The prime minister, Scott Morrison, has announced that all Australians aged over 16 will be eligible for Covid-19 vaccination from 30 August, officially opening the program to an extra 8.6 million people.
The federal cabinet signed off on the new measure on Thursday as the country reached a milestone of more than half of Australians aged over 16 receiving a first dose of a vaccine and a new record day of 309,010 doses administered.
But while the national cabinet has supported expanding the program to younger Australians who are most likely to spread the virus because of high mobility, it is understood the prime minister did not advise state and territory leaders of the decision before Thursday’s announcement.
The opening up of the vaccination program to younger Australians, including 1.2 million people aged between 16 and 18 years, will coincide with the anticipated arrival of an extra 5m doses of the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines in September.
Under-40s have already been able to receive AstraZeneca after consultation with a doctor, but will now be able to access Pfizer, which is recommended as the preferred vaccine for that age group.
According to the Operation Covid Shield campaign plan released in early August, those over the age of 16 were to be included in the program from October, suggesting the rollout is now running ahead of projections after months of delays and supply problems.
Morrison also said he was keen for the vaccination of children aged 12 to 15 to start this year, flagging interim advice from the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (Atagi) was “imminent”.
“We will take further steps but I want to assure parents in particular, vaccinating children is something we take really seriously and we do it very carefully,” he said “I am keen to see that occur this year. I think it is important it happens this year.”
Atagi co-chair Allen Cheng had previously indicated a decision on opening up the program to 12-to-15-year-olds would be made “in coming months”, building on the agency’s recommendation for 220,000 vulnerable people already in this age bracket.
The prime minister said the vaccine program had faced “great difficulties and a lot of obstacles”, but had now turned a corner.
“Australia really is getting on top of this vaccination program,” he said. “Today, a big corner turned because one in two Australians who are eligible to have that vaccine have had it.”
But the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, said the country remained “way behind” other countries, and supply problems were fuelling frustration in the community.
“We are way behind,” Albanese said. “The problem we have is that Scott Morrison said it wasn’t a race and it was a race. Other countries have got ahead of us.”
Morrison urged people in the 16-39 age bracket not to make bookings for the vaccines yet, saying advice would be forthcoming over the next week about when to do so.
He also said the best vaccine was one that could be accessed “right now”, with AstraZeneca already available for the under-40s, provided they get informed consent.
The prime minister also said the national cabinet plan to move to phase B once 70% of the population was vaccinated was being “constantly updated” with the number of active cases in the community, and said the transition needed to have case numbers as low as possible.
He said the idea of “Covid zero” was not one that state and territory leaders had been countenancing, despite suggestions from Western Australia that it would continue to pursue that approach through state lockdowns.
Morrison said that once vaccination rates reached 70% of double doses, he believed restrictions would still be necessary to contain the virus, but not hard lockdowns.
“You still have to be managing Covid in the community at 70% and indeed at 80%, but it just means that you don’t have to, particularly at 80%, have to have lockdowns to do that – there are other ways of managing things at that level, which means you don’t have to have those lockdowns,” Morrison said.
Until that point was reached, however, a suppression strategy with lockdowns would continue to be necessary.
“That’s why the restrictions, as hard as they are, as difficult as they are, as costly as they are, are sadly necessary,” he said. “The purpose of the policy in this phase is to suppress and to drive those numbers as low as you possibly can.”
The comments came after the New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, said other states would need to adapt to a “Covid normal” mentality once vaccination rates reached 80%, saying it was impossible the disease could be kept at bay.
“Every state has to live with the fact that once you get to 80% double doses and your population is allowed to live more freely, that the Delta variant will creep in,” she said.
“These are the difficult decisions that our nation has to deal with, but to assume that forevermore there will be zero cases around Australia is, I think, an assumption nobody can really make at this stage.”
On Thursday, NSW reported 681 new cases of local transmission. Victoria reported 57 new cases, and the ACT 16, bringing the territory’s total to 83.
The latest vaccination figures show that 50.24% of the eligible population (people aged over 16) have now had one dose, while 28.2% are fully vaccinated.