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The vaccine race Australia is losing

As Covid-19 case numbers in Victoria continue to rise, attention has turned to the slow pace of the vaccine rollout, and the question of whether or not more vaccinations could have stopped this outbreak.

As Covid-19 case numbers in Victoria continue to rise, attention has turned to the slow pace of the vaccine rollout, and the question of whether or not more vaccinations could have stopped this outbreak. 

Today, senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton on where the rollout went wrong and what the consequences have been.

 

Guest: Senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton.

Show Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

 

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am

 

As Covid-19 case numbers in Victoria continue to rise, attention has turned to the slow pace of the vaccine rollout, and the question of whether or not more vaccinations could have stopped this outbreak.

 

The federal government has been happy to take a ‘wait and see’ approach to the vaccine program, denying there was any sense of urgency. But was that a mistake?

 

Today - senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton, on where the rollout went wrong, and what the consequences have been.

 

[Theme Music Ends]

 

RUBY:

Rick, the Victorian government, as well as a number of public health experts, have pointed the finger at the federal government, blaming them for the slow pace of the vaccine rollout and suggesting that that is a large part of why Victoria is now in lockdown. Just how badly is the vaccine rollout going? 

 

RICK:

The best way to judge is to measure up where we are now against what the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, and Health Minister Greg Hunt have been saying themselves for the past six months. 

 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison: 

“In Australia, we're looking forward to 2021, and our policy and program, led by Professor Murphy, on getting Australia at the front of the pack when it comes to vaccines.” 

 

RICK:

So last November, Morrison famously said Australia was at the front of the queue in terms of the vaccine. 

 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“Today, we are going to talk about the process of those first two phases that will provide the most necessary ring of containment and protection for the Australian population.” 

 

RICK:

On January 7, he held a press conference at Parliament House announcing that the government's federal vaccine strategy was a federal one, 

 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“Those populations in that first phase, ah, quarantine and border workers, frontline health officials, as well as those working in aged care and disability care, and those in aged care and disability care residents.”

 

RICK:

That it was being brought forward. It was going to start in mid to late February. 

 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“And we hope by the end of February, end of March, I should say, to, to have reached some four million population.”

 

RICK:

And on January 25, Morrison then updated the roll out to say:

 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison: 

“I think it's difficult to predict these things. And the events of recent weeks, I think will mean that that four million position will be something that is going to be achieved in early April as opposed to late March.”

 

RICK:

But in February, the secretary of the Department of Health, Brendan Murphy, said that the target had now shifted to the middle of April; and by March, the government said it no longer had a target for those four million doses at all. 

 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison: 

“Rather than set  targets that can get knocked about by every to and fro, international supply, we’re just getting on with it.”

 

RICK:

So we've gone pretty clearly from the front of the queue, front of the line, to the very clear messaging that ‘this is not a race’ for quite some time. 

 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison: 

“You know It's not a race, it’s not a competition, I am not interested in, you know, this state, or that state. I’m interested in Australians being vaccinated safely, with appropriate care and support given to all of them.”

 

RICK:

And, you know, that was the message that held up until the events of last week when the virus got out again in Victoria. 

 

RUBY:

Mmm, and I suppose the current situation in Victoria at least partially reflects the slow nature of the vaccine rollout. But can you tell me where things started to go wrong, behind the scenes, Rick? 

 

RICK:

There are so many different pieces to this puzzle. The first issue we had was supply. And, you know, there has been a lot written, including by *The Saturday Paper* previously about the kind of deals that were done for different vaccines. And the thinking is that we probably should have had some more deals done.

 

But the other problem we had was the public communications. I mean, it is not to put too fine a point on it, it has been a disaster. 

 

We saw the issue of the blood clots that formed as a result of the AstraZeneca vaccine at a rate of about four to six in every million doses. So they decided that, you know, people under 50 shouldn't get it. And that was the advice from the professional advisory team, ATAGI.

 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“Tonight we have received advice from ATAGI in the last 15 minutes and we thought it was important that we came and briefed you on that this evening…”

 

RICK:

Now, the outcome of that decision making was beamed to the nation at an evening press conference.

 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison: 

“It's not been our practice to jump at shadows, it has not been our practice to take unnecessary precautions, we’ve been taking the necessary precautions …”

 

RICK:

And that really created a sense of, kind of, panic and fear about, you know, ‘oh, maybe this vaccine is going to hurt us’. Ever since that moment, we've had a hungry media. The media are not blameless in this. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #1: 

“Fresh vaccine concerns with three more blood clot cases”

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #2:

“Three Victorians are among six new cases of rare blood clots linked to the AstraZeneca vaccine”

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #3:

“Following the national recommendation for under 50s to get the Pfizer jab GP’s say some patients have cancelled appointments..”

