Supply delays could threaten start of Australia’s Covid vaccine rollout

The Morrison government has left states and territories in the dark about how many Pfizer vaccines Australia will receive by mid-February, as other countries face supply issues.

After national cabinet on Friday, Scott Morrison conceded Australia’s order could be affected by supply delays, and sought to manage expectations by noting the rollout would start at a “small scale”.

The national cabinet meeting was not able to agree on an increase to international arrival caps, but after the meeting the Victorian and Tasmanian governments announced a deal to allow 1,500 seasonal workers to quarantine in Tasmania before coming to work in Victoria.

State and territory leaders were given an update on the vaccination rollout before the national cabinet meeting, but key details were missing, just weeks before the first doses of the jab are due to be administered.

Guardian Australia understands that the commonwealth was not able to say how many doses of the Pfizer vaccine Australia would receive by mid-February.

Earlier in January the federal government brought forward the rollout of the Pfizer vaccine after sustained pressure from Labor. Australia was expected to approve the Pfizer vaccine in late January and had orders for 10m doses, enough for 5m people.

But concerns about the rollout had grown due to European countries reporting Pfizer supply delays and the lower efficacy rates of the AstraZeneca vaccine that would form the bulk of Australia’s vaccination program.

Morrison told reporters in Brisbane he had spoken to European leaders earlier in the week about “some difficulties that they’re encountering” and Australia would be “watching that very closely”.

“We were able to provide as much update as possible today to the premiers and chief ministers – they know what we know,” Morrison said. “There are some things in our control and some things that are not.”

Morrison said Australia had “paid a premium” to ensure it could produce the AstraZeneca vaccine onshore so that it would not be “exposed to those vulnerabilities to the supply chain like are occurring in other countries”.

“At this stage we’re relying on the delivery of the vaccines from those producing countries at this early stage.

“I think we’re being very careful to be clear about expectations here. We know that we’d be starting at a small scale before moving to a much greater scale.”

Morrison described the intention to begin vaccinations in mid to late February as an “indicative timeframe” that would be “subject to any impacts on production schedules overseas”.

“I know that Pfizer is retooling, upgrading their capacity in Europe to produce and increase the output of what they’re doing there. There are a huge demands across Europe from other clients.”

The shadow health minister, Chris Bowen, told Guardian Australia the government “needs to be honest with the public”.

“When they announced twice, under pressure, that the vaccine would be delivered earlier – was that ever guaranteed or was it just more spin?”

Earlier, Morrison promised to “update the Australian people” when more information was available, and referred the question to the health minister, Greg Hunt.

On Thursday Hunt said he had spoken to Pfizer as recently as Wednesday and the advice was Australia was “still on track for first vaccines to be received in February”.

“The final date hasn’t been confirmed, but that was the advice … from the country head in Australia.”

Hunt said Australia would know the number and “pace” of dose delivery in coming weeks, promising to share any changes in timetable “immediately”.

National cabinet was not able to agree on an increase to Australia’s international arrival cap, despite the federal government seeking more hotel quarantine capacity in Melbourne and among states that had halved their numbers in response to more infectious strains of Covid-19.

Morrison said the federal government would now seek agreements with individual states to raise capacity before 15 February, when the deal lapses and another 2,500 places a week were due to be made available again.

Morrison noted Australia had organised 70 repatriation flights, and a further 20 would be provided above the regular arrival cap.

Morrison said Queensland’s proposals for regional quarantine were “briefly referred to” at national cabinet, and he would seek more detail in a meeting with Annastacia Palaszczuk on Friday afternoon.

Palaszczuk said her government was proposing quarantine in Gladstone and Toowoomba and seeking federal approve for international flights to those regional cities.

Palaszczuk said the plans “won’t necessarily take away from the international flights” coming to Brisbane but were “about getting more Australians home”.

Ahead of the meeting, Morrison dampened hopes of a breakthrough on regional quarantine, warning more work was needed to persuade locals such an arrangement would benefit them.

Asked about whether the vaccine would be required for health and aged care workers and visitors to aged care, the deputy chief medical officer, Michael Kidd, said “at this point” health leaders had not recommended mandatory vaccinations.

He said that was because authorities were still learning about whether vaccines prevent transmission and the vaccines had not been rolled out yet.

“We don’t want to exclude people from aged care because they don’t fall into the priority groups,” he said. “We want our loved ones to see relatives in aged care.”

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