States of disarray
Premiers have distanced themselves from the PM’s AstraZeneca call, but one state has taken its criticisms too far
Things have grown even murkier in the wake of the prime minister’s unforeseen announcement on opening AstraZeneca to under-40s, as states push back against the change, which looks more and more like the result of a slip-up. In today’s stream of press conferences, premiers distanced themselves from Scott Morrison’s apparent captain’s call, each confirming that the decision had not come out of national cabinet, and that Pfizer was still the preferred vaccine for under-60s as per the medical advice. But the premiers’ positions on young people having the AstraZeneca vaccine if they wanted it varied from “Ask your GP what’s right for you” to “Do not, under any circumstances, get that jab”. Queensland went the furthest, with officials making it clear they did not want young people getting AstraZeneca at all, in a reckless, alarmist, fearmongering display that may have done more to undermine vaccine confidence than even the federal government’s bumbling comments. Health Minister Greg Hunt, a man who has done his fair share of damage to AstraZeneca confidence, did the media rounds on behalf of the PM, whom we have not heard from since Monday’s announcement. Hunt continued to tie himself in knots on Sunrise, standing by Morrison’s eligibility change while simultaneously standing by the medical advice, which has not changed. If it’s true that Morrison flubbed the line about AstraZeneca being open to “all ages”, you have to feel for Hunt, who is trying to protect the prime minister while also promoting the medical recommendations while not allowing this confounding error to contribute further to vaccine hesitancy.
There were no such qualms from the Queensland government, which came out first and hardest against the federal government, revealing that the state’s requests for more Pfizer had been denied, and suggesting that the PM had perhaps made the decision to open AstraZeneca eligibility to under-40s because mRNA supplies were running dry. Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk confirmed (repeatedly) that national cabinet had nothing to do with the AstraZeneca decision, and asked the PM to confirm where it had come from: “I’d like to ask the prime minister, did his cabinet make that decision?” Wouldn’t we all. But Palaszczuk and her team went even further, making it clear they did not want under-40s getting AstraZeneca at all, and talking up the risks to a dangerous level. Deputy Premier Steven Miles said the state-run hubs would not be providing AstraZeneca to under-40s, accusing the PM of putting people at risk, while Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young said they did not want under-40s getting AstraZeneca, pointing to the 49 deaths in the UK. “I don’t want an 18-year-old in Queensland dying from a clotting illness who, if they got COVID, probably wouldn’t die,” she said. “Wouldn’t it be terrible [if] our first 18-year-old in Queensland who dies related to this pandemic, died because of the vaccine?” The fear-stoking comments have prompted immediate backlash, with former federal deputy chief medical officer Dr Nick Coatsworth tweeting that Young’s comments put her “at odds” with him, as he warned against being paternalistic about the very small AstraZeneca risks. The comments, aimed first and foremost at scoring political points against the federal government, may have gone too far in scaring not just young people but also the already apprehensive over-60s, for whom AstraZeneca is recommended. It’s a cohort that needs to get vaccinated if Australia is to get out of its precarious state any time soon, and they need to be vaccinated with what is currently widely available.
Other states took a more measured approach in criticising the federal government’s decision, pointing to the official health advice (which recommends Pfizer as the “preferred” vaccine for young people), but without harping on about the blood clots and death associated with AstraZeneca. NSW, Victoria and Western Australia all confirmed that they would not be administering AstraZeneca to under-60s at state-run clinics either, meaning that under-60s need to see a GP to access the jab and properly discuss the risks. But the premiers all took slightly different stances when asked whether young people should get the AstraZeneca vaccine. WA Premier Mark McGowan said “It shouldn’t happen”, according to the health advice, noting slyly that the Commonwealth “has taken a different approach”. Victorian Health Minister Martin Foley recommended that under-60s who wanted it “go and see your GP and have a discussion about whether it is right for you”. NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian was, unsurprisingly, the least pointed in her criticism of her federal colleges, and avoided answering whether she believed young people should be able to get the AstraZeneca vaccine, with her chief health officer noting the importance of personal choice.
The Australian Medical Association, which yesterday refused to back the changed eligibility after being blindsided by the news, softened its position somewhat today, perhaps to avoid contributing to any hesitancy. President Dr Omar Khorshid told ABC News Breakfast that “we don’t have a problem removing restrictions that the prime minister has done” and that it was okay for younger people to receive AstraZeneca, “as long as they understand the risks associated”. But he continued to critique the lack of communication, and again called for a proper public health campaign “to change the general feeling around our vaccine program”.
The states were eager to communicate to citizens that the advice from the Australian Technical and Advisory Group on Immunisation surrounding AstraZeneca has not changed, and that their stance is that the ATAGI preference for Pfizer should still be followed. But there was a different tone to Queensland’s attacks, with their eagerness to capitalise on Morrison’s perceived blunder, even at the risk of doing much greater damage to the vaccine rollout, over a decision that many young people have welcomed. Of course, if this was a mistake on the part of Morrison, the best way for him to have sorted it out and avoided states turning to scaremongering would be to admit he made a mistake. That wouldn’t have dented confidence in the vaccine, though it would of course have dented confidence in him.
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Things have grown even murkier in the wake of the prime minister’s unforeseen announcement on opening AstraZeneca to under-40s, as states push back against the change, which looks more and more like the result of a slip-up. In today’s stream of press conferences, premiers distanced themselves from Scott Morrison’s apparent captain’s call, each confirming that the decision had not come out of national cabinet, and that Pfizer was still the preferred vaccine for under-60s as per the medical advice. But the premiers’ positions on young people having the AstraZeneca vaccine if they wanted it varied from “Ask your GP what’s right for you” to “Do not, under any circumstances, get that jab”. Queensland went the furthest, with officials making it clear they did not want young people...
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