(Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Scott Morrison, still hurting from his infamous prediction that 4 million Australians would be vaccinated by March (it happened in early August), continues to mislead Australians — but this time in the opposite sense. The increasingly unpopular PM continues to maintain that the Doherty Institute’s challenging 80% adult vaccination target will not be reached until 2022 while the phase B target (70% of adults) will happen by Christmas.

Morrison may be under-promising to allow himself to claim some sort of victory later in the year — the government’s vaccine pipeline and the Doherty roadmap both imply that Australia is likely to reach 80% of its eligible population vaccinated by mid-November).

But current rollout pace is understated because the vaccination rate is increasing daily and will increase even more in September. By then, Pfizer shipments will increase to 8 million a month. We’ll also be getting 1 million Moderna shots (on top of the rejuvenated AstraZeneca which is now available for 18+ in Victoria and NSW).

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Assuming demand doesn’t wane (and Sydney and Victoria’s seemingly never-ending lockdowns are taking care of that) total doses should hit 18 million by September 1, 28 million by October 1, and 32 million by mid-October. Even allowing for the delayed timing of second doses, the official 80% level should come around Melbourne Cup day, many months before Morrison’s overly conservative “70% by Christmas” claim.

Morrison’s misleading messaging leads to several potential problems.

First, within each phase there remains a huge level of discretion. This discretion requires a significant degree of political fortitude to make any significant changes. With Morrison priming voters to only reach the 70% target by late December, when in reality we will be there by September, won’t make this easier.

But phase B (the 70% target) is largely ceremonial, essentially resetting us back to where we were a month ago before Morrison was forced by Dan Andrews and Annastacia Palaszczuk to slash stranded Australians returning by 50% in return for a commitment to reduce lockdowns.

So forget about the totally irrelevant phase B and let’s jump to the more pertinent phase C.

Phase C (the 80% one) has a different set of problems. It notionally allows vaccinated Australians to be “exempt from domestic restrictions” while also permitting state premiers to continue to lock down at their leisure. Will vaccinated Australians actually be exempt from anything in phase C if the premiers make the lockdown rules? It feels like Morrison is hoping internal polling will force the premiers to abandon their COVID-zero fetish. While this is entirely possible given by that time given a significant majority of voters will be vaccinated and likely to be sick of harsh stay-at-home orders, there’s no certainty.

The final issue is that the (otherwise fairly sensible) Doherty roadmap didn’t address the critical phase D (perhaps driven by political convenience — Morrison claimed there were “too many unknowns”). The as-yet-unspecified phase D still has restrictions for travellers returning from high-risk countries; it is essentially the current policy settings in the UK (with its green/amber/red classifications). It’s slightly strange that this setting, which still is very restrictive for international travel couldn’t have been part of phase C (the UK opened at a lower vaccination rate than our phase C, albeit with far higher natural immunity).

Moreover, we don’t have any idea what the target for phase D even is. Is it 90% of adults? Is it 70% of the total population?

The logical target for phase D is “anyone who wants a jab has been offered one”. At that point, maintaining any restrictions because of anti-vaxxers (who don’t want any restrictions) or the ultra-hesitant simply makes almost no sense. CDC data from the US indicated that more than 99% of COVID deaths since May have been in unvaccinated people, so those who remain at risk have made that conscious choice.

Being reactive and poll-driven worked brilliantly for Morrison for his first two years. It may even work now, especially with Labor doubling down on “Fortress Australia”. But if Morrison did a “Boris” and laid down a genuine vaccination target, outlined the potential freedoms that would result and met that target, it may be his best chance to turn around his ailing fortunes.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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