Australian competitors in the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics will be given access to coronavirus vaccines before they depart, meaning some may jump the original national rollout queue.
The Olympics begin in late July, with the Paralympics following a month later, and most athletes would not have had their jab until later this year under the previous, stalled rollout plan.
But in a joint statement on Tuesday, Senator Richard Colbeck and Health Minister Greg Hunt said the competitors and their support staff would be classed under priority group 1b.
The group includes elderly people aged over 70, Indigenous people aged over 55, and critical and high risk workers including defence personnel and police.
Supplies of the COVID-19 vaccine will be made available to about 2050 competitors.
“We want to see our athletes head to Tokyo to compete and then return to Australia safely,” Minister Hunt said.
Senator Colbeck said vulnerable Australians remained “an absolute priority” but high-performance athletes had been facing pressure as the games drew closer.
“This will be a very different Olympics and Paralympics, but our athletes deserve the opportunity to compete,” he said.
The Australian Olympic Committee welcomed the decision, which was made by national cabinet.
“There will be hundreds of very grateful athletes, coaches and their families relieved to know that their hard work over five years has been worth it,” chief executive Matt Carroll said on Tuesday.
“This added layer of assurance is what they were seeking.
“The AOC will be working with our partners Aspen Medical on the logistics to ensure the vaccination of our athletes does not place any additional load on the public system.”
Australia’s chief medical officer Brendan Murphy told Senate estimates the federal government wanted the athletes vaccinated by the middle of the year.
Asked if they would jump ahead of other priority groups, Professor Murphy replied: “There may be some”.
Senator Colbeck had earlier told the ABC it was “without question” the competitors would be exposed to the virus at the events.
“And so, we want to make sure that they’re in the best possible circumstances,” he told the broadcaster.
Asked if the public would tolerate the possibility of sports people or others involved in the games being vaccinated “before their elderly parents or their friend with a disability”, Senator Colbeck said the national rollout was advancing despite constraints.
“I think as long as people are confident that those that need access, want access to the vaccine that they’re able to get it, that considerations such as athletes travelling to an event like the games, they’ll be content with that as a consideration,” he said.