Multiple state governments have directly criticised the commonwealth’s new position on the AstraZeneca vaccine, with Queensland saying that it does “not want under 40s to get AstraZeneca” and Victoria accusing Scott Morrison of creating unnecessary confusion.
In a series of press conferences on Wednesday, Queensland, Victoria, New South Wales and Western Australia all distanced themselves from the prime minister’s suggestion that people aged under 40 should approach GPs for the AstraZeneca dose.
Queensland and Victoria were more strident in their comments, explicitly criticising the commonwealth’s new approach, while NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian said simply that the health advice remained that Pfizer was preferred for under 60s.
In an explosive press conference in Brisbane, Queensland chief health officer Dr Jeannette Young said the state would stick with the expert advice from Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (Atagi) that Pfizer was preferred for those under 60.
“I do not want under 40s to get AstraZeneca,” she said.
“I don’t want an 18-year-old in Queensland dying from a clotting illness who, if they got Covid, probably wouldn’t die. We’ve had very few deaths due to Covid-19 in Australia in people under the age of 50, and wouldn’t it be terrible that our first 18- year-old in Queensland who dies related to this pandemic died because of the vaccine?”
The federal health minister, Greg Hunt, insisted there had been “no change” to the medical advice, which he described as “clear”, and suggested the government’s new position was in line with the Atagi position.
“Atagi’s advice is (that) Covid-19 vaccine AstraZeneca can be used in adults aged under 60 years of age for whom Pfizer is not available,” he said. “The benefits are likely to outweigh the risks for that individual. And the person has made an informed decision based on an understanding of the risks and benefits.”
Earlier, NSW offered no direct criticism of Morrison, but also said it would continue to follow the Atagi advice, while the Australian Capital Territory said it would not allow AstraZeneca vaccinations for younger Australians at its government-run mass vaccination clinic. A spokeswoman for the ACT health minister, Rachel Stephen-Smith, said the territory would continue to follow the Atagi advice, but said those aged 40 and below, who can’t access the Pfizer vaccine, could contact a GP to discuss the option of AstraZeneca.
The spokeswoman told the Guardian that Morrison had notified state and territory leaders of his intention to implement indemnity insurance for GPs administering the vaccine to people under 40. But, she said: “The prime minister did not discuss the timing of the announcement with leaders during the [national cabinet] meeting.”
In Perth, WA premier Mark McGowan said people under 40 receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine “shouldn’t happen”.
“I can only advise what we have been advised by Atagi. They say it shouldn’t happen. There is a different approach by the commonwealth to that advice.”
Asked where the prime minister was getting his advice, McGowan said: “I don’t know the answer to that.”
Victoria’s health minister Martin Foley said his government was seeking a meeting with the commonwealth, having only just been formally advised of a “change in policy”.
He said the confusion was an “unfortunate reflection of the rushed conversation that the prime minister kicked off late on Monday night without talking to anyone”.
“The last thing we need is confusion around vaccines. What we need is certainty and consistency and confidence in the vaccination program,” he said.
South Australian premier Steven Marshall was the only state leader to offer a more cautious echoing of Morrison’s comments.
While confirming the medical advice remained that AstraZeneca was preferred for anyone aged 60 and above, he said the commonwealth’s new position was giving younger Australians more room to make their own decisions.
“What they now have is an alternative,” he said.
“The recommendation is really AstraZeneca for 60 and above. Some people may form the opinion after consulting the doctor and having an informed consent that they would rather take a very small risk … but would rather have that very small risk compared to the risk associated with a further escalation of this disease.
“That is an individual decision and people need to make up their own mind on that after they have sought advice from a GP.”