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Following inquiries from The Saturday Paper, the government has scrambled to reverse its exclusion of refugees from the Covid-19 vaccination program. By Karen Middleton.

Asylum seekers to be vaccinated

Prime Minister Scott Morrison shows off a Covid-19 vaccination leaflet on Thursday.
Credit: AAP Image / Lukas Coch

The federal government has scrambled to revise eligibility for its Covid-19 vaccination program after initially excluding refugees, asylum seekers and foreign nationals with expired, cancelled or no visas.

Health Minister Greg Hunt unexpectedly announced the new position to the media on Thursday afternoon.

“We need to make sure that everybody who’s on Australian soil is safe and … has access to protection,” Hunt said. “So, on the advice of the medical experts, the government has determined that we will offer vaccines to all people living in Australia to achieve the maximum level of coverage. That means the government will provide Covid-19 vaccinations free to all visa-holders in Australia.”

The about-face came after The Saturday Paper asked the Health Department early last week which categories of foreign nationals would not be eligible for the vaccine and whether these groups would be excluded, based on public government documents that suggested some visa-holders would be ineligible.

The department responded that some specified visa classes for transit passengers, tourists and some other short-term visitors were “under consideration” – in other words, not presently included. Its own vaccine rollout policy document confirmed these same classes were being “excluded”.

The department did not respond initially on the issue of refugees and asylum seekers. After repeated requests, the department responded on Monday – confirming they were not included in the original planning and using identical language as it had in relation to the other excluded groups.

“Asylum-seekers, refugees and those with cancelled visas or no visas are currently under Government consideration for their eligibility to receive a vaccine under the COVID-19 Vaccination Program and further advice will be provided in the future,” the department said in a written statement.

On Tuesday, The Saturday Paper asked the Department of Home Affairs if it could explain why these groups were currently excluded. It did not respond until after Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Hunt held a wide-ranging news conference on Thursday during which the changes were announced to include free vaccination of refugees, asylum seekers, those on temporary-protection and bridging visas, plus those in detention whose visas have been cancelled.

Hunt also said the government would provide $1.3 million to multicultural peak bodies for an educational campaign in multiple languages.

It appears tourists and others staying three months or less remain excluded. This affects those on certain visitor visas, transit passengers and people on special category 601 and 651 electronic visas available to people from Europe, the United States, Canada, Japan and some South-East Asian countries. The Department of Home Affairs could not confirm this before time of press.

The Saturday Paper had asked Health and Home Affairs how excluding certain people residing in Australia aligned with the World Health Organization’s statement that “until we are all safe, none of us are safe”.

No response was received from either department.

Speaking ahead of the government’s Thursday announcement, the Australian chair of the global Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, former secretary of the federal Health and Finance departments Jane Halton, said public health considerations must be paramount in vaccine distribution.

“We should actually be vaccinating anybody in the country who is at risk, regardless of their immigration status,” Halton told The Saturday Paper.

The Department of Home Affairs confirmed people on all other visas – including employer-sponsored and other business visas, international students, backpackers and other seasonal agricultural workers and working holiday-makers – will be eligible.

While Monday marked the original deadline for general practitioners to apply to be involved in administering vaccines, the government extended it and reissued the application information.

Previously saying vaccination was available only to Australian citizens, permanent residents and “most” visa-holders, that document’s wording was changed after the first questions were lodged to refer to all residents, including non-Medicare-cardholders.

The Australian Medical Association argued strongly against exclusions. “If we’re after herd immunity, we obviously need everyone vaccinated,” AMA national president Omar Khorshid said. “You can’t get [the vaccine] on the private market here. How else are they supposed to get it? I think there’s a fairness and equity question here.”

The prime minister referred only to “Australians”, not others living in Australia, when he spoke about the program earlier this week. “Our aim is to offer all Australians the opportunity to be vaccinated by October of this year, commencing in just a few weeks’ time,” Morrison told the National Press Club on Monday. “… We’ll have thousands of points of presence across Australia – hospitals, GPs, pharmacies, respiratory clinics, Aboriginal health services and a specialist surge workforce. This will ensure we get the vaccine to all Australians, including people in rural, remote and very remote areas, and others who are hard to reach.”

Morrison confirmed the most vulnerable were the highest priority, along with those most exposed to the virus through their work. “We will then extend vaccination to the balance of the population as quickly as possible, building towards protecting the entire community by the end of this year,” he said. “We want as many Australians vaccinated as quickly as possible and as safely as possible. The Covid-19 vaccines will be made free to all Australians and we strongly encourage all Australians to get vaccinated.”

