Australia launches $11m ad campaign to encourage uptake of Covid boosters and flu vaccines

A new advertising campaign will launch on Thursday urging Australians to get their Covid booster shots ahead of an expected spike in cases over winter, with the federal health minister, Mark Butler, warning the country was “still very much in this pandemic”.

Butler said the new Labor government had no plan to extend fourth vaccine doses to the general population or to expand Covid rules like density limits and mask mandates, even as the nation records hundreds of deaths a week.

“The case numbers might even climb again, as we see a higher prevalence of the BA4 and BA5 variants,” he said in Canberra.

The federal health department will launch an $11m six-week campaign encouraging people to get vaccinated against both Covid and seasonal influenza. Under the title Take on winter, Australians are told “it’s safe to get both at the same time”, with ad campaigns particularly targeted at First Nations communities, children under 11, and people in aged care.

Federal health data shows that more than 95% of Australians over 16 have had two doses of a Covid vaccine, and 70.3% have had a third or booster dose. Among people aged over 65 and eligible for a fourth or so-called “winter” dose, just 55.1% have taken that option.

Less than 40% of children aged 5-11 have received two doses of a vaccine. Among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, 81.4% over the age of 16 are fully vaccinated.

“For the first time since 2019, we have the double threat of significant community transmission of both Covid-19 and influenza – with the likely outcome being a continued increase in case numbers over coming months,” Butler’s office said in a statement on Thursday.

He stressed that while Covid remained a “mild to moderate” illness for many people who were vaccinated, it was still very serious for some. Butler noted that about one in 20 hospital beds nationwide, or about 3,000, were occupied by someone with Covid, and that more than 300 people in Australia were dying each week.

Data tracking website reported 361 deaths and more than 196,000 cases nationwide in the last seven days, including 62 deaths and 32,900 cases on Thursday alone.

“We’re still seeing enormous loss of life, enormous dislocation and massive pressure on our health and hospital systems,” Butler said.

The new health minister said the previous Coalition government had “lacked energy” in encouraging uptake of booster shots, and that Labor wanted a more enthusiastic uptake of third doses for the general population or fourth doses for elderly people and those with serious health conditions.

Separate ad campaigns targeting children, First Nations Australians and elderly people will run across television, radio and online channels.

Butler said he and Malarndirri McCarthy, the assistant minister for Indigenous Australians and Indigenous Health, would meet with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander advisory groups to further boost vaccine uptake. Minister for aged care, Anika Wells, has written to aged care providers to remind them to make fourth doses available for residents, while the health department is contacting facilities to schedule vaccine clinics on-site.

The government is also urging patients and GPs to consider the use of oral antiviral treatments – including the drugs Lagevrio and Paxlovid – to protect against the virus.

But while encouraging elderly people to take up fourth doses, Butler said Australian authorities were still recommending only a third dose for the general population at this stage – though further research on the question was being “monitored”.

“Across the world, I think there is general acceptance there’s no evidence right now that the fourth dose is particularly called for, for younger people who don’t have compromised immunity,” he said.

Butler said he expected Australian health authorities to assess vaccine eligibility for children under five, after the American Food and Drug Administration gave emergency authorisation for that age group in recent days.

Butler said Australian authorities did not have precise modelling on what impact new Covid variants may have on case numbers or deaths, or for rates of reinfection. But he essentially ruled out reintroducing or expanding public health measures like vaccine mandates, mask rules or density limits in public areas.

Butler said the Labor government was focused on other measures around encouraging vaccination or the uptake of oral drugs to fight Covid.

“I don’t think that’s foreseeable and I don’t think public health authorities are suggesting that would be the case, that there’s any likelihood of advice around those old public health measures that were such a feature of life in 2020 and 2021,” he said.

“I think Australians are glad to see that in the rear vision mirror, but there are measures we do continue to encourage Australians to take to keep our community safe.”

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