Just when you thought Australia’s vaccine rollout couldn’t become more of a hot mess, Prime Minister Scott Morrison seemingly blindsided everyone when he announced that anyone (regardless of age or profession) can ask their doctor for an AstraZeneca jab.
Since Monday night’s press conference, many people have asked the question: did Scott Morrison actually mean to announce that anyone can get an AZ jab? Or was it just a slip of the tongue that he ran with?
The Official Transcript
As we know all too well after more than a year of battling the COVID-19 pandemic, Morrison isn’t particularly great with words, and this presser was no different. I mean, this man said “more soonly” at one point.
But the key part of this press conference – which has been transcribed on the Prime Minister’s website – is when a journalist asked for clarification on how the indemnity announcement impacted those under 40 who want the jab.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, just with the changes to the indemnity for AstraZeneca, does that mean that people under 40 will be able to talk to their GPs and get the jab immediately, and if not, what would it take, if the older cohort don’t want the jab, for those people under 40 to get access to AstraZeneca if they’re willing to take on that risk?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, if they wish to go and speak to their doctor and have access to the AstraZeneca vaccine, they can do so.
JOURNALIST: Any age group?
PRIME MINISTER: So, the answer is yes, they can go and do that.
But What About The National Cabinet Statement?
Morrison’s press conference on Monday night came directly after the conclusion of the National Cabinet, so you would assume the announcements made would’ve been discussed during the meeting.
However, the news that any Australian can ask for the AstraZeneca vaccine – which is arguably the biggest announcement of the day – wasn’t actually noted in the National Cabinet Statement.
Only four major announcements were actually noted: mandatory vaccinations for aged care workers, changes to the quarantine programme, an agreement to “seek advice” on vaccinations for aviation, freight and FIFO workers and the indemnity announcement.
“National Cabinet noted that the Commonwealth will establish a COVID-19 professional indemnity scheme to provide additional certainty to healthcare practitioners who are providing advice to people in relation to COVID-19 vaccination. The scheme covers COVID-19 vaccines approved by the TGA and approved for use in the vaccine program,” the announcement reads.
“National Cabinet noted that GPs can continue to administer AstraZeneca to Australians under 60 years of age with informed consent and that this measure will provide confidence to medical practitioners to administer both AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines to Australians.”
The fact that anyone can apparently request AstraZeneca from their GP isn’t even added as a footnote to this announcement, despite being the single biggest change to Australia’s vaccine rollout to-date.
So… It Wasn’t A National Cabinet Decision?
Following Morrison’s vaccine announcement, both Queensland Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young and Victoria’s Health Minister Martin Foley were quick to assert that the decision wasn’t made during national cabinet.
During an interview with ABC News Breakfast on Tuesday, Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly confirmed that the call was a Commonwealth decision and backed Morrison completely.
“The change really last night was the decreasing of the age below 40,” he said, confirming that Pfizer is still the vaccine of choice for under 40s.
This explains why it wasn’t outlined in the National Cabinet statement, but makes it even more confusing why he’d chuck such a major announcement in the Q&A portion of a late night press conference.
However, in the ABC News Breakfast interview, Hunt asserted that the decision was noted by National Cabinet, despite the fact that it wasn’t included in the post-meeting notes made available to the public.
Perhaps somebody just did an oopsie and forgot to jot it down, but that seems like a huge blunder if this really is the case.
What Is Indemnity And What Does It Cover?
Indemnity means protection.
In the case of the AstraZeneca indemnity clause, it means that your GP can’t be sued if you have an adverse reaction to the AZ shot.
Basically, instead of suing your doctor if you have complications as a result of the AZ vaccine, you would be entitled to compensation from the federal government without having to assign who is at fault.
However, it’s worth noting that the conditions and the extent of the indemnity clause are still unknown.
GP and former Wentworth MP Kerryn Phelps took to Twitter on Tuesday to assert that GPs are still “clarifying” what they can and can’t do.
“We are still clarifying the medicolegal situation for GPs giving AstraZeneca vaccine to younger people if something goes wrong,” she wrote.
“As I understand it, medical indemnity plan is not yet in place and will not be a blanket indemnity.”
We are still clarifying the medicolegal situation for GPs giving AstraZeneca vaccine to younger people if something goes wrong.
As I understand it, medical indemnity plan is not yet in place and will not be a blanket indemnity
— Prof Kerryn Phelps AM (@drkerrynphelps) June 29, 2021
Medical Experts And Doctors Respond
The general consensus is that doctors were blindsided by this announcement, with the Australian Medical Association (AMA) going so far as to say it was only told about the indemnity announcement.
“We knew about the indemnity announcement but we didn’t expect the AstraZeneca announcement,” AMA President Dr Omar Khorshid told The Guardian, confirming that the AMA is still backing the official advice given by the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI).
“Our recommendation is still really for patients to follow the Atagi advice. Be patient and have the Atagi-recommended vaccine when it’s available. I am certainly still backing the expert advice at this stage.”
He then clarified his stance on ABC News this morning.
“I think I need to be a little clearer here. We don’t actually have a problem with removing the restrictions on age, as the Prime Minister has done,” he said.
“The issue is the confused messaging and, of course, no notice to GPs – who were inundated with calls yesterday.”
