After three days of radio silence during one of the largest virus outbreaks the country has had since the pandemic began, Prime Minister Scott Morrison fronted the press to present his shiny new four-phase ‘pathway’ out of Covid-19.
The country waited with bated breath as the PM unveiled the steps required for Australia to open its borders, leave lockdowns and uncertainty behind us and learn to live with the virus without the threat of mass fatalities and the collapse of the public health system.
After announcing new caps to international arrivals in response to the highly-contagious nature of the Delta strain of the disease, Mr Morrison claimed Australia had become “a prisoner of its own success”, before going on to detail the new plan.
According to the government, the four phases are as follows:
• Reaching a certain (unspecified) vaccination threshold once all Australians have been offered the chance to get the vaccine
• A post-vaccination phase, in which the focus will shift from our current suppression strategy to minimising serious illness and death
• A consolidation phase where we implement plans for health authorities to manage Covid-19 like other infectious diseases such as influenza
• A complete return to normal life with quarantine-free travel for all those who are vaccinated, and no lockdowns or border closures remaining.
But at the end of the press conference, Australia was left with a familiar feeling: exasperation. And, 20 minutes after Mr Morrison finished speaking, #OH FFS was trending on Twitter, because it doesn’t take an epidemiologist to see that the PM’s plan falls spectacularly apart at its very first point — we simply do not have enough vaccines.
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The plan we got was not the plan we need. It was an insulting reiteration of what everybody already knew: to move forward out of lockdowns and restrictions, Australians need to be vaccinated.
There was no mention of acquiring additional vaccines, no mention of a timeline for this to happen, and no mention of the way in which the government planned to achieve this as-yet-unspecified target of “enough” people vaccinated.
With only seven per cent of adult Australians fully vaccinated, putting us dead last of all OECD countries, it is clear to anyone paying attention that there has been what former PM Malcolm Turbull on Thursday referred to as “a comprehensive failure of administration”.
On Wednesday, Queensland’s Health Minister Dr Yvette D’Ath, flagged that the state had just eight days’ worth of Pfizer vaccines remaining, having been denied a request for more doses by the federal government.
Her comments came amid a multi-city lockdown in Queensland, sparked by local transmission of Covid-19 by an unvaccinated hospital worker.
“They need to tell us,” she said, “Is what they gave Victoria the end of it? Have we only got what is allocated and no contingency stock left until that big delivery in October?”
The ‘big delivery’ of Pfizer — that Health Minister Greg Hunt has claimed will bring two million doses per week to Australians — is increasingly looking like the only possibility for Australia to come anywhere near its constantly revised-down vaccination targets. And it’s still three long months away, meaning there is zero chance of ‘phase two’ being implemented until next year at the earliest.
At the very least, that means another six months of lockdowns, border closures and uncertainty for businesses as we remain stuck in the suppression phase of the plan.
Friday’s announcement came hot on the heels of Morrison’s last slapdash missive to the people, in which he declared — in direct conflict with his advice only two months prior — that under-40s could now access the AstraZeneca vaccine in consultation with their GP.
Medical clinics across the nation, as well as the AMA, The Australian Technical Advisory Group On Immunisation (ATAGI) and even state premiers, were seemingly informed of the change at the same time as the public.
This resulted in mass confusion, mixed messages, and what has now come to be the hallmark of our Prime Minister: a total absence of comment or clarification from his office in the wake of the chaos.
We’re seeing health workers and aged care workers still unvaccinated, 16 months into the pandemic.
I spoke yesterday with a hospital worker who says his team were offered vaccines in May, but only at one location in Sydney which was nearly impossible to get to in the hours it was available.
I know 60 and 70-year-olds who are completely unsure of how to access the vaccine, book an appointment, or whether or not they’re eligible.
That these people are so confused about the vaccine is the fault of a failure in public health communication, and in light of the way it has obfuscated the public’s realisation of just how few vaccines we actually have available, that failure seems to have a more sinister purpose.
More infuriating than the mixed messaging on AstraZeneca, however, is the knowledge that we could have had all the Pfizer we needed made available back in January.
Australia reportedly had the chance to secure 40 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine — enough to fully vaccinate almost every adult in the country — back in July 2020. Despite Mr Hunt continuously dodging questions about this timeline and insisting the government only began official talks with Pfizer in December 2020, many sources have contradicted this account, maintaining Pfizer wanted to make Australia a ‘gold standard’ in terms of the vaccine rollout.
They claim that the government turned down the offer for financial reasons — AstraZeneca was far cheaper. By the time issues with AstraZeneca became more evident and Pfizer became the preferred option, Australia was at the back of the line.
Having failed to secure any Moderna vaccine at all, we now find ourselves firmly locked down and locked away while the rest of the developed world is opening up.
Mr Morrison got one thing right in his announcement. Australians are prisoners. But we’re not prisoners of success — we’re prisoners of the government’s total failure to act quickly and boldly to secure the only known ticket out of this hell: vaccines.