One of the advantages of being a reporter, media presenter, commentator or academic is that you rarely, if ever, have to make decisions for which there are policy consequences. In short, critics say rather than do.
On Thursday, Josh Frydenberg appeared on the ABC-TV News Breakfast program. Towards the end of the interview, the Treasurer was making a point about the increase of supply of the Pfizer vaccine. He was interrupted by presenter Lisa Millar who had a point to make. It was that three unnamed academics had criticised the Coalition government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Millar quoted the trio as saying that the vaccine response “was one of the worst public health policy rollouts”. She reported the trio’s view that “it’s a failure to produce sufficient vaccine, it’s an over-reliance on AstraZeneca and it’s a lack of awareness initiatives”.
A hat-trick of errors, it seems. Millar added “and that all comes down to the federal government; why is it so hard to say sorry?” Enter the familiar media trick, most frequently heard on FM radio, of a journalist trying to get a politician to apologise. Which, by the way, is not a trait found generally in the media profession.
Frydenberg was caught because, at the time of the interview, the Prime Minister had regretted the slowness of the rollout but not said “sorry”.
The two nations most similar to Australia are New Zealand and Britain. It’s relevant, then, to compare the Morrison government’s response to Covid-19 with that of governments in Wellington (led by Jacinda Ardern) and London (led by Boris Johnson).
According to available figures, 13 per cent of New Zealanders are fully vaccinated compared with 12 per cent in Australia – with the partly vaccinated figures at around 18 per cent each.
New Zealand has gone with Pfizer, Australia with AZ and Pfizer. In short, the outcome of the vaccination rollout in the two nations is almost identical. Yet some of Scott Morrison’s many critics in the media regard him as an out-and-out failure while saying nothing about Ardern. Frydenberg tried to make the point but was interrupted by Millar.
And then there is the vaccine itself. In Australia, the name AstraZeneca has suffered a huge reputational damage during 2021. This occurred as a result of the decision of the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation to recommend that Pfizer be the preferred vaccine for those aged 16 to 50 years and not AstraZeneca – due to a very rare side effect of blood clots.
On April 8, at a late-night media conference, the Prime Minister announced ATAGI’s recommendations with reference to those aged 50 and under.
On June 17 it was extended to those aged 60 and under.
Then on June 28, following an emergency meeting of the national cabinet, Morrison announced that those under 60 could get the AZ vaccine if their doctor so advised.
For almost three months there has been evidence of vaccine hesitancy when it comes to AZ, even among some older Australians. Yet in Britain this week, celebrations were held for “Freedom Day” to coincide with the substantial lifting of the Covid-19 lockdowns.
This followed sights of vaccinated Brits at the Wimbledon tennis and British Grand Prix at Silverstone. All made possible by AZ which has been the vaccine of choice and necessity in Britain and has resulted in a significant reduction in deaths and serious illnesses for carriers of the virus.
Professor Sarah Gilbert, the lead AZ researcher at Oxford University, received a standing ovation, on behalf of her Oxford colleagues, at Wimbledon in July.
Yet the Coalition government and its health advisers in Australia are being bagged for placing considerable reliance on AZ, which is produced at the CSL factory in Melbourne.
The Morrison government experienced some bad luck when, against expectations, the vaccine being developed by the University of Queensland and CSL had to be abandoned last December.
However, the greatest impediment to the widespread use of AZ occurred when Dr Jeannette Young, Queensland’s chief health officer, advised against persons under 40 taking AZ, declaring: “I don’t want an 18-year-old in Queensland dying from a clotting illness who, if they got Covid, probably wouldn’t die.”
At the moment, there are some young individuals in intensive care with Covid. Certainly there is danger in taking AZ, as there is with any vaccine. But AZ appears to have done its job in Britain. Resistance to AZ in Australia appears to be one reason for the slow rollout of vaccinations.
On Thursday afternoon, Morrison said he was sorry for the fact that his government had not been able to meet the vaccinations target it set at the beginning of the year. That’s an understandable response in view of the criticism he was under.
The fact remains, however, that compared with like nations Australia has done relatively well in so far as health and economic outcomes are concerned.
The immediate task is to minimise deaths and serious illness while not further harming the private sector, particularly small and medium-sized businesses and their employees.
Right now, the Morrison government is getting all the blame.
But Covid-19 leaks from quarantine hotels – along with transport to and from such venues – are the responsibility of state and territory health departments. The Commonwealth government is responsible for the purchase of vaccines. After initial problems, vaccinations are running not far off 200,000 a day.
Morrison and his colleagues are finding the going hard. And Labor, under opposition leader Anthony Albanese, is doing well in opposing the Coalition.
However, the government is only into just two-thirds of its term. It was never likely that Morrison would call an early election and it seems impossible now.
Winter is destined to be tough – especially for business and young part-time and casual workers, along with children.
But the vaccination rate is increasing and spring and summer should be better. At the next election Australians are likely to vote with respect to the future, not the past. After all, most voters understand that governing is difficult, while criticism is easy.