Over-50s will be able to access the AstraZeneca vaccine at GP clinics from mid-May as part of a rejig of the national rollout strategy signed off by the nation’s leaders on Thursday.
Facing calls for an urgent “reset” of the troubled rollout in the wake of changed health advice for the AstraZeneca vaccine, national cabinet also agreed to restrict the use of Pfizer doses to the under-50s, with priority access for those in phase 1a and 1b.
This includes aged care workers, disability care workers and residents, critical and high-risk workers, healthcare workers and people with underlying medical conditions, who will be able to access the Pfizer jab through state and territory-run clinics.
Health officials also revealed on Tuesday that fewer than 7% of disability care residents had so far received a dose of Covid vaccine, leaving 25,000 residents unvaccinated despite being in the top priority group.
To maximise use of available AstraZeneca doses, which are being produced by CSL in Melbourne, the government will make vaccines available to all over-50s in state and territory facilities and GP respiratory clinics from 3 May, and across the GP network from 17 May.
Given state clinics will no longer be administering AstraZeneca to the under-50s, national cabinet also agreed to a progressive expansion of state-run Pfizer clinics in line with increased supplies.
Australia ordered an additional 20m doses of Pfizer mRNA vaccine doses in the wake of the advice for under-50s from the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, which was based on the risk of a rare but serious blood clot condition.
Following calls from the Western Australian premier, Mark McGowan, for a “pause” in travel from India, where a Covid surge has seen almost 1.6 million cases registered in a week, national cabinet also agreed to cut the number of repatriation flights coming from India, and tighten outbound travel restrictions.
The recalibration of the vaccine rollout aims to ensure Australians who are the most vulnerable to severe Covid-19 are vaccinated by the middle of the year, but the government has been reluctant to set new targets after it ditched an earlier commitment to have first doses administered to all those who wanted one by October.
The prime minister, Scott Morrison, said Australia was making good progress, with the latest figures released on Thursday showing almost 1.8 million Australians had been vaccinated, an increase of about 70,000 in the preceding 24 hours.
A total of 189,000 doses have now been given to aged care and disability care workers, of an estimated workforce of about 320,000. Most have not yet received a second dose.
Morrison said Australia compared well to other countries at a similar stage of the vaccine rollout and pointed to the high number of doses being administered through the GP network.
“We’re pleased to see those numbers have been staying in those mid-60,000s each day and that’s good to see,” Morrison said.
“I want to say a big thank you to Australians, particularly those aged over 70, including my mum, who have been out there heeding that call to importantly go and ensure that they are getting vaccinated, because that population, in particular aged over 70, is the most vulnerable when it comes to there being any potential outbreak.”
The health department secretary, Brendan Murphy, said the government had almost completed vaccinations in the aged care sector, and this would be a priority before the rollout to the over-50s.
“We have to finish off residential aged care. It’s nearly finished. Only a few more weeks to go and we have efficient teams going in there giving Pfizer to our aged care residents,” Murphy said.
“We will soon have them completely protected and they are the single most high-risk group in this country and all around the world from Covid.”
Speaking at a visit to St Kilda’s Sacred Heart nursing home on Thursday, where no residents or staff had been vaccinated, the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, criticised the government.
“This government said that we were at the front of the queue, when nothing was farther from the truth,” Albanese said.
“This government has been complacent. This government then said that 4 million Australians would be vaccinated by the end of March. And they’ve struggled to get to one million and it’s the middle of April.”
“This government also said in February, that category 1a, that includes aged care residents, would be vaccinated in the next six weeks. That was eight weeks ago. And yet not a single resident in this facility has received a vaccine and not a single staff member. It simply is not good enough.”