‘I’m sorry’: Scott Morrison apologises for slow pace of Australia’s vaccine rollout | Scott Morrison
Scott Morrison has apologised for Australia’s slow vaccination rollout a day after he repeatedly declined to say sorry for the government’s missteps during an interview with a Melbourne radio host.
“I’m certainly sorry we haven’t been able to achieve the marks that we hoped for at the beginning of this year,” the prime minister told reporters in Canberra on Thursday when announcing that pharmacies, backed by a commonwealth indemnity, would be able to administer AstraZeneca vaccinations from August.
“Of course I am [sorry]. But what’s important is that we’re totally focused on ensuring that we’ve been turning this around. I take responsibility for the vaccination program [and] I also take responsibility for the challenges we’ve had.”
With new Covid infections continuing to rise and millions of Australians locked down, Morrison used a number of media interviews on Thursday to encourage people to get vaccinated. The prime minister said the risks associated with the Delta variant made it imperative to get more “horsepower” behind the AstraZeneca vaccine.
As well as refusing to apologise for problems with the rollout on Wednesday, Morrison also engaged in public lobbying of the Australian technical advisory group on immunisation to change its public health advice on AstraZeneca.
The prime minister said the latest outbreak required a new risk assessment to ensure more people got vaccinated. As the public backlash has grown about a lack of vaccine supply, Morrison has sought to shift criticism of the troubled vaccine rollout onto the independent advisory board.
On Thursday, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) confirmed in its weekly safety report there had been two more deaths in Australia from rare blood clots likely linked to AstraZeneca. One was a 44-year-old man from Tasmania and the other was a 48-year-old woman from Victoria.
A total of five deaths from thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome have now been reported in Australia out of 6.1m doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. All of the deaths were related to a first dose.
The TGA has noted that in Australia, severe cases of TTS appeared to be more common in women in younger age groups.
Morrison’s reflections on Atagi attracted the ire of the Victorian health minister, Martin Foley, on Thursday. Foley declared Morrison should “not seek to blame people for doing their job”.
Foley said Morrison’s negative commentary about Atagi was “unusual” and an “unnecessary shot at professionals doing their jobs”. He said Atagi was comprised of the most “pre-eminent physicians and experts in their field and [the experts] respond to the inquiries and the issues that governments put to them”.
The Victorian health minister said rather than seeking to blame expert advisers for turbocharging vaccine hesitancy and contributing to delays in the rollout, the prime minister should “constructively engage” with Atagi and reach a solution.
“Don’t seek to blame people for doing their job,” Foley said, before doubling down with a direct criticism of the prime minister. “If we all did our job, we may not be in this position we are in today with very low vaccine rate.”
Morrison nuanced his critique of the expert group on Thursday. He told reporters at the Lodge in Canberra that he completely respected Atagi but he said prime ministers should not just “accept advice uncritically”.
“Whether it is sitting in cabinet meetings or in other forums, of course I challenge the advice that I receive,” the prime minister said.
“I ask questions. I drill into it. You would expect me to do that. Australians would not expect me to just take this advice simply on the face of it. We must interrogate it.”
Morrison said the changing public health advice about AstraZeneca had “caused some hesitation amongst people, particularly older people”. But he said his comments on Wednesday reflected not a lack of confidence or respect for experts, but a shift in the balance of risks.
The prime minister confirmed the commonwealth would indemnify general practitioners and pharmacies prepared to administer the AstraZeneca vaccination to people under the age of 60. But he said it would be left to state governments to indemnify people administering vaccinations in their mass hubs.
It was pointed out to Morrison that the Western Australian government was not prepared to administer AstraZeneca through its hubs. The prime minister said it was “a decision for the state governments about what they are offering”.
“I want to get AstraZeneca vaccines in people’s arms to protect them, their families and their communities,” the prime minister said.
“That is what I want. I am trying to lift the vaccination rate, and states that have been leaning in to vaccination using AstraZeneca have much higher vaccination rates than those who haven’t”.
The NSW health minister, Brad Hazzard, also took another veiled swipe at the federal government over the vaccine rollout.
Hazzard said vaccine hesitancy towards the AstraZeneca jab was “a shocker”.
“That’s obviously come off the back of advice that came out of Atagi and also then translated by the federal government,” the Liberal minister said. “We need to take a step back and say … most of us can’t afford the luxury of sitting back and saying I don’t want to have the vaccine that has actually been taken by almost every country in the world.”