“The advice has not changed,” he added. “The experts are recommending people under the age of 60 have the Pfizer vaccine.”
The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners were also not aware of this significant change prior to the announcement.
“The nation’s general practices had no warning of the announcements made last night and are now scrambling to figure out what this means for our patients,” RACGP president Karen Price told The New Daily.
“Phones are ringing off the hook at general practices across the country with people trying to book in, but general practices are not yet armed with the advice needed to implement this change in eligibility.”
Meanwhile, Dr Anita Muñoz said clinics were already copping the brunt of the announcement with clinics booking out almost instantly, despite the fact that many GPs have been left in the dark on exactly what they’re supposed to do.
“It may well take a practice days or weeks to make a decision about acting on this new set of criteria for AstraZeneca – and that is okay. That means they are thinking about it and taking it seriously,” Dr Muñoz told the SBS.
Who Has Pushed Back?
Following the announcement, Martin Foley told reporters that Victoria has written to the Commonwealth to seek clarification on exactly what the announcement means, asserting that the state is still seeking further advice before anything will be rolled out.
Meanwhile, Queensland CHO Jeanette Young told Queenslanders to continue following clinical advice.
“There are some people asking to get AstraZeneca although the clinical advice is they should not,” she said.
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk echoed a similar sentiment when pressed on the situation on Tuesday, confirming the Queensland Government’s stance as following ATAGI advice.
“The only decision I recall being made [on AstraZeneca] is the federal government was giving indemnity to the doctors,” she said on Tuesday. “We’ve had advice from ATAGI and I think we should be following that advice.”
Palaszczuk has since doubled down on this statement, going rogue on Wednesday and asserting that under 40s shouldn’t get the jab.
"I don't want an 18yo in Queensland dying from a clotting illness, who if they got COVID, probably wouldn't die," said Chief Health Officer Dr Jeannette Young.
"Wouldn't it be terrible that our first 18yo in Qld who dies, related to this pandemic, died because of this vaccine."
— Josh Bavas (@JoshBavas) June 30, 2021
Labor health spokesperson Mark Butler called the announcement “extraordinary.”
“This is extraordinary – making a late-night announcement that seems to contradict the expert advice without first consulting Australia’s doctors,” he tweeted.
This is extraordinary – making a late night announcement that seems to contradict the expert advice without first consulting Australia’s doctors. Australians deserve better than stubborn incompetence from @ScottMorrisonMP https://t.co/sBgPxEBeXs
— Mark Butler MP (@Mark_Butler_MP) June 29, 2021
What Is The Actual Health Advice?
Unsurprisingly, young Aussies are jumping at the opportunity to get jabbed after months of waiting patiently for their turn. And experts expect there to be “a lot of pent up demand from young people.”
“Bottom line, it frees it up to the way doctors do anything else, on a risk-benefit assessment,” AMA vice president Chris Moy told The New Daily in regards to the indemnity clause.
“People weigh up risks with their treatment all the time. We’ve had reports about phones running hot for young people making appointments.”
Ultimately, the ATAGI recommendation remains unchanged and reads as follows:
The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) recommends the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine (Comirnaty) as the preferred vaccine for those aged 16 to under 60 years. This updates the previous preferential recommendation for Comirnaty over COVID-19 Vaccine AstraZeneca in those aged 16 to under 50 years. The recommendation is revised due to a higher risk and observed severity of thrombosis and thrombocytopenia syndrome (TTS) related to the use of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine observed in Australia in the 50-59 year old age group than reported internationally and initially estimated in Australia.
For those aged 60 years and above, the individual benefits of receiving a COVID-19 vaccine are greater than in younger people. The risks of severe outcomes with COVID-19 increase with age and are particularly high in older unvaccinated individuals. The benefit of vaccination in preventing COVID-19 with COVID-19 Vaccine AstraZeneca outweighs the risk of TTS in this age group and underpins its ongoing use in this age group.
But the reality is, many young Aussies are keen to get vaccinated ASAP, so what is the realistic advice? Well, AMA president Dr Khorshid says it’s a call that should be made by your GP who knows your health and situation best and can adequately perform a risk assessment.
“Any Australians under the age of 60 wanting to have AstraZeneca, talk to your GP who can advise on the risks as outlined by ATAGI and in relation to their own health,” Khorshid said.
“GPs are in the best position to assess risk and talk to patients about vaccines.”
As for the actual risk, Australians under 50 have a 3.1 in 100,000 chance of contracting thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome (TSS) from the AZ vaccine, according to ATAGI. TSS is treatable and only carries a mortality rate in Australia of 4 per cent.
However, there’s still a strong chance your doctor will warn against you getting the AZ vaccine. If so, you should thank them for giving you tailored medical advice and resist the urge to vent your frustrations on them.
Us too. It’s hard to comprehend what the heck is happening when it seems like every state and federal authority has a different take on this situation.
Whether it’s the PM or the Premier, no politician is going to know what is right for you when it comes to the vaccine. If you’re considering the AZ vaccine, or just want to know how it could affect your health, speak directly to your doctor.
So… Did ScoMo Make This All Up On The Spot?
Unless the PM actually comes right out and confirms this (which he likely won’t do), we will never know if this was all just a big stuff up during the press conference.
However, the situation is certainly on brand for Australia’s already-bungled vaccine rollout.