The government committed another $1.9 billion to the vaccine rollout, on top of $4.4 billion already spent to buy 140 million doses of vaccine – some of which will be donated to other countries, particularly in the Pacific.

The prime minister and the governor of the Reserve Bank, Philip Lowe, both emphasised the importance of a successful vaccination program for the health of both the population and the economy.

The program is due to start late this month. Morrison clarified it is subject to possible further delay depending on the availability of the first scheduled imported batches of the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines.

Last week, Australia’s pharmaceutical regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, formally approved the Pfizer vaccine. The AstraZeneca vaccine is still being assessed. Minister Hunt revealed on Thursday that Australia has bought 10 million additional doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

As the government readies for the vaccine rollout, the results of an annual national survey on social cohesion show surprising confidence and positivity among Australians through the first year of the pandemic.

The survey, an annual collaboration involving the Scanlon Foundation, Monash University and the Australian Multicultural Foundation, asks a series of identical questions each year. In 2020, questions about the Covid-19 pandemic were added.

Overall, the survey recorded social cohesion had strengthened last year – in contrast to how the pandemic has unfolded in other similar democracies, particularly Britain and the US. The survey found trust in government, at 54 per cent, was higher than the previous year, bettering any result since the survey began in 2007.

Senior survey researcher and Monash emeritus professor Andrew Markus believes having a year of relatively stable political leadership in Australia immediately preceding the pandemic – also unlike in Britain and the US – contributed to the cohesion.

Markus says two things may explain such positivity through what was generally accepted as a terrible year.

“One is that people are happy with the government’s response to the crisis, and obviously what they’re happy with is controlling the spread of the pandemic,” Markus says. “But the other side of that is they’re also satisfied with the degree of financial support that the government has put in.”

The survey found that despite one in four respondents reporting the pandemic had affected their employment, most were satisfied with their individual economic circumstances. Sixty-five per cent reported they were living reasonably or very comfortably or were “prosperous”, up from 57 per cent the previous year. “We were quite surprised that that actually moved in a positive direction,” Markus says.

The survey’s results are unlikely to escape the government’s attention as it wrestles with whether to extend the JobKeeper payment and JobSeeker bonus supplement, due to expire next month. They may also impact the timing of the election since the survey recorded overwhelming support – 85 per cent – for the federal government’s handling of the pandemic.

State governments also won strong endorsement, with Western Australia receiving a positive rating of 99 per cent, South Australia 94 per cent, Queensland 92 per cent and New South Wales 81 per cent.

Even in Victoria, where the second-wave outbreak was worst and lockdown the longest, the survey registered majority support at 65 per cent. Tasmania and the territories were not included.

It also found strong backing for multiculturalism and stable, largely positive attitudes to immigration.

There remains an “ethnic hierarchy” issue, with migrants from Asian, Middle Eastern and African backgrounds still attracting lower approval than those from other regions. A separate special survey conducted in Chinese in May reported that 41 per cent of respondents said racism had increased during the pandemic. In the broader survey, about 18 per cent of respondents reported discrimination – about the same as in the past couple of years. Among specific groups, respondents of Asian backgrounds reported the highest levels.

But support for multiculturalism rose and 90 per cent said someone born outside Australia was just as likely to be a good citizen as someone born here.

“What you do worry about is the scapegoating phenomena in a time of crisis,” Markus says. “And we certainly didn’t have that at the level where the ideals of an open, multicultural society were being challenged.”

Markus says this, too, is likely to stem from the sense of financial and medical security. He says researchers were so surprised at the findings of the survey, conducted in July last year, that they repeated it in November – something not done before – to be sure it was accurate. The second survey of 2793 respondents bore out the findings of the first, involving 3090.

Asked to nominate the biggest problems Australia faces, only three issues were cited by more than 2 per cent of respondents. Climate change rated 5 per cent and the economy 15 per cent, with the pandemic highest, at 63 per cent.

Andrew Markus says the positive sentiment depends on continued good pandemic management going forward. “What might undo that is if the virus does get out of control again or if the government proves that it’s bumbling along with regard to the vaccinations,” he says. “And again, I think they’ve got various positives in there. They’re holding some significant cards.”

Primary among those is Australia’s relative pandemic success so far, meaning there’s less urgency in this country than others for the vaccine.

But there is still much to be done before herd immunity is a realistic prospect.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 6, 2021 as "Refugees a late add for jab".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.