The first vaccine batches are being shipped around the country on Sunday ahead of Australia’s most complicated logistical exercise to date and as anti-vax protests failed to draw “millions” of supporters.
Victoria’s outbreak also appears to be “increasingly under control” as Australia recorded zero coronavirus cases on Saturday.
The federal government will co-ordinate vaccinations of residents and staff of aged care and disability residential care facilities, with a flying squad of 500 nurse immunisers to be dispatched around the nation.
The states, which are preparing to receive their first shipments, are in charge of vaccinating everyone else, beginning with frontline health and quarantine workers at major hospital hubs.
The federal government has allocated 12,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine to Victoria in the first week of the program.
“People will over time see that the vaccine is working, that it’s protecting individuals, that we’re not seeing issues of quality or safety and there will be increasing confidence,” Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton told reporters.
Professor Sutton said people should ignore the vocal minority of conspiracy theorists.
“Fervent anti-vaxxers are in a really small minority … I am going to ignore them, frankly, and I would encourage you to do the same,” he said.
It comes as hundreds of people protested on Saturday as part of Millions March Against Mandatory Covid Vaccination in major cities and regional centres Cairns, Coffs Harbour and Albany.
Controversial celebrity chef Pete Evans, who has been blocked from social media, marched with anti-vaxxers from Hyde Park through Sydney city and addressed the crowd after the main speakers.
Protesters marched with placards with slogans such as “herd immunity of vaccines is a scam” and “your body, your choice”.
“I’m not sure what I can add, but I will seek the truth,” a shoeless Mr Evans said to cheers.
“I don’t have the answers. No one is coming to save you except you.
“Each and every one of you has to stand up in whatever capacity you can.”
Hundreds of people gathered in Melbourne’s Fawkner Park and police arrested about 20 people.
Fifteen of them will receive fines in relation to breaching directions issued by the state’s chief health officer, while five have been charged for resisting arrest, hindering police and refusing to provide details.
Victorian police used pepper spray on some protesters when they moved beyond cordons and at times, appeared to lose control of the crowd, an AAP photographer on scene said.
While some people were covered in pepper spray, crowds chanted, “freedom, freedom”.
The rally started peacefully but as speakers addressed the crowd “people started getting pretty fired up”, the photographer said.
Speakers made comments such as “God’s on our side” and “it’s a fight between good and evil”.
One speaker was interrupted by a directive from police for people to spread out into groups of 20 – the current maximum number allowed for public gatherings in Victoria – which was met with jeers.
Videos taken by Reignite Democracy Australia, an organisation set up in opposition to the Victorian government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, show a speaker congratulating the crowd for turning up.
The woman talked about feeling “so alone” during the lengthy stage-four lockdowns in the city last year and as though she was not allowed to question the government’s decisions.
According to an Australian Bureau of Statistics survey, men (76 per cent) are more likely than women (71 per cent) to agree or strongly agree with getting the jab.
There is also stronger support for it among people aged over 65 than younger Australians.
The federal government has repeatedly said it will not force people to get vaccinated.
However high risk locations such as aged care facilities may be able to compel employees to get the jab and individual businesses and venues may make vaccination a condition of entry.
Victorian Health Minister Martin Foley is still cautious but willing to say things are “increasingly under control” on his patch.
“We are still approaching (the Holiday Inn) outbreak with the utmost vigilance and caution and we are still prepared for the possibility of more locally-acquired cases,” he said.
However a further easing of restrictions next Friday is likely, with just 25 active cases in the state and one person in hospital.
Six hospitals in Victoria will become vaccination hubs as more jabs become available. They are Albury-Wodonga Health, Ballarat Health, Barwon Health, Bendigo Health, Goulburn Valley Health and Latrobe Health.
Professor Sutton also warned there may be more cases from the Holiday Inn cluster and said authorities will examine the speed with which the vaccine can be rolled out before easing restrictions completely.
Travel bubble resumes
Australia’s one-way coronavirus travel bubble with New Zealand has resumed, the Department of Health says.
From Sunday, people will be able to travel from New Zealand to Australia without having to quarantine for 14 days.
But if they have been in Auckland in the two weeks before departing, they will need a negative coronavirus test. That condition will remain until March 1.
The travel bubble had been swiftly halted earlier this month after an outbreak of COVID-19 in Auckland.
Australia’s chief medical officer Paul Kelly said briefings from New Zealand showed the recent cases now posed a low risk.
“We will continue to move quickly to protect Australians as circumstances change, but we will always endeavour to move just as quickly when those situations are brought under control, or otherwise resolve,” he said in a statement on Saturday night.