After a national cabinet meeting on Monday (28 June, 2021), Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that people under 60 who want to get the AstraZeneca vaccine should talk to their doctor to make a “risk-based decision”. He also announced an indemnity scheme to cover GPs who administer AstraZeneca to those under 601.
In practical terms, the indemnity scheme means GPs cannot be sued if a patient under 60 has an adverse reaction to AstraZeneca. It also means a person who has an adverse reaction is entitled to compensation from the federal government without having to establish anyone was at fault. The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) has been calling for no-fault indemnity for some time2.
It had previously been the health advice from the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) that AstraZeneca should be the preferred vaccine for those over 602.
The AstraZeneca vaccine had been recommended by ATAGI for use in people over 50, but in mid-June 2021, they revised it to people over 60 because of the risk of clotting in younger people. Health Minister Greg Hunt said the federal government accepted that medical advice from the ATAGI. After this change, people under 60 were going to be offered the Pfizer vaccine3.
Morrison’s timing of the announcement gave the impression that this loosening of the controls on who gets the AstraZeneca vaccine was a national cabinet decision. This was also indicated when he provided a statement from the national cabinet, which included this: “National Cabinet noted that GPs can continue to administer AstraZeneca to Australians under 60 years of age with informed consent and that this measure will provide confidence to medical practitioners to administer both AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines to Australians”4.
All hell broke loose. Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and WA Premier Mark McGowan both spoke out against Morrison’s advice, saying that it was not a national cabinet decision and that they do not believe the under-40s should be given the AstraZeneca vaccine5.
Queensland Chief Health Officer, Jeanette Young stated: “I do not want under-40s to get AstraZeneca. … Because they are at increased risk of getting … the rare clotting syndrome. We’ve seen up to 49 deaths in the UK from that syndrome. I don’t want an 18-year-old in Queensland dying from a clotting illness who, if they got Covid, probably wouldn’t die. We’ve had very few deaths due to Covid-19 in Australia in people under the age of 50, and wouldn’t it be terrible that our first 18-year-old in Queensland who dies related to this pandemic died because of the vaccine?”6 It is hard to put it any clearer than that.
Australian Capital Territory Chief Minister Andrew Barr said he was surprised by the Prime Minister’s “captain’s call” on Monday night that Australians under-60 could access the AstraZeneca vaccine if they consulted their GP, saying the matter was not discussed in the national cabinet7.
In addition, the Australian Medical Association (AMA) has not endorsed Morrison’s announcement that anyone under 40 can receive the AstraZeneca vaccine from their GP. Indeed, the president of the AMA, Dr Omar Khorshid said the announcement “took us by surprise, and it’s hard to know how to take that announcement because I think it’s going to be a limited number of people to take it up, given that they would be going against the expert ATAGI recommendation”8.
Why would Morrison do such a stupid thing? Because, he knows that the vaccine rollout has been a debacle and will do anything to attempt to drive the numbers of vaccinated Australians up. If it comes at the cost of a few dead young people, so be it. Why do I think that this is the case? Because Health Minister, Greg Hunt has said that by the end of June 29 the percentage of Australians vaccinated would be 7.2% of the population9. This is a lie. Two days ago, only 4.8% of the population had been vaccinated10,11. The government is desperate to make themselves look better.
As if this wasn’t enough, the Queensland Health Minister, Yvette D’Ath has said levels of the Pfizer vaccine in the state were “critical” and that they are projected to run out of them by July 5th. She said that the Queensland Director-General of Health asked the federal government for an additional 152,100 doses – on top of their weekly 64,500 – of the Pfizer vaccine on June 29, to avoid cancelling vaccination appointments. D’Ath said she was notified on June 30, that the federal government would not provide any additional Pfizer doses and added: “We are getting to that point that we will have to start prioritising only second doses”12.
Remember, we could have had 40 million Pfizer doses by January 2021, and Australia may have been well on the way to vaccinating all its people, if Morrison had not knocked Pfizer back and gone for the cheapest option.