Looking backwards

The letter is very clear. It is addressed to Health Minister Greg Hunt and was sent by Pfizer on June 30 last year. Four days earlier, the company had begun correspondence with the Health Department. They said they would make millions of doses of Covid-19 vaccine before the end of the year and wanted to negotiate on supply.

“I would like to take this opportunity to provide an overview of our candidate vaccine development and manufacturing program,” the letter says, “and request a meeting with you to open discussions regarding your planning for potential Covid-19 vaccination programs.”

It continues: “Should our candidate vaccine be successful in clinical trials and receive regulatory approval or emergency use authorisation, we want to work with governments, as well as other vaccine manufacturers and global bodies, to supply the world as quickly as we can.

“I would welcome an opportunity to discuss our candidate vaccine development in more detail, and open discussions on how we might work together to support planning for potential Covid-19 vaccinations in Australia and continue to build a strong partnership for the future.”

The letter ends saying someone from Pfizer would be in touch to schedule the meeting. “I look forward to meeting you and working with you into the future.”

Greg Hunt never responded. Three days later, a first assistant secretary from the Health Department wrote back. A meeting was scheduled for July 10. The assistant secretary did not receive a detailed briefing because she could not sign the confidentiality waiver proposed by the company. It was August 4 before anyone in Hunt’s office met with Pfizer.

A deal for 10 million doses was not signed until November, by which time the United States and Britain had already secured supply. The first doses did not arrive in Australia until February. Supply has been an issue since. It was not until July, more than a year after correspondence began, that Scott Morrison spoke to a senior executive from the company.

This sequence describes the central failure of the Morrison government. It is a failure of urgency and humility. The government has done everything it can to obscure it and nowhere near enough to correct it.

In June this year, the first assistant secretary told senate estimates there had been “a couple of emails to and fro”. She said the briefing she attended had not included specifics. “We said we were interested to talk to them about potentially purchasing that vaccine but that was it, there were no numbers or details that were put on the table at that discussion.”

There might have been, had the minister been present. Pfizer made that clear in its correspondence. Hunt is yet to explain why he wasn’t there, although he says it would not have made a difference. This isn’t a huge endorsement of his own skills. Hunt is a man used to coming second. His official biography still lists him as “a runner up in the World Debating Championships”.

The prime minister says there are “a lot of heroes of hindsight at the moment”. The real issue, though, is the complete absence of foresight. It’s an absence that marks almost every part of Morrison’s leadership – a total, crippling inability to engage with the future.

We hear about the error months later. Usually, the prime minister has already been denying it for weeks. By the time the document arrives to prove it, he has stumbled face first into something else.

We are a country living in reverse, always catching up with the failures of our leaders, who in that time have failed again, pushing the present just a little further away. It has happened on vaccinations and is happening on climate change and aged care and just about any other policy area you can imagine. Morrison calls it hindsight, although his government got the letters the same day they were sent.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 11, 2021 as "Looking backwards".

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