More than 1,700 cases of Covid-19 in Australia have been recorded in children under the age of five, new data obtained by Guardian Australia reveals.
The Department of Health data, which breaks down case numbers into five-year age brackets, comes as the childcare sector prepares for a vaccine mandate for workers in New South Wales, and amid calls for nationally consistent approach to vaccinating early childhood educators.
There are now 176 childcare centres closed nationally as a result of the latest Delta wave of the virus, 137 of which are in NSW as case numbers among children continue to climb.
While the risk of serious illness and hospitalisation is low for children infected with Covid-19, case numbers among young people make up a significant proportion of the latest outbreak of the Delta variant across NSW, Victoria and the ACT.
The number of confirmed cases reported to the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System shows there have been 1,733 cases in the 0-4 age group, about half of the total 3,552 cases reported in children under the age of 10, since January 2020.
There have been 2,097 cases in those aged 10 to 14, and 2,972 in those aged 15 to 19.
The five-year age bracket with the highest case numbers is those aged 25-29, recording 5,218 cases of the total 44,439 reported through the national system.
In response to the growing concern about transmission of the virus through the very young, the NSW government last week announced childcare workers in local government areas of concern must have had at least one dose of the vaccine by 6 September. The mandate will extend across the state by November.
Chief executive of Early Childhood Australia, Samantha Page, said the organisation’s focus was on ensuring priority vaccine access for educators and teachers, with the issue of vaccine mandates being “complicated”.
“There are mixed feelings amongst the profession about how to support vaccination and what to do in terms of whether vaccines should be mandatory. It is contentious,” Page said.
“I think a lot of employers are attracted to the idea but they also know how difficult that is to actually implement.”
She also said that if providers went down that path, “they would need to know they had good supply and that everybody can get one, and at the moment, that is not the case everywhere.”
Elizabeth Death from the Early Learning and Care Council of Australia, which represents large providers, said while members would not go it alone to mandate vaccines for workers, the group welcomed the NSW government’s public health order for the sector.
“Members have found the public health order has supported them to ensure that their workplace is safe – safe for the workforce, and safe for the children,” Death said.
“We would like to see a nationally consistent approach because we will again have mobility of workforce in the future across states, and we have members operate across Australia, so where there are different approaches to workforce policy across jurisdictions it creates inequities and complexities.”
The rising case numbers among children has prompted calls for the government to outline plans for vaccinating children, with the Greens calling for a clear timetable and urgent targets under the national plan.
Children aged 12-15 will be eligible for vaccination from 13 September, and while trials for children under 12 are under way in some countries, there are no plans for this age group to be vaccinated.
The government has said the best protection for children is for parents to get vaccinated.
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In response to questions from Guardian Australia about how the federal health department was responding to the issue of transmission in childcare settings, a spokesperson said the government would “continue to review and adjust its policy settings”.
This would be “based on consideration of a broad array of factors which include, but are not limited to, the relevant epidemiology, progress of the vaccination rollout and the predominant variants and advice from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee”.
It said public health policies and rules for schools and early childhood were primarily set by the state governments, and “risk mitigations are informed by local public health and work health and safety requirements”.
“AHPPC continues to emphasise the importance of COVIDSafe plans and principles being embedded in school and early childhood operations to supplement controls at an individual level,” the spokesperson said.