi-weekly national cabinet meetings, as Scott Morrison continues to raise the possibility of home quarantine – an option that will need the states’ approval to move forward.
On Sunday, both the prime minister, and health minister Greg Hunt, hinted that vaccinated Australians may be allowed to travel overseas and quarantine at home, rather than in hotels, in the second half of the year.
That would need the agreement of the states and territories, who at this stage, remain hesitant to cede any control over what has been a successful public health response.
Hunt said home quarantine was already used in some cases and but the model could be refined.
“The Australian states and territories, in conjunction with the commonwealth, have largely mastered the security side of home quarantine,” he said.
But righting the vaccine rollout, which has been delayed by logistical issues and blood clot fears linked to the AstraZeneca vaccine, remains the main order of business for Monday’s national cabinet – the first time the leaders have met since Morrison recalled twice weekly meetings.
The return to an “operational footing” follows the major setback to the vaccine rollout with health authorities recommending under-50s not be given the AstraZeneca vaccine due to a very rare side-effect of blood clots linked to the vaccine. However it remains available for under-50s who wish to have it, with those eligible for a Covid vaccine asked to check with their doctors about their suitability.
But with the federal government at this stage unwilling to put a timetable on the vaccine rollout, or set targets, other than to admit it is unlikely all Australians will be vaccinated by the end of the year, Morrison is looking for a joint effort to get the program back on the right path.
The NSW government has been pushing to run mass vaccination hubs in a bid to speed up the rate of people receiving their jabs, a measure other states are also expected to explore.
Victoria announced it would open its three mass vaccination centres this week and resume administering the AstraZeneca vaccine for under-50s if there is demand.
The AstraZeneca vaccine will be made available to eligible 1a and 1b Victorians at the Royal Exhibition Building, the former Ford factory in Geelong and the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre from Wednesday. Those aged over 70 can attend one of the hubs without an appointment.
But the main concern for the states remains guarantee of supply, with leaders wanting more transparency and guidance over what vaccines will be arriving, when, so they can plan their own programs.
The prime minister on Sunday walked back expectations that the international border closure could be lifted in the near future while suggesting vaccinated Australians could have freer movement for “essential” business in the second half of the year. Home quarantine was also floated as an option.
“But we have to make sure that will work and that would be as effective as the hotel quarantine program,” he said.
“We have to do a lot of work together, the states, territories and commonwealth to make sure it works.
“If that works, that means you have freed up the hotel quarantine, and that means essential workers can start coming in, and potentially we can do more with other populations in a very controlled and very safe way.
“But the idea on one day that everything just opens, that is not how this will happen. It will be happening cautiously and carefully, working very hard on the medical and health protections in place because I’m not going to put at risk the way that Australians are living today.”
Labor’s health spokesman, Mark Butler said that appeared to be “just another thought bubble”.
“What we need is a clear plan, I mean he can’t even manage a hotel quarantine system properly, with national standards, with facilities outside CBDs,” he said.
“I’m not sure Australians yet have faith in Scott Morrison, given the bungles he’s made of this rollout so far, to put in place a safe, effective home quarantine system.
“Let’s focus on the basics right now. Getting vaccines into people’s arms, having a safe hotel quarantine system and then let’s look at a plan for something else.”