August 02, 2021


PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Hundreds of thousands of vulnerable children will become eligible for a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine from next week. The Government's expert vaccination panel has recommended the move for children at high risk from COVID-19. Health Minister Greg Hunt says eligible children aged between 12 and 15 will be included in phase 1B of the rollout program from August 9. For more, Shadow Health Minister Mark Butler joins me. Mark Butler, welcome.


KARVELAS: The majority of today's cases in Queensland are in children, concerningly. Does this confirm the Delta variant is more dangerous for children than previous strains?

BUTLER: This is what we're seeing around the world. We've seen it in the United Kingdom, in the United States and we're now starting to see it here in Australia. Some hundreds of children and teenagers have been infected in the Sydney outbreak. As you say, the vast bulk of new cases in the Queensland outbreak, which is also a Delta variant, are children. Quite young children under the age of 10. These are new dynamics we are experiencing with the Delta variant. In the early phases of the pandemic the earlier strains didn't seem to impact children either in terms of them getting the virus, passing it on or having symptoms. The Delta variant is posing new challenges. We're seeing out of the National Health Service of the UK some reports that as many as one in 12 children who do develop COVID also then go on to develop long COVID, symptoms as long as 12 weeks after having had the initial virus. These are new dynamics which we all need to take account of.

KARVELAS: So as a result should teachers and students be prioritised in the vaccine rollout?

BUTLER: I think that’s something we are progressively taking advice about. I know, for example, my child is at school now wearing a mask. He's in high school. He's wearing a mask. That's a decision the South Australian Government has taken on public health advice. I think it’s important we develop advice that keeps teachers, students and the broader community safe from the spread of this virus through school communities.

KARVELAS: The Queensland Chief Health Officer has repeated her advice that people under 60 shouldn't opt for AstraZeneca, despite the increasing risk of the virus. Do you think that's problematic given that the virus is clearly a real risk to people in South East Queensland? Shouldn't that shift? 

BUTLER: We support the implementation of the ATAGI advice which is – and has been for some time - that Pfizer is the preferred vaccine of people under 60 but that people under that age are encouraged to have the discussions with their health professionals about the possibility of accessing the AstraZeneca vaccine. I think thatAstraZeneca is a safe, effective vaccine. I've had the first dose. I'm under 60, have had the first dose and I'm awaiting my second dose. ATAGI has also said for the Greater Sydney population, they should strongly consider getting the AstraZeneca vaccine given the supply constraints to Pfizer. Now whether that will extend to Queensland, time will tell. But I strongly support the ATAGI advice being taken up around the country.

KARVELAS: Do you believe the risk ratio has shifted significantly enough to warrant young age groups electing to be vaccinated with AstraZeneca? Particularly in South East Queensland now?

BUTLER: I support the advice of the technical advisory group, which is that people should have that discussion with their GPs and health professionals. That the different risk profile in Greater Sydney means that ATAGI has lifted their level of advice, or their level of concern, to urge people in that area to strongly consider AstraZeneca. Whether that extends over the border into South East Queensland remains to be seen. It depends how severe this outbreak becomes. I think it's worthwhile us going back to the advice of the experts here, they undertake a pretty technical consideration of the different risk profiles facing different parts of the country but also facing different cohorts of the population.

KARVELAS: If you were 20, and we know you're not, but if you were, and you were living in Brisbane, would you think you'd prefer to get AstraZeneca now than risk yourself getting the Delta strain?

BUTLER: It's a big hypothetical, Pat.

KARVELAS: I can channel being 20 at any moment, surely you can.

BUTLER: I struggle. It was such a long time ago. I think I would be accessing any safe, effective vaccine. I would maybe have a discussion with my health professional about that to see whether I was missing something but I'd be wanting to be proactive about that. These are decisions for individuals to make but I think the advice has become a bit clearer after being a bit muddied, after some pretty poor communications from Scott Morrison and his late night panicky press conferences. I think it's now a bit clearer and people should be in a position now where the advice is such they can take it if they want to have a discussion with their health professional.

KARVELAS: More than three million AstraZeneca doses haven't been used. Do you view this as a result of mixed messages and changing advice? What do you make of doses sitting there when they could be in people's arms?

