Department of Health Secretary Dr Brendan Murphy and Minister for Health Greg Hunt (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

When in doubt, defer to authority — and by authority, I mean anyone with a “Dr” in front of their name. This has been a running theme of Australia’s response to COVID-19.

The benefit of relying on “the best medical advice” is that there is always an expert who will provide the required viewpoint. State premiers could usually rely on their chief medical officers; CMOs were routinely wheeled out to justify whatever decision the premiers believed would win them the next election. The Victorian government also relied on one or two of its favoured epidemiologists (like Tony Blakely or Nick Scott from the Burnet Institute).

Health Minister Greg Hunt and Prime Minister Scott Morrison are no strangers to blaming their awful decisions on medical advice. Yesterday, Hunt defended the government’s decision to only purchase three vaccines on expert advice. The health minister suggested that the federal government “followed the medical advice and we have followed the advice of Australia’s leading professionals and these include people such as the scientific and technical advisory group”.

The leading medical professionals Hunt referred to include Brendan Murphy (a kidney expert before becoming a hospital administrator), Alan Finkel (a brilliant millionaire who founded a technology company before becoming Australia’s chief scientist) and Larry Marshall (another superstar scientist who made millions inventing the “eye-safe” laser).

These are all exceptional people, but they are not vaccination experts or epidemiologists. In any event, their advice, if heeded, didn’t appear particularly insightful given Australia currently ranks 90th in global vaccinations — just ahead of Bangladesh.

Hunt, naturally, hasn’t released the advice provided by the expert panel, but it seems strange that they would suggest buying so few vaccines. And it’s less of a medical decision than it is an economic one: that is, how should Australia best allocate its resources?

Given how much the federal government has donated to various AFR Rich List members by way of an almost totally unregulated JobKeeper, it doesn’t take a Productivity Commission report to conclude that spending another couple of billion on vaccines is likely to be a higher ROI than lashing tens of billions on corporate welfare. Instead of tooling up an mRNA facility or ordering 25 million doses of Johnson & Johnson, Scotty and Josh effectively gave Solly Lew and Gerry Harvey a few hundred million for a new Gulfstream.

Researchers have estimated that Australia’s slower vaccine rollout means we are at risk of enduring 34 more days of lockdown. And, as the head of international relations in Israel’s health ministry Dr Asher Salmon noted back in January, the cost of the COVID-19 vaccine is “ridiculously low” in comparison to the economic damage brought on by lockdowns.

Sadly, it doesn’t appear that our experts understood the same maths.