scott morrison vaccine
Scott Morrison at AstraZeneca laboratories (Image: AAP/Lisa Maree Williams)

While the prime minister’s office diligently beavered away on a media release about a “deal’ to “secure” a COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday, 12 more elderly Australians, all aged care residents in Victoria, were dying from the virus. They now join 245 aged care fatalities in Victoria.

Their ranks will be added to today and in the days ahead, with nearly 1300 aged care residents in that state ill, and more likely to be infected. And 99.6% of them are in facilities funded and regulated by the federal government.

Not that that means the federal government holds any responsibility in relation to the circumstances of their infection or deaths. Yesterday, Scott Morrison explicitly rejected that, saying “we regulate aged care, but when there is a public health pandemic, then public health, which, whether it gets into aged care, shopping centres, schools or anywhere else, then they are things that are matters for Victoria.”

It’s barely six weeks since Morrison’s bespoke aged care regulator, contradicting the Department of Health, was telling Victorian nursing homes not to worry if staff worked at multiple facilities — just keep a record of where they work.

It’s only a fortnight ago that his top health bureaucrat, Brendan Murphy, refused to tell people which facilities had outbreaks, because it might embarrass the owners, or which facilities didn’t comply with infection control guidelines.

As the death toll from the aged care outbreaks has mounted, the government’s response has been to distance itself, to obfuscate, to shift blame, along with a belated, half-baked apology for when “expectations are not met”.

Its new regulator has manifestly failed to protect Victorian nursing home residents from infection and death through a light-touch approach to regulation of for-profit aged care providers that — given a royal commission into the sector was announced just under two years ago — the government knew perfectly well were a key source of neglect and abuse of the seniors placed in their care.

Far from being unforeseeable, the unfolding disaster in aged care is the single most predictable aspect of the pandemic.

Much greater diligence has been devoted by Morrison and his staff to spin and marketing, like yesterday’s “deal” that would “secure” a vaccine, to be manufactured here.

There’s no “deal”. There’s not even an “agreement” on things like cost or distribution. It was a “letter of intent”, which in government-speak ranks somewhere between an expression of interest and a draft heads of agreement. The company with which the “deal” had been struck described it merely as a first step. The company that would manufacture the vaccine can’t even confirm it has the capacity to make it. That didn’t stop Morrison describing yesterday as a “day of hope”.

Much of the media fell for it completely. They bought the “deal” lie; Nine claimed there’d be a vaccine by Christmas. News Corp claimed Morrison had already secured 25 million vaccine doses and “getting vaccinated will be as easy as going to their local pharmacy”. Sky News’ Peter Switzer, cheering that “ScoMo gets COVID-19 vaccine for all Aussies!”, claimed it was “not only a lifesaving coup, it’s a job, business and economy-saving masterstroke.”

Among the worst was ABC News, adding to its growing reputation as an outlet that prefers to avoid making the Coalition unhappy. It too lauded the “major international deal” and even claimed it was superior to a UK deal with the same company. It was only 24 hours later that a journalist at ABC News applied proper scepticism to the announcement, after ABC TV news bulletins ran the story uncritically last night.

Surely the media should know better after the bushfire relief funding that hadn’t been paid out months later, the (limited) arts relief funding that still hasn’t been paid, or the aged care assistance that hasn’t reached the sector. The government has form in living up to the #scottyfrommarketing description.

One longs for the effort devoted to spin and conning gullible journalists to be redirected toward actual solutions to the aged care crisis. The problems in aged care go a long way back, predating even Morrison’s entry into parliament let alone his becoming leader.

There’s plenty of blame to go round and the solutions, especially relating to the aged care workforce, are long-term.

But there’ll never be any progress while the prime minister is obsessed with marketing rather than dealing with complex issues that, whether he accepts it or not, are his responsibility.

Peter Fray

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