Calls for extension to Australia’s compulsory aged care vaccinations as Friday deadline approaches

The Guardian, 13 September 2021

90.8% of staff have received a single dose, but Health Services Union says sector can’t afford to lose even 5% of its workforce

The Health Services Union is calling for the government to extend a deadline for aged care workers to be vaccinated against Covid, saying the sector cannot afford to lose even 5% of its workforce.

Ahead of Friday’s deadline for workers in the sector to receive a first jab, the federal government has said that 90.8% of staff have now received a single dose and 70.5% two doses, with hopes the figure will continue to climb in coming days.

The HSU’s federal president, Gerard Hayes, said the federal government needed to extend the September deadline by between two weeks and a month given existing workforce pressures.

“They can not afford to have 5 to 10% of aged care staff not at work,” Hayes said.

“I think the concern I have always had, and as the aged care royal commission showed, there are attrition and retention issues in aged care already,” he said.

“It is already subject to workforce shortages as we all know.”

Hayes estimated that only about 1 to 1.5% of people were likely hardcore antivaxxers, with the remaining 8% “concerned” and wanting more information.

He pointed to the success of a recent information webinar run by the HSU, which was attended by about 500 people and included presentations from five doctors. After the session, a survey found that 26% of attendees had changed their minds about getting a vaccination.

“It gave people the ability to ask questions and have those questions answered,” Hayes said.

“I think they need at least two weeks to a month (more time) so they are able to target those individuals who do hold concerns or confusion, but to be able to deal with them in a dignified way so they can really feel valued, rather than in a punitive way.”

The health minister, Greg Hunt, said he was hopeful that the sector would be in a “strong position” by the end of the week when state and territory leaders will be briefed at national cabinet on the final uptake.

“We’re expecting that there’ll be a significant uptick over the coming days,” Hunt said.

“Those numbers will increase during the course of this week. There’ll be medical exemptions, there will also be updated data and there’s also a final push,” he said.

“So we’re expecting it to exceed all of our anticipated outcomes.”

National cabinet agreed to the mandate in July, with the decision requiring public health orders of state and territory governments to come into effect.

It is still unclear how the mandate will be enforced.

Labor’s health spokesman, Mark Butler, said the prime minister, Scott Morrison, needed to explain what would happen after Friday’s deadline.

“Scott Morrison, after initially prioritising aged care worker vaccinations, left them to fend for themselves when it became clear he didn’t have enough vaccines to vaccinate them with the residents,” Butler said.

“Aged care workers need answers from Scott Morrison. What will happen come the September 17 first-dose deadline?”

The rising vaccination rates among aged care workers has prompted calls for more vaccine mandates, with New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia introducing mandates for all frontline healthcare workers.

The NSW government has also become the first state to announce mandatory vaccinations for teachers and childcare workers.

On Sunday, Morrison said the federal government had only supported mandates in “very specific circumstances” when recommended by Australia’s chief medical officers.

He said his “simple advice” was that everyone should be getting vaccinated.

“That’s the best thing for Australia. Now, we’re not imposing it, we’re not mandating it. It’s your choice. It’s your health, but I do know this, that when we get to the end of October, and certainly more likely before that, everyone will have had that opportunity,” he said.

“Your health is up to you – the opportunity to be vaccinated which protects you, your family, your community, that will be there for you.”

Labor’s shadow education minister, Tanya Plibersek, said she backed the mandate, saying teachers “risk their own health, but they also risk the health of the people they go home to, and the kids if they’re not vaccinated”.

“But states and the commonwealth government have to give people the opportunity of being vaccinated before they start saying look over here let’s talk about mandating vaccines,” Plibersek told the ABC’s Insiders program.