The Politics    Thursday, July 29, 2021

The ghost of Christmas past

By Rachel Withers

Image of Scott Morrison in a Santa hat
Morrison’s attempts at good tidings are little comfort to those who might be in lockdown until the end of the year

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has returned to making specific vaccine target pledges, telling media outlets this morning that he expects everyone who wants a COVID-19 jab to be vaccinated by Christmas, with lockdowns to become “a thing of the past”. It comes as NSW registered a new daily record of 239 cases and two more deaths, while analysts warn that the Sydney lockdown may last until Christmas without an increase in compliance. Morrison first began hammering the “Christmas” promise in yesterday’s announcement about alterations to the disaster payment, during which he mentioned the holiday several times. “I would expect by Christmas that we would be seeing a very different Australia to what we are seeing now,” he said. “That gets us a roadmap to Christmas.” And this morning Morrison’s good tidings continued. Asked on Today whether everyone who wanted a vaccine would be offered one by Christmas, the PM said he believed they would, adding that the government was making up “a lot of ground”. When it was put to him on ABC’s AM that he was sounding “pretty confident” about that deadline, Morrison softened his response, saying that it was “barring any unforeseen circumstances” (not as though we’ve had any of those lately). He repeated the claim on 3AW, but added that there was no guarantee Australia would reopen by then, with national cabinet due to meet tomorrow to look at the highly anticipated Doherty Institute modelling on reopening targets (though no agreement is expected to be reached at tomorrow’s meeting). The new pledge comes almost four months after Morrison abandoned a similar target, saying his government would no longer be setting such benchmarks for the rollout, though the vague “end of year” line has continued to be trotted out since then. But the ghost of a previous Christmas promise hangs over this new one: the federal government spent the end of 2020 promising to get all Australians who wanted it to be home by Christmas last year. It’s a target the Morrison government well and truly missed, with recent figures showing tens of thousands remain stranded overseas.

Morrison clearly needs a date to hang some hope on, and he’s again decided that Yuletide is it. The government has for some time been clinging to the idea that we will all have received one dose “by the end of the year”, even as the vaccine rollout went off the rails, but it’s in the past 24 hours that our Christian PM has begun referencing the holiday commemorating the birth of Christ. It’s not exactly a reassuring deadline, with Morrison having missed his last Christmas pledge by such a shocking margin. Some of the reasons Australians have been returning home at a slower rate than expected would appear to be beyond Morrison’s control, with states having put their collective foot down to halve hotel quarantine caps. But the failure to build purpose-built quarantine facilities is all on the PM. What’s more, it will be little comfort to those caught in Sydney’s very serious outbreak that things will be different by the end of the year – especially when they may not be out of lockdown until then anyway. That University of Sydney modelling found that only 60 per cent of Sydneysiders are fully adhering to social distancing and movement restrictions, suggesting that a month at 80 per cent compliance is required to control the current outbreak. That’s not to mention the fact that “Christmas” is usually used at this time of year to imply something is far away: “At this rate, we’ll be here till Christmas.”

And at this rate, where will we actually be by Christmas? Morrison insists that the rollout is currently “making up a lot of ground”, but it’s still devastatingly behind, with only 14.1 per cent of Australians fully vaccinated (that number, shockingly, is still less than 40 per cent for over-70s in NSW, as we learnt today). There should be enough supply, based on current delivery projections, for all Australians who want a vaccine to receive one by the end of the year. But it would require a massive step up in logistics – something that hasn’t exactly been this government’s strong suit. It’s fortunate the states will be heavily involved in the end-of-year “sprint”, since the federal government is truly terrible at vaccinating the cohorts it is responsible for: after failing to vaccinate residential aged-care workers in the first six weeks of the rollout, as planned, the government is now at risk of missing the mid September deadline it recently mandated for that cohort, with thousands likely to miss out

Morrison may have failed at getting all Aussies home by the end of 2020, but can he get them all vaccinated by the end of 2021? It might require a Christmas miracle, but then again he has always believed in those. Today was another record day for NSW case numbers, but it was also another record day for vaccinations, as every day seems to have been since those Pfizer doses finally started arriving in greater quantities. The vaccines, we have been told all year, are coming. But so is Christmas.

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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