People aged 12 to 15 will be able to book Covid-19 vaccinations from 13 September, after technical advice confirmed they are eligible for Pfizer.
But the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisationthat, given supply constraints, Pfizer doses should be prioritised for young adults. And the government should also consider offering older Australians choice of vaccine before vaccinating teenagers.
Atagi released its advice on Friday ahead of a national cabinet meeting that will consider the addition of 1.2 million people aged 12 to 15 to the rollout, as well as discussion of what freedoms Australians will enjoy once 70% of adults are vaccinated and what public health measures will remain in place.
At a press conference ahead of the meeting,added nuance to his language about easing restrictions during Phase B of the national plan, warning it would be a “soft and careful opening” rather than a “big opening”.
Morrison said the national security committee of cabinet had met on Thursday evening and accepted advice from the head of the vaccination rollout, Lt Gen John Frewen, to extend eligibility to the 12 to 15 age cohort.
In a statement, the government said it expected all children 12-18 years of age will have access to a vaccine during the course of 2021.
On Friday, the New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, confirmed reports that parents had already been using the NSW booking system to make vaccination appointments for their children, and confirmed these would be honoured.
“Any bookings made successfully are honoured,” she told reporters in Sydney. “We are pleased there is a national strategy for 12 to 15-year-olds and encourage parents who are inclined to make those bookings to do so.
“What we’d also love, when it is available, is vaccine because children under 18 only get Pfizer.”
Earlier in Augustfrom 30 August, prompting consternation from the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, that this group had effectively been encouraged to cancel AstraZeneca appointments when Pfizer supplies were still insufficient.
On Friday the Australian Capital Territory chief minister, Andrew Barr, noted this time Morrison had been “clearer” that the 13 September start date was just for “taking bookings so as not to raise unrealistic expectations”.
The Atagi advice stated that “the current constraint on vaccine supply is a key determinant on the timing of delivery of an adolescent Covid-19 vaccination program”.
It noted that there was “greater population-level benefit from increasing vaccination coverage among adults aged 20 to 39 years of age (rather than adolescents) given their greater role in disease transmission”.
“Therefore, in the context of constrained vaccine supply, delivery of a population-wide adolescent program should not be prioritised over vaccination to younger adults in most contexts.”
The health minister, Greg Hunt, told reporters in Canberra the government had followed this advice by sequencing 12 to 15 year olds’ jabs to start after those aged 16 to 39.
Frewen said with “very large amounts of Pfizer” available from October the rollout would meet demand from both groups.
Atagi also recommended that vaccination of 12 to 15-year-olds was “of a lower priority than older adults” and therefore the government should consider strategies “including provision of choice of vaccine to ensure older adults are vaccinated”.
The recommendation pointed to the possibility of boosting vaccination rates among those aged 59 and over, who were currently only eligible for AstraZeneca, by allowing them to choose Pfizer in a bid to overcome vaccine hesitancy.
Hunt did not rule out giving older Australians choice, noting the rollout already allows “whole of population access” – including AstraZeneca for those aged 60 and over – but promising “we will provide more advice on that later”.
Atagi noted adolescents could be given vaccines in schools, mass vaccination hubs or primary care.
Earlier, Morrison said those aged 12 to 15 would “principally” be vaccinated through the GP network, providing “the opportunity for family vaccinations”.
Hunt warned parents not to wait for school-based programs before booking a vaccination, suggesting schools would be added “over the next month or so”.
Atagi warned that although schools were “a good access point for routine [vaccinations] … limitations in surge workforce capacity and the relatively longer lead time required for implementation and planning means delivery of a Covid-19 school-based program within the 4th quarter of 2021 may not be feasible in many jurisdictions”.
Morrison said that national cabinet would considerincluding the “sensitivity analysis” of their modelling, but reasserted it was safe to reopen at the 70% and 80% vaccination targets for the population aged 16 and over.
“Of course you need to have caution when you go through the 70% mark, as opposed to the 80% mark stop,” he said, adding national cabinet had always intended to “calibrate” public health settings in Phase B.
Morrison said state and territory leaders would have the “first pass” at considering what freedoms vaccinated Australians might enjoy once restrictions were eased, but he did not expect a decision on Friday.
“We will also discuss today the important issue of the preparedness of public hospitals and the public health system.”