The hurdles keep coming in COVID race

The pace in the race against COVID-19 has risen again, along with the anxiety levels of Australians desperate for the respite that summer, briefly, seemed to promise. After picking up the baton from Delta, the Omicron variant is off and threatening to run rampant.

Like many before it, yesterday’s meeting of the national cabinet appeared to be an effort to catch up. It’s not yet clear how far behind we are, but measures announced by Prime Minister Scott Morrison after the meeting were an indication that we need to do better and we need to do it quickly. That has been particularly evident in the rollout of booster – or third – vaccination doses.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison following Wednesday’s national cabinet meeting.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison following Wednesday’s national cabinet meeting. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Omicron has disrupted the relative sense of security that the roughly 90 per cent of eligible Australians have enjoyed after receiving their second vaccination dose as part of a concerted national effort to blunt the scourge of Delta. But as the efficacy of vaccinations wanes over time, Omicron becomes a rising threat that must be countered by a third dose. For an increasing number of people, that time has arrived, but so far only 48 per cent of those eligible have had their booster.

The infrastructure put in place to allow Australia to recover from a slow start and record one of the world’s highest levels of full vaccine coverage through the middle of this year has been diminished, and Mr Morrison’s announcement that it will be ramped up now is welcome. While some other countries have reduced the interval between second and third doses from six months to five months and then shorter again to speed up coverage against Omicron, Mr Morrison said Australia’s interval would remain at five months for now.

Again, it is right that that decision will be made by the experts, the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, and it will not only be medical. Pharmacists and GPs central to the vaccination program warn a reduction in the interval could lead to a surge in demand that the system would be unable to handle.

It is unfortunate that it is only now that Mr Morrison has boosted the booster rollout by offering financial assistance to pharmacists and GPs and urging the states to reinstate their closed vaccination hubs. Of the almost 70 countries for which there is data on the rollout of booster shots, Australian ranks near the bottom. With the spread of Omicron leading to record case numbers and a near-vertical spike in NSW, Australians have been left vulnerable at a particularly inopportune moment.

After the deprivations of months of lockdown, there is a common desire for people to connect with family and friends at this special time of year and to enjoy a holiday away. This has coincided with the lure of open interstate borders, along with the requirement that people wishing to enter Queensland, Tasmania, South Australia, the Northern Territory and Western Australian have had a recent PCR test.

Record numbers of Victorians endured long queues and regular testing hub shutdowns to be tested this week ahead of their interstate holidays, putting a strain on the state’s health system for what Victoria’s COVID-19 response commander, Jeroen Weimar, described on Wednesday as “bureaucratic reasons”. Mr Morrison estimated that 25 per cent of tests in Victoria and NSW were for people who were not deemed close contacts. He rightly called on states demanding PCR tests to drop those requirements to ease the burden in NSW and Victoria and allow for staff to return to vaccination hubs.

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