The Federal Government is seeking fresh legal advice on whether it can compel private nursing home staff to obtain COVID-19 vaccinations.
The move comes as Victoria battles another COVID outbreak, resulting in a fourth lockdown.
The news that the virus has been detected in the aged care sector has health officials concerned they could be facing a similar scenario to last year, when the second wave of COVID-19 ravaged through aged care facilities in the state over the winter months, killing more than 650 people.
Public sector workers not vaccinated will be stood down
Public sector aged care workers in Victoria who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19 will be stood down from front-line duties, as the Department of Health urges all staff working directly with patients or nursing home residents to get inoculated against both the flu and COVID-19.
In March last year, the Andrews government passed a mandatory vaccination law for health and aged care workers. It was originally drafted with the flu vaccine in mind, but Health Department officials have confirmed that once the COVID-19 vaccination is widely available, it will be added to the schedule of mandatory injections. Western Australia has similar legislation.
Despite the fact that these laws exist, to date the Government has not used them, nor has it used the “emergency powers” of the Chief Health Officer to direct aged care staff in public and private nursing homes to be vaccinated for COVID-19.
Legal and moral issues
Victorian frontline health and emergency response workers are also expected to be vaccinated, and there are legal and moral questions around whether enacting such laws would infringe democratic freedoms and rights,
There is also another important question that remains largely unanswered, and that is whether the vaccine is actually effective in stopping transmission of the virus.
Much of the early information suggested that while the vaccination would reduce the severity of symptoms, it would not necessarily stop transmission, and that adequate social distancing, personal hygiene and PPE equipment and other safeguards for those working in direct close contact with people would still be required.
And with reports from around the globe about the serious side-effects suffered by some people, there are many Australians resistant to, or hesitant about, the idea of being vaccinated.
Lack of national response criticised
Victoria now has more than 60 active cases of Covid-19 which have been traced to an Adelaide quarantine hotel, and the political finger pointing continues as the debate rages on about why the Federal Government has not taken a more active role in national oversight to assist individual states to better manage quarantine as well as outbreaks and learn from each other.
Under the structure of the Commonwealth, while the Federal Government has some overarching responsibility for health policy, States and Territories have the bulk of the responsibility for health services and management of those services within their jurisdictions, including the rollout of the vaccine and dealing with hotspots and containment of the virus.
Since the start of the pandemic, many Australians have wondered why this archaic national structure is still being adhered to under the current circumstances, particularly given that the State and Territory approach has often been criticised for resulting in the administration of confusing advice and information and a disjointed approach.
Millions of dollars earmarked for advertising the vaccination
In the meantime, while it waits for advice on how ‘mandatory’ it can make the vaccination, the federal government is considering a softer approach, requesting aged care workers to self-report whether they have been given a vaccination. It is also spending millions of dollars trying to encourage younger people to get the vaccination with a new advertising campaign due to be rolled out in July.
The Government has a $40 million COVID-19 vaccine advertising budget which includes $1.3 million to target culturally and linguistically diverse communities in their own languages. Campaigns will run across traditional media and social media.
About 4 million vaccines have been administered so far and 500,000 Australians have been fully vaccinated. Many more Australians are expected to get vaccinated in the second half of the year as the rollout opens to all adults, although recent research shows that around 30 percent of people remain unsure about the vaccination. The numbers show that 14 percent of people are “not at all likely” to get vaccinated and 15 percent “not very likely” to be vaccinated in the next few months.
Rules under lockdown
Victoria’s current lockdown is due to end on 3 June, although Government officials say given case numbers keep rising, it could last for longer. Under the current rules Victorians only have a handful of acceptable reasons to leave home shopping for essential items, for approved work, to undertake exercise (although there is a two hour limit in place and exercising can only be done outdoors with one other person), caregiving, compassionate and medical reasons, and to get vaccinated.
Both private and public gatherings are banned. No visitors are allowed to home other than an intimate partner, however singles bubbles are permitted.
Restaurants, pubs and cafes can only operate takeaway and delivery, and only essential retail is open. Schools have returned to at-home learning. Schools and childcare are only open for children of essential workers.
Victoria Police can issue on-the-spot fines of up to $1,652 for adults and up to $9,913 for businesses for breaching the rules.