In words that may have already come back to haunt him, Scott Morrison said the vaccine rollout wasn’t a race.
Now, with fewer than five per cent of the population fully vaccinated, Australia is ranked dead-last in the OECD, a lowly position which two experts have described as unacceptable and a direct result of flawed government COVID-19 vaccine strategy.
“It’s a sad indictment on the situation we’re in where our vaccine rollout is patently one of the worst in the world,” former secretary of the Department of Health Stephen Duckett told nine.com.au.
With 60 per cent of its adult population vaccinated, Israel sits atop the OECD list, with Chile at 53.8 per cent and Iceland on 52 per cent rounding out a top-three.
The United Kingdom and US are ranked fifth and sixth, with vaccination rates of 47.5 per cent and 45.5 per cent, according to their latest government data.
Costa Rica, ranked 22 of 28 OECD countries, has vaccinated 15.6 per cent of the population – more than three times Australia’s rate.
Australia is one of just nine OECD nations which has less than 20 per cent of its population fully vaccinated.
New Zealand, with 7.9 per cent, is second-last.
Misguided Federal Government strategy last year, including the crucial mistake of hitching Australia’s wagon to just two vaccines then under development, had come back to bite hard in 2021, Mr Duckett claimed.
Last July, most countries had put bets on a “broad range” of vaccines, Mr Duckett said, lining up deals in as many as eight vaccines to see which ones worked out.
“Australia had a very narrow range of vaccines,” he said, pointing to the Federal Government backing the failed University of Queensland vaccine and the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.
“On top of that, of course, we had the failures in the logistics.”
He said there were a “whole lot of other failures” which had contributed to Australia’s problem-plagued rollout and “all of them are decisions of government”.
Infectious disease expert Bill Bowtell, adjunct professor at UNSW, also said the blame should lie at the feet of the Federal Government.
He said both horses Australia backed – AstraZeneca and UQ – had “fallen over”.
“We are last because, unlike almost every other OECD country a year ago, we decided not to back every horse in the race (to ensure we) procured adequate supplies of vaccine by the beginning of 2021.”
In contrast, Mr Bowtell said, the United Kingdom had last year backed every coronavirus vaccine which passed the first two trials, with an eye towards final approvals and securing crucial supply agreements.
“It’s up to the (Federal) Government to explain why, when that was what was going on, everywhere else in the world, they decided not to do it.”
Mr Bowtell claimed the government’s decision to bet on UQ and AstraZeneca had been based on “commercial and political considerations”, pointing to the eventual deal for the local manufacture of the AstraZeneca vaccine by CSL in Melbourne.
“It’s very good to manufacture vaccines in Australia, that’s excellent,” Mr Bowtell said.
“But the supply of AstraZeneca to the people who needed it was held up for months, because they couldn’t produce it,” he said, noting it took some time for CSL to get operational.
“Now the facts speak for themselves. Fewer than five per cent of people are totally vaccinated in Australia today and we have the Delta variant running rampant around the country.”
Mr Bowtell said Australia, with a population of just 25 million, should be right up alongside OECD leaders, the UK, US, Germany and Finland, with vaccination rates nudging 50 per cent.
“We were too late,” he said.
Last year, as the pandemic raged, Australia was one of the world’s success stories.
But now, after problems securing AstraZeneca supplies, mixed and muddled government messaging on vaccines and worrying levels of vaccine hesitancy around the country, Australia is one of the developed world’s worst performers for vaccinating the population.
“It was always a race,” Mr Duckett claimed, criticising earlier government messaging that going slow with vaccines was okay.
“The reason it was always a race was that we wanted to open the borders, and we can’t open the borders until we’ve got a high proportion of the population vaccinated.
“And secondly, we always knew there were new variants coming around.
“And we wanted to be vaccinated before we had the new variants coming around. And as it turned out, they did come around before we vaccinated.”
At the time, the government defended the pace of its rollout by stating Australia was not like the US or UK, where many people were hospitalised and dying.
The Delta variant suddenly has Australia on a knife-edge, after a spiralling breakout in Sydney.
Mr Bowtell pointed to a Sydney birthday party, which NSW Health officials have described as a super-spreader event, as an example of how better vaccination rates could have helped prevent the current predicament.
Of the 30 people who attended the West Hoxton party, 24 people tested positive, as did many of their close contacts once they left the celebration.
The six people who didn’t catch Delta had been vaccinated.
“The figures speak for themselves,” he said.