DEPUTY Premier James Merlino seemed to catch everyone on the hop this morning; teachers, students, parents, the media and his own department with an announcement that the State Government was aiming to have all VCE/Year 12 students fully vaccinated by the start of their final exams on October 4.

Is that even possible, asked the assembled media at Wednesday morning’s daily COVID-19 update, given the six-week break between Pfizer jabs, the availability of vaccines and the already long waiting time for vaccination?

Mr Merlino was at a loss to answer most of their questions, except to restate the position that the government wants everyone sitting VCE exams to be ‘double vaccinated’ by October 4.

Here’s what the Education Minister had to say, including his response to questions:

“As the Premier said yesterday, we’ve been working hard on plans to vaccinate both students and staff over the course of the next few months. Of particular concern and priority for myself as Minister for Education and the government, are our Year 12 students in their final months of their schooling life. We’ve already announced a range of supports and initiatives, plans in place to give our Year 12 students some confidence and clarity about what the rest of the year looks like. So, from Monday, there can be school-based assessments on site in small groups, if they can’t be done online. We’ve got the GAT confirmed for the ninth of September. We’ve got our exams as scheduled from October 4, right through to the 17th of November.

“And we’ve also confirmed that consideration of educational disadvantage, that is for every single Year 12 students, the impact of the pandemic will be taken into account for them as individual students. It worked last year, and it will work again so all of those things give confidence to our Year 12 students as they look towards their final exams and life beyond school.

“But we also know that the path through this pandemic, the path out of this pandemic, is via vaccinations. So today I’m announcing that as part of the expanded eligibility vaccination program that the Premier announced yesterday, I can announce that the priority for us is to make sure that all final year students have received their vaccination before they start sitting their exams on October 4. That is our priority, everyone 16 and over, but particularly those Year 12 students. We want to make sure that they’re vaccinated before their exams start, whether that’s through the many state vaccination hubs we’ve got across Victoria, whether it’s through GPs or whether it’s through participating pharmacies.

“As the Premier has also outlined previously, we also want to make sure, we also want to see that kids aged 12 and older are vaccinated at least with their first dose by the end of the year, but that is of course subject to one ATAGI (Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation) advice, and secondly to supply.

“So, there’ll be very strong communication to all students and staff across all our schools in Victoria, but a particular message to our Year 12 students, but also VCA staff, and staff who will be supervising the VCE exams, we also want them to get vaccinated

“So, please get vaccinated as soon as you’re able. Make a booking, as the Minister has just outlined, there’s a lot of pressure on the system right now which is to be expected, so please be patient. But we do have a priority to make sure that all Year 12 students are vaccinated by the time we start sitting exams on the fourth of October.”

Mr Merlino went on to make some comments, at the morning update on Wednesday, August 25 about the success by Victoria’s schools, both state and independent, in the recent NAPLAN tests, leading the Nationa he said, before answering a barrage of questions about the vaccination for VCE students before exams policy.

Questions

Q1. How will you achieve that goal of getting all VCE students vaccinated by October 4? Will you bring the vaccines to the schools?

A1. So we’ve made, firstly, the priority, the aim to make sure that all Year 12 students are vaccinated by the time they start sitting exams on the fourth of October. So, we’ve got some time, you know it’s the 25th of August. The target is to make sure they’re vaccinated by the time their exams start, and my department is working very closely with the Department of Health and the public health team, keeping a close eye on how we’re tracking. If there are ways that we can support students to get vaccinated, we will, but the best thing to do the quickest path to 70% and then 80% is the broad expansion of eligibility, which is what the Premier announced yesterday. And in terms of that broad expansion, what we’re going to do in education, working with our schools, directly communicating with families, with students, with principals, is to say, if you are in Year 12, if you are a VCE teacher, if you are going to be supervising exams, get vaccinated as quickly as possible.

Q2. So, other than telling people to get vaccinated, are you doing anything else to help Year 12s to get vaccinated?

A2. We’re making it clear that is our priority. We want our students, 12, and older, by the end of the year to have at least one dose. We have set ourselves the target of having Year 12s vaccinated by the time exams, and we’re working very closely with our public health team to make sure that we can do that.

Q3. And that’s double vaccinated? So, you say you’ve got a bit of time but if it’s double vaccinated, it’s going to take time?

A3. This all comes down to, as we have said, right from the very start, and the Premier made it very clear yesterday, we are significantly expanding eligibility. We have the confidence to do that now, but if we’re going to deliver it, and deliver it on the timelines that we’ve set, then that is dependent on the supply that comes from the Commonwealth. So, we’ll be asking the Commonwealth for additional supplies of the vaccine. We want our Year 12s vaccinated. We want at least one dose for kids 12 and older, by the end of the year, but that is going to be subject to supply, and for the younger kids, ATAGI advice.

Q4. So you’ve said this without actually having the supplies set in stone?

A4. Oh no. When the Premier announced the eligibility expansion yesterday, there was some 2 million additional people, we’ve got confidence immediately in the supply but in terms of delivering it, as we said yesterday, this is dependent, and it’s the responsibility of the Commonwealth Government. We need that supply. As soon as we get it, we’ll be putting it into people’s arms.

Q5. Will you be setting up a special queue for Year 12 students at the vaccination hubs?

A5. We’re not making any announcements today, we’re working very closely with the public health team in terms of how best to support all students and staff but particularly Year 12 students. We’re going to make it clear, so this is about sending a very strong message to Year 12 students, particularly in their final months, giving them confidence and clarity that they can you know really tackle the last few months of study and give it their best shot. We’ve got the consideration of educational disadvantage, so every single individual student will be assessed, and the impact of the pandemic will be taken into account with their results. School-based assessments are resuming. We’ve got the GAT on the ninth of September, and exams are scheduled. This is about giving Year 12 students confidence, and we’re making it very clear in an education space that we want, firstly Year 12s vaccinated by the start of exams.

Q6. Given Pfizer has been spaced out to six weeks, it’s probably not possible to get everyone vaccinated fully by that date. Are you going to make it three weeks for Year 12 students?

A6. We will continue to work with public health but we want as many students as possible vaccinated, fully vaccinated, obviously you know, this is all our aim and we know that vaccination is our pathway out of this pandemic, so we’ll do all we can. We want our Year 12 vaccinated, by the time they start sitting exams.

Q7. Are you asking for more vaccines, or is that a draw-forward of a another months’ supply.

A7. I haven’t got a figure in terms of exactly how much we need, that will be determined, obviously by how quickly we can get vaccinations, whether it’s through our state hubs, whether it’s through GPs and pharmacies. We want people, we need people to be patient, we know that there’s massive interest, and people trying to get through and make a booking and get vaccinated. In terms of the exact numbers well announce that, but we will be asking the Commonwealth for additional vaccines.

Q8. Just on the GAT, that’s in about two weeks’ time will that happen regardless of how many cases there are, and how are we going to do that safely.

A8. We will again, as we’ve done throughout these last 18 months, you know, whenever we announced a plan for schools, it is always subject to the epidemiology of the time and the public health advice of the time, but DET, and our public health team have been working hand-in-glove in terms of our plan for schools. So, it’s scheduled to go ahead on the ninth of September, in terms of all the arrangements about how we can do that in a COVID safe way, public health and the Department of Education working closely and will provide clear advice to schools, as to how it should proceed, so right now, school-based assessments, if you can’t do it at home, and online, they can be done on site for Monday, the GAT on the ninth of September and exams as scheduled from the fourth of October.