The Politics    Thursday, May 20, 2021

The minister for hesitancy

By Rachel Withers

Image of Health Minister Greg Hunt

Health Minister Greg Hunt

The health minister stirs the pot on vaccine hesitancy

How to explain the health minister’s bafflingly unhelpful statement – encouraging vaccine hesitancy – at a press conference this morning? As concerned experts around the country urge older Australians not to delay getting vaccinated, as they call on the government to do something about such complacency, and warn that Australians are “sitting ducks”, Health Minister Greg Hunt gave permission to those choosing to wait for a vaccine other than AstraZeneca – which makes up the bulk of our supply, and is the only one we produce locally – to continue their wait. “We want to encourage everyone over 50 to be vaccinated as early as possible,” he said. “But we’ve been very clear that as supply increases later on in the year, there will be enough mRNA vaccines for every Australian.” In doing so, Hunt legitimised their uncertainty, and signalled to others they might want to wait too. He went directly against what experts are calling for, amid a concerted campaign by the Australian medical community to increase the sense of urgency. And he pushed young Australians further down the queue, holding up the rollout further and potentially letting perfectly good doses go to waste. There are two explanations for what he did: extreme incompetence or extreme malfeasance. After all, pushing back the reopening until next year, keeping Australia in pandemic mode and making it seem like it was slow boomers that stymied the rollout (rather than a slow government) all suits his government’s electoral chances.

Over the past weeks, the government’s COVID-19 strategy has shifted from one that was motivated – at least in part – by outcomes, by health and the economy (though often in the wrong order), to one that is entirely motivated by politics. We are now less than a year out from an election, with May 21, 2022 the latest it can be held, though it will surely be held much sooner. But with the cash-splashing budget having failed to deliver a boost in the polls, the Coalition has had to find a new way to secure its victory. It knows that incumbent governments have been favoured by pandemic conditions, and that polls show voters believe it is the party best placed to manage the pandemic. It also knows that governments that have taken hardline elimination approaches have been richly rewarded. And it wants a piece of the action, even if we’re now at a point where it’s time to start looking beyond our current reality.

The government that in 2020 wanted us to learn to “live with the virus” has become increasingly intent on keeping us stuck in, well, 2020. It enacted a controversial flight ban on India, arguing that it did so to keep Australians safe, even though it made many Australians – three of whom have now died – much less safe, all while refusing to consider substantially increasing quarantine options. It has pushed back against calls for a clearer border reopening timeline, knowing the majority of Australians feel safe in their bubble, rather than helping with the messaging that they’re going to have to give up that feeling eventually. It has talked up “safety”, and lamented last year’s tragic loss of life, slamming those who talk about opening back up as “insensitive”, as if it didn’t demand a reopening timeline from the Victorian government when people were still dying every day. It failed to address vaccine hesitancy, happy to keep rates (and expectations) low, to shift the blame for its own massive failures on supply, and to push the reopening question far off into the post-election future. And now it’s actively contributing to vaccine hesitancy, for reasons that look, increasingly, nakedly political.

For the second time in a week, the government that used “following the health advice” as an excuse for a draconian policy finds itself on the opposite side of the debate to the public health experts. As health minister, Hunt is doing serious damage to the health of the Australian community (though that shouldn’t be surprising: as environment minister, he did active damage to the environment), talking up health and safety while causing unhealthy and unsafe outcomes. If there is an outbreak over winter, while older Australians wait for the mRNA vaccines that aren’t arriving until the end of the year, any unnecessary lockdowns or deaths that result will be the fault of the federal government that encouraged complacency, that gave Australians no reason to rush and then gave them permission to wait, all to suit its election timeline.

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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