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Vaccines here, but still some bumps in the road as we get down to the pointy end

Opinion

As Australians prepare to roll up their sleeves for COVID-19 vaccinations, Prime Minister Scott Morrison remains most concerned about public perception, writes Dennis Atkins

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The arrival this week of 160,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for COVID-19, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2 is undeniably good news. The medicines are here, so let’s be relieved these supplies have finally arrived.

Next Monday when the first of the most vulnerable and exposed Australians – people in aged care and those working in quarantine for example – begin getting vaccinations we should double down on that small celebration.

However, we shouldn’t throw out too many hosannas as we move into the six weeks of Lent before Easter.

This is slow-walking as an Olympic sport. Ushered in for vaccinating will be the deserving – those in vulnerable health and work situations – and the famous, with Scott Morrison at the head of that photogenic queue.

As the spotlights fade, the hard work will begin and that’s something everyone is hoping will go without many, if any, hitches.

The government wants to vaccinate at least four million Australians by the end of April, which will involve about 400,000 a week. It’s a big task but such is the confidence in Morrison’s Canberra bubble they are now talking about vaccinating a million a week.

The government likes to say it’s the biggest logistics exercise in Australia’s history, which probably downplays the 80 days covering the mobilisation of the population at the start of World War II – a short, sharp period that changed our society dramatically and enduringly.

It is still an exercise we’ve not seen attempted before. Most Australians will be getting their COVID-19 vaccinations at the local doctor’s, as happens every year when people receive the latest, always updated version of the influenza shot.

It will, by all accounts, be very different. General practitioners and their representatives are still waiting for details of what they’ll be expected to do but it’s going to be a world away from turning up, getting a needle and having your details ticked off on a prepared list.

The rumours in GP clinics suggest lengthy mandatory training for doctors in the storage, handling, administration, and processing of the vaccine vials. One GP said they’d heard it could be more than 24 hours.

GPs anticipate it will take about 30 minutes for each vaccination to be administered. It’s expected there will be a prescribed amount of time needed to observe possible, but hopefully not present, adverse reactions and the coincidental paperwork Commonwealth officials are going to require in real-time.

The three main vaccines Australia has secured large supply volumes of – Pfizer, Oxford University/AstraZeneca and Novavax – are double dose medicines with three or four weeks required between the first and second injections.

This means as many Australians as possible will be ushered through GP surgeries, pharmacies and other particular settings before winter weather starts in May – maybe close to two-thirds of the population or 16 million people.

That level is seen as a minimum proportion for herd immunity although experts such as Anthony Fauci now say the necessary rate could be closer to 85 or 90 percent of the population.

GPs are being told to get ready to keep surgeries open out-of-hours, such as late evening sessions and weekends. It’s hard to find a doctor who thinks this will all go smoothly. Every round of consultation with the Commonwealth ends with more questions unanswered or not even considered than at the beginning of any given Zoom call.

Keep all this in mind when watching Monday’s photo opportunities. The Prime Minister will roll up his sleeve, pretend to feel a sting as the needle goes in and say something banal like “Oh, that didn’t hurt”.

Morrison will not be at your local GP’s surgery helping calm anxious kids or reassuring old Australians with serious doubts about vaccines. The absence of TV cameras is a clue.

Meanwhile, the other pandemic juggernaut is not leaving the Prime Minister alone and neither should it.

He has to deal with hotel quarantine and not just hide behind whispered briefings in Canberra where he says, in his best Margaret Thatcher imitation, “there is no alternative”.

The briefings in Canberra are transparent. The narrative counter to reality goes like this: regional settings for quarantine are not practical, the review by former Commonwealth health bureaucrat Jane Halton didn’t recommend converting places like the Air Force base at Learmouth to a quarantine facility and the surge capacity suggested for Howard Springs near Darwin is already happening.

In short, this is all the states’ responsibility and the failures are all the fault of the states. Any proposals such as a five-star mining camp near Gladstone or a purpose-built facility near Toowoomba do not satisfy the doubts and concerns of local communities.

This is baloney, dissembling and deliberate avoidance of leadership.

Yes, the Halton Review did not recommend specifically a quarantine facility at Learmouth – what it did say was that the kind of adaptation of existing facilities used in the first days of the pandemic (when Australians living in Wuhan were flown to Christmas Island) might be needed as infections rose in Europe going into the northern winter.

It was quickly apparent this was needed but the Commonwealth ignored what Halton had to say and now is leaving the consequential problems for the states to deal with.

As far as Gladstone and Toowoomba are concerned, Morrison has taken flight because his local LNP members have been spooked by fear in their communities.

Morrison has decided to be a follower not a leader at the very time leadership is needed.

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