The Politics    Friday, July 23, 2021

A dose of her own medicine

By Rachel Withers

Image of NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian. Image via ABC News

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian. Image via ABC News

Berejiklian’s request for more Pfizer is galling, but it’s in the national interest to grant it

There is a rather unfortunate clip of Gladys Berejiklian from June 4 that has resurfaced – unfortunate in light of the NSW premier’s request earlier today that other states redirect their Pfizer doses to prioritise south-west Sydney. It is among the worst of the many statements by the premier that have aged poorly. Speaking to radio hosts Kyle Sandilands and Jackie O, Berejiklian was asked about the idea that Victoria – at that point in a lockdown with both Kappa and Delta variants circulating – might want some of “our” doses. “No, they can’t,” she says. “The feds are giving them more anyway,” she adds petulantly, noting that Victoria was already slated to receive more AstraZeneca. (“Why does everyone look to us to save their own stupid decisions?” Sandilands asks. “I can’t comment on that,” Berejiklian sighs, as if she would very much like to.) The clip has been doing the rounds since the premier this morning declared a national emergency, along with 136 new cases, and made an appeal for more doses, which she will be repeating in this afternoon’s national cabinet meeting. The federal government has already given NSW more doses of both AstraZeneca and Pfizer (as other states were during previous outbreaks), but this is a request to redirect other states’ supplies to go specifically to the young essential workers of south-west Sydney, to try to stem the outbreak. The call for more doses caused an immediate explosion online as also-locked-down Victorians lashed out, suggesting the NSW government got themselves into this mess and are still yet to accept accountability. The request is a little galling, especially in light of all the “gold standard” gloating, and the criticism of other states’ early, preventative lockdowns. But the behaviour of the NSW government doesn’t change the fact that Sydney is in serious trouble: it needs the doses much more than other states – even those also in lockdown. Redirecting some extra doses to NSW is the right thing to do, but most importantly it’s in the national interest to do so.

Responses from other state and federal leaders have been mixed. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews was measured in his own lockdown press conference, agreeing that this was a national emergency and calling for a “ring of steel” around Sydney to protect the rest of the nation (saying he expected a “pretty frank” discussion about it in today’s national cabinet meeting). Andrews added that Victoria could only send contact-tracing support to Sydney once the virus had stopped leaking over the border. But when it came to the extra Pfizer doses, Andrews was cautious. He said he was not opposed to NSW receiving a greater allocation of doses, but would not have Victorian doses going to NSW “so they can be open while we are closed”. “We need to be very careful when having a discussion about who we prioritise,” he said. “The fact of the matter is, we don’t have enough vaccine for everyone, and the virus will go to the unvaccinated.”

In Canberra, the military head of the vaccination rollout, Lieutenant General John Frewen, appeared to reject the NSW plea, expressing concerns about reallocating doses. Appearing before the Senate select committee on COVID-19, Frewen said the government was looking at ways to provide additional support to the area, but that the rollout must “continue at speed across the nation”. Frewen added that vaccines were allocated to states and territories on a “per capita basis”, with no reserve of Pfizer to give to NSW, and that any reallocation of Pfizer “will require the concurrence of other jurisdictions”.

The prime minister, meanwhile, is in an awkward spot, having recently upset other states with his needless NSW favouritism, and now unable to justify helping Sydney with extra doses. It will be on the states to choose to help (hence Berejiklian’s appeal to her fellow premiers). But they should do so.

Many of us who aren’t residents of NSW bristle at the suggestion that the state should have precious vaccine supply redirected to it to address an outbreak that is out of control because a lockdown was enforced there too late, and too lightly. It feels deeply unfair that Sydney should be “rewarded” for its folly, helped out of its mess with a limited resource, when other states have endured many more days of harsh snap lockdowns – at great cost to their economies and the mental health of their populations – to avoid such a situation. But the unfairness of the situation doesn’t change the risk – or the need. The chances of NSW Health getting on top of this terrifying outbreak are slipping, and people are getting sick and dying. Redirecting some of those vaccines may save lives. While Victoria and South Australia are also suffering through lockdowns, they still have a strong chance of ending them without casualties. But there is a moral imperative to do everything possible to help the people of Sydney, even if their premier wasn’t willing to do it for other states. It’s in all of our interests that this outbreak is controlled soon. Recriminations for the decisions that led NSW to this point can come later.

What happens if (or when) the Delta variant again leaks to other states, or if other outbreaks desperately spiral out of control? Surely then we should do the same again for the next set of people unlucky enough to be a national hotspot. The vaccine rollout should be agile enough to deal with this, to redirect doses when and where they are urgently needed. I don’t know how many extra doses would need to be redirected to Sydney or over what timeframe – that would be for the experts to figure out. But surely, with the long-awaited Pfizer “ramp-up” finally here, states without outbreaks (or with them mostly under control) can temporarily forgo some of their supplies to help their neighbours – and to protect themselves. We are all meant to be in this together. It sucks that there isn’t enough supply for everyone, and that’s on the federal government. But right now, we need to give it to the people who need it most.

Ideally, of course, this kind of diversion of supplies will never be needed again. In future, there needs to be a national agreement that, in the face of the Delta variant and until our population is widely vaccinated, lockdowns will not be the “last resort”, as Morrison only weeks ago insisted they should be. It needs to be an early intervention, with adequate federal financial support, which is still lacking. If other states are to bail NSW out, the NSW premier needs to own up to the fact that she got the strategy wrong here, maybe show some remorse for the way in which she sniped at other states, and promise not to do it again. (As Saturday Paper cartoonist Jon Kudelka tweeted, Victorians who endured a painfully long lockdown last year should be allowed one “I told you so” in exchange for first Pfizer doses they redirect to Sydney.) This should not, as Daniel Andrews suggested, be something that allows Sydney to open back up while Victoria stays locked down. NSW will still need to use harsh lockdown measures to get this under control. But there’s a chance that without this immediate support, that won’t even be possible at all.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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