The federal Labor party has backed plans for vaccine passports to be required for entry to public spaces like bars and restaurants, but warned the government needs “better systems” before they can come into force.
It comes as the Coalition piles more pressure on the Opposition over the fierce debate around Australia’s reopening plan, with Health Minister Greg Hunt claiming Labor have “no way out” from lockdowns and border closures.
“At some point, children have to be able to see grandparents. If not at that point, when?” Mr Hunt asked.
The Health Minister and his Labor shadow counterpart, Mark Butler, were the guest interviews on duelling Sunday morning political shows this weekend: Mr Hunt on Sky News, Mr Butler on ABC’s Insiders.
With the last week in Parliament dominated by debate on Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s reopening plan, underpinned by virus and vaccine modelling from the Doherty Institute, the respective health spokesmen laid out duelling visions for what comes next.
Mr Butler said Labor supported the plan, but wants children aged 12 to 15 – who will soon become eligible for vaccination – to be included in the national vaccination targets, which only include those aged over 16.
“I support the national plan because all of us want to see an end to these chronic, debilitating lockdowns as soon as possible,” he said.
Labor’s position sharpened through the week after leader Anthony Albanese initially resisted giving his full backing to the reopening plan.
The Opposition say they support the goals but want the 1.2 million children aged between 12 and 15 included in the 70 and 80 per cent vaccine calculations.
In other words, the Opposition wants Australia to shoot for a higher number of vaccinations before reopening.
Labor wants higher targets
On current numbers, 70 per cent of the 20.62 million people aged over 16 would be 14.433 million people, or 28.866 million vaccine doses.
The population aged 12 and up is about 21.819 million people.
Counting 70 per cent of that number, as Labor is proposing, would be 15.273 million people, or 30.546 million doses.
That’s 1.68 million doses more than the current plan – less than the amount given last week in Australia.
“Scott Morrison needs to tell parents when their 12-to-15-year-old children will be vaccinated,” Mr Butler said.
“If they are not counted as part of the national plan, at the very least he needs to make a separate commitment to parents [that] ‘This is when your children will be vaccinated’.
“Seventy per cent, for example, still means six million adults are not vaccinated and some millions of children aren’t vaccinated as well, so if there is an exposure to the full force of the Delta variant, you are going to see very, very high case numbers.”
Vaccination bookings for the 12 to 15 cohort open on September 13.
No jab, no entry
On the burgeoning debate around vaccine passports, or extra freedoms and fewer restrictions for double-jabbed Australians, Mr Butler said Labor was on board – but stressed “the pre-condition is that everyone has access to a vaccine”.
“Too many people who want a vaccine can’t get one … but once everyone has access, although it is a choice whether or not you get vaccinated, there will be consequences to your choice,” he said.
“I think that’s where we are headed.”
Mr Butler also demanded “better systems”, flagging issues around vaccinations not being uploaded to some people’s government records, and concerns about fake vaccination records being forged online.
“There is some systems work the government needs to do and, obviously, there will have to be exemptions in place for people who have genuine medical reasons not to get vaccinated,” he said.
New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said on Sunday fully vaccinated people would “live more freely”.
“There are some things we cannot extend [to] people who are not vaccinated,” she warned.
Using language consistently stressed by the government all week, Mr Hunt said the reopening plan was “safe”, “clear” and “fundamental to provide hope”.
The lockdown wedge
Just as Mr Morrison did, the Health Minister presented the plan as a binary choice, challenging opponents to back it or propose their own.
“That is the implication of what some might be putting, that they would stay in that closed state forever. And that’s obviously not a situation that any country, any jurisdiction can have,” Mr Hunt told Sky News.
“There are some who may have no way out. We heard that earlier in the week from Anthony Albanese. Effectively, he had no way out.”
Mr Albanese came under pressure to back the plan, and eventually did last week.
Mr Hunt said he wanted “to make sure [Labor] are locked into that.”
The Doherty Institute modelling sets out that – depending on the performance of trace and testing systems and level of vaccine coverage – Australia could expect anywhere between a dozen and several thousand COVID deaths annually once restrictions are eased.
Those factors also forecast a wide range of possible health responses, from spending almost zero time under stay-home orders to half the year in hard lockdowns.
The government wants vaccine rates beyond 80 per cent, but Mr Hunt said the ‘COVID zero’ strategy, which Mr Morrison last week called “absurd”, likely would not be able to continue.
“Will the disease be endemic in the world? It already is. Does that mean that any country can avoid it? No,” he said.
“There is no scenario under which any credible epidemiologist or adviser that I have seen says that any country can avoid this forever.”
On a brighter note, Mr Hunt noted the current outbreak in NSW, which reported a record 1218 cases on Sunday, was seeing far fewer deaths than Victoria’s second wave last year.
He said this demonstrated the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines, which weren’t available in 2020.
“The numbers of infections in the Victorian wave and the NSW wave are almost even at this point in time, yet the rate of loss of life in NSW is 10 per cent of that, approximately, in Victoria,” Mr Hunt said.
“The difference between those two is the vaccination rates. That’s what has saved lives.”