Australia’s Immigration Minister referred to the importance of overcoming language barriers in his meeting with the multicultural press on Wednesday.

Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs Minister Alex Hawke said the three Iraqi removalists from Sydney’s COVID-19 hotspot who drove to regional New South Wales for a job while infected, showed the importance of getting the message across to CALD communities as one of them had blamed language barriers for for his failure to comply with NSW’s public health orders. Meeting with the multicultural media, Mr Hawke – along with Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Professor Michael Kidd, and Head of the Implementation and Primary Care Response and Dr Lucas de Toca, Chair of the Department’s CALD Communities COVID-19 Health – sought to debunk some of the misconceptions and also outline Australia’s vaccination policy.

Mr Hawke said that the challenges which lie ahead in the vaccine rollout concern getting on board an additional 10 million people “who don’t want it or people who don’t seem to get it or people in doubt as well as people who still want to get it but who are waiting for their vaccination”.

A number of multicultural media outlets, including Neos Kosmos, were interested in whether vaccines would be made mandatory, especially following new data for key Australian industries, which has revealed that only 43 per cent of aged care workers are fully vaccinated, while only 33 per cent of airport workers and 25 per cent of the marine unit of the Australian Border Force are inoculated against the virus. It seems unlikely, however, that Australia will follow the route of Greece, where aged care workers face suspension should they not agree to get the jab.

“The government upfront made a decision, a very important decision, to not mandate the vaccination,” Mr Hawke said. “In a country like Australia, with a democratic and free tradition, this is a very important decision. It is very difficult to mandate people to have vaccinations in large populations… We find all the evidence suggests that if the government forces people to do things, that will produce more resistance against the idea of vaccination.”

He added that this has “been the right approach, everybody is comfortable about the vaccination. It has been voluntary – but every body understands we need to get it and most people are going to go get it.”

The importance of social cohesion was addressed, with Mr Hawke thankful that “most major religions are very, very supportive of vaccinations” and “faith leaders have been exceptional in coming forward and providing support for vaccination and identifying that it isn’t at odds with religious values of their faiths”. Despite this “uniform” view, he is aware of misinformation on the internet and social media, which he advises people to report to Home Affairs, adding that incorrect and false claims have little to do with “freedom of speech or freedom of discussion”.

READ MORE: AstraZeneca gets green light but not yet certain that Aussies are ready to get the jab

Travelling abroad

Mr Hawke, as much as Professor Kidd and Dr de Toca, stressed how the variables can change very quickly, especially when it comes deeming a country safe for travel. Apart from New Zealand, people entering Australia from other countries need to quarantine for 14 days. A ‘wait and see’ attitude is being taken to the reopening of borders as the government navigates according to the “changing advice” as new variants and other developments progress.

“On 9 July, the National Cabinet agreed to and the Prime Minister released the national pathway that we are going to go down,” Mr Hawke said, adding “there is a lot of policy and administrative work being done in governments – federal and state” to prepare for this pathway.

One thing is certain, Australia is watching examples followed in other countries such as Freedom Day in the UK and the Netherlands doing something similar, Mr Hawke said. In this way, Australia has the opportunity to learn, however a number of issues need to be addressed and “there will be a series of policy questions about thresholds in various countries”.

Professor Kidd pointed to two main factors being considered for the reopening of borders: firstly, the local epidemiology, looking at “what’s happening with outbreaks and the lockdowns” which fluctuates, as has been the case with Singapore and in Australia in recent weeks, and secondly, a risk assessment is made as “we also look at the public health response capacity in a country” for testing, contact tracing, self-isolation, vaccination rollout, etc.

READ MORE: Professor Kidd, the ‘Nation’s GP’ calls on all adults to get vaccinated

Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Professor Michael Kidd, and Head of the Implementation and Primary Care Response and Dr Lucas de Toca, Chair of the Department’s CALD Communities COVID-19 Health

Not all vaccinations are the same

In response to a question by Neos Kosmos regarding a revelation earlier this month showing that travellers wishing to enter the European Union would need to undergo quarantine and testing because the Australian-made AstraZeneca had not been registered with European Drug Authorities, Professor Kidd said action was being taken to address this.

“We are continuing to work with international partners around the world on how vaccination can facilitate travel and the reopening of international borders,” he said. Obviously it is a very important issue. The requirements for entry into each country obviously is an issue for that country as it is of course for Australia, but the AstraZeneca manufactured in Australia is currently being considered for emergency use listing by the World Health Organisation (WHO), and a submission has been made by the manufacturer AstraZeneca to the WHO, and Therapeutics Goods Administration in Australia is supporting that submission. The Pfizer vaccine that we are using in Australia, manufactured in Germany, is already included on the WHO emergency list so we don’t have any reason to believe why the AstraZeneca produced in Australia won’t end up on that emergency list similar to the one produced in the UK.”

Professor Kidd was informed by AstraZeneca that a submission had been made in the middle of last month, however could not tell Neos Kosmos how long it would take for this to be approved.

For people getting vaccinated abroad, such as those vaccinated with Moderna or Johnson & Johnson in Greece, it still remains to be seen whether quarantine arrangements currently in place will be lifted.

“The Australian government is considering mechanisms for recognising vaccines which have not yet been approved n Australia by the Therapeutic Goods Administration,” Professor Kidd said.

“Currently people who have been vaccinated, no matter what vaccine (they get), who arrive in Australia are still required to do the 14 days quarantine that everybody else is required to do. Whether that may change as we move through the various phases which the Prime Minister  outlined after the recent national cabinet meeting remains to be determined. Obviously we are following very closely regarding what is happening in other countries as well with vaccinated populations with particular vaccines.”

People abroad, especially vulnerable groups, are advised to be protected with vaccines listed for use in the country where they are based. “We have had some people who have come to Australia who have had a single vaccine overseas and then they wonder ‘what do I do about the second vaccine?’

“Obviously if the first vaccine has been AstraZeneca or Pfizer, that’s easy, because we’ve got guidance as to what to do there. If the first vaccine has been other vaccines we need to have a discussion as the trusted medical adviser as to what to do next and it may be appropriate for those people to have a full course vaccination by one of the approved vaccines in Australia. Remember, that some of the vaccines overseas only have a single dose including the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. But it is important if we can to know what vaccine people have actually had. In particular, if you are getting vaccinated overseas, it is important to have a record as to what that has been.”

Children may soon also be vaccinated. Dr De Toca said that there were three stages to the vaccine rollout with Phase 3 concerning the vaccination of children. The TGA is “currently considering an application of Pfizer to lower the age from 16 (at the moment) to 12-15 years of age” while AstraZeneca is currently available to those aged over 18 years.