The government insists the latest vaccine setback isn’t a big deal
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.
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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...
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