Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced Australia will likely begin its COVID vaccination program weeks before its original start date of March.
The new plan would see inoculations begin in mid-February with a target of inoculating half the country – including the most vulnerable groups – in the first half of the year.
PM Morrison’s promise could be significant in finally removing domestic borders and potentially opening up international ones, too. It also comes amid worry for the aviation industry that more transmissible strain of COVID that originated in Kent, England could leak into Australia as ex-pats return home.
Australia has purchased 10 million doses of the vaccine produced by Pfizer/BioNTech, and also agreed to deals with candidates from Novavax and the University of Oxford.
The new plan – which came after pressure from the federal opposition – would see the Pfizer vaccine approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration this month, with the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab to follow shortly after.
The latter is seen as the key to vaccinating more Australians as it is cheaper and doesn’t have to be stored in a freezer.
Initially, Morrison said, the country would vaccinate 80,000 people each week to begin with, before the program would accelerate.
The top priority group would include quarantine and border workers, health care workers, aged care staff and aged care residents.
“Vaccination in 2021 is a key component of how we’re dealing with the pandemic here in Australia,” PM Morrison said.
The government has always strongly linked vaccinating Australians with the opening of international borders.
October 2020’s federal budget, however, revealed the government isn’t planning for global travel to return until the latter part of 2021. Today’s announcement though will bring hope that deadline could be moved forward.
Currently, only Australian citizens and permanent residents are allowed to enter the country, with international students, temporary visa holders and tourists banned altogether. Those who do enter are subject to a mandatory 14-day quarantine period for which they have to pay up to $3,000.
In a terse statement sent to the media on Tuesday afternoon, McCormack said, “International borders will be opened when international arrivals do not pose a risk to Australians. Decisions about when international travel resumes will be made by the Australian government.”
Tickets for flights departing on 1 July and returning at the end of the month range from $3,400 return from Sydney to London; and $2,000 from Sydney to New York (La Guardia).