The Morrison government has played down fears the vaccine rollout could be disrupted by Italy’s move to block exports to Australia, and has flagged plans to expand the Howard Springs quarantine facility for returning travellers by May.
The progress of Australia’s vaccination rollout – including the impact of the sudden block on a shipment of 250,000 AstraZeneca doses to Australia – was high on the agenda for Scott Morrison’s meeting with state and territory leaders on Friday.
The first domestically produced AstraZeneca doses will begin to be released in the week starting 22 March, giving Australia the capacity “to really ramp up” its vaccination program, health officials said after the national cabinet meeting.
Amid longstanding calls for the federal government to take responsibility for expanding quarantine facilities for stranded Australians, Morrison also announced an agreement with the Northern Territory to more than double the capacity of the Howard Springs site.
Morrison told reporters in Sydney the current capacity of 850 people a fortnight would increase to 2,000 by April or May.
Asked to explain the delay in expanding Howard Springs, Morrison said the critical issue was the ramp-up of the workforce, but there were “wet season issues as well”.
But there is no immediate relief for Australians stranded overseas, with flight arrival caps remaining at their current levels for the time being, and with Morrison saying the national cabinet was “unanimous” on the need for the international border to stay closed until at least June.
The prime minister called on the Victorian government to resume accepting international flights, arguing that more than 10,000 Victorians were on the list of Australians who wished to return from abroad and he was “sure they would welcome their home state receiving those flights as soon as possible”.
Morrison said he could not provide any update on the push for a quarantine facility in Toowoomba in Queensland, because the government would “need a detailed, costed proposal that the commonwealth could consider”.
“There’s been a lot of going backwards and forwards, but as yet the commonwealth doesn’t have a costed proposal that we could actually consider,” Morrison said.
Although the rollout of Pfizer jabs began in Australia two weeks ago, the first AstraZeneca doses were administered in Murray Bridge in regional South Australia on Friday, something the government said was “a very important milestone”.
The health minister, Greg Hunt, sought to allay fears over the impact of Italy’s decision to block the export of 250,000 doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine to Australia, describing it as “one particular shipment from one particular country”.
Hunt said that move did not affect the pace of the rollout, because that shipment “had not been factored in to our distribution to the states and territories”.
He said the first shipment of 300,000 AstraZeneca doses arrived in Australia earlier this week. The government already had “more than enough” AstraZeneca doses to bridge the gap between now and the start of the batched produced domestically by CSL in late March.
Hunt said AstraZeneca had assured the Australian government on Friday that the company would continue to draw on its “deep, broad global supply chain”.
Asked whether the company had committed to supply Australia with the same number of doses from other parts of the world instead, Hunt said he would not pre-empt arrival dates for security reasons “but I am confident that, in the near future, there may be more announcements in relation to the arrival of both vaccines”.
Nevertheless, Hunt said the Australian government had “raised the issue with the European commission through multiple channels, and in particular, we have asked the European commission to review this decision”.
The health minister confirmed the Australian government was first notified of the plans on Wednesday evening this week.
The Italian government indicated the move was not directed against Australia.
In a statement, Italy’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the reason for not allowing the export authorisation request included the fact that Australia was classified as “a non-vulnerable country” and “the continuing shortage of vaccines in the EU – and in Italy – and delays in the supply of anti-Covid-19 vaccines by AstraZeneca towards the EU and in particular Italy”.
Morrison declined to criticise the Italian government over the export block, saying he could “certainly understand the high level of anxiety that would exist in Italy and in many countries across Europe” given that they were “in an unbridled crisis situation” with high daily death tolls.
The prime minister said the government had “always anticipated that these sorts of problems could arise” which is why it had taken steps to ensure domestic vaccine production at CSL.
Prof Brendan Murphy, the secretary of the health department, said the “really, really exciting thing is that in the week beginning 22 March we will start to release the onshore supply of AstraZeneca vaccine”.
Murphy said at least 1m doses a week would “give us the capacity to really ramp up and broadly vaccinate our population as quickly as possible”.
“The value of having onshore production cannot be underestimated,” he said.
Morrison said national cabinet had also agreed to a pilot program for Pacific workers to quarantine in their home countries before coming to Australia, with South Australia set to be the first to trial this system to help fill workforce shortages in the agriculture sector.
Labor’s acting health spokesperson, Chris Bowen, said the government needed to get the vaccine rollout “back on track”.
Bowen said Hunt had previously assured Australians that “the [European Union] regulatory steps are not aimed at Australia, and not expected to affect Australia”.
“But now, Australia has become the only country in the world to be impacted by the EU’s export controls,” Bowen said.
“The situation is concerning because the Therapeutic Goods Administration is yet to approve the version of the vaccine that CSL is manufacturing in Australia. The TGA’s experts should take all the time they need to ensure the quality and safety of the CSL version.”