The Morrison government has walked back a new vaccine timeline suggested by Trade Minister Dan Tehan, who claimed the government aimed to immunise all Australians by the end of the year.
Speaking live on Sky News on Sunday, Mr Tehan said the government aimed to offer all Australians their first COVID-19 vaccine dose by the end of the year, but conceded more delays were possible.
Hours later, a government spokesman clarified that no official timeline had been set.
“There has been no change in the government’s position from last week. We await further advice from the medical experts about potential time frames, but our goal is to ensure every Australian is vaccinated as early as possible,” he said.
Australia’s sluggish rollout was dealt another serious blow on Thursday, when health authorities advised against administering the AstraZeneca jab to people under 50 whenever possible.
The development blew out the federal government’s aim to vaccinate the entire population by October, given AstraZeneca had been set to make up the bulk of its rollout.
Mr Tehan claimed the government now aimed to offer first doses to all Australians by the end of the year, but conceded more ruptures were possible.
“That is definitely the aim, that is the goal we have set: trying to have all Australians have a dose by the end of the year,” he told Sky News.
“But I think Australians understand … when you’re dealing with the pandemic, there are a lot of unknowns and you have got to make sure you set your goals and are prepared to adjust those as things occur.”
Labor health spokesman Mark Butler said “it remained to be seen” what a reasonable time frame for completing the rollout would be.
“We really can’t have a situation where vaccines are rolling out into next year, which seems to be the Prime Minister’s thinking,” he told the ABC’s Insiders.
The government has consistently argued the production of 50 million AstraZeneca doses by CSL in Melbourne would boost Australia’s vaccine sovereignty, but Thursday’s development has increased its reliance on exports from overseas.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed on Friday Australia had struck a deal for an additional 20 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, to arrive later this year.
Mr Tehan will travel on Wednesday to Europe, his first overseas trip as trade minister, saying “vaccine diplomacy” would be high on his agenda.
He will meet counterparts from the UK and the European Union, which has frustrated Canberra by restricting vaccine exports.
Australia’s initial vaccine supply was heavily reliant on exports from the bloc, but Mr Morrison on Wednesday claimed 3.1 million contracted doses had not arrived.
Mr Tehan said his “first port of call” would be a meeting with World Trade Organisation director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who he framed as a potential ally.
“I’ll be talking to her about vaccines and export restrictions that have been put in place. She’s been very outspoken against those,” he said.
The extended vaccine rollout has prompted fresh fears for the tourism sector, which has borne the brunt of the pandemic’s economic impact.
Various states have imposed snap lockdowns and border closures in response to interstate outbreaks, but Mr Tehan said those measures should only be implemented as “a last resort”.
“We’ve got to remember our contact tracing and our testing can be very much used as that first defence against the virus spreading,” he said.
“If we can do that, we can balance the health consequences of the virus and the economic livelihoods aspect of it.”
He said a two-way travel bubble with New Zealand, set to start this month, would give the sector confidence the recovery was under way.