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Morrison Government facing the consequences of vaccine rollout disaster

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

The current surge in COVID-19 cases in Melbourne is a result of the Morrison Government's mismanagement of the pandemic and vaccine rollout, writes Dr Jennifer Wilson.

ON THE ABC’s 7.30 last week, Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt revealed for the first time that out of a population of 25,693,059 (ABS 2020), a mere 500,000 of us have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

To repeat, only 500,000 Australians are currently fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

In January 2021, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that 4 million Australians would be vaccinated by the end of March. He did not specify if this was full vaccination or only the first shot, but he did undertake that there would be 80,000 injections each week from the middle of February. 

Difficulties in overseas supply have been cited as a reason for this massive failure to deliver, however, Minister Hunt made it clear on 4 March 2021 that these delays would not affect the vaccine rollout:

‘We are very clear that this does not affect the pace of the rollout. That shipment had not been factored in to our distribution, to the states and territories. And in fact, we received the first shipment of Astra Zeneca this week of 300,000 doses.’

The current Victorian lockdown, precipitated by an individual who became infected in Adelaide hotel quarantine travelling to Melbourne, has focused attention on the Morrison Government’s idle complacency with regard to both the vaccine procurement and rollout and the lack of quarantine facilities capable of dealing with aerosol transmission of the virus.

A great deal of confusion has arisen over what the Government has described as an individual’s “eligibility” to be vaccinated and when, with Astra Zeneca or Pfizer.

This eligibility confusion should never have happened. There should be no complicated categories of eligibility, evidence of Morrison’s failure to secure sufficient and varied supply. The Government has, through an entirely confected system of eligibility, made it complicated for people to access vaccines. This system is actually a blatant attempt to conceal the lack of availability caused by its own procurement failures.

These procurement failures have led to the perception of a two-tier system in which a vaccine perceived as more desirable (Pfizer) is restricted to a particular age group (with the exception of Morrison, who received Pfizer despite being ineligible). This, in turn, has led to the decision by some to wait until the more trusted vaccine – and one less associated with rare blood clots – is available later in the year. This concerning situation is now described by the Government and media as “vaccine hesitancy” when in reality it is a situation entirely constructed by the Morrison Government to obscure its own procurement failures.

All of this could have been avoided had the Prime Minister ordered sufficient Pfizer doses in the first place. The New Zealand Government ordered enough Pfizer to fully vaccinate their entire population and the U.S., UK, Canada and Singapore began widely using Pfizer in February.

Morrison chose not to take this option, creating a scarcity of the vaccine. This, in turn, has led to the need to privilege its distribution.  

To recap, in December 2020, the Prime Minister announced that he would not rush to order the Pfizer vaccine, even though the U.S. and UK had given it emergency approval:

‘Australia “has a front-row seat” observing the rollout in Britain and the United States and would learn from the overseas experiences, particularly through a data-sharing agreement with London, Morrison said.’

Morrison here admits he has the benefit of time (owing to our low infection rate) and the experience of other countries. He has squandered that benefit. Despite having every opportunity to secure sufficient vaccines, including the much-lauded sovereign Astra Zeneca supply, he has willfully failed to act with sufficient urgency.

It is arguable that had more of us been vaccinated, Victoria would currently not be entering this lockdown and an ongoing struggle against a highly infectious variant. It is unarguable that were safer quarantine facilities in place, the likelihood of new infections would be considerably reduced.

According to The BMJ, variants are spreading most rapidly in countries with a low vaccination rate. Shamefully, Australia is currently in this category with only 1.9 per cent of the population fully vaccinated.  

We are now in the dangerous situation of having a largely unvaccinated population, unstable quarantine arrangements and a likely influx of variants from returning overseas travellers. On social media, there are accounts of people unable to access vaccines because their GPs have insufficient doses and they are unable to travel to a vaccine hub.

There are reports of GPs withdrawing from the vaccination program in frustration at being unable to acquire sufficient doses, turning away hundreds of patients because of erratic supplies in the face of huge demand.

Add to this failure of supply the Prime Minister’s reluctance to address the dangers of aerosol transmission in quarantine hotels.

Federal Shadow Health Minister Mark Butler asked on Thursday:

“Given the Prime Minister’s refusal to implement a national quarantine system, why has he refused to implement strong standards on aerosol and ventilation to stop these outbreaks within hotel quarantine?”

Morrison gave the reply that is now standard when questioned, that he did not accept Butler’s assertions.

We are looking at terrible failures on the part of Morrison and his government, failures that make the entire country vulnerable to ongoing outbreaks of infection. We are also looking at a profound unwillingness on Morrison’s part to take responsibility both for those failures and the need to urgently address them as we face the introduction of highly infectious variants into a largely unvaccinated country.

Dr Jennifer Wilson is an IA columnist, a psychotherapist and an academic. You can follow Jennifer on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.

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