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22 January 2021
Story from the ABC News
Residents and workers in aged care facilities will not be required to get a COVID-19 vaccination in order to remain living or working there, Prime Minister Scott Morrison says.
However, the PM did not rule out making a COVID-19 vaccine compulsory for aged care workers "in the future", ABC News reports.
Mr Morrison and Deputy Chief Medical Officer Michael Kidd addressed the media after a meeting of National Cabinet.
Chief medical officers across Australia are part of an important group called the Australian Health Primary Protection Committee (AHPPC), which advises governments on issues like COVID-19 vaccination.
"At this point, they (the AHPPC) are not recommending [mandatory vaccinations for aged care staff] be the case," Mr Morrison said.
"I have no doubt if there were concerns about the wellbeing of vulnerable Australians, particularly elderly Australians, then they would make those recommendations."
Professor Kidd said authorities were expecting "a very high uptake amongst both (aged care) residents and staff in order to protect the residents from COVID-19".
"At this point, they were not recommending mandatory vaccination," he said.
Professor Kidd said medical experts were still learning about how effective COVID-19 vaccines might be at preventing transmission of the virus, the ABC reports.
"We know the vaccine from the clinical trials [is] very effective at preventing severe disease and preventing death amongst people who may be at risk in COVID-19," he said.
"We're still learning about transmissibility and we're still learning about the duration of the immunity which is provided by the vaccines."
Australia is still waiting on the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) to approve any of the COVID-19 vaccine candidates.
The Federal Government plans to roll out the Pfizer vaccine as early as mid to late February for priority groups such as aged care workers and residents, with the AstraZeneca vaccine likely to follow in March.
Aged care workers and residents are top of the queue for COVID-19 vaccines, as people in older age groups are much more susceptible to serious complications from the disease and face a much higher death rate.
In Australia, there are precedents for staff in these settings to require vaccination as a condition of employment.
Health care workers directly involved in patient care or the handling of human tissue, blood or body fluids are already asked to be vaccinated against several diseases including hepatitis B, measles, mumps, rubella, pertussis and chicken pox.
While not mandatory, Government advice says, "employers should take all reasonable steps to encourage workers to be vaccinated".
In some states, proof of vaccination is required in healthcare settings for staff directly involved in patient care.
Sector pushing for mandatory vaccines
Some in the aged care sector have been asking for COVID-19 vaccines to be mandatory.
Chief advocate for National Seniors Australia Ian Henschke said the science was disappointing, the ABC reports.
"If you ask a health official which is the most beneficial course of action to keep [aged care residents] safe, it's vaccination," he said.
"If you're trying to save lives in aged care, we should be vaccinating as many people as possible."
Mr Henschke said it was disappointing the scientific evidence regarding vaccines and the transmission of COVID-19 was not sufficient to make them mandatory.
"It seems interesting to me [that] we make it mandatory to have the flu vaccine for workers in aged care and for visits to aged care residents, but we don't have the science as yet on the COVID-19 vaccine," he said.
"I would like the science to be settled quickly.
"If it turns out the vaccine does prevent transmission, I would think it would be a no-brainer to make it mandatory."
The national peak body representing residential aged care providers, Leading Aged Services Australia (LASA), has been pushing for mandatory vaccinations for workers.
"Part of doing all we can to protect older Australians in care is to consider mandated COVID-19 vaccinations for aged care workers — assuming it is safe to do so and with appropriate exemptions," LASA chief Sean Rooney said in a statement.
He said he hoped the Federal Government's position might change.
"Mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations in aged care should remain a consideration based on medical expertise," Mr Rooney said.
"Mandatory vaccinations are not new to aged care as we have had these in place for influenza vaccinations at times."
The ABC says peak body Aged and Community Services Australia (ACSA) also acknowledged the decision from National Cabinet.
"We support the Government monitoring the situation and appreciate there might be a change at some point in the future," ACSA chief Patricia Sparrow said in a statement.
"Providers will encourage take-up of the vaccine as we do every year for the flu vaccine. Vaccination alone is not the complete solution to keeping aged care residents and staff safe from COVID-19," Ms Sparrow said.
"Vaccination must be complemented with other prevention and control measures, such as the use of PPE and staff training, and prevention measures by the community, for example not visiting facilities if feeling ill."
According to Maria O'Sullivan from Monash University Faculty of Law, it is possible for the Government to mandate people working in aged care get vaccinated, as long as allowances are made for religious exemptions and anyone with a medical condition that meant they could not receive the jab.
"Otherwise, that would present a problem for disability discrimination," the ABC quoted her.
"The overriding consideration is whether it is necessary and whether it's proportionate."
She said the Federal Government had signed several human rights treaties that afforded people the right to life and the right not to have their body tampered with.
That means the Government cannot force someone to be vaccinated, but they can make it a term of their employment.
Whether visitors to aged care facilities needed to be vaccinated before being allowed to enter is a greyer area of the law.
As for mandating that aged care residents have the jab, Dr O'Sullivan said that was unlikely to happen.
"That would be a tougher proposition because then you're saying, 'you don't have a right to essential medical care'," she said.