Australia will consider shortening the length of hotel quarantine for international arrivals or shifting towards home quarantine once more people are vaccinated against Covid-19, a senior health official has said, as the Therapeutic Goods Administration approves domestic manufacturing of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
While they may not be adopted until the second half of this year, the ideas have been floated at the same time a national taskforce is investigating how Australia’s “risk profile” is changing.
The secretary of the federal health department, Prof Brendan Murphy, said the two-period hotel quarantine requirement could be reconsidered once the vaccine rollout was at a more advanced stage.
“As we get more and more Australians vaccinated, and as more and more countries around the world get vaccinated, we will start to progressively look at what sort of border and quarantine measures we have to do,” Murphy, who is also head of the vaccines taskforce, told Sky News on Sunday.
“We might think about, for example, reducing the length of quarantine or more home quarantine, particularly for vaccinated people. Our risk tolerance will change over the second half of this year.”
While he cautioned that “nobody can really predict what will happen with international borders”, Murphy added, “I’m hopeful that pretty good international travel will happen next year but it’s just too early to tell.”
The deputy chief medical officer, Prof Michael Kidd, addressed reporters in Canberra, saying the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee would be providing advice to states and territories through the national cabinet.
But Kidd played down the prospect of any imminent changes to quarantine arrangements, because the immediate focus was on “making the vaccine available as widely as we can” in Australia.
“Until we have vaccinated the majority of people in Australia and everyone who wishes to receive the vaccine, we will still have people who are at risk if we have Covid-19 and community transmission occurring in Australia,” Kidd said.
Kidd would not be drawn on whether there was likely to be a uniform approach or whether individual states and territories would differ.
Asked whether the Australian government should play a role in helping to vaccinate the 40,000 Australians who wish to return from overseas, Kidd said the Australian Covid-19 vaccination program was available to “every person who is in Australia”.
“That includes people who are not Australian citizens, people who are not permanent residents of Australia – every single person who is in Australia is eligible to receive the vaccine. That’s because it’s a public health measure,” Kidd said.
“We hope that other countries will be doing the same, and that would allow Australians who are in other countries to receive vaccines as well.”
The comments were made ahead of an announcement by the Therapeutic Goods Administration on Sunday evening that it has approved CSL-Seqirus to manufacture the AstraZeneca vaccine in its facility in Melbourne.
In a statement, the TGA said that the approval was a “critical and very exciting milestone in Australia’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic”.
“Specific approval of Australian manufacturing by TGA was required to ensure that the locally-manufactured vaccine had exactly the same composition and performance as overseas-manufactured vaccine, was made to the same quality and is free of contaminants,” the statement said.
With phase 1b of the Australia’s vaccine rollout due to begin on Monday, and in the wake of criticism of the government’s apparently rushed launch of the appointment booking system and delays getting doses to some GP clinics, Kidd continued on Sunday to urge people to be “patient”.
“Obviously we won’t be able to vaccinate all 6 million people [who are included in the phase 1B group] tomorrow, or over the coming week, so please be patient,” Kidd said.
“At the moment, some general practices will only receive 50 doses a week and they will be prioritising their most elderly and most unwell patients.”
Kidd said the government was “expecting a steadily increasing supply of the AstraZeneca vaccine to general practices over the weeks ahead”.
“I’m advised that the Therapeutic Goods Administration anticipates that the relevant approvals for the CSL Australian manufacturing side of the AstraZeneca vaccine will be completed in the coming days,” he said.
Kidd said the flooding in New South Wales would cause some delays in distributing vaccines to general practices in affected regions, because safety must come first, but he wasn’t able to quantify the impact at this stage.
“Obviously we have to wait and see what happens with the weather over the coming days until we know when those vaccines are going to be able to be delivered,” he said.
“Some of the practices themselves have had to close as a result of the flooding and severe weather conditions.”
National cabinet has previously considered alternatives to hotel quarantine, after the Halton review explored the possible use of smartphone apps and wearable surveillance devices to allow travellers to quarantine at home.
But in November, Scott Morrison said national cabinet was not taking up wide-scale alternatives to hotel quarantine because the risk was still too high.
The head of Morrison’s department, Phil Gaetjens, is now working with the top public servants in each state and territory to advise leaders on “how the risk environment has changed in relation to the management of the pandemic”.
When he announced the latest review in early February, Morrison said it would look at the way Australia dealt with Covid-19 outbreaks and a range of pandemic-related health measures.