The Politics    Wednesday, May 19, 2021

‘No rush’

By Rachel Withers

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Image via ABC News

Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Image via ABC News

People are in no rush to get the vaccine, and the PM is in no rush to fix that

The government that bungled the vaccine rollout and then made it worse through an unnecessarily dramatic, late-night announcement about blood clots might now be hurting take-up even further by failing to communicate the advantages of getting the jab, and by refusing to commit to an international reopening timeline. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has spent the day fielding questions about a concerning new poll from Nine Media, showing 29 per cent of respondents said they are unlikely to get a jab in the months ahead – many driven by fears of side effects, but a decent portion because there is “no rush” amid low case numbers and closed borders. Morrison is “not overly troubled” by the results, as he told a sympathetic Ray Hadley on 2GB, with “plenty of time to have the chat” with those who are hesitant. It’s not clear what he means by “the chat”, though it’s worth noting that the government has already had “plenty of time” to arrange some kind of vaccine marketing campaign. But Morrison, like the survey respondents, is in no rush. Australia now faces a paradox: we can’t open the borders (or even talk about opening the borders, apparently) until a critical mass is vaccinated, but many are taking a leisurely approach to getting vaccinated since there is no reopening date on the agenda.

The federal government, so fond of claiming this critical task is “not a race”, would have us believe the latest round of concerning rollout data is not an issue. Morrison has continued his political pivot towards convincing Australians they are safer with a closed border, telling a press conference this morning that it won’t be safe to reopen “for some time”. For some time, indeed: new projections from the Blueprint ­Institute show that the current rate of vaccination needs to be dramatically sped up if Australia is to meet even its vague, unambitious end-of-year targets, with the border reopening likely to be pushed out well beyond mid 2022. At the current rate, it will be late next year before five out of six adults are fully vaccinated. (In one frustrating anecdote, a nurse at one of Victoria’s mass vaccination hubs administered just one vaccine in eight hours.) Health Minister Greg Hunt gave his usual sell on the latest “record” vaccination numbers, noting the nation is now at 3.278 million total doses. But how many Australians are fully vaccinated? That number could be as low as 400,000, with Australia one of the only countries that does not regularly reveal how many people have had both doses – a lack of transparency that experts have labelled “embarrassing”.

The prime minister may not be “overly troubled” by the data on vaccine hesitancy, but experts certainly are. The latest polling has seen increased calls for a proper public health campaign, something Australia still does not have, unlike many nations around the world (New Zealand’s is especially heartwarming). Deakin University epidemiologist Catherine Bennett told The New Daily that Australians are not receiving adequate messaging around the vaccine, especially with the government having spent months arguing there was no urgency, while public health adviser Bill Bowtell, who was involved in the HIV campaigns of the 1980s, has called for a vaccine campaign to be fronted by high-profile Australians and tailored specifically to the most hesitant groups. (Let us hope there are no milkshakes involved.) The Opposition’s early education spokesperson, Amanda Rishworth, has joined calls for a campaign to combat misinformation, as did ABC Melbourne’s Virginia Trioli. ABC hosts appear to be doing more to take this on than the federal government, with both News Breakfast’s Michael Rowland and Coronacast’s Norman Swan calling for suggestions for campaign taglines on Twitter. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the woman who successfully led communications on the HIV campaigns in the ’80s is now the ABC chair.

But Nine’s survey results would imply that the problem is about more than just the lack of a campaign. The federal government appears to be doing active damage to vaccine take-up with its new political strategy of pushing the border reopening as far into the future (and past the next federal election) as possible. The Australian Medical Association, which yesterday joined calls for a reopening timeline, says a deadline would give people a reason to get vaccinated, with the peak body’s president, Dr Omar Khorshid, telling Guardian Australia that there are “an awful lot of people who don’t feel threatened by the virus [and] don’t see any direct benefit from a vaccine”. As the nurse who administered only one dose in eight hours said, “it’s concerning that Australia seems to take this attitude of, ‘let’s just shut the borders for as long as possible’ while there is vaccine just sitting there”. Professor Bennett agrees, calling for leaders to create a sense of urgency.

The prime minister who wanted international travel back on the agenda ASAP, until he realised it would suit his electoral prospects better to keep us all within our border, is playing some dangerous games with public safety here. First, he made Australians unnecessarily afraid of the vaccine, with a dramatic announcement that has created lasting doubts over the vaccine recommended for older Australians. Now, he is making them dangerously complacent about the need to get vaccinated at all.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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