Australians could face being turned away at the border and having their welfare payments withheld if they refuse to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt has warned.
Mr Hunt said he would ‘not rule out’ banning Australians from entering the country if they had not received the jab as he fielded a series of probing questions from A Current Affair host Tracey Grimshaw on Wednesday evening.
Detailing how the roll-out of the vaccine could unfold in Australia, the minister said the government was not considering making inoculation compulsory.
But he echoed Prime Minister Scott Morrison who said on Wednesday morning he will make a coronavirus vaccine ‘as mandatory as possible’ without it being illegal to refuse a dose.
‘We will never be looking at enforcing a vaccine – that’s never been the government’s position,’ Mr Hunt said.
‘But in particular where we have items like “no jab, no play, no jab no pay” they would always be options.’
When asked whether the government would consider refusing entry to non-vaccinated Australians returning from overseas, Mr Hunt said he ‘wouldn’t rule it out’.
‘If the medical advice is that it’s required I could certainly imagine that being the case,’ he said.
Grimshaw questioned whether the government was considering policies such as preventing Australians from getting their tax return or stopping children from attending schools.
Mr Hunt said Australia already had persuasive ways of encouraging people to get vaccinated.
‘I won’t go into specifics beyond what we already have, but we have strong immunisation incentives which bring some of the highest vaccination rates in the world,’ he said.
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Grimshaw also asked whether the Oxford University vaccine – which the Australian government announced an advance supply agreement to buy if successful this week – had even showed it was effective yet.
Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Nick Coatsworth has said measures to encourage vaccine take-up such as banning Australians from flights, restaurants and public transport would be discussed by health officials and ministers.
New South Wales One Nation leader Mark Latham on Wednesday evening hit out at suggestions vaccine take-up could be made compulsory.
‘As predicted: the Dictatorship of the Health Bureaucrat, unelected officials where the control over our lives has gone to their heads,’ Mr Latham wrote on Twitter.
‘How about we wait until a vaccine is finalised – after human trials – and the impact on children, the elderly, pregnant women etc is assessed by medical experts, rather than Scott Morrison jumping the gun.’
Mr Morrison’s warning to Australians earlier on Wednesday he would make taking the vaccine as ‘mandatory as possible’ was followed by an admission later in the day he only had the power to strongly encourage them to do so.
‘It’s not going to be compulsory to get the vaccine. There are no compulsory vaccines in Australia,’ he told 2GB radio.
In another red-faced moment for the prime minister, the British pharmaceutical company tasked with manufacturing the Oxford University vaccine has denied Mr Morrison’s claim he has secured 25 million vaccine doses for Australians.
A spokesman for AstraZeneca said the letter of intent signed by the Australian government to buy the vaccine if approved did not include an estimation of the number of doses involved.
‘The LOI doesn’t go into any detail about costs or numbers or anything until we have an idea of what the manufacturing capacity is,’ the spokesman told Pharma in Focus.
The spokesman added no deal had been reached with Melbourne-based company CSL to produce the vaccine despite Mr Morrison saying the pharmaceutical firm would handle the Australian manufacturing process.
‘Discussions with CSL are ongoing. They’re still looking into whether they have the capability and capacity to produce a vaccine,’ the spokesman said.
Earlier on Wednesday, Dr Coatsworth had suggested authorities could give people certificates to prove they have had the vaccine.
The government hopes a coronavirus vaccine will reach Australia by early next year and wants 95 per cent of people to get the jab.
Children have been required to take vaccines to attend school since 1998, unless their parents are granted an exemption.
Under the no jab, no pay scheme which withholds three state payments from Australians for failing to vaccinate their children, the government removed exemptions for conscientious objectors.
Some scientists feared that making vaccines compulsory could lead to public outrage and reduce immunisation rates, but rates slowly ticked up around the country from 2015.
Asked in a press conference today how he will make sure everyone takes the vaccine, the prime minister said: ‘We’ll take those issues as they present and consider what steps are necessary at that time.’
Some people are unable to take the vaccine for legitimate medical reasons. Everyone else must be vaccinated to protect them, he said.
Acting Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said the first step would be to encourage people to take the vaccine voluntarily.
The elderly and healthcare workers are likely to be prioritised as the vaccine is steadily rolled out, the prime minister said.
Infectious diseases expert Raina MacIntyre of UNSW said she doesn’t agree with compulsory vaccination.
‘It should not be compulsory. Depending on how effective the vaccine is, we would need 70 to 90 per cent of people vaccinated for herd immunity,’ she told Daily Mail Australia.
On Tuesday night Science Minister Karen Andrews said she was ‘attacked’ by anti-vaxxers on Facebook and slammed them for spreading conspiracy theories.
‘Last night, my social media pages were attacked by anti-vax protestors,’ she wrote in a Facebook post.
‘While I support freedom of choice, in my role as Science Minister I’m not prepared to allow these people to promote pseudoscience.’
Under the government’s deal all 25 million Australians will be able to get injected for free just weeks after the Oxford vaccine is approved.
The vaccine, licensed by UK drug firm AstraZeneca, is in phase three trails on thousands of people in the UK, Brazil and South Africa.
Earlier trials found it generated a strong immune response and a four-fold increase in antibodies against coronavirus in 95 per cent of participants.
The federal government has signed a so-called ‘Letter of Intent’ with AstraZeneca in which the firm agrees to hand the vaccine over to Australia as soon as it is approved.
Australia will then make millions of doses on home soil and distribute them across the country.
The government is in talks with the nation’s biggest health company, CSL, to make sure enough doses can be made as fast as possible.
AstraZeneca has already agreed to share the vaccine with the UK, the European Union and international organisations including the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.
Australia will later sign a final formal agreement with the company, which will include details about the distribution, timing and price of the vaccine.
Scott Morrison said: ‘The Oxford vaccine is one of the most advanced and promising in world, and under this deal we have secured early access for every Australian.
‘If this vaccine proves successful we will manufacture and supply vaccines straight away under our own steam and make it free for 25 million Australians.’
The government is also negotiating to buy vaccines from other developers if the Oxford vaccine does not work out.
There are currently 167 vaccine candidates in pre-clinical and clinical trials around the world, including 29 undergoing clinical trials in humans.
There are three candidates in Australia – at the University of Queensland, the University of Melbourne and Flinders University in Adelaide – all of which have completed phase one trials.
Mr Morrison said: ‘There is no guarantee that this, or any other, vaccine will be successful, which is why we are continuing our discussions with many parties around the world while backing our own researches at the same time to find a vaccine.’
Australia is expected to spend billions of dollars on researching, buying and producing a vaccine.
Before the announcement of the deal, Labor’s health spokesman Chris Bowen slammed the government for taking too long to sign an agreement.
‘I am concerned Australia is way behind the game when it comes to getting access to the vaccine,’ he said on Tuesday afternoon.
‘It is incumbent on the government to take more steps – urgently – to ensure that we have those advanced supply agreements in place.’
The United States has six advance supply agreements, the UK has five, Japan and Indian have three, Indonesia, Argentina, Brazil and South Korea have one.