Millions more Australians to be eligible for Covid booster as interval cut to four months

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Australians will soon be able to access Covid-19 vaccine booster shots four months after their second dose, then the wait will be shortened again.

The government has said the minimum interval will be cut from five to four months on 4 January, and reduced to three months on 31 January.

The move, announced on Friday, follows calls from state premiers to speed up the shots to better protect against the more infectious Omicron variant.

The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation said maximising booster coverage – if combined with “enhanced public health and social measures” – may prevent a large surge in case numbers, hospitalisations and deaths.

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The chief medical officer, Prof Paul Kelly, said the decision was “based on the science and the medical advice” but acknowledged it also took into account logistical challenges, such as the exhaustion of the health workforce.

“It’s just not feasible to suddenly give those large numbers their doses during this period,” Kelly told reporters in Canberra.

He said it was important to continue to prioritise groups who would be most at risk of severe illness from Covid-19.

The health minister, Greg Hunt, said the changes to intervals would increase the number of people who were eligible for boosters from 3.2 million now to 7.5 million as of 4 January.

Shortening access to three months on 31 January would mean 16 million Australians would then be eligible. Hunt said the decision was “all about following the medical advice and making sure that there’s an orderly staged process”.

“So, of course, there has to be a priority program,” Hunt said, joining the press conference by video link from Melbourne. “The alternative of suddenly putting an extra 4 million people who would displace the older or more immunocompromised and less presently vaccinated is absolutely at odds with the right way.”

Hunt said Australia had “more than enough supply of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to roll out booster doses to the newly eligible cohort from 4 January”.

In its formal advice, Atagi recommended bringing forward the minimum interval from five months to four months for over-18s “as soon as practical, noting the holiday period”.

“It is understood that this is achievable from 4 January, although some providers may have flexibility to administer before that time,” the advice said. “In addition, as soon as practicalities allow, Atagi recommends providing boosters to all eligible adults from a minimum of 3 months following the second dose of the primary course.”

Atagi said it expected an earlier booster does would reduce the risk of symptomatic infection, severe illness and death from Covid-19, and could play a role in reducing impacts on the health system.

The advisory body said while some early data indicated the risk of hospitalisation due to Omicron was lower than with the Delta variant, “this difference would not be enough to offset the impact of high case numbers on the health system”.

“Atagi expects that booster vaccination alone will not be sufficient to avert a surge due to Omicron,” the body said in advice published on Friday. “However, maximising booster coverage by expanding eligibility and encouraging high uptake, in combination with enhanced public health and social measures, may prevent a large surge in case numbers, hospitalisations and deaths.”

New South Wales on Friday reported 5,612 new cases of Covid, while Victoria had 2,095 cases and numbers in other states and territories also continued to rise.

Kelly told reporters Australians should expect to see a continuation of the “very rapid rise in cases” as a result of Omicron – but the country had “three main weapons” to use against the variant.

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In addition to the vaccination and booster program, Kelly cited public health and social measures – such as mask mandates – and noted that the states were now in “pretty close alignment”.

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, on Wednesday declined to specifically endorse mask mandates – contrary to the latest health advice – but instead “highly recommended” that Australians to wear them in indoor settings.

The following day the NSW government – which had similarly been emphasising “personal responsibility” performed a U-turn and reintroduced mask mandates. Many other states and territories have also tightened restrictions.

Kelly said the third weapon in the fight against Omicron was test, trace, isolation and quarantine arrangements.

He and the state and territory chief health officers have been asked to report back to national cabinet in early January to consider policy changes in response to Omicron, including the definition of close contacts and who should be told to stay at home.

The announcement comes a day after the federal Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, predicted Atagi would recommend bringing forward boosters, and called on the government to prepare for it.

Hunt had on Thursday branded Albanese’s comments as “utterly irresponsible, utterly inappropriate, utterly unworthy of somebody who wants to be a PM”.

But on Friday the health minister said the bringing forward of booster shots should come as “no surprise”.

Hunt and Kelly both made the point the changes did not mean people were “overdue” for the booster the day they became eligible.

The minister said the vaccination program for children aged five to 11 years – due to begin on 10 January – was “proceeding precisely according to the schedule”.

He said the Therapeutic Goods Administration was making “great progress with batch testing”, and he hoped no Australians “would want us to delay or defer childhood vaccination”.

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