April 06, 2021




SUBJECT: Vaccine rollout.       

HAMISH MACDONALD, HOST: Mark Butler is the Shadow Minister for Health and Ageing. A very good morning to you.


MACDONALD: The rollout has clearly been slower than first promise, but it's likely that a million doses will be in peoples’ arms by the end of today. Aren't we now seeing the vaccination numbers accelerating as intended? 

BUTLER: Well, no they’re still going far too slowly. The Prime Minister promised there would be 4 million vaccinations by the end of March, which was last week. And per head of population Australia is not even in the top 100 of nations in the world. We've got 60 per cent of adults vaccinated in the UK, 40 per cent in the US and barely 2 or 3 per cent here in Australia. We are running way, way behind schedule and that's why expert after expert is calling this vaccine rollout a complete mess. 

MACDONALD: Do you accept the primary reason for these delays is the fact that Europe blocked AstraZeneca exports?

BUTLER: No, I don't. we've had well over 2 million doses batch approved by the TGA in the country for some time now. And yet we've only managed to get 800 or so thousand into peoples’ arms. We've got two and a half million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine made by CSL awaiting batch approval by the TGA. So we've got vastly more doses in the country, have had for some time, than we've managed to get out there into the community, into peoples’ arms. So this is really a question of implementation, not just one of supply.

MACDONALD: So if that's the case, where is the blockage? 

BUTLER: Well, it's clearly at a Commonwealth level. The states are doing very well at vaccinating the people for whom they’re responsible, which are frontline health workers and, quarantine workers, and emergency services. But aged care is running way behind schedule. Only about 14 per cent of aged care facilities have been fully vaccinated. They were supposed to complete the entirety of the aged care sector last week 14 per cent, about 1 in 7 facilities and we have no data on the aged care workforce, which was also a responsibility of the Commonwealth. 

MACDONALD: Is that the whole picture? Is it fair to say it's just a blockage at the Commonwealth level? I mean, states have acknowledged that they have received dosages that they weren't prepared for, that they therefore weren't able to roll out immediately. Clearly there are numbers here, if we're talking about the totality of this, that fall in the states responsibility. 

BUTLER: That's right, but that supply comes from the Commonwealth. The states’ complaints about supply has been supplied from the Commonwealth. GPs have also said that they were put in the frame by the Commonwealth a couple of weeks ago, telling hundreds of thousands of patients to ring your GP and make an appointment for your vaccination, but GP surgeries were getting maybe 50 doses a week. Now, there’s no way GPs can put together a proper vaccination programme if they're only getting 50 doses a week and no sense of how many they will get in the out weeks. That's why you have reports over the weekend of GPs essentially saying they're not going to be able to take appointments until they get a clearer picture from the Commonwealth about when they'll receive the doses.

MACDONALD: So how should this be done differently in your view? 

BUTLER: Well, there's a range of different pieces of advice. The first thing the Commonwealth has got to do is stop pretending that everything is going great guns. We are way behind schedule here and it's becoming very serious, because although the Prime Minister said that this is not a race, it is a race. There is a time imperative in getting vaccinations into peoples’ arms. First of all, to open up the economy and have strong economic confidence. But just as importantly, maybe even more importantly, we need to get the current generation of vaccines into people before we have to consider the possibility of booster shots, because this virus is mutating around the world, we're seeing that with a range of different variants, now the dominant strains around the world. And will probably need booster shots. And if we're running way behind schedule will simply not be in time to get those booster shots going.

MACDONALD: It doesn't seem to me that there is much dispute about the need to get this done. I'm just asking if you were in charge, what would you be doing to solve these blockages? How would you be getting this out faster? Would you be talking about these mass vaccination hubs that have been suggested in stadiums? How would you be doing this differently? 

BUTLER: I don't understand why the Commonwealth is so resistant to an idea that's been rolled out in pretty much every country I've looked at around the world. I mean, Stephen Duckett and a number of others that made that point over recent days that these large vaccination centres, of the type of the state governments would be able to operate fairly straightforwardly, I think, are the way in which other countries are racing ahead of Australia in their vaccine rollout. Stephen Duckett has said this morning we should bring on pharmacist sooner. At the moment it doesn't look like pharmacists will be brought into the strategy until June at the earliest. GPs are having to deal with all of this, outside the aged care and health workforce, having to do all of this on their own with no sense of how many doses they’re getting. While they're also having to implement the flu vax strategy, which is obviously happening between April and June as well. It's just not enough hands at the wheel. And the Commonwealth’s got to recognise that. 

