CHARLES CROUCHER: Well from today, millions of Australians will be eligible for their COVID-19 booster shots as the time between jabs is cut from five months to four.
JAYNE AZZOPARDI: Lieutenant General John Frewen heads the COVID Vaccination Taskforce, and he joins us live now from Canberra. Good morning to you, Lieutenant.
JOHN FREWEN: Good morning, guys.
JAYNE AZZOPARDI: We are told boosters will offer better protection against the infectious Omicron variant. How important is this third jab when it comes to preventing hospitalizations and easing the pressure on the health system?
JOHN FREWEN: Yeah, look, the vaccination has been a really important part of our strategy in dealing with COVID. It is but one part, and the testing, and tracing, and isolation, and all of those sorts of things still remain. But we've had remarkable rates of vaccination in this country - you know, up over 90 per cent of our population fully vaccinated. But what the medical advice is, is that this third dose - this booster shot - is really important to help maintain their protection. So we are really urging everybody who is now eligible to come forward to do so quickly as they can.
CHARLES CROUCHER: More people will become eligible at the end of January when it gets shortened again to three months. Why not just make it three months for everyone now?
JOHN FREWEN: Yeah, look, that's the ATAGI health advice. Part of that, I think, is about- remember the people who were right at the front of the queue at the start of the vaccination program were the most vulnerable. So we do want to make sure that those people have had a good chance to get through and get vaccinated. We had about four million people were eligible as of yesterday, about two and a half million people have had their boosters already. So that was at about 60 per cent which, I think, given that we have just been through Christmas, New Year, and the holiday period, that's been a really strong response. Another four million people become eligible today, and then as you mentioned, at the end of the month another eight million people become eligible. So they're, you know, really significant numbers, but we're getting people through. You know, there are still bookings out there, so I encourage people again to get either a booking done or to wander down to a state hub or to a pharmacy to see if they can get their jab done.
JAYNE AZZOPARDI: And Israel has just begun administering a second booster shot, which is essentially a fourth jab, to protect against, I guess, this new strain. I mean, for us here in Australia, you know, we're only just thinking about the third strain- third jab. Can you see the fourth one as an option for us too?
JOHN FREWEN: Yeah, look, with the vaccine program, we respond to the health advice as it, sort of, comes along. You know, we watch very closely, and we work with ATAGI and other relevant, sort of, bodies, and in offering advice about how the vaccine rollout, you know, would respond to such a change and the like. So we'll keep watching the science, and then we'll be ready to respond to whatever the health advice is.
CHARLES CROUCHER: We're seeing huge testing queues right across the country. Are you concerned with the pressure that's currently on our testing infrastructure?
JOHN FREWEN: Yeah, look, so, like, testing doesn't fall into my purview with the vaccines, but clearly there has been, you know, real pressure there. We are hoping with the vaccine rollout that we are not going to see that sort of- those sort of pressures. And that's what we've been working to do over the last couple weeks, to make sure- you know, we have got more than 10,000 places where people can go to get vaccinated now. We're working with the states and territories, particularly in Victoria and New South Wales, they're going to start ramping up their state hubs again. So we think there's really good capacity to get people through with their boosters. The supply is absolutely there, that's not the issue. We're working on the distribution to make sure it's getting to the places of highest demand, so I'll stay focused on vaccines.
CHARLES CROUCHER: Can I go back to that question we asked earlier, that if supply is not the issue, and three months is the recommendation as of the end of January, why not make three months the recommendation now?
JOHN FREWEN: Well, again, that was an ATAGI decision, so you probably should speak to them to get the full thing. But the point I made is, in terms of just opening the floodgates and having everybody turning up, that might mean that some of those most vulnerable who have fallen- have become eligible first for their boosters, we wanted to make sure that there was a good flow-through of those people first. That's certainly one consideration from my view of the rollout. There's a lot going on at the moment too. You know, we've got kids starting to come due on 10 January as well, so we're really keen to get a good progression starting on the five to 11-year-olds and get as many of those kids done as quickly as we can before they get back to school as well.
JAYNE AZZOPARDI: Well, with that vaccination rollout now for children. We know, of course, kids are going back to school soon. It's going to be a tough decision for parents to make. If they've had the jab, is there any reason why they shouldn't be back in classrooms, do you think?
JOHN FREWEN: Look, again, those are policies, particularly for the states and territories in the main there. You know, we'll just make sure that people have got the best opportunity to get the first jab for their kids. I mean, I know there's been many parents out there who've been looking forward to this opportunity. There's good, strong response in the booking systems, and we think everything is in place for that to start smoothly on the 10th. And I'm looking forward to seeing strong numbers turning up, hopefully in getting through to get their jabs as well.
CHARLES CROUCHER: How are bookings going with the five to 11 age?
JOHN FREWEN: Yeah, look, the response has been really strong. And I think because we have had a good chance to give people good warning on that one, people have had a bit of time now to get organised. I think things are set well, and I'm looking forward to seeing that get off to a smooth start.
JAYNE AZZOPARDI: And I guess rapid antigen tests, you know, we're all after some. Victoria is now likely to put- to hand those out to Victorians for free. Do you think that others should follow suit, the other states?
JOHN FREWEN: Well, again, rapid antigen testing isn't vaccinations. So- that really- they're policies for other folks.
CHARLES CROUCHER: Lieutenant General, we appreciate your time this morning. Good luck with the rest of the rollout, in particular with that five to 11 group. A lot of parents out there looking forward to having their children protected against this virus. Thanks for your time this morning.
JOHN FREWEN: Thanks very much.