The Morrison government’s position on Australians under the age of 40 being able to receive the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine has sparked confusion and pushback among health experts and government officials.
Earlier this month the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) updated its advice on vaccines, recommending that the age range to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine be raised from 50 and over to 60 and over. The update came in light of a rare blood-clotting disorder linked to the use of AstraZeneca being of higher risk in the 50-59 year old age group than previously thought.
On Monday night Prime Minister Scott Morrison released a statement from national cabinet announcing, among other things, indemnity arrangements for COVID-19 vaccinations.
“National cabinet noted that the commonwealth will establish a COVID-19 professional indemnity scheme to provide additional certainty to healthcare practitioners who are providing advice to people in relation to COVID-19 vaccination,” the statement said.
“National cabinet noted that GPs can continue to administer AstraZeneca to Australians under 60 years of age with informed consent and that this measure will provide confidence to medical practitioners to administer both AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines to Australians.”
During a separate press conference, Morrison said the indemnity scheme ‘relates to encouraging Australians to go and chat to their GP about their vaccination and to have their vaccination administered’. He noted that while the ATAGI advice prefers AstraZeneca for those over 60, ‘the advice does not preclude persons under 60 from getting the AstraZeneca vaccine’.
A reporter asked Morrison whether the indemnity arrangements meant that people under the age of 40 would be able to ‘talk to their GPs and get the jab immediately’, to which Morrison responded:
“Well, if they wish to go and speak to their doctor and have access to the AstraZeneca vaccine, they can do so … So, the answer is yes, they can go and do that.”
But the prime minister’s comments have been met with push back and confusion from some leaders from the health sector and government.
Queensland chief health officer Jeannette Young on Wednesday bluntly said she does not want under-40s to receive AstraZeneca.
“I don’t want an 18-year-old in Queensland dying from a clotting illness who, if they got COVID probably wouldn’t die,” she said.
“We’ve had very few deaths due to COVID-19 in Australia in people under the age of 50, and wouldn’t it be terrible that our first 18-year-old in Queensland who dies related to this pandemic died because of the vaccine?”
Young’s South Australian counterpart, Nicola Spurrier, said ‘it’s the patient’s choice, if they have had a robust discussion with their GP and understand the risk, it is their decision’.
Meanwhile, Australian Medical Association president Dr Omar Khorshid told Guardian Australia that he was ‘certainly still backing the expert advice’ from ATAGI regarding AstraZeneca.
On Tuesday health minister Greg Hunt was grilled by reporters about the issue. He repeatedly responded to the questioning by stating the medical advice regarding AstraZeneca had not changed.
“AstraZeneca remains the preferred vaccine for people 60 years and over. That has not changed, the advice of ATAGI, and Pfizer is the preferred for people under 60,” he said.
“However, as has always been the case — and I think it’s very important to emphasise this — that on the basis of informed consent, individual patients and their doctors have been able to make a decision to take up the AstraZeneca on the basis of their individual circumstances and their own judgement. That consultation is something which has had continuous capacity to have been implemented. The difference is that the access for those who are of all ages, for the AstraZeneca vaccine, will be available through general practices.”
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan, and Victorian health minister Martin Foley have said the idea of under-40s receiving the jab had not come from national cabinet.
Hunt was asked how the government arrived at the decision to open up AstraZeneca to people under 40 if the matter was not discussed at national cabinet.
The health minister said the professional indemnity scheme was what was noted by national cabinet — not the matter of under 40s receiving the jab — and again said the medical advice had not changed.
“There’s simply the opening of that access to those that are under it. And so that was printed last night and that was also said by the prime minister,” he said.
“The approach on indemnity had always been a matter for the commonwealth, and so the National Security Committee adopted that yesterday, and the national cabinet noted it last night as the prime minister said, and as was incorporated into the national cabinet release.”
Queensland health minister Yvette D’ath on Wednesday revealed some vaccination sites in the state had about eight days worth of Pfizer stock remaining. She said a request to the federal government for more had been denied.
D’ath suggested that Morrison’s stance on opening up AstraZeneca to people under the age of 40 was related to Australia’s dwindling Pfizer supply.
“I am disappointed that we have been denied any extra vaccines, despite the reasons we’ve been given, despite the fact we’re going to start running out of vaccines. And I would welcome the commonwealth telling us exactly how much vaccines they currently have on stock,” she said.