Australians should be proud of their success in suppressing and eliminating coronavirus so far. This is largely due to the efforts of state governments – Labor and Liberal – in containing local outbreaks through a combination of mandatory quarantines, temporary lockdowns and effective contact tracing. And the Australian people themselves have played the biggest part by making this strategy of containment, and eventual elimination, work.
The same cannot be said of the federal government’s vaccination strategy where they have politically trumpeted their success. The daily reality of the vaccination rollout strategy reveals a litany of policy and administrative failures.
Thirteen months into the Covid-19 crisis, the states collectively get a strong B-plus on virus containment; whereas the federal government gets a D-minus on its vaccine rollout.
With the states constitutionally responsible for most of the public health response, Scott Morrison’s main role was: to secure in advance sufficient international and domestic vaccine supply; to do so from multiple vaccine developers to mitigate against the risks of individual vaccines failing; and to organise in advance a distribution strategy that would get the vaccine to the people as rapidly as possible.
On this core responsibility, Morrison has failed. His strategy, once again, is a political strategy. It has been to blame others – the states on delivery and the Europeans on supply.
Ultimately, the delivery of an effective vaccine to the people is the only effective long-term guarantee on a return to public health normality – and therefore economic normality, including the opening of our international borders.
We are now in a race against time to immunise our population, overcome this virus, and start the task of rebuilding from the pandemic. However, five months after Morrison announced Australians were “at the front of the queue” for vaccination, our rollout is presently ranked 104th in the world – sandwiched between Lebanon and Bangladesh – based on the latest seven-day average vaccination rate. This is a national disgrace.
Australians understand this is a race. It is a race between our vaccination rollout to eliminate the virus from our shores, and the rolling risk of the virus mutating. We are reminded of this every time the virus leaks out of hotel quarantine, and whenever we read heart-wrenching stories out of India or Brazil. We understand it when we learn about deadlier and more infectious variants emerging overseas that threaten not only those countries, but the roughly 36,000 stranded Australians who are still trickling home months too late. Each extra day they spend waiting for a quarantine place is another day they risk being exposed to a new variant they could bring back to Australia.
At present, we do not know when all Australians will be vaccinated against Covid-19. We don’t even know when all of our frontline doctors, nurses and quarantine workers will be vaccinated.
Early warnings that Australia should diversify its vaccine portfolio and avoid putting too many eggs in the AstraZeneca basket have been proven right.
And despite the prime minister telling us he has “secured” more Pfizer vaccines, to be delivered sometime around Christmas, the truth is no shipment is truly secure until it is arrived and ready for use.
The truth is we now have no vaccine strategy for half the country this year. Many countries will probably finish rolling out their vaccines before millions of us even get our first shot.
The early perceived political “successes” in Australia’s handling of the virus appears to have induced on Morrison’s part a breathtaking level of political complacency on vaccination strategy that borders on professional negligence. Morrison’s inner circle seem to inhabit an alternate reality. The key decision-makers (many of whom, it seems, have already been vaccinated) insist there is no race at all.
Despite earlier doubling down on unrealistic targets, Morrison now tries to gaslight Australians by claiming he didn’t actually say what we all heard him say. That we would be at the “front of the queue”, that we had access to the best vaccines in the world, and that we would have four million vaccinations done by the end of March. All bullshit.
So what could the prime minister now do? First, Morrison should own up to his responsibilities. Doctors can give excellent medical advice, but they aren’t necessarily experienced at public sector management, international diplomacy or working out how and when vaccines will be delivered to surgeries. Morrison’s job is to ensure that his health bureaucracy has a clear, workable communications plan with the nation’s medical workforce on vaccine distribution.
At the same time, Morrison should recognise that his own hyperactive political messaging is actually eroding the public’s confidence rather than boosting it.
One lesson from the pandemic’s first wave was that many Australians felt far more reassured by straight-talkers than evasive ministers and officials. Public confidence in the vaccination program isn’t eroded by people asking reasonable questions, but by the failure of governments to give straight and factual answers. Morrison and his officials could inspire more confidence if they were less shifty, more candid or simply vacated the public communications space entirely to the chief medical officer.
Second, Australia might look to the United States, which is weeks away from producing a surplus of vaccines. After a century of alliance, partnership and camaraderie, Washington may be able to provide a top-up to at least help vaccinate our most vulnerable frontline workers with the best vaccines available.
Third, we should be learning from our friends and allies about their experiences running mass vaccination centres. One of the major challenges associated with the shift to Pfizer from AstraZeneca is that it requires colder storage facilities and, perhaps most significantly, it requires the second shot to be given about three weeks after the first (rather than about three months for AstraZeneca). The government’s plan A – to mass-vaccinate millions through GP clinics and pharmacies – always seemed far-fetched. It seems inevitable that we may now need to pivot to mass vaccination centres like those in the US.
Fourth, the government must overhaul its local production effort. The pharmaceutical industry is reportedly rife with stories of Australian officials not answering correspondence, not returning phone calls and being generally uninterested in discussing vaccine purchases until several months into the pandemic, by which time those companies had promised billions of doses to other countries.
The same attitudes appear to have driven the government’s approach to our own country’s local mRNA experts. As the Guardian reported last week, “Frustrated experts say Australia could already be producing mRNA Covid vaccines if it had acted earlier”. Any sensible government would have been moving heaven and earth to help make this happen months ago, but not Morrison it would seem.
Australians are not fools. They understand just how vulnerable we remain. And we all know that waiting until Christmas isn’t good enough. As the actor David Wenham tweeted after Morrison’s press conference on Friday, “I just rang my local Priceline pharmacy and ordered 100 million doses of Pfizer vaccine. This is great news and puts Australia at the front of the queue again.” And David, as we all know, is a better actor than Scotty from Marketing will ever be.
First published in The Guardian
Image: Mike Bowers/The Guardian