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The curious case of Annastacia Palaszczuk and her elusive COVID jab

Insights

Far from instilling confidence in COVID-19 vaccines, the Queensland Premier has allowed herself to be portrayed as one of the hesitant ones, as Sean Parnell explains.

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Last year, Annastacia Palaszczuk had a flu shot for the cameras at Parliament House. To allow for more photos, and footage, she agreed to mock up a second shot, but with the cap still on the syringe.

Of course, it was the second shot that went viral, with claims she faked the whole thing, avoided getting a needle, and was never vaccinated against influenza. The fake news was still being debated months later. Conspiracy busted, another Big Pharma scam, anti-vaxxers rejoice!

You would think that the Premier would be keen to avoid fuelling such misinformation again. You would hope she could set a good example when it came to the COVID-19 vaccine, her choice of vaccine, and how and when she had it. You would reckon that in a state so dependent on international tourism, Palaszczuk might demonstrate how quickly and easily you can protect yourself and others, in the hope of one day flying again.

But, somehow, you’d be wrong. Palaszczuk’s own actions and explanations are once again up for debate, which is significant given the political and social media machine she has at her disposal.

Once again, she, and Queensland, are the butt of interstate jokes and parody. Once again, the anti-vaxxers have leverage to keep people in their cult, while the vaccine-hesitant have a fresh dose of anxiety to warrant them holding off a bit longer. After all, it looks like the Premier held off as long until she could, and then insisted on the Pfizer vaccine, so why shouldn’t they?

Before the advice changed in relation to the AstraZeneca vaccine and blood clots, Palaszczuk, 51, was saying she would be happy to have it or Pfizer, whatever Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young recommended. The advice now leans towards the AstraZeneca vaccine for people over 50, and Pfizer for those under 50 as well as frontline workers.

After the first Queenslander received a second dose, of Pfizer, Palaszczuk said she and Health Minister Yvette D’Ath would “have our vaccine at the right time as well to also make sure that there’s that confidence in the community to get that vaccine”. She appeared in no rush.

Of course, Prime Minister Scott Morrison had already had his first Pfizer dose in February, making it seem routine and normal. Months went by, and then D’Ath, in late May, received her first dose of AstraZeneca. Even if the Queensland Health Minister was wanting to lead by example, she was still leading from behind. Palaszczcuk, however, wasn’t even in the queue.

There were inevitably questions as to why the Premier still hadn’t been vaccinated, which Palaszczuk explained firstly by not wanting to jump the queue, and then by having to get a flu shot first. The Chief Health Officer also said she didn’t believe she was a frontline worker, so was waiting her turn. Being over 50, Young would get AstraZeneca.

Even as criticism of the Premier grew louder, there was no sign she was moving any faster. The Australian Medical Association Queensland president Chris Perry – chipped by the government early in the pandemic for speaking out of turn – at one point insisted every high profile Australian should “get this damned vaccine now”. Still no sense of urgency from Palaszczuk.

Somewhat late in the piece, Palaszczuk and Young got their flu shots and said they would have to wait a couple of weeks for their COVID-19 vaccines. The Premier revealed she would get Pfizer because it allowed a faster turnaround for the second dose, and she might have to join Morrison and others in Tokyo soon for Queensland’s 2032 Olympics bid. She didn’t suggest there was any medical reason for her to avoid AstraZeneca, yet it added another layer to the needle narrative.

All the while, Queenslanders kept turning out to get vaccinated, or demanding access to vaccines, yet Palaszczuk wasn’t one of them. Amid lingering questions over her own delay, the Premier last Friday revealed, suddenly in a radio interview, she had been accidentally bitten by her dog some weeks before, requiring a tetanus shot. That, she said, had delayed the flu shot, which in turn delayed the COVID-19 vaccine.

(It’s not clear why Winton’s misdeeds weren’t mentioned earlier, given he plays a supporting role in the Premier’s social media productions. D’Ath certainly wasn’t shy about telling the world how a dog mishap left her in hospital with a smashed hand.)

For a moment, that explanation silenced, or at least confused, the critics. Yesterday, Palaszczuk finally got her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, becoming the last of the healthy government leaders in Australia to do so.

She had the jab alongside several colleagues including Sport Minister Stirling Hinchcliffe, 50, who also got Pfizer. She referred again to the possible Tokyo trip as reason for getting Pfizer, but by then Morrison had no intention of going, and Palaszczuk even went so far as to suggest Hinchcliffe might have to fly solo.

For someone accustomed to clear, simple messaging – whose priority, you might have heard, is to “keep Queenslanders safe” – the Premier made it all seem curiously complicated. There was nothing simple about her choice of vaccine, and how and when she had it, yet she was clearly tired of having to explain it all.

Asked later why she did not have her COVID-19 vaccine before her flu vaccine, the Premier replied: “Because I had my tetanus, okay? For goodness’ sake.”

Asked why she did not prioritise the COVID-19 vaccine, the Premier dismissed the line of questioning.

“I had an accidental dog bite so I had to go and have my tetanus. And they ask you if you have your tetanus you need two weeks from when you have your tetanus to have a covid. Then I had my flu vaccine – I have done everything I can physically be required to do.”

Asked whether people over the age of 50 could now choose Pfizer, the Premier suggested they speak to their GP and reiterated more vaccines would be available later in the year. Hardly a vote of confidence in AstraZeneca.

The State Government has focussed on Pfizer, leaving AstraZeneca to Commonwealth-run providers and GPs, but has had issues with both supply and demand. Young, D’Ath and others may have had AstraZeneca vaccines themselves, but all the hoop-la over the Premier getting Pfizer means more Queenslanders will want to follow her lead. This only adds to the pressure on Queensland Health to get the rollout of Pfizer vaccines right, while potentially taking pressure off the Commonwealth.

Palaszczuk is a record-breaking leader, with a loyal and devoted following. In personality politics, what she does will have a greater impact than any well-developed policy or expertly-crafted strategy, especially in a pandemic.

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