Scott Morrison’s handling of Australia’s coronavirus vaccination rollout has been labelled one of the worst public policy failures in recent times.
The Prime Minister is under growing pressure over the slow and problem-plagued delivery of Covid-19 jabs, blamed for the worsening and extended lockdowns now affecting 12 million people.
Australia has ranked last of all OECD countries in terms of percentage of the adult population vaccinated and is even lagging some developing nations.
A trio of academics say a series of flaws have derailed efforts to squash covid here, from an over-reliance on AstraZeneca to a failure to secure enough doses for the population and a lack of vaccine awareness initiatives.
Carolyn Holbrook, an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Award Fellow at Deakin University, and Monash University politics and political sciences professors James Walton and Paul Strangio say the prospect of life returning to some level of normality now appears distant.
“In recent weeks, we have learned more about the flaws in the federal Coalition government’s vaccination program,” they wrote in an article for The Conversation.
“There’s the failure to procure sufficient vaccine and an accompanying over-reliance on the AstraZeneca vaccine. The complications with rolling out the latter have exposed the shortage of supply of the Pfizer vaccine.
“While other international leaders personally lobbied Pfizer executives for supplies, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Health Minister Greg Hunt were inexplicably passive.”
The repeated declaration that the vaccination rollout “isn’t a race” by Mr Morrison has also come back to haunt him, they wrote.
“Then there is the sluggish pace of the ‘it’s not a race’ vaccine rollout, particularly among vulnerable people, such as aged and disability care residents, and frontline health workers.”
Speaking on radio this morning, Mr Morrison rejected claims the lockdowns across Australia were down to the slow vaccine rollout.
“Right now, under no plan, was there any plan that said we’d be at 65-70 per cent vaccination in this country. Under no plan,” he said.
“Australia was always going to be in the suppression phase this year.”
But at a press conference in Canberra on Wednesday, Mr Morrison conceded “we’ve had our challenges with this program”.
“We‘ve had significant challenges with this program, as many countries have, but what matters is how you respond to them.
“What matters is how you fix the things that need to be fixed and get the program doing what it needs to be doing and hitting the vaccination rates it needs to hit to ensure that we can get to where we need to be, where we want to be.”
That concession aside, Wednesday marks an important milestone in the rollout, the PM said – one million doses delivered in a single week.
“A few weeks back, we were in the 700,000 and 800,000 (a week range). And now in Australia, we‘ve got to a million a week.”
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Several original targets set by the government initially have not been met, including to have every adult fully vaccinated by the end of October.
Even revised goals have fallen well short and at present, just 14 per cent of the eligible population have received both jabs while almost 36 per cent have had one.
“Exacerbating these problems has been the lack of an effective public education campaign about the vaccine. This has left a vacuum, which anti-vaxxers and the vaccine-hesitant have filled.”
“Where the hell is the PM?” conservative commentator and broadcaster Steve Price asked on The Project on Tuesday night.
“He’s got half his country locked down and we haven’t heard from him for a week.”
Mr Morrison’s repeated absences in the face of worsening crises in major cities has been the subject of attacks from the opposition.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese has dubbed the Sydney shutdown the ‘Morrison Lockdown’, directly blaming the PM’s bungled vaccine rollout for the outbreak of the highly infectious Delta strain.
For his part, Mr Morrison has furiously rejected the suggestion – one made even by fellow Liberal, the NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian – that a greater rate of vaccination would’ve helped to prevent lockdowns.
“No, I don’t accept that,” Mr Morrison told Adelaide radio station FIVEaa today.
Greater Sydney is in the midst of at least a five-week lockdown, while Melburnians were told on Tuesday that they faced another week at the minimum confined to their homes.
South Australia was also plunged into a seven-day lockdown on Tuesday after the Delta variant spread to the state.
NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro attributed part of the blame for the lockdown of Sydney to the slow pace of vaccination.
“We need people to get vaccinated and we need the federal government to increase supply … in NSW, demand is outstripping supply,” Mr Barilaro said.
Last night on The Project, after another shocking day for much of the country, Price was noticeably livid.
“This is the biggest pandemic crisis in the country and the PM is locked up in The Lodge in Canberra and he’s not talking to anyone.
“As a country we’re in a worse position than last year. Victoria was doing it tough and hard and millions of us were locked down but you didn’t have lockdowns like in New South Wales (as well).”
Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who was ousted as PM by Mr Morrison, said he couldn’t remember “a more black and white failure of public administration”.
‘Incompetent planning, logistics and implementation’
The trio of academics have analysed the program and its perceived failings.
In their article for The Conversation, Ms Holbrook and professors Walton and Strangio explained that there are three factors for measuring public policy success or failure.
“The first is an assessment of how successfully the policy action ameliorates the problem it seeks to solve,” they write.
“This appraisal must take into account the consequences of that action. Consequences are often unintended and unanticipated. They might not become apparent for some time and can be difficult to quantify and link unequivocally to the policy in question.
“For example, the Coalition’s inclination to cease support for manufacturing in Australia has led, as is now evident, to our incapacity to meet the demand even for covid vaccine production.”
The second factor must consider the significance of the policy and whether the impact of a failure on the community is minor or significant.
“Third, we must take account of the reputational enhancement or damage ensuing from a particular course of action,” they wrote.
“This may have decisive effects on a government’s electoral prospects.
“Applying these measures, we can say that, to date, the Morrison government’s approach to the covid vaccination rollout fares badly on all three criteria.”
The idea that a level of vaccination would enable the community to return largely to normal and live with endemic covid isn’t unrealistic.
But the government’s “incompetent planning, logistics and implementation have so far prevented it from sufficiently ameliorating the threat we face”, they wrote.
Locking down cities, opening up and then locking down again is having negative flow-on effects for the entire community, they added, not just in terms of the covid risk but also “with clear impact on the economy, mental health, domestic violence and trust in government”.
Australians are also confronted with various alternative existences from around the world. Seattle, in the US state of Washington, was in an horrific state not long ago but is “more or less back to normal because of the swift uptake of vaccination”.
Not the absolute worst, but close to it
Ms Holbrook and professors Walton and Strangio say the vaccine rollout is one of the most significant public policy failings in modern Australian history.
But there’s one that’s worse, they say, and some other doozies that aren’t far behind it.
The Rudd Government’s Resource Super Profits Tax and its successor from the Gillard Government, the Minerals Resource Rent Tax, were also public policy disasters.
“These policies failed on at least two levels,” they wrote.
“First, they did not reap anything like the revenue that was forecast. Second, the taxes were electorally damaging for the Labor governments, engendering a fierce backlash from the mining industry.”
A more significant public policy failure was John Howard’s Aged Care reforms in 1997, which saw new legislation partially privatise the sector and begin an era of underfunding and “associated chronic shortcomings”.
A recent Royal Commission highlighted the shameful and deadly legacy of this policy.
“Perhaps the biggest public policy failure of recent times relates to climate action where, as with covid vaccination, Australia ranks last among developed economies,” the trio concluded.
Mr Morrison was today pressed on whether he should say sorry to Australians for the slow rollout. But the PM doesn’t believe the country is bothered about apologies.
“I think Australians just want us to got it right,” he said.
“No country has got their pandemic response 100 per cent. I think Australians understand that. Sure, there is going to be plenty of critics and hindsight. They will have various motivations for doing it.
“But what Australians I think want from me is to make sure we make up that ground, we hit these marks we are hitting and that we are hitting these marks.
“I take responsibility for the problems that we have had but I am also taking responsibility for the solutions we‘re putting in place and the vaccination rates that we are now achieving.”