On Wednesday, Scott Morrison fronted a media pack eager to hear more about his plans for Australia’s COVID-19 vaccination rollout, but the prime minister’s insistence that everything would be okay because the nation went through something similar last year is out of step with its cash-support scheme for businesses and individuals.
It started out as a simple reassurance to Australians that the COVID-19 Delta variant was challenging the public health plans of countries all over the world, and that the national goal to ‘save lives and save livelihoods’ was foremost.
But the PM’s tone changed three minutes into his address when he referenced the lockdowns of NSW, Victoria and SA, foreshadowing that it would be tough for citizens in weeks and months ahead as the government adapted its response to the more transmissible virus strain.
“We continue to wrestle with this new strain of this virus and we adapt our responses to fight it, just as we have with every other episode that we’ve gone through as we’ve responded to the coronavirus pandemic all around the world,” Morrison said.
When the PM spoke about how Australia’s delayed vaccination rollout (ranked last among other OECD countries, behind Costa Rica, South Korea and New Zealand), which is two months behind its current schedule, was ramping up, he suggested what was needed was pragmatism to get the job done.
All the critics would have perfect hindsight to say something about the botched rollout, Morrison rebuffed, echoing similar sentiments expressed by NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian last week that there was no such thing as a ‘perfect pandemic’.
The paradox of course is that if the vaccination rollout had been on track, the public health restrictions now keeping half the country at home may not be what they are. The same can be said for any extended or future lockdowns when there is an outbreak of the virus.
“We’ve had significant challenges with this program, as many countries have,” the PM said.
“What matters is how you fix the things that need to be fixed and get the program doing what it needs to be doing, and hitting the vaccination rates it needs to hit to ensure that we can get to where we need to be, where we want to be.”
When a reporter asked why it was the government was reluctant to apologise for the failings of Australia’s vaccination rollout, Morrison responded by saying the delays were ‘regrettable’. But, he added, Australians (including the more than 16.5 million in lockdown, many of whom have been forced into at-home schooling arrangements, or face job uncertainty) were more interested in the good news story that he was on the case and working to improve things.
“No country’s got their pandemic response 100% and, I think Australians understand that,” the PM said.
“I take responsibility for the problems we’ve had, but I’m also taking responsibility for the solutions we’re putting in place and the vaccination rates that we’re now achieving.”
Conceding that Australia has experienced ‘significant problems’ with its vaccination program, Morrison then said vaccinations were the key to ending lockdown conditions in Australia. He went to pains to thank Australians who have come forward to achieve one million doses administered in one week, and later added that 32,000 people under the age of 40 had sought out the AstraZeneca vaccine from their GP with informed consent to date.
The PM’s focus then shifted to the role the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) played in contributing to vaccine hesitancy in the public based on its assessment of the AstraZeneca vaccine for people aged under 60.
Morrison said he was making ‘constant appeals’ to the group to reconsider its position on the AstraZeneca vaccine, even though as recently as last week ATAGI had issued advice to people living in greater Sydney that under 60s should consider the shot.
On Wednesday, Australian Medical Association President Omar Khorshid told The Australian that although he understood the prime minister’s frustration, he believed the PM was placing ‘unfair pressure’ on ATAGI’s scientific experts.
“We are certainly concerned that the experts — who are doing their best — are under unfair pressure. At the end of the day, this is an advisory body. The government and the Minister for Health make the decisions, not ATAGI,” Khorshid said.
“We understand the Prime Minister’s frustration on AstraZeneca but these decisions are made based on science.
“Sure, ATAGI could make changes to the AZ advice based on no access to substantial access to Pfizer and worsening outbreaks. We will see if we can get on top of these outbreaks in coming weeks … but ultimately, it’s the government that makes the decisions and they can change them.”
The economic blow that the latest lockdowns in NSW, Victoria and South Australia will cause would be significant, Morrison added, but he said the government would deliver the support needed to recover strongly. He said Services Australia was processing 70,000 claims for disaster support payments every day, with 93% of claims processed online (even Centrelink employees have complained about the requirement for in-person ID checks that are not COVIDsafe, before eligible people can receive their payments).
Crucially, Morrison stressed, the disaster-support payments for individuals and businesses were not intended to be used as income support. He said the payments were only meant to help people as a ‘bridge’ to ‘get to the other side of the lockdowns’.
“What we’re seeing in this current quarter is a hit to GDP because of the lockdowns […] it’s impossible to avoid,” Morrison said.
“All the supports that we’re providing are not designed as replacement income. They never were, and neither was JobKeeper.”
If Australia can get over the bridge, the prime minister said he believed people would eventually get back to work and shops could open up again.
“People will go back to work. People will go back and buy things in the shops. The sites will open again and the economy will come back to life very, very quickly.”