Thursday, June 17, 2021

Today by Rachel Withers

Another ‘challenge’
The government insists the latest vaccine setback isn’t a big deal

Image of Health Minister Greg Hunt. Image via ABC News

Health Minister Greg Hunt. Image via ABC News 

The vaccine rollout has hit yet another stumbling block – or a “challenge” as Health Minister Greg Hunt gently put it, insisting the rollout that has not been on schedule for some time is definitely still “on track”. Updated advice from the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) recommending that Australia’s only locally produced vaccine, AstraZeneca, should now only be given to those aged 60 and over (with an mRNA vaccine preferred for those aged 16 to 59) was accepted by the government and communicated in an afternoon press conference – one that, without the PM, felt somewhat calmer than the late-night April press conference announcing the earlier 50-plus advice. Hunt was keen to note that this was a highly cautious approach, but was most intent on emphasising that this would not throw off Australia’s already shambolic vaccine rollout. When asked if this was “disastrous” for the rollout, Hunt said this was merely a “challenge” that Australia could easily adapt to, and the government would immediately open access to Pfizer for 2.1 million people in the affected aged group (as if it wasn’t already near impossible for many Australians to access Pfizer, which is in painfully short supply). The news comes on a day containing several other bad news stories pertaining to the rollout: the man at the centre of Sydney’s latest outbreak was not vaccinated, despite being in his sixties and a frontline worker; the Victorian state government is reportedly exasperated by the lack of certainty surrounding supply, after the Commonwealth slashed the Victorian allocation back to pre-lockdown levels, upsetting the state’s timelines for second doses (which they were told not to save for); and Nine reports that people are already shopping around for vaccines outside their eligibility, further dragging out the rollout.

The government’s insistence that the latest AstraZeneca advice is not a big deal – “a relatively minor adjustment” – is laughable. Hunt’s use of figures regarding how many people the updated advice applies to (2.1 million) and how many Pfizer doses are on hand (2.3 million, supposedly) seems to ignore the fact that the new advice affects everyone under 60, with mRNA supplies already under strain and arriving at a very slow rate. (Hunt asked those in the 50–59 age range to “be patient”, but that request applies equally to everyone waiting for one of the scarce Pfizer doses.) The bulk of Australia’s Pfizer and Moderna doses are not expected to arrive until the end of the year, thanks to the government’s poor planning, and the latest advice means many more Australians will now spend many more months unvaccinated, risking outbreaks in the interim, and likely creating even more of a bottleneck when vaccines do arrive.

The changed advice will also no doubt contribute to vaccine hesitancy, which the government has been unwilling to properly address thus far. When asked what he planned to do about that, the minister for hesitancy handed over to General John James Frewen, head of what is apparently now known as “Operation COVID Shield”, who said the information campaign would be moving into new cohorts soon. When asked what would stop those over 60 waiting for Pifzer the way those over 50 already have been, Hunt insisted the advice had always been “please do not wait” (it hasn’t).

Unsurprisingly, the health minister spent much of today’s Question Time on his feet, as Labor fired question after question about the new advice, with a number of its MPs booted out by the speaker. Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese asked Acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack to acknowledge the government’s failure to secure a diverse supply of vaccines, which McCormack took instead as an opportunity to boast about the temporarily increased supplies to Victoria. Shadow health minister Mark Butler asked Hunt about the government’s failure to secure an early agreement with Pfizer, despite reports the company approached the Commonwealth 12 months ago, with Hunt insisting it had secured the “earliest possible availability of doses”. (And yet it was able to quickly secure 20 million more the last time ATAGI advice changed in April, prompting the question of why it hadn’t done so sooner.) Albanese tried to make the most of the final day of his acting adversary, asking McCormack why frontline workers, such as the man at the centre of the NSW outbreak, haven’t been fully vaccinated, which the acting PM failed to answer, calling only for people to get vaccinated – something that just got a lot harder. Labor’s attempt to suspend standing orders to debate a motion noting the government’s vaccine failures didn’t succeed, but Albanese at least managed to read out most of his complaint before he was gagged.

