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And now, the Olympic gold medal for shameless blame-shifting goes to...

Politics

Whatever way you slice it, Australia’s handling of the vaccine roll-out has been a national embarrassment. We need a formal inquiry to ensure it never happens again, writes Dennis Atkins

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Queensland’s Premier is in Tokyo, one of the seriously dangerous places to be right now in this stage-whatever-it-is of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the residents of Annastacia Palaszczuk’s state are among the least troubled in our increasingly frantic nation.

Western Australia continues to be protected because of the luxury rather than the tyranny of distance, Tasmania has a moat (as they keep telling us) and the Northern Territory is another planet. WA does have a ship in port with infected crew but is keeping it all within the bounds of slight nerves.

The Australian Capital Territory would be fine were it not surrounded by virus positive New South Wales – and don’t people in the national capital hate it.

However, our two most populous states, NSW and Victoria, are, right now, locked down. The former is in a hell we thought we’d seen the end of – the hardest shuttering of homes and businesses. The latter hopes to be free of its short, sharp confinement sometime soon – it was supposed to be midnight Tuesday but is now being extended for seven more days.

Everyone, everywhere is hoping some wayward viral infection doesn’t turns up in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

In South Australia restrictions are back across the board after some virus leaked from hotel quarantine and late Tuesday morning they announced a snap seven day lockdown. Jumpiness is the preferred attitude, like everywhere else.”

One thing is blindingly clear given how well Australia handled a pandemic capable of bringing some of the biggest, most powerful and resourceful nations to the brink during the past 16 months.

We kept levels of infection astonishingly low. We minimised deaths. We managed to put all shoulders to the wheel when it came to these responses – and deploy the economic support needed to fend off any collapse in output, growth and, over time, employment.

There’s a key, inescapable conclusion standing out at this moment of national stupidity. We have botched the vaccination effort in a way no one thought possible. We had time, we had money, we had room to move, we had foresight and we had some of the best health advisers working on this problem any country could ask for.

Yet still we stuffed it up. Scott Morrison is so good at avoiding blame and responsibility for anything and everything he would be 20/1 on to win gold for this challenge if it was an Olympic sport. Morrison has been blaming others at breakneck speed since it became obvious we were going to miss every target, horizon and projected date for getting enough vaccines into the country and into people’s arms.

Even allowing for what were relatively minor setbacks – the failure of the University of Queensland vaccine and the ultra-conservative caution shown towards the “preference” for those who should get the Oxford University’s AstraZeneca vaccine – we did nothing to have backups. We had no plan B, let alone a Plan C or D.

In a world where any vaccine development or delivery was never a better bet than 50/50, we should have been more focussed and more creative.

Morrison and his health minister Greg Hunt said they were relying on the best health advice. That advice was only ever as good as the interrogation provided by the people actually responsible for the whole shebang – the senior ministers and the prime minister.

To have played whack-a-mole in a real gold standard blame game over vaccines is beyond a dereliction of duty and responsibility. It is a failure that should carry the ultimate political consequence – a sacking or resignation.

However, we are where we are and bitter experience shows us Morrison is not going to change. He is never going to admit error, accept responsibility or own up to anything. He is unflinchingly consistent when it comes to being totally shameless.

The other thing that is very apparent is we have learned little if anything from these 16 months of dealing with the pandemic.

As the New South Wales lockdown shows no sign of easing quickly with all construction halted across the nation’s biggest city – something not implemented in Victoria during its dark winter of 2020 – there is still no clear definition of what is an essential workplace, we keep changing the arrangements on who gets financial assistance during a lockdown (not to mention how much) and there’s no national conformity on pretty well anything.

This is before we get to the inability to go beyond hotel quarantine for incoming travellers to a more secure, sustainable model – despite states having told the Morrison Government more than six months ago something needed to be done.

Even on vaccines there are no national guidelines about who can get access to what types of vaccine – can people under 40 get Pfizer? In some states you can, some not. Where’s the national leadership?

While we may be where we are and we have to fight the battle before us with the disparate armies we have, we need to learn from our mistakes.

We need a comprehensive, no excuses and no regrets inquiry into how this pandemic has been handled.

All governments, federal, state and territory (local governments should be able to have a say even if they were locked out of the process), should promise to issue terms of reference which would examine just what happened, who was responsible and how the successes and failures were handled.

There should be one major, all powerful commission which would turn over every stone, call everyone from the prime minister, his ministers and advisers to the staff working in health emergency agencies and individuals affected by what was done.

The drug companies, the logistics companies, the operators of aged care homes – everyone needs to tell us what went right and what went wrong.

If we don’t take an opportunity – when this crisis has passed (which may be some time off) – to learn from what’s occurred, we will simply repeat the same mistakes next time we are confronted by such a challenge.

At least that would be consistent.

 

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