MACDONALD: So, so you're in disagreement with the Acting Chief Medical Officer on this, Michael Kidd? He says those sorts of things are not necessary sporting stadiums and the like. At the moment he says, we don't need that sort of system because we are rolling out this system effectively. 

BUTLER: I just don't think the numbers lie and the numbers show how far behind schedule we are, how far behind the rest of the world we are, and I think the Commonwealth's got to be honest with the Australian people. Come clean with them about that and get people around the table to come up with some alternative ideas. Because the strategy put together by the Commonwealth is not working. I think sooner or later the Commonwealth is going to have to admit that they're going to have to ask the state governments yet again through this pandemic to bail them out because the Commonwealth just not up to the job of delivering this vaccine rollout. 

MACDONALD: I just want to clarify what you mean by the Commonwealth. Are you talking about the Chief Medical Officers here in terms of coming clean? 

BUTLER: No, I'm talking about Scott Morrison and Greg Hunt. I'm talking about the Prime Minister and the Minister for Health who are responsible for this vaccine roll out. Now the states have responsibility under the National Partnership Agreement for their own workforce and they’re busy doing that, particularly, the frontline health workers, quarantine workers, emergency services workers, and suchlike. But Scott Morrison and Greg Hunt have taken on responsibility for the aged care sector, both the residents and workers, and the rest of the community through their GPs and Community Pharmacy Network and experts are saying the way in which Scott Morrison and Greg Hunt are proposing to do that simply won't work in a timely and effective manner. 

MACDONALD: The government's original targets were relatively ambitious, fully vaccinating everyone who wants the shots by October, that seems to be being adjusted as we speak. Do you have a view as to when it is likely to happen by? 

BUTLER: No, I don't. They're going to have to accelerate this very, very quickly. As I said that the original target was 4 million by the end of March. They missed that by more than 3 million. The next target was 6 million by the 10th of May. Well they're going to have to get a million jobs done every single week between now and then to achieve that. That seems very unlikely. October is a really important deadline. I mean, we need to have this current generation of vaccines into people in the likely event that we're going to need to consider booster shots over the coming 12 months or so. It is really critical that we start to meet these commitments. What was really notable though over the weekend when Greg Hunt did a press conference on Sunday, is that he dropped any sense of targets. He was asked when is the current phase of the most vulnerable people, that's phase 1a, aged care sector, frontline health workers, quarantine workers, when will that be completed given that the original target was last week and he refused to say when that would be completed. Now, it appears the Commonwealth as in Greg Hunt and Scott Morrison, are now taking a strategy of making no particular commitments around timelines, and that's an unacceptable position for them to take. 

MACDONALD: Given the circumstances, given the difficulty of getting vaccines into Australia, developing or producing them here. Is there the urgency that you describe? Notwithstanding the variants that are emerging overseas, there is very little COVID present in Australia right now. 

BUTLER: Thankfully we don't have the urgency that you see in the Northern Hemisphere. You know, places like the US, the UK, Brazil, many others and that's why perhaps they've been able to achieve those rates. But there is urgency here. You only saw it in Brisbane last week with a breakout that shut down the economy there, shut down a whole range of other events in northern NSW. It doesn't take much to cause enormous dislocation to our community. The loss of jobs, the loss of economic activity. So unless we're going to shut Australia up to the rest of the world for time immemorial, we're going to have to roll this vaccine out properly. Do it in a timely manner. So that we’re then ready to deal with whatever the pharmaceutical industry and our health experts say is necessary to respond to the variants that already spreading right throughout the rest of the world. We see in Europe, the variant now is the dominant strain of the virus through Europe, the pharmaceutical companies and researchers are already working furiously on a booster shot that will deal with those variants. If we don't get our skates on, we're not going to be ready for those booster shots.

MACDONALD: National Cabinet meets on Friday. There could be agreement to publish more data around this, such as how many doses are being delivered to the states, how many have actually been administered. Do you think that level of transparency for all levels of government might make this process a bit more accountable? 

BUTLER: I think the two things we need more transparency and a greater sense of urgency. If those two things can come out of the National Cabinet, and frankly, particularly from Scott Morrison and Greg Hunt, then the country will be served well. This thing is running way behind schedule. You know there are too many political fights being picked by the government when they get under pressure. We've seen that yet again in relation to Queensland by ministers like David Littleproud and Peter Dutton, presumably licenced by the Prime Minister or his office. So greater sense of transparency and a greater sense of urgency is needed. 

MACDONALD: Mark Butler, thank you very much. 

BUTLER: Thanks, Hamish.