After its attempt to blame the states for its increasingly disastrous vaccine rollout backfired spectacularly last week, the federal government is now trying to shift the blame to a party whom it thinks is less likely to bother fighting back: Europe.
“The arithmetic is simple,” Nationals Deputy David Littleproud said over Easter break. “We are 3 million short at the moment. We were 3 million short by the EU. They cut us short.”
Littleproud was the designated attack poodle sent out last week to help the government’s effort to blame the states, only to end up getting humiliated by Queensland Deputy Premier Steven Miles.
But the Blame The
States Foreigners campaign doesn’t hold water. Or, if it does, it’s a remarkable admission of policy failure by the government.
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There was no surprise that the EU slapped export bans on vaccines. In fact, it was entirely predictable — and was predicted, by the government’s very own COVID quarantine expert, Jane “Crown Overboard” Halton, nearly a year ago. Warning of “vaccine nationalism”, Halton said “the urge for domestic priority, I think, will be very significant … At the moment, we’re all in it together. As soon as there is a vaccine, I fear that we … may not be quite all in this together as we have been”.
The deputy chief medical officer was specifically asked at the time about his response to Halton’s comments. Paul Kelly airily dismissed the concerns, saying he hoped it wouldn’t be a problem. Asked explicitly to “rule out a country developing it and it being hard for us, at least at the beginning, to have that available for Australians?”, Kelly replied that he couldn’t, but that “we’re lucky here in Australia that we do have a vaccine-making capability. We have fantastic vaccinologists and virologists and others working on this in terms of our academic institutions; the CSIRO, the University of Queensland, the Doherty Institute, and many others. So we may not win the race, but we’re part of the race, and we will be looking to develop a vaccine here in Australia”.
So the response of the government, fully aware of the threat of vaccine nationalism nearly a year ago, was its own nationalism — that we’ll develop and make our own. As we know now, that hope ended in December when the quest for an Australian vaccine was abandoned (it’s an interesting question of whether the government would have imposed export controls on an Australian-developed vaccine to avoid any political damage from being seen to vaccinate foreigners ahead of all of us).
Any policymaker with the slightest curiosity wouldn’t have needed Halton to warn of vaccine nationalism. European countries had already slapped export bans on PPE gear and drugs for treating COVID from March last year. What, precisely, did the government think was going to happen if a European country manufactured a vaccine there?
So for most of 2020, the government was fully cognisant of the issue of export bans on vaccines, and yet failed to incorporate the risk into its planning around its own vaccine rollout — even after December and the end of the vague “Aussie Aussie Aussie Oi Oi Oi” hope that we’d win the race to develop a vaccine. As Scott Morrison famously told us in September, we would be at the “top of the queue” for vaccines because of the brilliant deals being struck by the government — even when one deal turned out to be fiction.
Littleproud is now claiming that the government was taken by surprise by the actions of the Europeans, that it can’t be held accountable for the rollout debacle because the Europeans have unpredictably cut off the supply of vaccines, when the government itself was saying it had that problem covered 11 months ago.
At best, it’s a remarkable failure of policymaking — one that is now having dramatic consequences for the nation’s health and our economy. Was the government’s policy simply to pray we got an Australian vaccine up and make no contingency plans for being affected by a problem everyone knew about if we couldn’t?
Or is it just trying to distract from its own failures again?