We’ve been told that the vaccine rollout is finally moving. NSW has proved that to be a lie. So what gives, Morrison?
Despite a concerted effort to pick up our laborious vaccine rollout, only 39% of NSW residents over 70 are fully vaccinated. According to government data released on Wednesday, the state is lagging behind all others. Indeed, one in four over 50 in the state is fully vaccinated (25%), while across the state’s entire adult population, the figure is less than one in five (17%).
Despite this, the official line is that we’re “setting the targets scientifically, combined with the economic advice as well, and that gets us a roadmap to Christmas.”
Scott Morrison uttered the above line, which clashes with his comments in April, where he adopted the position that Australia best forget meeting any clear vaccination targets. Having left battling the pandemic to State governments, the Federal government has found itself unable to execute its program, if one dare calls it that.
Part of the monumental failings of the government can be put down to its stubbornness in prioritising the use of one vaccine. AstraZeneca was meant to be the vaccine wonder, the Godhead, the miraculous deliverer. CSL, Australia’s only vaccine manufacturer, was given the task of producing the majority of 54 million ordered doses at its Broadmeadows factory in Melbourne. Many of those now risk being essentially useless.
AstraZeneca’s product has been plagued by a profile that has become a ballooning public relations nightmare. While various medical authorities in Europe delayed the application of jabs fearing a possible link between the vaccine and a rare blood-clotting syndrome, Australia looked on with goggle-eyed wonder, insisting that no pause was necessary. Administrative objectives took priority over medical ones.
Earlier this year, Morrison’s medical advisers made things more trying by suggesting that the AstraZeneca vaccine be ruled out for those under 50. In a media release on April 8 by the Department of Health Secretary Brendan Murphy and Chief Medical Officer Kelly, it was revealed that they had “received very important advice” from the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI). ATAGI had been considering European and US findings regarding any possible link between the AstraZeneca vaccine and any possible cause of “thrombosis with thrombocytopenia” characterised by “blood clots with low platelet counts.”
In Europe, one in every 250,000 people who had received AstraZeneca had been diagnosed with a rare blood clot condition. But Australia had not been spared, with one patient suffering thrombosis and a low platelet count after being vaccinated on March 22.
In April, ATAGI had recommended that those under 50 years of age should take the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine instead. “This recommendation is based on the increasing risk of severe outcomes from COVID-19 in older adults – and hence a higher benefit from vaccination – and a potentially increased risk of ‘thrombosis with thrombocytopenia’ following AstraZeneca vaccination among those aged under 50.”
The advisory group also recommended, obliquely, that the AstraZeneca vaccine might still be used for adults aged under 50 in cases “where the benefits clearly outweigh the risk for that individual” and the individual in question had made “an informed decision based on an understanding of the risks and benefits.”
Today, Morrison’s failed rollout took another hit, after experts raised the minimum age to 60, due to 12 new cases of blood clots discovered as a result of the vaccine.
The chief medical officer, Prof Paul Kelly, said the new cases had “changed the rate” for those between 50 and 59, changing the risk profile more in line with those under 50. There have been two deaths in Australia linked to TTS, and Kelly stressed it remains a very rare condition.
“Remember this remains a very rare but sometimes serious event; we’re picking it up much more commonly than other countries because we’re looking more fully,” he said.
“For most people, they’ve been diagnosed early, there was a large proportion of those with a less severe form of this rare syndrome, and most of those have been discharged from the hospital already.”
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Back in April, the health officers had to accept that the decision to accept the ATAGI advice would have “implications for the vaccine rollout program.” One of them was already in evidence by the first week of April, with Victoria’s Department of Health announcing that they would be taking few chances. “Until updated consent forms and consumer information are available from the Commonwealth Department of Health, and immunisation teams have been familiarised with these materials, it is advised that the AstraZeneca COVID-19 is not administered to eligible persons aged under 50 years.”
The Morrison government has been perpetually scrambling. The Prime Minister announced on April 9 that Australia had secured a further 20 million Pfizer vaccine doses, in addition to current orders for 20 million. After disappearing for a week in July (just as NSW was entering lockdown once more), he reappeared, claiming that he struck a “game-changing deal” with Pfizer that would “triple our access”. A day later, the manufacturer stated that there was no change in the original deal, and thus, these vaccines Morrison promised do not exist.
On April 8, Morrison emphasised, “uncertainties” and “many, many variables” that doomed any coherent planning. “This is not a certain world and we’re not on our own. The whole world is dealing with the same uncertainty.”
Government incompetence has also taken on a patriotic dimension. Stupidity can be forgivable if it is shown to be defending the national interest. Agriculture Minister David Littleproud is a startling example of this, refusing to consider how ordering other vaccines might ameliorate the problem. Having not consulted the entire Australian population on the matter, he could confidently tell Channel Nine that he did not “think any Australian would want the Chinese vaccine or the Sputnik vaccine.” He spoke of an approach “calm and methodical about making sure that we give the best vaccine with confidence, and however long it takes”.
An October deadline had been proposed for all Australians wishing to be vaccinated to receive at least one dose. Prior to that, the government had dreamily suggested a target of 4 million vaccinated Australian adults, with all remaining adults being finished by October.
The National COVID-19 Commission, through member Jane Halton, is also of the same view. “The trick now is for people to calm down a little bit and get back to basics.” Pfizer would be the stand-in hero here. Think, warbles Halton, that “there will be 40 million doses in total” of it.
The damage, certainly in terms of public relations and the vaccination program, deepens. But in Australia, the issue cuts deeper. Bureaucratic incompetence has become the Siamese twin of unoriginal selections and poor supply lines.
With the State governments having performed the lion’s share of the work protecting populations from COVID-19, the Federal government has shown various, fabulous ways of soiling the stable. A near-future of closed borders, snap lockdowns and an increasingly enfeebled economy, seems likely.