BUTLER: It's a great pity. This is a safe, effective vaccine. Don't take my word for it, Brad Hazzard said on Insiders yesterday that the Federal Government's communications about the different periods of advice on this vaccine, I think his words were “definitely would have been unhelpful.” I go back to that press conference. The Prime Minister of the country holding a late night press conference just sends a message there's something wrong here. I think that was a poor decision on his part. I know he's tried to shift a lot of the blame to ATAGI.

KARVELAS: What should he do? What should you all be doing around building the credentials of AstraZeneca? Should you not be going out there and spruiking it? That's why I gave you the 20-year-old hypothetical, saying if you're young, go and do this because the Delta strain is very dangerous and it clearly keeps popping up all over our country?

BUTLER: I think our job is to communicate the advice from the experts about the risks and the benefits of these vaccines. I think the advice about AstraZeneca now is quite clear. People should consider taking this vaccine, particularly given the supply constraints that ATAGI has mentioned. I think every Australian understands that we don't have enough alternatives, particularly Pfizer vaccine supplies, given the mistakes the Prime Minister made last year in being too slow to negotiate those deals with Pfizer.

KARVELAS: You're right. Not enough supply. No doubt till much later in the year, particularly for these younger cohorts. Rather than it just being an issue in Sydney, this is the thing that gets me. It's like we wait for the outbreak and then we're like, "There's an outbreak. We better get the vaccine.” Shouldn't we be doing that work for the future South Australian outbreak? Or the future Victorian outbreak? Shouldn’t we be saying obviously this is unpredictable – get ahead of this, get a vaccine in your arm?

BUTLER: I'm a bit reluctant for you and I to formulate our own piece of public health advice around the vaccine. I think what is important is that people have confidence that these decisions or these pieces of advice are being considered carefully, particularly by people with proper scientific credentials, and are taking account of the dynamic nature of the situation. That is this Delta variant is highly infectious. In the Greater Sydney area it's become endemic and getting through the outbreak will be a real job of work in that community. I'd prefer for us to be in a position where the public has confidence the technical advisory group is monitoring this situation around the country very closely, taking a dynamic approach to it. When they change their advice, as we have seen them change their advice to Greater Sydney, that is communicated in a sober professional way by their Government.

KARVELAS: Defence personnel are on the streets in Sydney to assist with compliance. Does that send the right message?

BUTLER: I think it's important to communicate the role of the Australian Defence Force in a way that reflects the perspectives that different parts of our community might have. I'm not from Western Sydney or south-western Sydney, but I saw again, even Brad Hazzard and certainly many of my colleagues have made the point that for members of those communities, boots on the streets, as some people in public life had described this, have particular resonance, a particular connotation that might not reflect our experience in Australia over decades of having ADF help in flood and cyclone emergencies and the like. I think it's really important that governments, the police forces and the ADF are very careful about how they message the role of the ADF in these situations. I'm not in that area. I know many of my colleagues are very careful to assert the fact that their communities are rule abiding communities. Their communities are trying to do everything they can to abide by the public health directions that are often changing pretty quickly. That apply in their areas. This is I think a really sensitive matter that needs to be communicated with appropriate sensitivity by Government.

KARVELAS: Finally on that breaking news this afternoon, about 220,000 
immuno-compromised and Indigenous 12 to 15-year-olds will be eligible for a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine from next week. What do you make of that decision?

BUTLER: I support the implementation of that decision by the technical advisory group. I understand that ATAGI will be considering advice for 12 to 15-year-olds generally, not just those who have underlying health conditions. This reflects decisions taken in a number of other countries to which we usually compare ourselves to, to move vaccine eligibility down the age profile, if you like. In the US the clinical trials are under way by Pfizer to look at vaccinations for under 12s. Those clinical trials have a little way to go yet. I think it reflects our chain of understanding that goes to the nature of the Delta variant. I think we settled too easily into the view, in the early parts of this pandemic, that it wasn't a matter for children. We know this is happening with the Delta variant. This sort of goes to the plan that the Prime Minister announced on Friday night. We can't just have a plan to vaccinate adults. The Grattan Institute, many others have made the point, we need to have a plan that takes account of the fact children are getting the disease and in some cases we know from overseas, in a severe way. We've seen deaths in the US in quite substantial numbers through the Delta variant and they'll be part of the transmission chain. I think it's the start of a longer conversation about children in the pandemic response.

KARVELAS: Thank you for your time.

BUTLER: Thank you.