UPDATED 4.55PM 23/7/2021 (AEST)
The COVID vaccination program will be shaken up across NSW to allow more first doses to be given as the state struggles with its escalating virus crisis.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the gap between first and second doses of the Pfizer vaccine would be pushed out to six weeks, while the gap between doses of AstraZeneca will be reduced.
“That is especially important for all of the population, but in particular those who are elderly, who are most at risk during a COVID outbreak,” he said.
“We are very keen to ensure that if you haven’t had your second dose, if it has been four weeks, then please book yourself in for that second dose so you can protect yourself in the midst of this particular outbreak
and we would encourage you to do that.”
The change came as the PM issued a rallying cry to NSW residents in the midst of what state authorities have described as a “national emergency”.
“I want to say to those in Sydney, we have got to press on. We have got to continue to show that strength,” he said.
“There are no easy solutions here. There are no silver bullets.”
He urged people to keep lining up for both COVID vaccines.
“[Today was] another record day, almost 200,000 vaccines delivered in one day. This program goes from strength to strength each and every day now,” he said.
“That means we have turned the corner and we are hitting those marks that we need to head to ensure the vaccines rollout across the country and we cannot disrupt the flow of that. Please keep going.”
The change was agreed at a lengthy national cabinet meeting on Friday.
Earlier, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said he expected “pretty frank” conversations with other state and territory leaders at what was likely to be a fiery meeting, chaired by Mr Morrison.
Mr Andrews was pushing for a “ring of steel” to be established around Sydney, to contain its growing outbreak. He said he agreed with the NSW chief health officer’s assessment that the outbreak has developed into a “national emergency” and said NSW had a “national responsibility” to contain it.
“We will finish up with the whole country locked down if we don’t do this properly,” he said.
A “ring of steel”, policed by roadblocks and mobile checks, was used to separate Melbourne from regional Victoria during the state’s longest lockdown in 2020.
“Sydney is on fire with this virus,” Mr Andrews said.
Afterward, Mr Morrison refused to comment on the proposal, saying only there had been “a good and positive discussion around that”/
Queensland Deputy Premier Steven Miles, who is in charge of his state with Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk in Tokyo for the Olympics, said it was in the national interest for other states and territories to help Sydney.
“This is effectively Australia’s third wave. We had that first wave nationally, the second one in Melbourne, and now a third wave in Sydney,” he said.
Mr Miles was locked out of Friday’s meeting because deputies cannot attend in a state leader’s place, and made the point he didn’t have “all the intelligence”.
“I think what’s clear is we need more restrictions, or at least better enforcement of existing restrictions, because the numbers in Sydney are going up,” he said.
“Really concerningly, the number of cases infectious in the community continues to be quite high.”
Mr Andrews’ comments came after Victoria reported 14 new local COVID-19 cases, all linked to known outbreaks.
The situation is markedly different in NSW, where authorities have pleaded with other states to redirect vaccines to Sydney’s coronavirus epicentre after another 136 local cases and a seventh fatality on Friday.
The latest cases included at least 70 who were active in the community for at least part of their infectious period, and another 13 whose isolation status remained uncertain. That proportion has stayed stubbornly high as the virus continues spread through workplaces and across households – despite repeated pleas from health authorities for people to stay home.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has appealed for extra Pfizer doses to vaccinate younger people in Sydney’s west and south-west.
Harsh restrictions have been further tightened in the worst-affected areas of Sydney.
Ms Berejiklian warned a revamped vaccine rollout was crucial to stopping the virus seeping into other states and preventing further lockdowns.
“This is not just a challenge for NSW but a challenge for the nation,” she said.
The Australian Medical Association also joined in calls for more to be done to help alleviate the NSW crisis.
“It’s quite possible that Australia’s lockdown strategy – that’s worked so well with all the previous outbreaks we’ve had – is simply not strong enough, not fast enough, to deal with Delta,” president Omar Korshid said on Friday.
“It possible a new approach, in particular for Sydney but possibly for the rest of the country, will be required.”
Any new focus had to include vaccination, Dr Korshid said.
“Whilst we are sure that’s being discussed very robustly at national cabinet as we speak, it’s not likely that large amounts of Pfizer are going to find their way into NSW any time soon,” he said.
AstraZeneca remains the preferred vaccine only for people aged 60 and over in Australia, because of a low risk of rare blood clots. But Dr Korshid urged the expert immunisation panel ATAGI to reconsider its advice, given the Sydney emergency.
“For Sydneysiders, it could be a choice between having AZ now and having no vaccine, and therefore having COVID,” he said.
“We know that COVID is so much more dangerous than any vaccine. So, what we are suggesting to ATAGI is that the settings in Sydney are different. The reality is different.”
Earlier, Australia’s chief medical officer Paul Kelly told a Senate committee said it was a “very serious situation” in NSW.
Vaccine campaign co-ordinator John Frewen said discussions with NSW about the refocus of the rollout were under way.
“Vaccines are only one part of the response to an outbreak like this,” he told a Senate committee.
“Lockdowns, testing, tracing, isolation, social distancing, masks – all of that is really critical.”
Lieutenant-General Frewen said a revised immunisation plan would be released after the national cabinet meeting.
It will cover increased co-ordination, boosting public confidence and ensuring a safe and efficient rollout
Just 15 per cent of the nation’s population aged 16 and above have received both jabs.
Health department secretary Brendan Murphy rejected the link between the latest lockdowns and the rollout’s speed.
“We are sorry that the vaccine program has been delayed by the unexpected events that have happened, but point to the successes in our vaccine rollout,” he told the Senate committee on Friday.
Mr Morrison and Ms Berejiklian have encouraged younger people to speak with a doctor about having that jab.
Mr Morrison has repeatedly challenged ATAGI to reconsider its advice to boost immunisation rates amid outbreaks.
ATAGI co-chair Allen Cheng said there had been no change to advice after the panel met on Wednesday.