More than 40% of Australian defence force members are now fully vaccinated against Covid-19, the defence department has revealed after a positive case sparked new restrictions at a naval base in Victoria.
While the Morrison government has faced criticism about the sluggish rollout to priority groups such as aged care workers, defence observers said the inoculation of ADF personnel was proceeding well despite the process having some teething problems.
ADF members were placed alongside police, fire and emergency services as critical and high-risk workers in phase 1b of the rollout.
But any ADF members who performed frontline tasks, such as helping with the hotel quarantine system, were placed in phase 1a.
When asked for the latest figures, a spokesperson for the defence department said: “Across Defence, over 65% of permanent serving ADF members have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, with over 40% fully vaccinated.”
That effort is significantly more advanced than among Australia’s aged care workforce, where about 43% have received a first dose and just 25% both doses. Aged care and disability care workers were included in the 1a group.
Last Thursday an ADF member at HMAS Cerberus, a naval base on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, tested positive to Covid-19. He had attended an exposure site the previous weekend but had already been fully vaccinated.
After the positive test result, HMAS Cerberus suspended all training and leave, ordered living-in personnel to remain in their accommodation, and offered takeaway meal services.
While the national figure for fully vaccinated ADF members stands at more than 40%, the rate at HMAS Cerberus is much higher.
“At HMAS Cerberus, over 80% of permanent serving ADF members are fully vaccinated,” the defence spokesperson said.
“Defence is prioritising vaccination for those personnel with a higher risk of exposure, including those working in frontline healthcare roles, deployed on Operation COVID-19 ASSIST and members who are about to be deployed overseas.”
The Canberra Times has previously reported that some ADF members were concerned about the prioritisation process and had complained of delays and confusion.
But Neil James, the executive director of the Australia Defence Association, said: “The prioritisation of what is a significant and also a very young workforce seems to be working okay.”
James said there had been some problems with the degree of notice given before vaccination appointments “but we’d expect that with such a large workforce”.
He said the vaccinations were important because the ADF needed to be able to deployed at short notice. ADF members were “providing a lot of support to Covid Assist”, an effort that was distributed across the country, he added.
The defence department provided the latest rollout figures after Labor’s defence spokesperson, Brendan O’Connor, called on the Morrison government to explain what actions it had taken “to ensure there is not a serious outbreak at a defence facility”.
The workforces within Defence and the Australian Signals Directorate have been told that Covid-19 vaccinations are “strongly encouraged but not mandatory” – but the rules are stricter for ADF members preparing for deployment.
The Department of Defence notes the Covid-19 vaccine “will be incorporated as part of routine immunisation and will become a mandatory requirement before deploying”.
James said there was “nothing unusual” about vaccinations being mandatory before deployment. He said vaccinations including for malaria and hepatitis were common, depending on the country or region of the deployment.
The latest figures provided by the defence department do not breakdown how many personnel have received the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines.
But information presented in response to questions on notice from the last round of Senate estimates shows the overwhelming majority of ADF vaccinations involved Pfizer.
“As at 18 June 2021, 6,200 Defence personnel had been vaccinated with AstraZeneca vaccine and 34,064 Defence personnel had been vaccinated with Pfizer vaccine,” the department said at the time.
Defence personnel who were already deployed or who were on notice to deploy overseas to places with large Covid-19 outbreaks were vaccinated with AstraZeneca in March and April, the department said.
It said that was based on the risk assessment reflected in advice from the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation and also the cold-chain requirements and export restrictions affecting the export of Pfizer vaccines overseas.
Defence said it had since “adjusted its vaccine plan” to reflect the latest advice from Atagi, which on 17 June recommended the use of Pfizer as the preferred vaccine for those aged under 60.