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Governments prioritised reopening the economy over people’s health, which resulted in “significant” Covid-19 outbreaks over Christmas, Australia’s peak doctors body has said.
The Australian Medical Association (AMA) also argued at a parliamentary inquiry on Thursday that the Morrison government had failed to protect frontline health workers with new rules on protective gear.
The association’s president, Dr Omar Khorshid, giving evidence at the Covid-19 Senate inquiry, further warned the government might not meet its target of 4m vaccinations by the end of March due to supply disruptions.
Representatives from Pfizer and AstraZeneca, however, told the committee they were on track to provide the first vaccine doses in late February – although they recognised factors outside their control could delay the rollout.
In the inquiry’s first hearing of 2021, the AMA took aim at the federal government’s national roadmap to reopen the Australian economy by Christmas, which was endorsed by the national cabinet including state and territory leaders.
Although Australia was on track to meet the roadmap as Victoria ended its second-wave lockdown in November, with state and territory borders reopened, the Avalon cluster triggered fresh restrictions in Sydney and border closures before Christmas.
Khorshid told the inquiry the AMA had written to the prime minister as well as state and territory leaders warning the roadmap “prioritised economic success over health”, which Australia’s earlier success had demonstrated was the “wrong approach”.
“As we predicted, with this rush to open up it came as no surprise that we saw significant outbreaks and the framework had clearly failed to meet its stated goal of pretty normal by Christmas,” he said. “Instead, we saw significant outbreaks and reintroduction of fairly harsh restrictions to certain areas of the country.”
Khorshid said Australia would need to “maintain vigilance” due to the emergence of more infectious variants – meaning the suppression approach should give way to elimination because “the idea of Covid normal is even more unrealistic than before”.
Khorshid argued “healthcare worker protection is one of the few failings of the Australian government”.
He cited the Victorian outbreak in which “thousands of aged care, health care workers, doctors and nurses contracted the disease in the course of their normal work” despite the provision of “what were supposed to be nationally consistent guidelines on personal protective equipment”.
“The infection control expert group has been very slow to reissue national guidelines. Despite the government’s announcement of the Covid-19 evidence taskforce to provide further evidence in this area, it has been very slow to occur. It’s simply not good enough.”
At the start of the hearing, the committee’s chair, Labor senator Katy Gallagher, revealed that CSL, which will produce the AstraZeneca vaccine in Australia, had not accepted an invitation to appear.
In correspondence to the committee, CSL said the first quarter of 2021 was “extremely busy”. The company offered to appear in mid to late April after the vaccine rollout had commenced.
CSL said it was preparing its facilities for large-scale manufacture and hoped to produce 1m vaccine doses a week after the vaccine was approved in late March.
Gallagher queried why the prime minister, Scott Morrison, had said Australia was “at the front of the queue” when it came to Covid-19 vaccines and the health minister, Greg Hunt, had said Australians would be among the first in the world to receive them. In fact, 61 countries had commenced vaccination programs while Australia’s was not due to start until late February.
The health department secretary, Dr Brendan Murphy, said the countries that had begun vaccinations “all have active Covid outbreaks and the vast majority have approved vaccines by some form of emergency authorisation”.
Australia’s rollout was “as advanced as we can be” given the decision to go through full authorisation in order to assure Australians of the vaccines’ efficacy and safety, he said.
Pfizer Australia and New Zealand’s director of market access, Louise Graham, said the company had offered Australia 10m doses – enough for 5 million people – because it was trying to “provision [the vaccine] equitably and fairly across the globe”.
Graham said the company was conscious Australia had pursued a “multi-vaccine strategy” and suggested after the first doses were delivered in late February there would be “further discussions” to increase its allocation.
AstraZeneca is planning on delivering 1.2m doses from late February with local production to begin in late March.
The medical director of Pfizer said early results suggested the vaccine was effective against the UK and South African variants. The medical director of AstraZeneca said there was no evidence its vaccine would be ineffective.
Representatives of both companies said their understanding of European export controls was that they involved notification of export of vaccines but would not prevent doses arriving in Australia.
AstraZeneca’s market access director, Alice Morgan, said the situation was “fluid” and could be subject to factors outside their control.
Murphy said that “because of supply chain issues” it was possible the government’s target of 4m vaccinations by the end of March “may extend into early April by a week or so”.
Pfizer’s vaccine has received final approval, which was announced on Monday. The head of the Therapeutic Goods Administration, John Skerritt, said that no decision had been made on AstraZeneca’s vaccine.
The TGA is still awaiting further evidence about AstraZeneca’s effectiveness in the over-65 age group, as about 10% of the trial sample was in that age range, fewer than Pfizer’s trials.
Skerritt said there was “no evidence it is not effective” in that age group but signalled the TGA could put age limits on its use or issue guidance that it is more effective for other groups.
The AMA endorsed the government’s vaccine rollout strategy. Khorshid said although vaccines should be voluntary in general, there was “a pretty strong argument for mandatory vaccination” among aged care workers.
Murphy signalled public health orders could require that.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Christmas Covid outbreaks a result of putting economy ahead of health, AMA says | Health