Quickly vaccinating the vast majority of Australians is a crucial step in our fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
But so far, we’ve fallen far behind schedule, with only 670,000 people vaccinated by April 1 from our initial target of four million.
The Prime Minister on Tuesday said our current vaccination rate sits at 854,000-odd.
Health Minister Greg Hunt and Health Department secretary Brendan Murphy have routinely urged Australians to be “patient” at multiple press conferences.
Sure, our case numbers may be much lower than many other countries, but experts say that won’t save us from a failed vaccine rollout program.
So, what’s at stake? It’s more than just being held back from international travel.
The economy can’t reopen
Australia’s economy cannot open up until most us are vaccinated against COVID-19, said University of New South Wales economics professor Richard Holden.
Until then, businesses will be on edge in anticipation of a fresh outbreak, shoppers will be reluctant to spend, and hospitality venues will have to continue operating at reduced capacity.
Further lockdowns are also likely, warns a top epidemiologist.
In an opinion piece for UNSW, Professor Holden argued Australia was in a better economic shape than most countries for two key reasons:
- We largely controlled COVID-19 using lockdowns, border closures and strict social distancing measures
- We implemented economic support measures like JobKeeper and JobSeeker.
However, he said Australia’s slow vaccine rollout – which is proceeding at half the pace of the US, UK and other European nations – means “the economy is still nine to 12 months from being able to truly open up”.
“The best thing to do to get jobs growth up and the unemployment rate down is to accelerate the vaccine rollout,” Professor Holden said.
“Most Australians being vaccinated is the only way the economy will truly return to anything like that of December 2019.”
Frontline workers at risk
Only 16.7 per cent of the government’s vaccine target has been met, meaning essential workers who missed out are still being exposed to the virus.
As long as doctors, nurses, quarantine hotel workers and border workers remain unvaccinated, the virus will be able to leak into communities more easily, Australian Council of Trade Unions assistant secretary Liam O’Brien said.
“The fact that nearly six weeks after Scott Morrison got his vaccination we still have thousands of high-risk frontline workers unable to be vaccinated presents a risk to us all,” Mr O’Brien said.
“All around the world there are examples of governments moving faster and more efficiently.”
But it’s not only health workers who are at risk.
The federal health department has not said how many aged-care staff have been vaccinated yet, despite initially saying it had planned to complete Phase1a within roughly six weeks.
Until all aged-care workers receive the jab, there’s a risk the virus could leak into nursing homes, which, as Victoria’s second wave illustrated, could lead to disastrous consequences.
No international students
The longer it takes to vaccinate most Australians, the longer our border will remain shut to international students.
Until then, tens of billions of dollars will trickle down the drain.
Students from overseas are known for spending big on uni fees, rentals, hospitality and retail.
At our current vaccine rollout rate, Education Minister Alan Tudge believes international students won’t start coming back to Australia until early 2022.
“With the vaccine rollout under way, I am increasingly hopeful that student arrivals in larger numbers will occur by Semester 1 of next year,” he said recently, during a speech at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University.
Mr Tudge also flagged the possibility for individual universities to bring in international students this year, provided chief health officers agreed on appropriate quarantine arrangements.
But that’s unlikely to go ahead until most Australians receive the coronavirus vaccine.