The Politics    Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Doses of nope

By Rachel Withers

Image of Health Minister Greg Hunt. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Image

Health Minister Greg Hunt. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Image

When it came to vaccine procurement, was Greg really in the hunt?

Perceptions of the federal government’s vaccine procurement and rollout are set to go from fairly bad to absolutely terrible, amid confirmation that Australia really was at “the front of the queue” for vaccines, but that the health minister failed to step up. Nine and News have revealed that Pfizer approached Australia seeking a meeting with Greg Hunt, but was offered one with a health department first assistant secretary instead. Emails from June and July 2020 show the company was eager to meet with the minister “at the earliest opportunity”, urging the government to sign a deal ASAP so that “millions” of doses could be supplied in 2020. Hunt’s office didn’t meet with Pfizer until August 4 – with the government ultimately signing a deal for just 10 million doses in November, before later scrambling for more. The FOI-released documents seem to confirm what reports have been saying for months about the government’s botched negotiations with Pfizer – reports the government has repeatedly denied, implying there was nothing it could have done better. The reminder – that we could have had way more doses of Pfizer sooner – makes the government’s non-stop chirping of “doses of hope”, every time it secures some other country’s soon-to-expire-stock, all the more laughable, and the ongoing dispute over the redistribution of vaccines to NSW becomes all the more bleak. Australians wouldn’t have been fighting over who should get more of the desperately needed doses if the government – and specifically Greg Hunt – had bothered to do its job.

It’s not yet clear how damaging this news will be for Hunt, but much of it will come down to how it is played by the Opposition, which has already had some success in going after the Coalition on its vaccine procurement failures, especially since the impacts are being felt by most of the population. Labor has jumped on the reports with a non-stop stream of quips on Twitter, including from Kevin Rudd, whose smug “so there you have it folks!” seemed a subtle call back to his previous involvement in embarrassing Hunt. The health minister, keen to paint this revelation as a Labor beat-up, quickly released a statement hitting back at the “ALP claim” (despite the documents having been obtained and reported on by media outlets). “The ALP claim is false and has been refuted with facts on multiple occasions by multiple parties,” he wrote, adding that the “millions” of doses referenced in the email referred to Pfizer’s global capacity, not Australia’s offer – as if this in any way limits his culpability in failing to secure any of it with any urgency.

Hunt’s strategy here – the one he ran with through his PR war with Rudd, claiming that whatever he was being accused of had been denied by all parties – is unlikely to make much difference now that Australians are able to see the correspondence for themselves. And, unfortunately for Hunt, there’s no shortage of anger already out there regarding the rollout this week, especially in light of perceptions – true or not – that the federal government secretly gave additional Pfizer to NSW. (Politicians and data journalists continue fighting over this claim, with outlets from the Herald Sun to Guardian Australia offering up different interpretations of the opaque figures; but the impression of secrecy and favouritism has stuck.)

It also depends, of course, on how the prime minister chooses to treat his health minister, and whether he decides to cut him loose to save his own skin. That’s not an altogether unlikely proposition, with the PMO having previously appeared to leak against Hunt in a niche publication, apparently in order to cast the PM as the hero of the rollout. Such a move would be a cheap one: the entire federal government bears culpability for the vaccine rollout, for its failure to prioritise it, for its failure to vaccinate the vulnerable groups it was in charge of, and for the ill-conceived decision to declare, over and over, that it was “not a race”. These decisions have collectively sent more than half the population into avoidable lockdowns.

But it was Hunt, as is now abundantly clear, who failed to take up offers, despite being directly contacted by the maker of what has become our preferred vaccine. And it is Hunt who will ultimately have to pay the price for the botched rollout that has long demanded a scalp. Health ministers have resigned during this pandemic over far less, and Australians –  locked down, exasperated, struggling and dying – deserve far better.

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers


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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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