Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine coronavirus
(Image: AP/Esteban Felix)

The Australian Government is caught in a war of words with the European Union about vaccine delivery amid rising frustration at home about our slow, messy rollout. Scott Morrison blames Europe for blocking shipments. Europe says it’s doing no such thing. Regardless of who’s right, the latest roadblock points to a problem that’s hindered our vaccine rollout from the very start. Since last year, the government has tried to project breezy optimism about the state of the rollout, often at the cost of providing crucial details to the Australian people, left sitting in the dark being fed bullshit.

August 2020: the deal that wasn’t

Prime Minister Scott Morrison triumphantly announces Australia’s vaccine “deal” with AstraZeneca. Within hours, however, the company points out the “deal” is actually a letter of intent, with many of the crucial details yet to be finalised. Other countries, like the United Kingdom, had signed similar letters of intent months earlier. 

The slow process

By the start of the year, it became apparent that Australia was taking longer to get its rollout under way than many comparable countries. The official line was that we were going slow to keep safe — since COVID-19 wasn’t running amok, the Therapeutic Goods Administration could consider vaccines slowly and not authorise for emergency use.

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But there was always a lag between TGA approval in late January and the first vaccines being distributed a month later. Labor had been criticising the lag between approval and vaccination since January, and Morrison’s response was to accuse them of putting Australians in danger.

Morrison also defended the comparatively slow rollout by falsely accusing the United Kingdom of cutting corners and not batch-testing its vaccines. By now, more than 30 million Britons have received at least one vaccine dose, and virus numbers have fallen dramatically. 

The shifting October end date

Once upon a time, the government was adamant Australians would be vaccinated by October. They’ve now all but abandoned that, saying they’d only ever committed to getting people their first dose by then. Given the AstraZeneca vaccine requires a 12-week gap, some people won’t be inoculated until January next year.

Part of the problem is that some of Health Minister Greg Hunt’s first announcements on the vaccine timeline were delivered via exclusive drop to the News Corp tabloids, which reported an October completion.

As late as March 9, Morrison was still saying Australia would be on track for full vaccination by October. Two days later, Health Secretary Brendan Murphy admitted that actually meant many would only have one dose by October. 

A day later, Morrison said he’d known for a month that full vaccination by October wasn’t possible, when he and Hunt had made it “very clear”. At the relevant press conference in February, Hun said there was “very, very good news” on the vaccine front, and suggested the government might have to remodel some things. Until Murphy’s estimates appearance, the government had plenty of opportunities to be real with the Australian public about what the October deadline meant, but never did. 

The European Problem 

Now, the European Union has emerged as the latest villain in the government’s vaccine drive. Yesterday, Scott Morrison blamed 3.1 million missing doses of AstraZeneca vaccine, which had been blocked by the EU. Overnight, the European Commission said they’d only ever blocked a request for 250,000 doses back in March. The government responded by accusing the Europeans of arguing semantics. AstraZeneca hasn’t requested approval to ship from the EU, fearing they’ll be blocked.

Still, the current jam is one the government has known about from the very start. Way back in January, the EU put in place the export controls that mean companies such as AstraZeneca must obtain their permission before shipping vaccines. Despite the obvious challenge this could mean for our rollout, Hunt continued to project confident optimism. And even when Europe blocked the shipment in March, Hunt insisted our rollout wouldn’t be affected.

Just a month later, the government has turned around and blamed Europe.

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Australia has spoken. We want more from the people in power and deserve a media that keeps them on their toes. And thank you, because it’s been made abundantly clear that at Crikey we’re on the right track.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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