(Image: Mitchell Squire/Private Media)

The innocuous-sounding phrase “it’s not a race” is having quite a time. After we started the week with the hapless Michael McCormack tangled up in it, yesterday it ensnared both the prime minister and his political crutch, health secretary Brendan Murphy.

Invited by Labor, in the face of a growing outbreak in Victoria, to repeat that “it’s not a race”, Scott Morrison immediately noted that it was Murphy who had first used the phrase. “I affirm his remarks”, said Morrison, insisting that it was simply a case of following expert advice.

Upstairs in Senate estimates, however, Murphy was busy distancing himself from the phrase. First he argued that he had only used the phrase in relation to approval of a vaccine in January, not the rollout itself. Approval of vaccines “was the context in which it was made”, Murphy said, and he hadn’t used the phrase since then.

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Except, that wasn’t correct, as Murphy later admitted. Here’s Murphy on March 10, responding to the question “so can we expect that before the CSL arrival kicks in that hopefully we will have given out more than that one million or 1.3 million?”

We are. This is not a race. We have no burning platform in Australia. We are taking it as quickly and carefully and safely as we can. We’re not like the US or the UK or most other countries in the world where they’ve got people in hospital dying. We can take our time, set up our systems, do it safely and carefully, we are expanding our rollout every day … so we’re not in any hurry to race this rollout. We want to do it safely and carefully…

But Murphy did acknowledge that “it’s not a very helpful phrase now because we’re going, we’re in action, we’re fired up and we’re doing it as quickly as possible”. So now, apparently, it is a race.

Morrison, McCormack and the rest of the ministry can now retire the phrase, with only the humiliation of Murphy as political damage.

Now that it officially is a race, though, it would be helpful if we knew how fast we were going. Yesterday the Department of Health struggled to provide figures for the number of vaccinated aged care workers. It turned out that around 32,000 aged care workers nationally have been fully vaccinated, or less than 10%, and around 8000 in Victoria.

Aged care staff, along with disability care staff, and aged and disability care residents, were supposed to be the top priority in the government’s only priority this year — rolling out the vaccination. Two months on from the government’s own deadline for vaccinating them, 90% of staff remain to be vaccinated fully. Until this week, the government wasn’t even requiring aged care facilities to maintain records of staff vaccinations.

The government insists the figures are far higher because aged care staff are arranging their own vaccinations through state-run mass vaccination centres — which amounts to the government claiming credit because people have given up relying on it to do the job it promised to do.

The Department of Health — never a star performer in the public service — has offered no explanation for why the top priority phase of the rollout has been such a debacle. Its officials showed up to estimates yesterday without even the most basic data about the rollout to aged care facilities. The useless aged care minister Richard Colbeck at one stage even refused to accept the Commonwealth was responsible for the vaccine rollout in aged care (despite the data from his own department being labelled “Commonwealth remit”). Morrison had to contradict his minister later and — unusually for Morrison — accept the Commonwealth was responsible.

In the Howard years, when a useless minister (one Tony Abbott) was at Health, the place was more or less run from Howard’s office to ensure politically sensitive issues were anticipated and managed. Scott Morrison, who arrived after that time, evidently never learnt that lesson.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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