Queensland Liberal MP Andrew Laming has challenged federal government vaccine advisers over state-imposed mandates, saying a more “nuanced” approach is needed to address the risk of Covid-19 transmission.
But in response to a barrage of questions about the proportionality of state public health orders from the Bowman MP, representatives from the Australian technical advisory group on immunisation (Atagi) likened the rationale for vaccine protection to a “hard hat on a construction site”.
The issue of state vaccine mandates continues to divide the Coalition, with Liberals Gerard Rennick and Alex Antic withholding support from government legislation over the issue, and other government MPs publicly backing freedom protests across the country.
In a hearing of parliament’s employment and education committee on Wednesday, Laming questioned representatives of Atagi on what he called a “farrago” of vaccine mandates across a range of different sectors across the country.
Posing an “omnibus question” that canvassed mandates across various sectors, including education, the public service, real estate, hospitality, finance and hair and beauty, Laming asked “whether it was possible to start to search for evidence that might inform a more nuanced approach in each of those sectors”.
In response, Atagi’s co-chair Allen Cheng outlined the risk for workers in particular settings, saying there were three key reasons for getting vaccinated – the prevention of contracting the disease, the prevention of severe Covid, and prevention of transmission.
“I think what you’re trying to get at is about the proportionality of vaccine mandates in each of these specific settings, and that is properly a matter for jurisdictions to consider in their own context, and particularly in their own legal framework,” Cheng said.
He said preventing severe Covid infections and limiting transmission “can be the rationale for a mandate”.
“For example … for someone who is at an occupational risk of having exposure to infection, so staff on a Covid ward for example, that’s an occupational health and safety consideration, it’s like having a hardhat on a construction site as part of a suite of protections.”
He said limiting transmission was important particularly for elderly people in aged care and “therefore to have a vaccine for the people that they come into contact with is reasonable to protect both the worker, as well as the person that they’re looking after, caring for, in that setting”.
“So I’m not sure that I can answer your question specifically about the validity or proportionality of employment vaccine mandates in each of those settings, but would note that that the vaccine does have an effect and one of those effects is to reduce the transmission of Sars-CoV-2.”
On the public service, Laming suggested there was a need to “tease out the relative risks to see whether our recommendations around encouraging or mandating vaccines might be able to be more nuanced than simply a decision that’s public service wide”.
Laming also questioned Cheng on how reliant the group had been on overseas data in assessing the risks and benefits of vaccines in Australia, and asked how it would assess vaccine response to new variants, such as Omicron.
In response, Cheng said the task was difficult, but the group was constantly assessing direct and indirect lines of evidence which “give us a clue as to what we think the vaccine effectiveness will be”.
Moncrieff MP Angie Bell also asked the Atagi representatives about vaccine mandates, which have become a hot-button issue across the country, asking “why the state mandates for businesses are necessary if 80% to 90% of the population is vaccinated”.
“I don’t think that’s Atagi’s role to answer that question,” Atagi co-chair Chris Blyth said.
“We provide technical advice, and we believe in the benefits and safety of vaccinations but how they are implemented and rolled out is absolutely up to the state’s public health orders.
“Atagi has not provided a recommendation for mandates at any time point.”