National cabinet has taken a step towards making it compulsory for aged care and disability workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
This is despite continued hesitancy on the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee – the federal-state expert advisory group – about such a move.
Regardless of its doubts, the AHPPC has now been asked to report on a timetable for mandating jabs for this workforce.
National cabinet indicated “an in-principle disposition to mandating aged care and disability workforce COVID vaccinations” and said it had “tasked AHPPC to provide advice on this matter as soon as possible”.
Scott Morrison told a news conference after Friday’s meeting: “Make no mistake, we are leaning heavily into this as leaders of governments and myself as prime minister – to see us move towards a mandatory vaccination for aged care workers”. He said ultimately the mandating was a matter for state and territory public health authorities but stressed it was a common view among the leaders.
Meanwhile from June 15, aged care facilities will be required to report numbers of vaccinated workers.
This week, Aged Care Services Minister Richard Colbeck could not give numbers, because workers are getting vaccinated through various channels, including at GPs, hubs and some facilities.
Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly indicated the experts’ concerns about compulsory vaccination, including the risk of people leaving the workforce. This happened when Western Australia mandated vaccinations for security guards.
Kelly said the “unintended consequence” of affecting the workforce needed to considered.
The AHPPC wants more data about the numbers who are already being vaccinated.
Extra efforts are being made to urge aged care workers to come forward for voluntary vaccination as soon as possible.
In a move to step up and better co-ordinate the vaccine rollout, which has been slow and beset with problems, Morrison announced Lieutenant General John (JJ) Frewen will head a new National COVID Vaccine Taskforce.
Morrison described this as stepping up “another gear” and drew a parallel with the establishment of Operation Sovereign Borders when he was immigration minister.
That had been “a completely new organisational structure for getting a whole-of-government effect on a very big problem,” he said.
“It worked on that occasion and I think moving to that footing now will further improve how we’re working in the vaccination program.”
Frewen would “have direct operational control across numerous government departments” for the program – “from communications to dealings with states, to the distribution and delivery of vaccines”.
“The ramp-up, the scale-up, the working with the GPs, pharmacists and others – this will all come under [his] direct control,” Morrison said.
The meeting lamented the fact many people were not returning to offices in central business districts.
It called on businesses with global headquarters abroad “to ensure any restrictions on Australians workers are appropriate for Australian workplaces”.
Morrison said: “Premiers and chief ministers and I have a very simple message […] it’s time to get back to the office.”
Governments were saying this to their employees, he said. “But the challenge is that we have got many corporates, particularly corporate headquarters of companies that are headquartered globally overseas, who are using US or European or UK rules regarding people’s presence in the office.
"They are not appropriate to Australia – they should be indigenised to Australia. We have been encouraging them to standardise the working arrangements to be consistent to what is happening here in Australia and not overseas.
"I know the BCA supports that position very strongly. We would encourage private employers to move in that direction. That will be good for jobs, good for the beating heart of our cities.”
National Cabinet agreed to opening access to a COVID-19 vaccine to the following groups by June 8:
people aged 40-49 not otherwise eligible
all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 16 to 49
NDIS participants aged 16 and over and carers aged 16 and over of NDIS participants of any age
temporary visa holders aged under 50 who are currently in Australia and have been approved for return travel to Australia through the travel exemption process.
On the controversial so-called “vaccine passport”, national cabinet “welcomed the Commonwealth’s COVID-19 digital vaccination certificate”. But it’s clear it will be up to individual states and territories whether they make use of it.
The certificate will soon be available through the Medicare Express app, with a future digital wallet version in July.
“States and territories may consider the potential future value of COVID-19 digital certificates when considering automatic travel exemptions for interstate travel during state-determined lockdowns and travel restrictions, ” national cabinet said.
On Friday the federal and Victorian governments signed a Memorandum of Understanding to progress negotiations on the planned stand-alone quarantine centre near Melbourne.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra