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As Labor tries to capture the debate over vaccine incentives, the Morrison government has been working on a possible lottery. By Karen Middleton.

Morrison approached Tabcorp for Covid-19 lottery

The Morrison government has held talks with major gambling company Tabcorp on designing a lottery open only to those vaccinated against Covid-19.

The Saturday Paper has confirmed the government sought advice from Tabcorp on how a lottery could be designed to encourage vaccination, after the company indicated in July that it supported the idea.

Asked to comment, Tabcorp provided the same statement it issued in July, saying it supported the lottery idea. “That remains our response,” a spokesman said.

It comes as Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese proposes a more direct alternative – $300 cash handouts to those already vaccinated or who get vaccinated by December 1, at a cost of $6 billion.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has dismissed the suggestion as “an insult” to Australians who didn’t need cash to do the right thing.

Albanese’s proposal was partly designed as a policy contribution but mostly to wedge the prime minister.

The Saturday Paper has learnt Labor tested the idea among voters during focus-group research recently. The response was overwhelmingly positive, which is why Albanese and key shadow ministers decided to proceed.

“We need to do everything we can to encourage people to have a conversation about getting vaccinated,” Albanese told Hit FM on Wednesday. “And 300 bucks would be ample reward and also would help stimulate the economy.”

The suggestion was timed to seize the agenda as parliament returned from its winter break. Labor strategists believe the government will have to offer incentives to meet its timetable of having 80 per cent of over-16s fully vaccinated by Christmas.

Despite Morrison’s protests, incentives planning is already under way, as vaccine rollout commander Lieutenant-General John Frewen confirmed.

“We’ll look at all of the sorts of possible alternatives,” Frewen told journalists on Wednesday. “I mean there’s cash, there’s the idea of lotteries – all of these things have been discussed.”

Like Morrison, Frewen emphasised what have been dubbed “freedom” incentives instead. “What is resonating with people right now really,” he said, “is being able to get back to the sort of lifestyle we used to enjoy – international travel, not having to do quarantine, not having to go into lockdowns and those sorts of things.”

But relying on “freedom” incentives has a major flaw: circular logic. To offer freedom, enough people must be vaccinated. So for the incentives to work best, the problem must have already been solved.

Dr Jane Williams, a research fellow at Sydney Health Ethics in Sydney University’s medicine faculty, argues there is a misplaced emphasis in public debate on people’s unwillingness to be vaccinated. She says there should be more focus on what stops people being vaccinated, including vaccine availability and personal cost in time, money and inconvenience. There are issues with transport, leave, childcare and parking fees.

Williams doesn’t oppose incentives but says these other issues should be addressed first. She refers to research from the London-based Nuffield Council on Bioethics on how to influence behaviour to benefit public health.

The institute’s “ladder of intervention” lays out steps for policymakers and the best order for taking them.

The ladder has eight rungs. Incentives are at No. 5, after merely monitoring the situation, providing clear information, enabling choices and ensuring it is easy to make the best ones.

Fourth-rung examples could include making healthy food widely available – or making vaccination as easy as possible.

Incentives come next, followed by disincentives, restrictions on choice and compulsion.

Williams argues Australia’s vaccine rollout strategy has these in the wrong order, with workers in residential aged-care forced to be vaccinated by September 17 or banned from working – without having been given adequate help to meet the requirement.

Williams was among a group of experts who published a paper on pandemic vaccination in the journal Vaccine in February this year.

Its authors included the Doherty Institute’s Professor Jodie McVernon, who produced the government-commissioned modelling released this week advising that Australia needs 80 per cent of over-16s fully vaccinated to avoid future lockdowns.

The February paper warned that delaying decision-making to wait for “clear evidence” risked “looking unprepared”.

It also emphasised the importance of clear aims and communication. “What we outlined is not what I see happening,” Williams says.

This week, Frewen published a 58-page “campaign” road map to get the public to what he calls the “centre of gravity” – the level of “positive public sentiment” required before enough people will chose to be vaccinated.

In short, his mission is to make people feel better about being vaccinated, so they do it. For that to work, Williams says, there has to be more vaccine.

“There are all of these different things that vaccine messages can do,” she says. “But they can’t do them if we don’t have enough vaccine.”

The rollout and Labor’s cash proposal dominated parliamentary debate this week. Morrison said incentives could be helpful, “but not this one”.

“The best incentive is this: you’re less likely to get the virus, you’re less likely to transmit the virus, you’re less likely to get seriously ill, you’re less likely to die.” The vaccine came with “a built-in incentive”, he said – reduced harm to individuals, their families and the community.

Incentives have been used in other countries, including free eggs, chickens and cows across Asia, and lotteries in the United States. Private companies have also offered free transport and childcare.

Williams says what persuades people will vary. Cash offers may make some vaccine-hesitant people more resistant, implying they can be bought.

“Having said that, I think the $300 would make a lot of people say, ‘Yeah, sure,’ ” she says. “It might work.”

Labor points to the prime minister’s ferocious response – which backbencher Graham Perrett described as like “a dropped Scrabble box” – as evidence it already has.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 7, 2021 as "Morrison approached Tabcorp for Covid-19 lottery".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.