Australia’s chief medical officer has conceded that children returning to school could create an increased risk of Covid transmission to their families, saying there would be “trade-offs” to getting students back in classrooms.
It comes as the commonwealth agreed to split costs for surveillance testing in schools 50-50 with state governments, despite the prime minister, Scott Morrison, saying there was no medical advice recommending such testing was necessary.
“We do expect that transmission potential, as we call it, will increase as schools go back. But that is something we need to deal with,” chief medical officer, Prof Paul Kelly, said.
“All my colleagues in the states and territories agree that the most important thing is to get schools back.”
The national cabinet met on Thursday, with the return of primary and high schools high on the agenda for the regular meeting of state and territory leaders. At a press conference following the meeting, Morrison said individual jurisdictions would announce their own plans in coming days, but reiterated earlier warnings that delaying reopening of classrooms could see further furloughing of workers due to parents needing to stay home.
“We need the schools open. We need them to stay open,” the prime minister said.
Morrison said the latest figures showed 21% of children aged five to 11 had received their first dose of a Covid vaccine. He later added that children not being double-vaccinated before returning to school should not be an “impediment” to classes resuming, but strongly encouraged parents to get their children vaccinated.
State governments in New South Wales and Victoria had flagged plans for surveillance testing among students, which could include providing twice-weekly rapid antigen tests to parents. Morrison said the commonwealth would split the costs for states that chose such an approach, but claimed it was “not the medical advice” that surveillance testing was needed.
Issues around the potential for increased spread of the Omicron variant in classrooms has been a controversial issue in the US, with many schools closing and returning to remote learning as teachers’ unions raised safety concerns. Kelly conceded that children returning to school “will increase the movement around cities” in Australia, but said it was important for students to get back to the classroom.
“It’s important for all sorts of reasons; for health, physical, mental, social, developmental for children.”
Kelly said he couldn’t provide a figure on what a return to school could mean for case numbers in Australia. He stressed that Omicron caused “very much a mild illness in children”, but conceded there would be an impact on virus spread, including students potentially bringing the infection home to their families.
“There is that chance, but again it’s the balance of keeping the fundamental principle in place,” Kelly said.
“There are trade-offs today in terms of transmission.”
The meeting came as state and territory health authorities reported another 60 deaths across Australia.
Leaders held talks just hours after the Therapeutic Goods Administration announced it had given provisional approval to Novavax – the first protein Covid-19 vaccine to receive regulatory backing in Australia.
The TGA also approved two oral treatments for Covid-19.
Prof John Skerritt, the head of the TGA, said some people had reported they were waiting for Novavax rather than getting the previously approved vaccines.
“The technology on which Novavax is made is an older technology, it uses a protein,” Skerritt told reporters.
“I would have had literally several hundred emails from individuals and groups who have said, for whatever reason, ‘we’d like to have a protein vaccine.’”
The provisional approval is for use in individuals 18 years of age and older, with a recommendation that it be given in two doses three weeks apart. It is not yet recommended for booster shots or for children.
The health minister, Greg Hunt, said the Novavax vaccine would now go to the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation for consideration over the course of next week, but it was “a very promising development”. He described the preliminary approval as “the first of two green lights”.
The federal government has an advance purchase agreement for 51m doses of Novavax, with the first shipment to Australia expected to arrive in the coming month.
“We have a first dose national vaccination rate of 95.2%,” Hunt said.
“And we know that some people have waited for Novavax, and although we’ve encouraged everyone to proceed, we recognise that that’s a fact.
“So hopefully this will encourage those people in that last less than 5% to come forward.”
Hunt also hit back at persistent claims in some quarters that the federal government was requisitioning supplies of rapid antigen tests. He acknowledged there was “a global spike in demand” but argued some suppliers had “overcommitted and not been able to deliver”.
“They’re lying – and that’s why I am reporting them to the ACCC,” he said.
Morrison also referred to the reports as “false claims” and “categorically untrue” in his press conference.
The health department said in a statement: “Supplies of RAT kits are not being redirected to the commonwealth and at no time has the department sought to place itself ahead of other commercial and retail entities.”
The opposition accused the federal government of failing to plan on multiple fronts.
Labor’s health spokesperson, Mark Butler, said there was “enormous confusion” about the “gross shortage of rapid tests that Scott Morrison has caused”.
The opposition’s deputy leader, Richard Marles, said for many small businesses, the labour shortages they were currently experiencing represented an “existential crisis”.
“For the first time in living memory, people are going to supermarkets and seeing shelves empty,” Marles said.
“They cannot get the food they want or the food they need.”