Morrison’s 3.1 million vaccine claim is a crock. His own words tell us so

The government is inventing reasons why the vaccine rollout is is such a debacle, but the lies and cover-up can’t obscure the truth that it’s been bungled.

(Image: Mitchell Squire/Private Media)

Scott Morrison’s story on why the vaccine rollout is a disaster keeps changing. And it has nothing to do with 3.1 million vaccines doses held up by Europe (a claim the EU denies, in any event).

Yesterday, when asked why the government was so badly adrift of its initial forecast that 4 million people would be vaccinated by the end of March, Morrison replied:

You talked about the 4 million figure. Well the simple explanation of that is 3 million — 3.1 million vaccines — that never came to Australia. And so that is the reason. Back in early January we had anticipated we would have those 3.1 million vaccines. Those 3.1 million vaccines were not supplied to Australia, and that explains the difference between the numbers you are referring to, and we made that very clear back in February. So to — and we made it very clear that they were indicative figures that we were working to at that time based on the information that we had.

The 4 million target dates were from January, before the Europeans announced vaccine export bans (although that they would do so was predicted and the government was fully aware of the risk). By the time of the government’s formal March 14 rollout schedule, that target had been revised down to around 1.8 million vaccinations. The government had incorporated the European ban into its planning. On page 10 of the document, under the “Indicative Vaccine Dosage Schedule”, there’s a note in small print “Does not include 3.1 million international AZ doses or COVAX doses”.

Except we didn’t even come vaguely close to reaching that revised 1.8 million figure: fewer than 700,000 doses were delivered by the end of March. That had nothing to do with the failure to receive 3.1 million doses.

Or maybe Morrison hadn’t read the March rollout schedule? Oh, but wait, Morrison launched the schedule on March 14 and stood next to Health secretary Brendan Murphy while he went through it. And what did Murphy say?

We only got 300,000 of the 3.8 million in February and then another 400,000 of AstraZeneca from overseas has only just arrived recently. So we’re 3.1 million doses short of AstraZeneca vaccine from what we thought we would have in that initial ramp up … The international AstraZeneca we are not confident, we haven’t factored in getting any more of that. [emphasis added]

Nor was Murphy somehow mistaken. After the Europeans announced the bans, Hunt rather airily claimed Australia was exempt, saying “our advice is that our vaccine supply and guidance remains on track, those dates that we provided earlier on in the week, followed discussions with country heads of Pfizer and AstraZeneca, took into account supply and regulatory conditions within Europe and have been reaffirmed in the last 24 hours.”

But by March 5, once it was clear that Hunt’s optimism was ill-founded, the rollout schedule was adjusted to reflect the missing 3.1 million doses. Hunt said that day “we had planned the AstraZeneca rollout based solely on those 300,000 doses that had arrived in Australia, and we were very, very cautious on that front”. Hunt repeated that on March 18 “we haven’t factored any of the remaining 3.1 million AstraZeneca vaccines into Australia’s rollout, we’ve taken the most cautious approach”. He re-affirmed that a few days later, on March 22, at which point the government was starting to come under pressure on the botched rollout.

So, I think the important [thing] is if we can get part of the 3.1 million, because we’re not counting them in [our] forward projections in Australia — so these are the 3.1 million AstraZeneca doses which to date haven’t been released — they would effectively represent additional supply without having to draw on Australia’s doses. [emphasis added]

By last week, though, when the media were beginning to savage the rollout, Hunt was changing his tune. “We’ve made sure that we have an international supply, but frankly, we’ve seen a massive impost on that — 3.1 million doses which were due haven’t arrived from Europe and we understand the circumstances,” he responded to questions about the slow pace of the rollout.

This week, the Europeans have been elevated to the chief villains of the piece by Morrison, despite their actions having nothing to do with why we missed his revised schedule by more than a million.

The government all along insisted that it had enough AstraZeneca doses to get us to the point where our “sovereign manufacturing capacity” could start producing enough vaccines. Hunt said on March 5 “we have sufficient AstraZeneca to take us through to the arrival of the CSL doses.”

Except, the government is refusing to say how many doses CSL is manufacturing. Directly asked yesterday, Morrison obfuscated: “It varies from week to week. We are still in the early phases so it would be misleading, I think, to give you an average at this point.” Murphy responded to a direct question by Leigh Sales last night with a similar word salad, as part of a train wreck interview in which he insisted the rollout was running perfectly.

Does anyone seriously think if CSL was churning out huge numbers that the government wouldn’t be crowing about it?

The changing stories, the misleading responses, the refusal to provide hard numbers — it increasingly looks like another cover-up of another government stuff-up. One with dramatic implications for Australians’ health and wealth.

Peter FrayPeter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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