Australians must take responsibility for their own health, federal health minister Mark Butler said today, as his state counterparts resist calls to reintroduce mask mandates.
But while a fourth COVID-19 vaccine dose has been expanded to the wider population, some experts are calling for more to be done on the cusp of a fresh Omicron wave.
Butler said experts believe Australia has moved beyond the realm of lockdowns and mask mandates.
“The message is ‘take responsibility, make your own choice’.
“We’re deep into the third year of the pandemic and we need to make sure that people feel they’re able to take control of their own circumstances.
“That’s why I encourage people to consider wearing a mask if they’re indoors and they’re not able to socially distance.”
From Monday (July 11) Australians aged 30 and over will be able to get a fourth vaccine dose — or second booster — with the country’s leading immunisation group expanding eligibility to an extra 7.4 million people.
The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) recommended those over 50 receive a second booster.
The group also said those aged between 30 and 49 would be able to receive an additional booster if they chose to, but this was not a formal recommendation.
The decision follows a spike in COVID cases across the country, driven by a more transmissible strain of the Omicron variant, which has led to increased deaths and hospitalisations from the virus.
Previously only those over 65, in aged or disability care, or immunocompromised were able to get a fourth dose.
ATAGI said the timing between vaccine doses or prior infection, whichever came first, would also be reduced from four months to three months.
Butler said while there isn’t a set target as to how many over-30s would get the fourth dose, a big uptake would be needed ahead of spiralling winter cases.
“This decision … will reduce severe disease and will relieve pressure from our hospital system,” he said.
“There’s almost 10,000 points of primary care, pharmacies and GP surgeries where you can go and get this fourth dose. We have lots of capacity in the system.”
Butler said activity at vaccination clinics is 80 per cent less than at the height of the rollout last year.
As of Thursday, 60 per cent of people over 65 have had a fourth COVID-19 shot.
The vaccine body also said it is concerned the take-up of booster doses has not been high enough.
ATAGI said in a statement it had noted the number of infections had increased and was placing a strain on the hospital system, adding it was expected to get worse in coming months.
“Increasing the uptake of winter booster doses of COVID-19 vaccine in populations most at risk during this time is anticipated to play a limited but important role in reducing the risk from COVID-19 to individuals and pressure on the health care system,” the statement said.
ATAGI said other measures such as increased mask usage and more antiviral treatments being made available would also help with surging infections.
The vaccine group did not extend eligibility for the fourth dose to those under 30 because it is not known whether the benefits outweighed the risks among the population group.
Opposition health spokeswoman Anne Ruston welcomed the expansion.
“Today’s news will provide relief for many concerned Australians, and I would encourage anyone who is eligible to go and get their jab because it’s the best protection you can get,” she said.
University of South Australia epidemiologist Adrian Esterman said it is the “right time” to expand the fourth-dose rollout, though he acknowledged the additional shot is not essential for those under 50.
“Just because the evidence isn’t there doesn’t mean it won’t benefit them; it just means we don’t know,” Esterman said.
“We’re getting a third wave of Omicron just starting … we’ve got cases going up, we’ve got hospitalisations going up, and unfortunately we’ve got deaths going up.
“Our hospitals are creaking at the seams and, on top of that, we’ve got a massive flu season. So if it’s not now, then when?”
He said giving the booster to people in the younger age bracket will mean fewer get infected and pass the virus on to older Australians, ostensibly meaning fewer end up in hospital.
Esterman does not believe fourth doses will be offered to Australians under 30 any time soon, particularly when Pfizer, Moderna and Novavax are developing new vaccines based on the Omicron strain.
He said other COVID-curbing priorities for state and territory governments should include ramping up messaging to increase third-dose take-up, reintroducing indoor face-mask mandates, and ventilation audits of businesses and offices.
While welcoming the expanded eligibility, infectious diseases physician Paul Griffin said it is not a “complete solution”, and echoed the importance of getting already eligible people up to date with their additional doses.
“We also need to reinforce the basic measures that helped so much early on in the pandemic,” he said.
“Including mask wearing, social distancing and a basic awareness of other risks, including ensuring adequate ventilation.”