Labor has accused the Morrison government of reneging on its commitment Australians will be “fully vaccinated” by October, after health department officials conceded some people may only have had one dose by then.
Officials told the Senate’s Covid-19 inquiry that supply constraints and the longer 12-week window between AstraZeneca doses meant some may have to wait until December to get their second shot.
The Labor chair of the committee, Katy Gallagher, said the evidence on Thursday contradicted the “clear language” from the prime minister, Scott Morrison, and the health minister, Greg Hunt, of full vaccination by October.
But the health department secretary, Prof Brendan Murphy, claimed it was a “semantic debate” that “doesn’t really matter” because people would receive protection against Covid-19 from the first dose.
In December, Hunt promised Australians would be “fully vaccinated” by October. But the government began to shift its language because clinical studies found AstraZeneca, the backbone of Australia’s vaccination program, was more effective when given 12 weeks apart, not the four weeks the original timetable was based on.
When AstraZeneca was given full approval in February, Hunt said that “every Australian who seeks to have the vaccine will be in a position to have had at least the first dose” but the government would consider “what it means in regards to the second dose”.
On Tuesday, the secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Phil Gaetjens, told the committee he understood the commitment to mean both doses would be given by the deadline. On Thursday, Morrison said the “full adult population” would be vaccinated by October.
But Murphy and Caroline Edwards, the health department associate secretary, confirmed this meant only the first dose.
“We are still planning and hoping to have both shots by the end of October,” Edwards told the committee on Thursday. “In the event that we didn’t get all shots by the end of October, the second shot would be finished six weeks after the end of October.”
Edwards said there was “no end” to the program, so those turning 18 or who previously did not consent may be added to the program after October, which Labor’s Murray Watt suggested could push vaccinations into 2022.
The officials blamed supply delays, such as Italy blocking 250,000 doses, the new 12-week gap between doses, and possible interruptions such as the need to redirect the vaccination rollout towards places with an outbreak.
Murphy said the federal government believed it would have 3.8m AstraZeneca doses by now but “we’ve only had 700,000” due to “sovereign vaccine issues in Europe”. “So that vaccine supply has been a significant issue.”
By late March, CSL is expected to produce 1m doses of AstraZeneca a week locally, and the government is pressing it to increase production further, Murphy said.
Murphy conceded that “fully vaccinated” does refer to completing a program of both doses, but argued “in terms of protection the first dose is fully protective”.
“Every Australian adult will be offered a vaccine by the end of October.
“If a small number haven’t had their second AstraZeneca that doesn’t really matter, they are fully protected by the first dose. It is entirely consistent with what the prime minister and minister have said in the media.”
Australia’s vaccination rollout is ambitious, requiring at least 180,000 vaccinations a day, a rate higher than most countries are achieving.
The Australian Medical Association has said the government is unlikely to achieve its target of October and a more realistic target would be December due to a shortage of vaccine supply.
With just 125,000 doses given so far, the federal government has already abandoned its interim target of 4m by the end of March.
Also on Thursday, the Department of Defence confirmed members of HMAS Sydney experienced “mild side-effects” after receiving the Covid-19 vaccine.
The ABC reported that crew members were admitted to St Vincent’s hospital in Sydney as a precaution after experiencing side-effects from the vaccine.
In a statement, the department said no members of the ship were currently in hospital, but would not comment on whether any crew had previously been admitted.
A Defence spokesperson said the ship’s crew had voluntarily received the vaccine ahead of a deployment to North America. The ship sailed with its full crew on Thursday.
“In accordance with Department of Health guidelines, members of the ship’s company were encouraged to report to medical personnel if they were feeling unwell after their vaccination. Some members experienced mild side-effects, which were resolved shortly after reporting,” a Defence spokesperson said. “It is not unusual to experience mild side-effects after any vaccination. Serious allergic reactions are rare.”
Earlier, Australia’s chief medical officer, Prof Paul Kelly, told the Senate inquiry he had been notified of adverse events, but aside from “a few cases of anaphylaxis” there was “nothing untoward” in side-effects from the vaccine.
“There have been some deaths following immunisation but not related to the immunisation,” Kelly said. “We’ve seen three cases of severe allergic reactions, but they were handled expertly and quickly, with no ongoing adverse effects.”
Other adverse events are relatively minor and include pain at the injection site, some fever, body pain, headache, Kelly said, but “nothing untoward”.
Murphy said the “unfortunate narrative” that the Pfizer vaccine was more effective than AstraZeneca “is now dead” because they are “equally efficacious”.
“There is no difference between their efficacy. Both are incredibly effective at prevent severe Covid, hospitalisation, and death.”