EXCLUSIVE

Australia's Olympic athletes set to get vaccine boost before Tokyo Games

The Australian Olympic Committee is hopeful the Tokyo Games will go ahead. Picture: Getty Images
The Australian Olympic Committee is hopeful the Tokyo Games will go ahead. Picture: Getty Images

Australian Olympians are set to receive a COVID-19 jab before heading to the Tokyo Games, but the federal government says they won't be able to jump the queue when vaccinations begin next month.

Sport Minister Senator Richard Colbeck confirmed plans were in place for athletes to vaccinated for the rescheduled Olympics in Japan, which are set to begin on July 24.

"We have received advice from ATAGI on a rollout plan, athletes fit within the plan and we'll get to them," Senator Colbeck told The Canberra Times.

"If our plans work OK it may very well be conceivable that Olympic athletes, for example, we'll get to them before they head off to the Games anyway."

His comments will come as a relief to athletes, who have been agitating to be included in the early stages of the vaccine rollout so they can travel without health concerns.

The Australian Olympic Committee has been in regular contact with the government to discuss travel and quarantine protocol, while Cricket Australia has also reportedly asked if its players and staff can have their vaccines fast-tracked before international travel.

Senator Colbeck's comments are the first confirmation athletes are on the government's radar, but the minister, also responsible for the aged care portfolio, vowed the elderly would be prioritised ahead of sportspeople.

"The first people who should be getting vaccinated are senior Australians, particularly those in residential aged care because they are the most vulnerable," Senator Colbeck said.

There was speculation last week the Games would be cancelled, but the AOC and the Japan government say the event will go ahead. To compete athletes will have to enter a virus-clear hub and will only be allowed to stay in Tokyo for 48 hours after their competition ends.

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Australian athletes will ramp up their Olympic preparations in the coming months in the hope the Games will go ahead after organisers postponed the event last year.

An AOC spokesperson said: "The AOC has been in contact with the government on a regular basis so we can understand expectations and requirements.

"We have always been of the view [athletes] would take their place in the [vaccine] queue, but we have been hopeful and confident we would be in a position to have athletes vaccinated before they leave for Tokyo."

The AOC is also considering using the AIS in Canberra as a pre-Games training hub to give athletes a place to train and live without fearing travel restrictions.

The government has been working with ATAGI (Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation) to plot the vaccine rollout. The elderly and Australia's most vulnerable citizens are at the top of the list, but athletes have also been given consideration.

Australian cricketers will tour New Zealand and South Africa next month, while NRL commissioner Peter V'landys said the league's stars should be third in line to receive a COVID-19 jab behind the elderly and emergency service workers.

Senator Colbeck had a simple question for professional athletes.

"Do you think you should get vaccinated. . .or should your grandmother or grandfather or great aunt get the vaccine because they're the one that's most likely to suffer most significantly the effects of the virus?" Senator Colbeck said.

Sport Minister Richard Colbeck. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Sport Minister Richard Colbeck. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

"A young person fit and healthy catching the virus is not as likely ... I have to say from what I've seen so far indicates an extremely mature reaction from athletes. They understand.

"Those who have clinically been decided by the experts to get priority should get priority ... My priority is going to be those that are most vulnerable."

Several athletes have echoed Mr Colbeck's sentiments this week, including long-distance runners Stewart McSweyn and Brett Robinson who said there should be no queue jumping for elite sportspeople.

That followed comments made by shadow health minister Chris Bowen in response to the Australian cricket team's request, saying: "Every Australian should get access as soon as possible, whether they play cricket or not".

The minister, speaking at the launch of an upgraded $1.7m rowing facility in Canberra on Wednesday, also reminded Australians to maintain social virus conventions.

"If anyone thinks that the vaccine is going to diminish the requirement for maintaining the discipline that we have around social distancing, cough and sneeze etiquette, bubbles and things of that nature, they're deluding themselves," Mr Colbeck said.

"We don't actually know yet whether the vaccine prevents transmission. That is a critical piece for us. Regardless of the vaccine being available, we are going to have to maintain all of the disciplines that we've had up to date until we know more about the vaccine, until we understand what it does.

"We do know that it protects against severe illness, that's why older Australians and those that are most vulnerable should get it first.

"At the moment we don't know whether or not it will prevent transmission. And so an athlete having been vaccinated within an NRL bubble may still spread it. The disciplines fundamentally need to stay in place until we know more."

This story Australia's Olympic athletes set to get vaccine boost first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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