Prime minister Scott Morrison has admitted the government was “too optimistic” in the lead up to summer before Omicron cases spiralled, and wishes he had made the vaccination rollout a military operation sooner during the pandemic.
Answering questions at the National Press Club on Tuesday, Morrison was asked whether he would apologise for mistakes he made, including during the pandemic, bushfires, and for not delivering on promises made for the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
Morrison did not directly apologise, instead saying, “We’re all terribly sorry for what this pandemic has done to the world and to this country” before listing challenges he believed the government could have performed better on.
“I think as we went into the summer, I think we were too optimistic, perhaps, and we could have communicated more clearly about the risks and challenges that we still faced,” Morrison said, framing the consequence as heightening “the great sense of disappointment that people felt”.
The government had played down worst-case-scenario modelling of Omicron cases in December, before cases reached 120,000 in Australia in January.
Morrison said the government had been focused on vaccinations in November and December and had not anticipated a coronavirus variant with transmission among vaccinated people.
He also said the vaccination program should have been a military operation “from the outset”.
“As we went through those early months and we had the challenges that we have with the health department and us dealing with many, many issues, I took the decision to send in General [John] Frewen and changed the way we did it and set up a change in the command structure, how logistics were managed, how it was planned,” the prime minister said.
“I wish we’d done that earlier, and that’s a lesson.”
He also acknowledged the management of positive COVID-19 cases in aged care “could have been done better between both the states and ourselves”.
“One of the hardest days of the pandemic was St Basil’s, and we had a whole health workforce stood down because of COVID rules … I had to send the military in that night,” Morrison said.
“We learnt that the interface between the aged care sector and the public hospital system was blurred.”
The speech was Morrison’s first major address ahead of this year’s election and comes a week after Labor leader Anthony Albanese’s first press club address this year
Morrison cast his party as managing the economy and national security, while funding the NDIS and aged care during the pandemic.
He criticised Labor policies as having “an each-way bet” on economic and national security matters.
“That is the choice of an election, and Australians will have the time to weigh these things up, and they’ll make that decision very carefully,” Morrison said.
“They’ll be very aware, I think by the time we get to the election, about the world we will face and the country circumstances that we will face in the years ahead.”