Australia enlists big business to accelerate vaccine rollout

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Australian businesses agreed on Wednesday to help accelerate the government’s flagging vaccination rollout, as a Covid-19 outbreak in Sydney forced the extension of the city’s two-week lockdown.

The decision to enlist the private sector was made as tensions between state and federal governments intensified over shortages of Covid-19 vaccines. Just 8 per cent of Australian adults have been fully vaccinated, a failure that critics warned had left citizens vulnerable to the spread of the highly contagious Delta strain.

Josh Frydenberg, Australia’s treasurer, said some of the nation’s largest employers had agreed to urge their staff to get vaccinated and provide incentives to customers who had received jabs.

Several companies, including Wesfarmers, which owns retailers Bunnings and Officeworks, have offered to provide logistical support to aid the vaccination roll out, he added.

“A number of businesses raised very interesting and exciting ideas about how they can put their resources to work,” said Frydenberg following a meeting with chief executives of the country’s largest companies.

The business roundtable took place as authorities reported 27 new locally acquired cases of Covid-19 in Sydney for Tuesday. The cluster has grown to more than 350 cases since mid-June, prompting authorities to extend a lockdown of the city of 5m people for another week.

Business is targeting vaccination as the best way to lift lockdowns and state border closures, which the government estimates could cost up to A$100m (US$75m) per day. Qantas plans to offer benefits to vaccinated customers such as bonus frequent-flyer points to encourage inoculations. The airline has also insisted it would make vaccination mandatory for international travellers.

“The need for state lockdowns drops significantly once the most vulnerable members of the community have been vaccinated, and once the rest of the adult population has had the opportunity to be vaccinated, it clears the way to open international borders as well,” said Alan Joyce, Qantas chief executive.

But businesses’ impact on the vaccination drive will be limited until Canberra receives additional supplies this year from Pfizer and Moderna.

Queensland’s state government has already restricted access to its walk-in community vaccination hubs to frontline workers and people receiving their second doses.

“We have to do this until the Commonwealth provides more vaccine supply,” said Yvette D’ath, Queensland’s health minister.

The slow pace of the vaccine rollout has also piled political pressure on Scott Morrison’s government, which until recently had been praised for suppressing Covid-19.

Critics have drawn a comparison between the latest lockdown in Sydney and the lifting of restrictions in the UK and US, which have been enabled by successful vaccination campaigns.

“It’s simply crazy that the vaccination rollout is so slow and hasn’t targeted those who definitely need it,” said Adrian Esterman, professor of biostatistics at the University of South Australia.

Sydney’s outbreak has been linked to an unvaccinated limousine driver transporting international flight crew. Many aged-care workers have still not received a jab.

Esterman said Canberra had ordered its Covid-19 vaccines late and relied too heavily on the AstraZeneca jab, which had subsequently been linked to a rare blood clotting condition. Poor logistics and communication had also hampered the rollout, he said.

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