(Image: Gorkie/Private Media)

To be clear: the AstraZeneca vaccine is orders of magnitude safer than the oral contraceptives that millions of Australian women take regularly, but the government is prepared to further delay its already disastrous vaccine rollout so that people under 50 don’t have to take it, sending Australia into a third year of COVID pandemic?

That’s the confused message delivered by Scott Morrison last night in the wake of other countries restricting the use of the AZ vaccine, on which Australia is relying heavily for its vaccination program — the government’s own figures show the AZ vaccine was supposed to cover two-thirds of our rollout.

That’s a direct consequence of the government deciding not to pursue supply agreements with alternative vaccine providers — something criticised as too risky by Labor at the time — and the relatively late arrival of the Novavax vaccine, which is not scheduled to be rolled out until the last quarter of the year. Already a debacle and millions of doses behind schedule, the rollout will now be recalibrated to reflect that — despite it only being a recommendation — no under-50s will be getting the AZ dose.

But how many over-50s will want the AZ vaccine now? The risk of blood clots is trivially small — but serious if it happens to you. Human beings are not, by nature, good at calculating comparative risk, and with other countries restricting AZ, the government had little choice but to do the same or risk a complete collapse in confidence.

However, the messaging is a mess. Morrison’s decision to invoke the oral contraceptive pill as a comparison was puzzling, at best, given the decision that came within a few hours. If contraceptives have dramatically — thousands of times — greater risk than the AZ vaccine but we’re limiting the latter, what is that saying about a product that millions of woman rely on?

It doesn’t help that Morrison was, the same day and in the same media conference, belatedly trying to recover ground on gender issues by releasing the government’s limited, and already much-criticised, response to sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins’ Respect@Work report.

Beyond the cack-handed messaging, the AZ decision has dramatic implications for both the health of Australians and the economy. While the US and the UK reopen in the months to come, Australia will remain locked up until 2022 as the government tries to recover from its decision to rely too heavily on the AZ vaccine. And the delays in the rollout will place senior Australians at greater risk — especially senior women, who make up 54% of over-70s and 58% of over-80s.

And the risk of sudden lockdowns, resulting from every breach of quarantine, will continue to exercise a deadening hand on the economy into next year. That will disproportionately affect female-dominated industries like retail and hospitality.

The pandemic has not been a one-size-fits-all disaster for Australians, and its prolongation will not be, either.