September 09, 2021


LISA MILLAR, HOST: Fresh questions are being asked this morning after emails emerged suggesting the Federal Government was first offered millions of doses of the Pfizer vaccine back in June last year. Shadow Health Minister Mark Butler joins us now from Adelaide. Good morning to you. What's gone on here, do you think?

MARK BUTLER, SHADOW MINISTER HEALTH AND AGEING: Good morning, Lisa. Well, there have been rumours about this now for some months that there was a go-slow by the Morrison Government in those crucial middle months of last year, when all of the other developed countries of the world were busy signing supply deals with Pfizer. Those rumours suggested that the Department, the Government, had deliberately adopted a so-called “wait-and-see” approach. So this is not entirely news, in spire of the fact that Scott Morrison for months denied that was the case. But yesterday papers revealed the extent of the go-slow, that Pfizer in June had approached the Government seeking a high-level meeting to brief them on their research, to give them potential access to early supplies of millions of doses before the end of last year. But for weeks and weeks, were able to get nowhere, while countries like the UK and the US, obviously, but Canada, Japan, the European nations were busy signing deals to secure early access of this state-of-the-art vaccine for their people.

MILLAR: Now, the Health Minister again this morning totally rejecting this, saying that there were negotiations going on all the time, and that at that time there were a half a dozen possible options. You know, we were hoping that Queensland University was going to come through, and then the AZ deal was signed on August 19. So, you know, was it just a case of the wrong rein being pulled at that time?

BUTLER: Entirely. I mean, what we were saying at the time, and many other health experts were saying, is you've got to spread your options as widely as possible in a crisis like this. We were saying there should be five or six deals done by the Australian Government. Pfizer, Moderna, a whole range of other vaccine potentials last year were being rejected by the Government, and all of the eggs were being put in the AZ and the University of Queensland basket. Of course, we wanted those to come through, but in a crisis like this there must be redundancy. There must be fallback options, which is why right now so many Australians - 14 million - are waking up again in lockdown because of the Government's failure to have enough options on the table last year. We're paying the price still today.

MILLAR: Pfizer themselves put out a statement yesterday evening as well, indicating that things moved as quickly as were possible with the schedule. Do you think that sort of goes into what Greg Hunt is trying to say?

BUTLER: Oh, look, I think Pfizer is being very statesman-like about their response to this, as you would expect. But the papers tell the truth. The papers from the Government, the email exchanges between the company and the Government, show very clearly, while every other developed country in the world was tearing a hamstring to get into a meeting room with Pfizer and sign a supply deal on behalf of their people, there was a go-slow in Australia. It was too little, too late from Scott Morrison. So, we ended up signing an agreement five months after all of those countries, all the countries to which we usually compare ourselves: America, the UK, Europe, Japan, Canada. And today we're still paying that price. There are more Australians in lockdown and fewer people fully vaccinated than any other developed country on the face of the Earth. And that is down to Scott Morrison's failure to act early.

MILLAR: So, we're going to find out later today, New South Wales - suggestions that fully vaccinated people will be back at the pub by October 18, perhaps? What do you think of that timeline?

BUTLER: For months we have been seeing so many of those countries have their lives start to return to normal, while 14 million Australians here are still in lockdown. We want to see those wonderful aspects of our life - particularly as the weather gets better - start to return to normal. So, we fully support this. We want to see a strong, safe implementation of the plan that National Cabinet has agreed, and we hope that that can be done as soon as possible.

MILLAR: What about your own state there? Beautiful shot there, by the way, behind you in Adelaide. But you've got the South Australian Premier, Steven Marshall, saying, you know, he still may have snap border - state border closures even after 80 per cent fully vaccinated?

BUTLER: This is really the challenge of a safe implementation of the plan. The plan doesn't say anything explicit about state borders, and we have two very different experiences being lived in Australia. There are those states - Victoria, New South Wales and the ACT - in lockdown, with large numbers of cases, case numbers that appear still to be growing. And then we've got states like the one I'm lucky enough to be in right now, where we are effectively COVID-free. So, the Prime Minister has a difficult job here, I think, to make sure he can bring states together, combine or bring together those two very different experiences, and as a nation see us move forward with a safe implementation of that plan.

MILLAR: Just finally, Mark Butler, Anthony Albanese said he didn't want to criticise the Prime Minister for going to Sydney for Father's Day. However, several of your colleagues feel differently. The Deputy Leader of the party, Bill Shorten, as well. Do you think that trip was appropriate?

BUTLER: I said at the time that I don't begrudge any father spending time with their children. We want as many parents to be with their children as possible at this difficult time. I just said I hope that Scott Morrison spared a thought at the time for all of those families - and we saw images of many of them on the New South Wales and Queensland border, for example - all of those families who weren't able to be together over the course of the Father's Day weekend. I also made the point, though, that it appeared that the Prime Minister wasn't being transparent about the trip. Too often he tries to keep these things from the Australian people. But by no means do I begrudge any father spending time with their children on Father's Day.

MILLAR: Should your leader have gone a bit harder, then?

BUTLER: Not at all. I think Anthony was completely up-front with his view that none of us are going to begrudge people spending time with their family if they're able to do so. But we must bear in mind the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people who have been apart from their family through this really difficult period.

MILLAR: Mark Butler, thanks for your time.

BUTLER: Thank you, Lisa.