 

RICK:

You see these stories about another blood clot case,whether or not it's been confirmed by the Therapeutic Goods Administration or not. And it gets reported, you know, as leading news. Which, again, kind of builds into this narrative that perhaps the AstraZeneca vaccine is somehow insufficient or unsafe, which is not the case at all.

 

And so this hesitancy has just been creeping in and creeping in. And to be perfectly honest, the government hasn't really done anything about countering that message at all and underlying all of this really is this lack of urgency from the government. 

 

I spoke to a bunch of experts for this piece in *The Saturday Paper*, and they have delivered varying degrees of criticism and some of them have tried to be kind where they can. 

 

But without fail, the one thing they all agreed on was that the coalition should never have centralised control of this vaccination rollout. 

 

RUBY:

Right, can you tell me more about that Rick? What has the impact been of the federal government centralising control of the rollout? 

 

Archival Tape -- Darren Saunders:

“It's multiple failures at multiple levels if you like, and it all kind of adds up to the situation we find ourselves in I think.”

 

RICK:

I was talking to the University of Sydney, adjunct associate professor in medical science Darren Saunders. And he told me that there have been multiple values at multiple levels of this strategy. But even without being too cynical, he said, it is hard to separate some sort of political decision making going on in the whole process. 

 

Archival Tape -- Darren Saunders:

“And I think it's pretty clear that the federal government had placed a pretty big stake in using the vaccine and the success of the vaccine rollout as a platform for re-election, I think.” 

 

RICK:

In fact, the people I spoke to were exasperated. They said, ‘why on earth would the Commonwealth upend decades of vaccine convention by hoarding this control over the rollout?’ When in previous years, for example, you know, with the influenza vaccination strategy, that's the opposite of what's done. 

 

Previously, you know, with a flu vaccine, for example, the states and territories are the ones that know who their populations are. They even work with their own GPs who are resident in those states or territories, and they know who's vaccinated and who's not. This time around. They've got no line of sight on that whatsoever. 

 

They're vaccinating who they can. And in the Commonwealth, you know, drip feeding information, saying ‘no, no, we're doing the vaccinations for the ones we said we would’. 

 

But they kind of realised halfway through that that wasn't going to work for them so well. 

And then that's when the states stepped in: because they had to. And that's kind of what we're seeing now. The states have been left with no choice but to pick up the slack, even though they were kind of cut out from the decision making process from the very beginning. 

 

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment.

 

[ADVERTISEMENT]

 

RUBY:

Rick, the federal government’s original intention was for GPs to be solely responsible for the rollout of the vaccine, but the states have started establishing vaccine hubs to kind of turbocharge the process now. So how is it going? What is it like on the ground, particularly in Victoria, where things really are urgent?

 

RICK:

So in the last couple of days, there's been enormous demand on the hubs in Victoria. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Civilian #1: 

“I'm at the exhibition buildings in Melbourne, waiting in a long queue to have a vaccination...”

 

RICK:

And there have been some really, you know, early teething problems with the demand; you know, hotlines not not working, people getting mixed messages about when and where they should go. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Civilian #1: 

“You ring a local medical clinic or two and they say ‘we haven't got any, we don't know when it's coming in.’ And then another one we did try and they were booked out until mid-June, I think, so …”

 

RICK:

So, you know, people at the vaccination hub at Melbourne's exhibition centres, you know, lamented confusing messaging and slow supply of doses. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Civilian #2: 

“This is a debacle! absolute debacle!”

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Civilian #3: 

“Scott’s a marketing man, everything is all gloss, froth and bubbles.”

 

RICK:

And a lot of anger and frustration was directed squarely at the federal government for not rolling out the vaccine fast enough, other people at these vaccination have brought up the very specific difficulties that priority groups and frontline workers have had in getting vaccinated, 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Civilian #4:

“Why are the aged care workers not vaccinated already? That's the thing that I can't get my head around, given the shitstorm that it was in Victoria last year. That’s the bit I can’t comprehend.”

 

RICK:

Remembering that these were the groups the Commonwealth said on January 7 would be done first, these are people, frontline health workers, border and quarantine officials, aged and disability care residents, plus staff. And we're still not finished. 

