Scott Morrison has blamed Australia’s top doctors advising on immunisation for the warnings applied to AstraZeneca, and the resulting slow rollout of Covid-19 vaccines.
In an interview with 2GB Radio on Wednesday, the prime minister said “very cautious” decisions by the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisations (Atagi) had slowed the rollout “considerably” and “put us behind”.
Atagi’s co-chair, professor Allen Cheng, pushed back by noting in comments to Guardian Australia that its role is to provide advice, but the federal government remains responsible for making decisions and the vaccination rollout.
Morrison also rebuked former Liberal MP Craig Kelly for spreading misinformation about the safety of vaccines and warned the UK’s decision to ease restrictions was “an experiment” as Covid deaths continued despite higher vaccination rates.
Australia’s vaccine rollout has suffered from overreliance on domestically produced AstraZeneca vaccines, which have been found to cause extremely rare but potentially deadly blood clots.
In April Atagi advised people under 50 to get Pfizer vaccines, as the risk of complications from blood clots from AstraZeneca was greater than the risk of Covid-19 for that group.
Although the advice was always subject to an exception for individuals who consulted their GP and decided the benefits of AstraZeneca outweighed the costs, it resulted in decreased confidence in AstraZeneca.
In June, Atagi broadened the warning, advising people under 59 that AstraZeneca was not recommended.
Nevertheless, when the Delta strain of Covid entered Australia Morrison opened eligibility for AstraZeneca to under 40s and encouraged them to speak to their GPs by extending the commonwealth indemnity and rebate for consultations.
On Wednesday, Morrison told 2GB radio that 20,000 people under 40 had received the AstraZeneca vaccine since his comments on 28 June.
Morrison said he had noted that AstraZeneca was “approved for persons over 18” by the Therapeutic Goods Administration.
“We made available extra money for GPs to have extra consultations through Medicare to talk to people about their vaccines.
“It’s not banned for people under 50 or 60 – [it] never has been.”
Morrison said he knew younger people that had taken AstraZeneca, who he described as “smart enough to make decisions about their own health, to listen to good advice” before adding that “some will say no, some say yes” to receiving the vaccine.
“They shouldn’t [take it] without talking to their doctor – that’s all I said: ‘Go and talk to your doctor.’ People have informed consent, it’s a free country, they can decide to have it or not to have it when it comes to these things.”
Morrison said Atagi had “been very cautious and that had a massive impact on the rollout of the vaccine program, it really did”.
“It slowed it considerably and put us behind – and we wish that wasn’t the result, but it was.
“Those decisions are made independently of government, and should be.
“So if we want a system where drug control not run by politicians but professional medicos, sometimes that means they’ll be very cautious in circumstances like this.”
Cheng responded that Atagi is “an independent expert committee, with terms of reference to provide expert advice to the health minister”.
“Based on evolving evidence, we’ve had to change that advice as new information became available,” he told Guardian Australia.
“We’re always very conscious of the impacts of our recommendations on the program and vaccine confidence generally.”
Cheng said it was “appropriate” to note that professional medicos “are not politicians”.
Asked if the government remains responsible for choosing to implement advice, he replied: “Yes, they make decisions, they run the program, we provide advice – those are our terms of reference.”
Australia was slow out of the blocks to sign vaccine deals with Novavax and Moderna, leaving the rollout reliant on AstraZeneca and Pfizer, which is in short supply due to Australia’s small initial order of 10m doses to cover a population of 25 million.
In February, Australia ordered a further 10m doses of Pfizer, doubling its order again to 40m in April after the warning was applied to AstraZeneca – but supplies continue to be constrained, with most doses expected in the final three months of the year.
The federal government’s vaccine “horizons” forecast that it will still be possible to give one vaccine dose to all eligible adults who want one by the end of the year.
On Wednesday Morrison noted that in the UK despite 55% of the population being vaccinated, 200 people had died of Covid-19 in the last week and 30,000 people contracted it every day. Boris Johnson has announced from 19 July most of the UK’s Covid-19 restrictions will be repealed.
Noting comparisons between Australia and the UK, Morrison said they had “more cases in a day than we had in 18 months. I wish them well as they go into the next phase – but it will be quite an experiment.”
Asked about independent MP Craig Kelly’s comments that people are more likely to die from vaccination than Covid-19, Morrison dismissed them as “rubbish” and confirmed he is prepared to call out what he described as the “very unhelpful” extremes of the vaccination debate.
“For those saying … ‘the whole Covid thing is a conspiracy [and vaccines will] turn your arms into magnets’, it’s just crazy nonsense, and it does put people’s lives at risk.
“And equally at the other end – which says ‘we all have to do nothing for ever and you can eliminate this thing’ – that’s rubbish too.”
Morrison said Sydney was going through a “tough time” with its Delta strain lockdown, but boasted that Australia’s Covid response had “saved over 30,000 lives” and the rollout is now administering 1m doses per week.