Scott Morrison has rejected a bid by the New South Wales government to secure extra Pfizer doses to help battle the Covid outbreak in south-west Sydney hotspots.
Before national cabinet on Friday, the NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, sought a reallocation of Pfizer doses from other states to combat what she termed a “national emergency” as the spread of the Delta variant continued via essential workers in supermarkets, food processing and logistics.
But after other state leaders and federal authorities poured cold water on the idea, Berejiklian presented a modified proposal to national cabinet: to cancel all Pfizer GP appointments statewide and redirect those commonwealth supplies to Sydney’s south-west for a short-term blitz.
The commonwealth rejected this proposal and the national cabinet resolved instead to allow a longer six-week period before second Pfizer doses, to free up more first doses for the centre of the outbreak in Sydney.
Morrison told reporters in Canberra the meeting had also agreed to “continue to lean in to AstraZeneca”, which the NSW and federal governments are urging people to reconsider in line with fresh expert advice it may be appropriate for those of all ages in areas of outbreak.
Morrison also promised when there was “potential to put more vaccines into New South Wales, even beyond what we are doing, of course we will seek to do that” but declined to say when supplies would be sufficient.
“But we’re not going to disrupt the vaccination program around the rest of the country,” he said, explaining opposition to taking doses from other states.
The atmosphere at the national cabinet meeting was tense, with Morrison warning at one point that lockdowns of longer than one week that did not produce results could harm public support and risk becoming a “shitshow”.
Ahead of the meeting, the Daily Telegraph reported that the NSW government had rejected an offer of military support for the lockdown.
In a statement the NSW police commissioner, Mick Fuller, confirmed it had knocked back the 7 July offer because it already had a major operation in planning.
“It was determined the police operational response didn’t require external assistance in the south-western Sydney operation given the transmission of the virus was between household contacts, not primarily occurring on the streets,” he said.
Earlier, Lt Gen John Frewen, who is in charge of the national vaccine rollout, told the Senate Covid committee that vaccination was just “one part” of the Covid outbreak response, along with lockdown, testing, tracing, social distancing and masking.
“Vaccination underpins national resilience to Covid, but it is not the best way to deal with an immediate outbreak like this,” he said.
Frewen reiterated that vaccines are given to states and territories on a “per capita basis” and any reallocation of Pfizer “will require the concurrence of other jurisdictions”.
Frewen, who was due to propose a three-point plan at national cabinet to fix the vaccination rollout that was delayed, also suggested in future the commonwealth could build a reserve workforce and of vaccine supplies so it “will be able to respond with a federal capability” to future outbreaks.
NSW reported 136 new locally acquired cases of Covid-19 on Friday.
Seventy of these cases were infectious in the community either for the whole or part of their infectious period and 13 are still under investigation.
Berejiklian said that the problem facing the state is that transmission was still occurring in essential workplaces such as supermarkets and pharmacies, and within the larger households in south-west Sydney where family members continued to go to work.
“The crisis cabinet meeting of the NSW government met this morning at 8am when [the state’s chief health officer] Dr [Kerry] Chant and her team advised us that the situation that exists now in NSW, namely around south-western and now western Sydney suburbs, is regarded as a national emergency,” she said.
She said the national cabinet “needed to have a discussion about refocusing the national vaccination strategy”, warning that vaccination had become critical to NSW controlling the outbreak in the state – and probably in the entire country.
“The challenge is to live as freely and as safely as possible until we get enough vaccines in arms. That means that we need to live as freely and as safely as possible during August, September and October”, when the federal vaccine rollout was due to ramp up, she said.
Berejiklian’s message was that despite the tougher lockdown, suppression of the more contagious Delta variant was not happening, though the state has avoided an explosion of cases.
She said NSW would now focus its efforts on vaccination in the hotspots and further limiting movement in several other local government areas to health and aged care workers.
Chant has given the government advice that without vaccination of critical workers in south-west Sydney – supermarket workers, logistics workers and health workers – many of whom are younger than 40 and live in the hot zones, NSW will struggle to control the spread of Covid-19.
Morrison has said that NSW rejected offers of help from the Australian Defence Force “to fight the virus” as the blame game ramped up during the day.
The NSW police commissioner, Mick Fuller, confirmed NSW had passed on the offer, made on 7 July, because NSW police had already commenced pre-planning for a major police operation at that time. The large police presence in south-west Sydney at the start of the harder lockdown was controversial and led to claims of differing treatment and even racism.
“It was determined the police operational response didn’t require external assistance in the south-western Sydney operation given the transmission of the virus was between household contacts, not primarily occurring on the streets,” Fuller said.
The state is planning to try to vaccinate with at least one dose of either the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccine as many people in south-west Sydney as possible in coming days on the basis that even one dose reduces the transmissibility of the virus in both the infected person and others.
“We have to provide a road map to our citizens as to how best we can live freely, but also as openly as possible,” she said.
“What we have done as a government is refocusing our efforts in distributing vaccines in south-west Sydney. We have a micro plan for how we will get not only more doses of AstraZeneca in arms, but we also have to acknowledge that that is a very young population in those communities, and we need at least more first doses of Pfizer.”
She confirmed that she would be asking for Pfizer doses to be redirected from other states to NSW to combat the most serious outbreak the state has faced today.
NSW will also be looking to discuss extending the gap between first and second Pfizer doses. This would require a change by the federal government which is in charge of the dosage supply and rules.
The NSW health minister, Brad Hazzard, said the state was “awash” with AstraZeneca and implored people over 40 to seek a dose and for younger people to talk to their GPs about taking it.
Berejiklian and Chant said both they and their families had had AstraZeneca.
“I’m appealing to everyone that Dr Chant is, for me, the most respected medical person in Australia in public health. If she is saying it’s OK for over 40 is to have AstraZeneca, please take the advice. The risk of any adverse condition from the jab is minuscule compared to the serious illness you can get if you get the Covid virus,” Berejiklian said.
Cumberland and Blacktown will join Fairfield, Canterbury-Bankstown and Liverpool on a list of local government areas where workers cannot leave unless they work in health or aged care or on a list of authorised jobs.
This will mean that more than 1 million people cannot leave their LGAs for work.
Essential workers in Fairfield and now Canterbury-Bankstown – the centre of the latest Covid-19 outbreak – must undergo surveillance testing every three days to continue working.
But Chant warned that with around 85,000 tests a day being administered, the state was reaching the limit of its testing capacity and had to balance infected people waiting days for test results against surveillance testing.