Mass vax implosion

The Morrison government won’t say how much Covid-19 vaccine there is in the country. They won’t say to which states it has been sent or how much has been administered. When asked in private briefings, the answer is: “That’s information in confidence.”

There is no public data to say why the rollout has stalled, or if it was hubs that produced a record day for vaccinations this week, or to show if that was related to supply. There is no data to say what is working and what is not.

Epidemiologists are relying on unofficial sources to piece together information. What is freely available in New Zealand is not available here. Secrecy threads through the entire response.

“That’s a sad testament to what information the government could be but is not giving,” says Mary-Louise McLaws, an adviser to the World Health Organization on infection control for Covid-19.

“This builds up mistrust, and you don’t want mistrust in an outbreak. My question is: Why would you sign an agreement that won’t let the government tell the taxpayer what’s going on? To me, it’s a bad agreement Australia is signing if they can’t tell taxpayers what has turned up.” At another briefing, McLaws asked how many people by age group and phase had been vaccinated. That information is key to understanding uptake. “The answer was: It’s too difficult.”

Similarly, there is no federal data to show how many people in hotel quarantine have tested positive or on what day of their quarantine this has happened. The government directs researchers to the states, despite having legal responsibility.

“We need transparency of data: how much we were promised and how much has arrived,” McLaws says. “Transparency makes for co-operation and trust. You don’t get to fight a pandemic without trust and co-operation.”

McLaws says there’s an argument that the rollout should prioritise 20- to 39-year-olds, at least from an epidemiological standpoint. “They’re young, mobile, sociable and they’re looking for work,” she says. “They’re responsible for 50 per cent of cases in Australia. That’s the group I would be targeting first. And then you get ads and campaigns that target those groups.”

It is not clear what plan the government has for the rollout. The country is behind targets and has no way to meet them this year. Public health messaging is limited. Money has been spent with McKinsey and other private enterprises, but it is not clear what experts have been consulted. Hubs have been belatedly established, but their services are hugely undersubscribed. There is no information on how much vaccine has spoiled because of this. Once reconstituted, the Pfizer vaccine lasts only six hours.

It is hard to believe that the secrecy is just one of contracts. It is the secrecy of government incompetence, of saying nothing because there is nothing good to say. Where scrutiny is needed there is equivocation.

It is urgent for the government to make clear the process of the vaccine rollout, to accept its flaws and rebuild public trust. Information about supply should be published, as should vaccination rates by age group and location. There is a real prospect that without this, and a multipronged plan for mass vaccination, Australia will not reach herd immunity.

For the Morrison government, this is a political issue. For everyone else, it is about how we live. Both are forms of survival, but one should matter much more than the other. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 15, 2021 as "Mass vax implosion".

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