 

RUBY:

Mmm. I think there is a lot of - understandable - shock that many aged care workers and residents as well, aren’t fully vaccinated. So what do we know about why that is? What is going on in aged care? 

 

RICK:

Well, remembering that we had two cases on Monday, last Monday in Victoria, and then it doubled to four and then to 10. When it got to 10, there were still 29 aged care facilities, nursing homes in Victoria that had not received a single dose of the Covid-19 vaccine.

 

Nationally, there were about 100 last Wednesday that hadn't received a single dose. It's even worse in what we call ‘residential accommodation’ for people with disabilities. So these are people who live in kind of congregate care settings or group homes, as they call them. And these were you know, these are people with intellectual disabilities who were shown in the United States, in reporting there, to have the second highest death rate behind the elderly because of the Covid-19.

 

These are people with underlying medical conditions as well as had disabilities with immunosuppression conditions.

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #1: 

“Melbourne’s Covid outbreak has taken a worrying turn with an aged care worker one of five new cases.” 


 

RICK:

And then we've got this virus, you know, a particularly virulent strain of it back out in the community. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #2: 

“Health authorities are now doing everything they can to prevent the spread of the virus, the centre is in lockdown, all residents have been confined...”

 

RICK:

It's faster in transmission. It's potentially more dangerous. It's very alarming. And then suddenly the Commonwealth, again, are playing catch up. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #2: 

“We know that just half of the residents have had their first dose of a Covid vaccination and just a third of staff...”

 

RICK:

And the thing that really shocked me looking into this story was, you know, there are tenders that the government have extended for the vaccination of aged care staff. So these are they're asking they're going to pay aged care providers to vaccinate their own staff. But those tenders have been extended until June 30. There are other tenders for general vaccination of Covid-19 to private contractors that were extended until May 7. And when I spoke to the Department of Health about this, they said, ‘oh, yeah, well, no, we haven't selected any tenders yet, we're still evaluating them’; like June 30? We've just done such a poor job of this. 

 

RUBY:

So, Rick, where does all of this leave us, because we've seen the real world consequences of the slow rollout in Victoria. The state is now back in lockdown and state governments are ramping up what they can control. But so much of this does still rely on the federal government. So do you think there is a renewed sense of urgency around this? Do you think the rollout will be restructured? 

 

RICK:

Well, it has been already and it will be again, you know there's been a bit of a kind of kick up the backside, I guess, not just for the governments, but for people who were a little bit hesitant about these vaccines.

 

So the government now they've been stepping through I think they were getting about 350 or 400,000 doses of Pfizer a week and that one million doses of AstraZeneca a week into the country, that will step up significantly in the next quarter of the year. 

 

We are like we are a, you know, a year and a half, almost, almost exactly into this pandemic. We will be two before Australia gets vaccinated fully. And we had a run up, we had a run up and we squandered it. And there are no guarantees. There have never been any guarantees with this thing. And closing the international border, we know has never been enough. You know, it polls well, sure. But it's not enough to stop these leaks from quarantine, which is another issue the federal government has failed pretty dismally on, to be quite honest. And those twin issues, which are, you know, if there was leadership in this space, they would have been sorted out a year ago, like we would have been in a better position on both fronts. And we're not. 

 

And, you know, there was already one person in a hospital on a ventilator in intensive care last week who was old enough to be vaccinated and for whatever reason was not. And, you know, if this thing continues to spiral out of control, you know, these are real world consequences. 

 

RUBY:

Rick, thank you so much for your time. 

 

RICK:

Thank you so much. 

 

[Theme Music Starts]

 

RUBY:

Also in the news today:

 

Victoria recorded 11 new Covid-19 cases yesterday, as the number of active cases in the state climbed above 50. 

 

Three of those new cases are linked to the Arcare Maidstone aged care facility, including a 99-year-old resident who is being transferred to hospital.  

 

Four aged care facilities in the state are now in lockdown.

 

Victoria’s acting premier James Merlino has said that the outbreak ‘may get worse before it gets better’, and signalled that the state's lockdown could be extended.

 

And former Attorney-General Christian Porter has decided to discontinue his defamation action after reaching a settlement with the ABC.

 

All parties have agreed to not pursue the matter any further and no damages will be paid, though it’s been reported the ABC will contribute to Porter’s legal costs.

 

In a statement released yesterday, the ABC said that it ‘stands by the importance of the article, which reported on matters of significant public interest’.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See ya tomorrow.

 

[Theme Music Ends]

 

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