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Talking points and sticking points - but vaccine bungle has reached a tipping point

Politics

Beyond the political point-scoring, Australia is squandering valuable time – and a priceless economic advantage – with its bungled rollout of the coronavirus vaccine, writes Dennis Atkins.

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It’s easy to dismiss the suggestion by Deputy Premier Steven Miles the pre-Easter three-day lockdown in Greater Brisbane might not have been necessary absent federal inaction on vaccines and quarantine.

He’s just playing politics, is the easy response from Canberra.

Miles – as effective a political bomb thrower as can be found in Labor ranks, state or federal – says Morrison should have acted faster and earlier on vaccines and continues to do nothing about building a dedicated quarantine facility outside the capital cities.

Miles fired his political fusillade in response to a series of off-the-leash attacks by senior Cabinet ministers – deputy Nationals leader David Littleproud, Trade Minister Dan Tehan and newly-appointed Defence Minister Peter Dutton.

It was a coordinated, sanctioned hit on Miles and Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk – launched for one brutal reason: The need to scrape paint off the popular Queensland Labor Government ahead of the federal election later this year or early in 2022.

However, these all-too-eager ministers should look beyond the talking points they get each morning.

Miles has some significant support. Respected academic economist Richard Holden from the University of New South Wales – recently elected president of the Academy of Social Sciences – suggests the multi-billion-dollar cost of the Brisbane lockdown could have been avoided or mitigated if the Commonwealth had its vaccine house in order.

Holden told the ABC’s Richard Aedy on The Money show last Thursday the Australian economy broadly was bearing a cost possibly in the billions of dollars because of the slow and inadequate vaccine rollout.

“We started very late and we’ve been very slow,” said Holden. “We’re going even slower than France which is not known for having the most efficient administrative state.”

Holden says Australia was in a “great position” of having no community transmission which could have meant the local economy could have opened up more broadly and more robustly.

“We could have gone very fast and used maximum vaccination sites,” he told the ABC, suggesting big outdoor arenas such as sporting grounds could have been used. “Instead we can’t even get a deal with our GPs. It beggars belief.”

Holden takes issue with the suggestions made regularly by the chief of the Commonwealth Health Department, Professor Brendan Murphy, that there was no hurry and this was not a race.
“This is a race, we are in a hurry,” counters Holden, adding that foresight should have told planners in Canberra there was a looming cost to a slow and weak vaccine rollout.

“The price for being slow was (always going to be) in the billions and billions, probably tens of billions of dollars,” he said, pointing to the economic impact of not being able to open the economy as soon as might have otherwise happened.

The challenges of the vaccine rollout were apparent as early as last August, to be generous. The Commonwealth had plenty of time to plan and anticipate problems.

It’s clear they didn’t anticipate many, if any, of the problems and they have not planned contingencies for what might have gone wrong. To drive this home, just about every possible error and pitfall has occurred.

They didn’t order enough vaccine doses from a wide-enough range of sources, they haven’t been able to get the doses that are in Australia out of storage and into arms and the coordination with distribution systems has been haphazard and incomplete.

Despite there being more than two million imported vaccine doses in the country, just 40 per cent had been administered by the start of Easter with a new ambition of inching this towards half by the end of today.

The government is pushing at every point in the delivery chain in an effort to play catch-up but it is scrambling to move a slow process not much faster.

This is not a supply issue. It is a delivery issue and delivery of the vaccine doses is something Morrison and his government have owned. If it is failing, they have to own that, too.

The federal government – through its boy’s own, undergraduate attack squad – is reverting to type by blaming the states. This has done something most people didn’t think possible after the border wars of 2020 – united the Palaszczuk Government in Brisbane and the Liberal-led administration of Gladys Berejiklian in Sydney.

Both governments knew where the blame resided. Belatedly, Commonwealth Health Minister Greg Hunt trotted out and tried to make nice with the states at the beginning of this week.

He might have some success because the state health ministers want this effort to succeed. They have to deal with the real-life consequences of failure, even when mistakes and misadventures are made worse by local system errors as occurred in Brisbane last month.

However, the damage has been done. It is the federal government that looks incompetent because they sold themselves as the masters of their vaccine plan.

The competency credit they justly earned during the early months of handling the pandemic has been eroded and they have themselves to blame.

Holden had a deadly conclusion in an opinion piece written with a colleague and published this week. “Australia’s vaccine rollout has been an abject failure, largely because the roles and responsibilities of the feds and states have been imperfectly and opaquely defined,” the article argued.

“The quickest way to end the blame game is to make it clear to the public exactly who is to blame and for what. Both the feds and states have an incentive to clear that up. The sooner they do so, the sooner the pace of our rollout can increase ten-fold, as it desperately needs to.”

The failure of Australia’s vaccine rollout has been noted by a usually staunch ally of Scott Morrison. Andrew Liveris, who is advising the prime minister on manufacturing sovereignty in the wake of the pandemic, tweeted on Monday he couldn’t understand why the rollout had been handled so badly.

“We are fumbling at this critical juncture,” he wrote. “Let’s mimic what we do on election day – get everyone out in one day – use community facilities for vaccination.”

He finishes with an ominous question: “Or didn’t we order enough?”

This is a problem that must be tackled this week. As Richard Holden said, it is a race – against time – and we are in a hurry to get to a more open economy.

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