“There was no agreement on this, there is simply the opportunity for them to take this up if they wanted to provide an exemption in those circumstances where people had their vaccination in place, then they can do so,” Mr Morrison said.
After a week of resisting calls to place greater urgency on the vaccine rollout, the Prime Minister has responded to the criticism that has stemmed from the lockdown in Victoria for which federal Labor and the state Labor government have blamed the slower than anticipated vaccination rates.
The federal government privately refutes this, arguing that even if the rollout had gone as planned, vaccine levels would not yet be sufficient to prevent lockdowns. But the attack line has gained traction in Victoria and beyond.
Consequently, Mr Morrison has announced Lieutenant General John James Frewen will take over the program, replacing Department of Health associate secretary Caroline Edwards, who has retired.
General Frewen’s authority will be expanded in line with that given to General Angus Campbell, who was charged by Mr Morrison, when he was immigration minister, to stop the boats.
General Frewen will bring together all the relevant agencies involved in the vaccine rollout and operate outside the departmental structure in order to circumvent bureaucratic hold-ups.
“I think that very direct command and control structure that was so effective in the past will add a further dimension and system as we step up to this next phase,” Mr Morrison said.
He said Operation Sovereign Borders worked and “I think moving to that footing now will further improve how we’re working in the vaccination program”.
“Lieutenant General Frewen will have direct operational control across numerous government departments for the direction of the national vaccination program and all of those working in that program, from communications to dealings with states, to the distribution and delivery of vaccines … working with the GPs, pharmacists and others.”
‘Complacency had to be shaken up a bit’
The Prime Minister rejected suggestions the change was an admission the rollout was in crisis. He argued greater control was needed as the rollout was ramped up, due to increasing supply and awareness.
Health department secretary Dr Brendan Murphy said Victoria had provided the wake-up call required.
“It is unfortunate that complacency had to be shaken up a bit by a small outbreak in Victoria, but that’s the silver lining in that cloud of our friends in Victoria, that people are turning up,” he said.
In the 24 hours to mid-Friday, 143,659 vaccine doses were administered, taking it to more than 1 million doses in 10 days.
The Victorian lockdown also exposed the lag in vaccination of both residents of aged care homes and the staff who cared for them.
Previously, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee has recommended against mandatory vaccination of aged care workers, even though influenza vaccines are mandatory.
The AHPPC argued mandating a COVID-19 vaccine would result in a significant number of workers quitting rather than being forced to be vaccinated.
This would create a shortfall of workers in an already overstretched sector.
Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said this had occurred in Western Australia after Premier Mark McGowan issued a public health order mandating that security guards at COVID-19 hotels be vaccinated.
“Some people chose to leave the industry. Now, we know that that could be an issue so we don’t want that to be an issue,” he said.
‘We are leaning heavily into this’
The best option was to encourage people to come forward and be voluntarily vaccinated.
As well, vaccinated people can still transmit the virus, and doctors feel vaccinated workers may not take the necessary precautions to stop transmission.
But Mr Morrison indicated patience was wearing thin with the medical advice.
The AHPPC needed to provide the premiers within a “suitable time frame” and a model on how to mandate vaccination “that would be suitable and safe from a medical perspective and taking into account the balancing risks that you would have to consider, and the issue of putting strain on a residential aged care, in particular, and disability care workforce”.
“We agreed to an in-principle disposition. What does that mean?” he said.
“We are leaning heavily into this, make no mistake, we are leaning heavily into this as leaders of governments and myself as Prime Minister, to see us move towards a mandatory vaccination for aged care workers.”
In addition, aged care providers will have to legally report by June 15 the vaccination status of their workers so a national database can be compiled.
Opposition leader Anthony Albanese said Mr Morrison had been dragged “kicking and screaming” to act and the principal problem with aged care workers had been a lack of supply of vaccines, not a lack of willingness to be vaccinated.
“With regard to any compulsion issue, we will always take health advice on that issue. But the issue here is that people who are desperate to get vaccinated haven’t been able to.”
The state and territory leaders also agreed to a national system of emergency payments in which workers who lost pay due to a state-imposed lockdown, would receive a weekly payment of $500 if they typically worked 20 or more hours, and $325 if they worked less.
The payments would only become available once a lockdown lasted longer than seven days and would only be made if the lockdown met the Commonwealth definition of a COVID-19 hotspot.
It was agreed at national cabinet that the Commonwealth would cover the cost of the scheme while the states would pick up the tab for any assistance for business.
The Victorian government has pledged $459 million in grants for affected businesses.