SYDNEY, (Reuters) – Australia has secured 4 million doses of Pfizer (PFE.N) COVID-19 vaccines in a swap deal with Britain, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Friday, as he looks to convince states and territories to stick to a national COVID-19 reopening plan.
The extra doses should reach Australia this month doubling the available Pfizer supply for September, Morrison said, speeding up the country’s efforts to come out of economically-damaging coronavirus lockdowns.
“The plane is on the tarmac now. It will be leaving tomorrow … this will enable us to bring forward significantly the opportunity for Australia to open up again,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra on Friday, days after announcing a smaller vaccine swap agreement with Singapore.
Morrison has been criticised for failing to initially secure an adequate supply of vaccines and for a slow roll out which has seen initial vaccination targets delayed by months.
State governments say their vaccination programmes are being hindered by a lack of supply of the Pfizer vaccine needed to innoculate the younger population.
The vaccine deal comes ahead of a meeting of federal and state leaders later on Friday with virus-free Queensland and Western Australia states flagging they may delay their reopening plans due to the escalating Delta outbreaks in Sydney and Melbourne, Australia’s largest cities.
More than half the country’s 25 million people are under stay at home orders, with Sydney, Melbourne and the national capital Canberra in prolonged lockdowns. The rest of the country enjoys a mostly COVID-free life, but those states have closed borders to stop the Delta variant entering their jurisdiction.
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk on Friday said a modelling on how COVID-19 affects children has to be prepared before she can make any decisions to relax border rules.
“Rather than picking fights and attacks, let us have a decent, educated conversation,” she said after her comments drew criticism from the federal government.
Finance Minister Simon Birmingham told Nine News that Palaszczuk was “focusing on the fear side rather than on the factual, calm analysis that needs to be undertaken on educating the population”.
Australia in July unveiled a four-stage roadmap to more freedoms once vaccination rates reach 70%-80%. Currently only 36% of Australians above 16 are fully vaccinated.
RAPID DELTA SPREAD
The tussle between states and federal government comes as Morrison wants an end to lockdowns and an economic turnaround ahead of an election next year.
Queensland and Western Australia have said they had agreed to the national reopening targets when cases in New South Wales were low. It reported its worst day of the pandemic on Friday fuelled by the highly transmissible Delta variant, with a record 1,431 cases and 12 new deaths.
New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian warned residents to brace for a spike in numbers as the next two weeks will “likely to be our worst in terms of the number of cases”.
The Australian Medical Association, which represents the country’s doctors, on Thursday warned hospitals were not ready to cope with a rapid reopening and called for higher vaccination rates before lockdowns were eased.
Victoria, home to Melbourne, reported 208 new cases, up from 176 a day earlier. One new death was recorded in the state.
A total of nearly 58,200 cases and 1,032 deaths have been recorded in Australia since the pandemic began, far lower than many comparable countries, but the Delta outbreak has cast doubt on whether it is wise to pursue elimination strategies.