The prime minister wasn’t around for this latest debacle, but he appeared to pre-empt the advice in a morning interview with Sky News, from France. “You’ve just got to roll with the challenges that come your way,” Morrison said, referring to the delayed rollout. “The sprint later in the year will be very important,” he added, although it’s not clear if he knew, at that stage, just how important it would be, with Australia now even more reliant on those fourth-quarter doses. Unfortunately, this latest “challenge” may just mean another lockdown before then.

“The Commonwealth director of public prosecutions should reconsider the prosecution of Witness K before it’s too late.”

Human Rights Law Centre senior lawyer Kieran Pender says there is no public interest in prosecuting whistleblowers, as protesters gather outside parliament ahead of Witness K’s sentencing. Witness K has today pled guilty to a charge of conspiring to reveal classified information.

“On one side of this often counter-productive debate are the activists who naively seek to shut down, or rapidly phase out, many of our extractive industries and to demonise all fossil fuels.”

Labor’s resources spokesperson Madeleine King addresses a petroleum industry conference, pledging Labor support for the gas indsutry.

You and Q’s army?
The QAnon conspiracy theory, focused on a belief in the existence of a Satanic child sexual abuse ring, has been collecting followers worldwide. Here in Australia one of its adherents happens to be a long-time friend of Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

The latest unemployment rate, down from 5.5 per cent and now below pre-pandemic levels. Underemployment also declined to a seven-year low of 7.4 per cent.

“The Senate has passed a trio of government superannuation bills, including the Your Future Your Super – which will block most underperforming funds from recruiting new members and “staple” workers to one fund to prevent creation of duplicate accounts.”

The government has passed all three of its superannuation bills, after striking a deal with One Nation and Jacquie Lambie. Pauline Hanson’s proposed amendments to the concessional cap – which Labor claimed were aimed at enriching herself – were not moved, though two other One Nation amendments were accepted.

The list

My Name Is Gulpilil is his testament, ‘my story of my story’, and director Molly Reynolds opens with a quietly inspired shot of the Yolngu man today, in blue jeans and a cowboy hat, walking away from the camera down a dirt track… then turning to look back, and walking slowly towards the viewer again. Without words, it sets out the structure of the film we’re about to watch, its subject simultaneously moving forwards – towards his death, as he concedes (‘It’s like, I’m walking across the desert of country, until the time comes, for me’) – and backwards, to take in the totality of his life and work.”

“Australians arguably grew complacent, whether in the case of getting vaccinated when eligible or even checking in at venues to assist contract-tracing teams. And our hermit-kingdom complacency has been encouraged by an indolent federal government. It has learnt nothing and forgotten nothing of 2020. Communication lines are confused, especially vaccine advice. A case of ‘near enough is good enough’.”

“Portraying Black trauma on screen isn’t an easy feat, and Jenkins handles this masterfully by bearing witness – a necessary act of historical remembering. The Underground Railroad lands in the middle of the debate about so-called ‘trauma porn’. When Black people globally continue to be subjected to racial violence, there is a responsibility that comes with re-creating images that feel all too real for Black folk.”

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Monthly Today.



The Monthly Today

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce. Images via ABC News

Morrison’s mandate

Barnaby Joyce acknowledges that a net-zero target is cabinet’s call. But what exactly is their mandate?

Image of Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce in Question Time today. Image via ABC News

Rush hour

The Nationals have had far more than four hours to figure out their position on net zero

Composite image of NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet and Prime Minister Scott Morrison (images via ABC News)

Border farce

So much for the national plan

Image of Nationals deputy leader David Littleproud, leader Barnaby Joyce and leader in the Senate Bridget McKenzie, June 21, 2021. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Image

Fear and showboating

The Nationals are worried about a net-zero backlash of their own making

From the front page

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce. Images via ABC News

Morrison’s mandate

Barnaby Joyce acknowledges that a net-zero target is cabinet’s call. But what exactly is their mandate?

Image of ‘Scary Monsters’

‘Scary Monsters’ by Michelle de Kretser

Two satirical stories about fitting in, from the two-time Miles Franklin–winner

Image of Jeremy Strong as Kendall Roy in HBO’s Succession season 3. Photograph by David Russell/HBO

Ties that bind: ‘Succession’ season three

Jeremy Strong’s performance in the HBO drama’s third season is masterful

Image of a tampon and a sanitary pad viewed from above

A bloody shame: Paid period leave should be law

Australia’s workplace laws must better accommodate the reproductive body