DOORSTOP: 12/3/21

March 12, 2021


MARK BUTLER, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGEING: As of last night, around the world 334 million COVID vaccines had been administered. As of last night over 100 million Americans have received their vaccine and President Biden has committed that by the end of May the entire population will be vaccinated. As of last night, about half of the adult population in the UK, about 25 million people have received their vaccination - equivalent to the entire adult and children population of Australia, other countries are doing even better than these two. Here in Australia, though, at the end of the third week of the vaccine rollout that started significantly later than the rest of the world, we've only administered 150,000 of the first doses of the vaccine. More than 99 per cent of Australians have not even received their first dose.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison quite famously, along with Greg Hunt, committed to 4 million vaccinations by the end of March. Now I acknowledge that they then let that slip to mid-April. Then after that, they said no 4 million will be perhaps by late or the end of April. Now they've dropped that commitment entirely. They've also said that the vaccinations will be complete by the end of October. Scott Morrison said that on Sunrise yesterday, he said “we will get this done by October, as we said we would.” This is critically important not just for the health of Australians, but also for our ability to get that economic recovery going. By opening up the economy and being confident in the event of any outbreaks or what's happening around the world with variants.
Only yesterday afternoon, in spite of the Prime Minister making that commitment again yesterday morning on Sunrise, his own officials said that it was more likely that the vaccinations would be complete towards the end of 2021 or even into 2022. The Australian Medical Association has said there's no way it's going to be done by the end of October. New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian has said we're likely to run months behind schedule. Many experts saying that the vaccination rollout will run into 2022.
The systems that the Commonwealth Government is responsible for putting in place are still in disarray. We know that the National Booking System that surely should have been ready to go as soon as the vaccines were approved is still some weeks away. It's still being built. We've seen report after report of general practitioners, who are ready to start their vaccinations the week after next for phase 1b being told in spite of the fact that they've got the capacity to do as many as 1,000 vaccinations per week, they're only going to receive 50 doses.
This strategy is fast becoming a complete mess. The Prime Minister has to do better because the health of Australians depends on a successful vaccine rollout. Our ability to open up the economy also depends on that success. The Prime Minister has got to do a lot better than this and he could start by coming clean with Australians. When will Australia finally be protected by this vaccine?

JOURNALIST: What confidence can Australians have in this vaccine program that's been delayed by two months already in just the first three weeks?

BUTLER: The first three weeks have not been a good signal. We're running well behind schedule already. And the systems that the Commonwealth should have had up and running ready to go as soon as the vaccines were approved are still weeks away. People don't know how they're going to be able to book to get a vaccine. GPs are being told even when they've done the hard work to get ready to deliver the vaccines, that they'll only get 50 doses per week when they might be able to deliver as many as 1,000 per week. This is critically important, particularly as we see variants start to emerge around the rest of the world. Australian business groups have been saying we need to be vaccinated. We need the whole community vaccinated so we can start to open up the economy and yet this is becoming a complete mess.

JOURNALIST: Shadow Minister what specifically, you mentioned the economy, what areas specifically do you fear for if this vaccination program is delayed and delayed?

BUTLER: I'm looking at comments from the Australian Industry Group this morning, from the Chamber of Commerce and Industry. There are particular industries like international education, international tourism, that are dependent upon the ability to open up our borders as the vaccine is spread through the rest of the world. The Australian Industry Group this morning said that Australia runs the risk of falling behind the rest of the world, as economies around the world start to open up because their population is fully vaccinated. This is not only just about the health of Australians, although that's the primary interest, it's also about the health of our economy.

JOURNALIST: The reasonable excuse to say that Australia has done extremely well, it's causing a situation we have very few cases compared to other places around the world. Is that at all an excuse to delay this program?

BUTLER: I think it was reasonable for the Therapeutic Goods Administration taking longer than their equivalents in the US and the UK did to approve the vaccines. But the Pfizer vaccine was approved in January here in Australia, around the rest of the world, vaccines started rolling out within a few days of the vaccine being approved by their medicines authority. Yet we're now almost seven weeks since the Pfizer vaccine was approved by the TGA. We've only given 150,00 first doses of the vaccine to Australian people. So yes, there was good reason for us to take our time with the TGA approval but by the time that approval was given, we should have been scaling up very quickly, the system should have been in place. The Australian Government under Scott Morrison has let the Australian people down.

JOURNALIST: Since the TGA approved the vaccine, do you see glaring gaps specifically, or perhaps even foresaw any gaps, in the government’s rollout?

BUTLER: We were saying ,even before the approval, that the Australian Government should have had in place as soon as the approval was given a booking system that Australian people and Australian GPs and pharmacists understood so that people could quite easily book where to get their vaccination. The training system should have been in place, and fault free and a whole range of other systems to make sure that this vaccine rollout could happen as quickly and effectively and safely as possible. We're seeing that happen around the world, millions of doses are being delivered around the world every single day. And yet here, we can only manage about 50,000 every week at the moment, that's simply not good enough. The Australian Government has got to do much better.

JOURNALIST: How concerned are you by the Astra Zeneca vaccine and the Scandinavian countries identifying that maybe they're causing blood clots? Is that something we should be worried about in Australia?

BUTLER: I have very strong confidence in the ability of the TGA, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, to monitor any reports about potential adverse events, to monitor them to examine them and to give advice to the Australian people and to Australian governments.

JOURNALIST: You don't think we should follow suit?

BUTLER: I think the TGA is well equipped to consider that and make a decision accordingly.

JOURNALIST: Do you think there's any possibility that this Government might have been distracted by things that have been going on internally?

BUTLER: This should be the primary focus of the Australian Government. This pandemic is not only a threat to the health of Australians, it is holding our economy back and costing Australians jobs. These systems should havebeen in preparation late last year ready to go as soon as the approval was given for the TGA. It beggars belief why we don't have a National Booking System in place right now, that it's still weeks away. It beggars belief that GPs and pharmacists don't know how they're going to be able to connect with their patients and their customers to make sure they get the vaccine as soon as possible.

JOURNALIST: Do you welcome the Government's new car manufacturers announcement and will it save future dealers or is it too late given Holdens has already abandoned the country?

BUTLER: We just can't trust this Government when it comes to the car industry. For years we've been calling, and the industry has been calling, and Australian dealers have been calling for a fair industry code that would protect Australian motorists and Australian car dealers from the big global car manufacturers and this Government has done nothing for years. There was a unanimous parliamentary committee report delivered back in 2019 that the Government could have acted upon again, they did nothing. This just a pattern of behaviour from a Government that has never done the right thing by Australian motorists. The best example of that is when they chased Holden and Toyota out of the country costing tens of thousands of jobs.

JOURNALIST: And this has just come in, Shadow Minister. The Defence Minister says she wants to retract her ‘lying cow’ comment about Brittany Higgins, is this too little too late? Does she still need to face repercussions?

BUTLER: We just think her position is completely untenable given those comments and those circumstances so that's obviously now a matter between her and Ms Higgins, I imagine, and their legal representatives. But I think as a Minister of the Crown to say those sorts of things I think makes her position untenable.

JOURNALIST: You think the fact that it's now been retracted just isn't good enough?

BUTLER: It’s just too little, too late, I think. But ultimately that’s a matter for Ms Higgins.