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Morrison’s vaccine rollout fail: Mates versus the states

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

Unlike other vaccine rollouts, the Morrison Government's COVID vaccine rollout hasn't been distributed by the states, but by Liberal-aligned private companies. Andrew P Street follows the money.

AT LEAST some people are winning from our vaccine not-a-race.

It’s no great shock that the COVID-19 vaccination rollout has been described as “an abject failure during the Disability Royal Commission. It has also been described as “a nightmare clusterfuck of incompetence and indifference”, by off-duty epidemiologists heading toward the bottom of their first bottle of the night.

According to the original timeline proposed by Health Minister Greg Hunt, Australia should be closing in on the majority of the nation receiving the vaccine, with the finish line set for October. That deadline now seems a little ambitious, not least because instead of every aged care resident and staffer being fully vaccinated by now the virus is spreading in Victorian aged care again and the nation’s largest city is on lockdown as a result.

But to be fair to the Morrison Government, they're not skilled in running vaccination programs. That’s because it’s a job for the states — except, oddly, this time.

Typically the Federal Government's involvement in such rollouts – the annual flu jab, for example – has been to secure the doses and then handball the actual jabbing to the state health departments, using the up to date data and massive infrastructure at their disposal.

For this rollout, however, the Morrison Government chose to follow a different path — choosing private companies who hadn't done this sort of thing before to liaise with GPs and aged care centres directly.

There are several reasons why the Morrison Government might have chosen to go private rather than let the state public health systems handle things. Most obviously, because "we directly saved your family from the bad sickness" is a very potent election campaign for a government with nothing much else going for it beyond rape allegations and transparent pork barrelling.

The other is the LNP's knee-jerk reflex when faced with public money that can be spent is to throw it to companies with political connections — whether it's buying inflated water rights tied to an MP's family company, or an unnecessary gas-fuelled power plant on land owned by a controversial Liberal donor. Isn't that right, failed Liberal candidate for Mayo, Georgina Downer, who somehow still awarded Yankalilla Bowling Club a taxpayer-funded grant for upgrades via a novelty cheque that weirdly had her face and the Liberal Party logo on it?

Anyway, let's look at some of the completely independent companies we're currently paying to run our COVID rollout.

The most prominent are Aspen Medical, Healthcare Australia (HCA), International SOS and Sonic Clinical Services — who were the four specifically contracted by the Morrison Government to handle the aged care rollout and disability care.

Aspen Medical has been in the headlines lately due to its jaw-dropping $1.2 billion in contracts - an initial contract for cleaning up aged care outbreaks at $15.6 million, and over $1.1 billion for medical supplies, followed by a $25 million contract for the aged care vaccination rollout in all states and territories bar Queensland and NSW. [- when it became clear that this rollout didn't apparently include staff — unless they had spare doses leftover and someone fancied a cheeky jab.

Crikey has also reported that Aspen recruited nurses from the public system when their own numbers ran short, despite the state health departments being able to assign them wherever needed without a recruiter taking a cut. So there's that too.

But before you worry too hard about the company's fortunes, rest assured that it has some high-powered lobbyists, including former board member and ex-Health Minister in the John Howard Ministry, Dr Michael Wooldridge. Reckon Aspen Medical will be fine.

Healthcare Australia has also had a few issues. That's the company that failed to screen its employees properly, with the result that one of its doctors ended up administering jabs to elderly patients in Queensland at four times the recommended dose.

Healthcare Australia also drew the ire of Hunt when it cancelled a bunch of planned vaccinations in regional NSW, as well as for booking jabs at short notice in aged care, which is a problem in aged care where often family members have to give consent — the result being massive gaps in the numbers of vaccinated residents.

SOS International, meanwhile, merely gives common or garden variety political donations to both the Labor and Liberal parties. How old school!

And Sonic Healthcare? We'll let Clay Lucas at the Sydney Morning Herald answer this one:

Sonic Healthcare gave $533,500 to the Liberal Party between 2011 and 2017, with $450,000 of the cash going directly to the federal branch, Australian Electoral Commission records show. Over the same period, it gave in-kind support of $55,000 to Labor… Sonic’s biggest cash donations went directly to the Federal Liberal Party in $200,000 payments in 2011 and 2012, and a final $50,000 payment in 2016. Smaller payments also went to the Queensland and Tasmanian branches in these years.

And that's not including the contracts handed out without tender to Resolve Strategic for emergency COVID-themed market research (the company of Jim Reed, the ex-Crosby Textor pollster, not the similarly-named singer/guitarist of The Jesus and Mary Chain). Or the $1.76 million paid for a mysterious consultation on welfare policy during the pandemic taken away from the public system and handed to Boston Consulting Group, former employer of former Human Services Minister and Four Corners episode star, Alan Tudge.

Incidentally, the entire rollout strategy was banged together mid-last year by external consultants — specifically, McKinsey & Company, who have already banked close to $3 million for their consultancy skills on that and a possible Australian vaccine manufacturing capacity. At around the same time as they were being employed for these juicy gigs, the Federal Liberal Party announced that former senior partner with McKinsey & Company, Charlie Taylor, would be its new federal treasurer.

And yes, it should be pointed out that it's not a huge shock that LNP-connected companies are getting sweet contracts. After all, Australia's business community and the Liberal Party generally draw from the same poisoned swamp. And sure, it’s a shame Melbourne’s in lockdown and the virus is feared to be spreading in aged care again — but at least the Morrison Government got to help out some mates along the way.

Heck, isn’t that what friends are for?

Andrew P Street is an Adelaide-based, Sydney-built journalist, author, editor and broadcaster and an Independent Australia columnist. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewPStreet.

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