The Victorian government is facing pressure from epidemiologists and industry groups to scrap its two-vaccine mandate, despite an expert suggesting Australia is on track to have more than 15,000 Covid deaths this year.
Epidemiologists Catherine Bennett and Nancy Baxter told a Victorian parliamentary inquiry on Thursday that the two-dose vaccine mandate for most industries was no longer necessary.
While some industry groups have called for the two-dose mandate to be abolished to help ease the skilled worker shortage, the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VCCI) said the decision was up to health officials.
Belinda Clarke, chief executive of the Restaurant and Catering Association, said, “now is the time to move on” from the double-dose vaccine mandate requirement.
“Other states have already taken this step with no demonstrable downsides,” she told Guardian Australia.
“The industry is already experiencing a staffing shortage, and now that we know what we know about Covid-19 and how to deal with it, you would think that the government would take expert advice and scale back these restrictions.”
The VCCI chief executive, Paul Guerra, said vaccine mandates had helped boost the state’s immunization rate and were a decision for health officials.
Guerra said he anticipated the state’s pandemic declaration – due to expire next month – would be lifted. This would mean Covid restrictions, including vaccine mandates, would be scrapped.
“The challenge is now to address ongoing issues around worker and skills shortages and the rising costs on business, which global economic factors have exacerbated,” he said.
Victoria’s widespread double-dose mandates for workers were introduced last year as the state emerged from lockdowns. Critical frontline workers such as teachers, healthcare and aged care staff, and food processing employees require three doses.
This week, the premier, Daniel Andrews, said he would liaise with the federal government about fourth doses for healthcare workers in hospitals to maintain immunity, despite no current plans for this to be mandated.
On Thursday, Baxter, the head of the University of Melbourne’s school of population and global health, told an inquiry into the state’s pandemic orders that she was unsure why Victoria’s two-jab policy remained for industries not involving vulnerable people.
Bennett, the chair of epidemiology at Deakin University, said the situation had fundamentally changed since two-dose worker vaccine mandates were considered justified and necessary.
“It did make a difference in terms of our population-level response and our control, but I don’t think there was ever going to be an argument – even before Omicron – for keeping the two-dose mandates in place,” Bennett told the inquiry.
On Friday, Fleur Brown, the chief industry affairs officer at the Australian Retailers Association, said a “small cohort” of workers in the industry had remained locked out due to vaccine mandates.
“This is adding to the staffing challenge in the face of acute skill and labor shortages,” she said.
“Most retailers would welcome a change to allow those workers back in. We need national alignment to provide consistency and certainty around workforce protocols.”
Tim Piper, the Victorian head of the employer association Australian Industry Group, said the government should reconsider the third-jab mandate for the food processing sector, saying it was “not something that could be run any longer”.
“It’s causing significant complications for companies because there are people who are not getting a third jab and are going elsewhere to get a job,” he said.
“That’s not what the government needs, it’s not what the public wants, and we need to ensure the supply chain.”
A Victorian government spokesperson said vaccination had played an important role in reducing Covid transmission in the workplace and shielding the health system.
“The minister would make any decision to change current pandemic orders for health after considering the chief health officer’s advice and other relevant factors.”
Almost 95% of Victorians over 12 have received two doses of a Covid vaccine.