Scott Morrison took over the national vaccine program with one eye on the election. His fingerprints on one could cost him the other.
When the original timetable for Australia’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout was announced it did two things.
One was that it set clear deadlines for the first and second jabs for the entire population, admirably giving priority to high-risk populations, and put Australia well on its way to full vaccine coverage before the end of 2021.
The other was that it telegraphed the Morrison government’s election strategy by ending with the final trench of vaccinees getting their second jab in October, which also just so happened to be the best time for Scott Morrison to hold an early federal election.
And it made sense: after all, why wouldn’t you call an election while able to reap the thanks of a grateful nation, optimistically glowing with promises of international travel and trade yet finally rendered safe from a devastating disease still wreaking havoc all over the world?
And why wouldn’t Morrison want voters to focus on how he saved them and their families from a horrible fate, rather than focussing on the rolling series of scandals (Watergate! Leppington Triangle purchase! Christian Porter! Brittany Higgins!) which have been the only other notable characteristic of his chaotic government?
And it all looked so good too! In September 2020 Health Minister Greg Hunt announced that Australia had “a place at the front of the queue” for vaccines, and doubled down in December by declaring that 2021 would see the back of the pandemic because “We expect that Australians will be fully vaccinated by the end of October.“
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Even so, the most baffling decision the federal government made was to decide to take full responsibility for the vaccine rollout themselves.
It’s easy to overlook how unprecedented this is. Literally every other vaccination program, from childhood immunisations to seasonal flu shots, the established pattern is that the federal government secures the supply of vaccine from the manufacturer and then distributes it to the states, who then circulate it through their health system.
And that makes sense. The states have the infrastructure to do that, from hospitals to public clinics to dealing with every GP practice. They have the up to date data on who is where and therefore know how many doses they’ll need. They have complete data on the practitioners that can administer said doses. They, in every sense, have got the goods.
Yet the federal government instead putting the various tranches of the vaccine rollout out to private tender instead of using the existing health departments.
At the very least, this dangerously slowed things down. Some tenders are still unfilled six months into the rollout. For example, as Rick Morton pointed out in his exhaustive piece in the Saturday Paper, the government quietly extended the tender for the “residential aged care providers” in mid-May, despite the 1a rollout supposedly going to have been completed by the end of that month.
That’s not to suggest that the government hasn’t signed up any private providers to do the job of state health departments, though. For example, Aspen Medical won a $1.2 billion contract to work in the Victorian aged care system last year – the same aged care system currently bracing for the return of COVID-19 cases to its vulnerable population.
And that John Howard-era federal Health Minister Dr Michael Wooldridge only just left his board position with Aspen and still works as a lobbyist for the company is probably immaterial, as is the thousands of dollars the company donated to the Liberal Party.
(Speaking of connections which are entirely irrelevant: the Morrison government’s vaccine rollout strategy itself had been put together last August by management consultants McKinsey & Company for $600k, who then got a bonus gig giving “professional advice on a business case for an onshore Covid-19 vaccine manufacturing capability” for $2.2 million in December. Fun unrelated fact: September 2020 the new Federal Treasurer of the Liberal Party of Australia was announced: one Charlie Taylor, former senior partner with McKinsey & Company. What a fun coincidence!)
That the federal government and their expensive private partners weren’t across the state-specific data was made horribly clear in mid-May during a special hearing of the disability royal commission. It was revealed that not only had the vaccine rollout for disabled Australians been quietly shelved without any announcement while the government attempted to plug holes in its still-incomplete aged care rollout but that officials didn’t even know how many residents there were in disability care.
Even so, the results for some of our most at-risk citizens were truly pathetic – none more so than in South Australia, where the number of people vaccinated in disability care was confirmed to be six. Not six per cent, you understand: six individual people.
With the federal government evidently struggling to do the job they refused to farm out, the states are doing more on their own – such as setting up mass vaccination hubs. Even then they’re stymied by confusing and contradictory information about eligibility, access to vaccines and the growing threat of vaccine hesitancy – not helped, it has to be said, by members of the federal government themselves. And look, if Hunt and Morrison genuinely want people to get vaccinated as a matter of priority, you’d think they might quietly suggest that George Christensen might want to shut the fuck up.
And now Australia has gone from the front of the queue to being told over and over that it’s not a race. Targets for vaccination have been abandoned altogether, but current rates indicate that herd immunity won’t be achieved until sometime in 2022 or beyond – meaning international travel, easy trade and any sort of return to a form of post-pandemic normalcy is far over the horizon.
Even if this government is sincerely determined to turn things around, the mess of tenders and incomplete records of what’s actually been done to date means that the state health departments don’t even know right now what gaps there are that they need to fill.
And, of course, Melbourne is on lockdown as the virus makes a worrying return to aged care facilities and the still-unvaccinated residents therein. Melbourne’s lockdown has been extended by a week, forcing the government to kick in support for workers left without any income – and the piddling amounts they’re reluctantly allowing people to conditionally access are drawing unwelcome comparisons with Morrison’s indignant “I’d rather have profitable companies than non-profitable companies” defence of the likes of Harvey Norman banking the $22 million taxpayer gift they received from JobKeeper despite making $486 million in pandemic profits.
And even if this government is sincerely determined to turn things around, the mess of tenders and incomplete records of what’s actually been done to date means that the state health departments don’t even know right now what gaps there are that they need to fill.
All the while Morrison is also downplaying the dangers of the virus, insisting that “Resilience, strength, character, determination. That is what beats a virus, never fear.” That’s a significant change in language from a month ago, when he was slamming Australia’s borders shut to travel from India and threatening to jail Australian nationals who dared try to come home, lest this exact COVID-19 variant got loose in the community.
And also, not to be a pedant, but resilience and character and so on are nowhere near as good at beating a virus as are antibodies. You know, the sorts of things which people’s immune systems produce when given a successful vaccine.
So: is anyone still betting on an October election? Maybe Melbourne will at least be out of lockdown by then, right?