Scott Morrison insists ‘every effort’ was made to get vaccines, despite Greg Hunt missing Pfizer meeting | Scott Morrison

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The prime minister, Scott Morrison, has rejected claims Australia missed out on securing Pfizer vaccine supplies, after the pharmaceutical company’s request for a high-level government meeting was knocked back last year.

Documents released under freedom of information to the Labor party show that representatives from Pfizer contacted the government in June 2020 suggesting a meeting between global executives and the health minister Greg Hunt.

While the correspondence shows that a health department bureaucrat attended the meeting instead of Hunt, Morrison insisted that “every effort” was made to secure vaccine supplies.

The government did not sign a deal with Pfizer until November 2020, when it secured the supply of 10m doses of its mRNA Covid-19 vaccine.

The prime minister said the “engagement” between the company and the government had begun in the first half of 2020, but Pfizer’s focus had been on the northern hemisphere, which was already grappling with the virus.

“Those discussions were already underway, but it was very clear from those discussions that the focus was not on Australia, the focus was on where people were dying in their thousands, tens of thousands, in the northern hemisphere,” Morrison said.

“It was very clear to us that what we would have to do is ensure that we had a home manufactured vaccine, and so we were applying our efforts to ensure that we had the sovereign capability to produce vaccines here in Australia and not be reliant on what would be very uncertain supplies from overseas.

“We needed to deal with our own challenges and have our own Australian solutions to them to make our own Australian way, and that’s exactly what we did.”

At the time the Pfizer deal was signed, Australia had already entered into a contract for the supply of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which could be manufactured domestically and which was to form the backbone of the vaccine program.

When Morrison was asked whether Hunt had been right not to attend the meeting at Pfizer’s request, the prime minister said: “I’ll let others make those judgments.”

“I’ll simply say this: it was one of many engagements that we were having with vaccine companies around the world, and they were happening with Pfizer at the time. To suggest that they weren’t would be false,” Morrison said.

He said there would always be “hindsight heroes”, but the government had “caught up” the vaccine program, with the extra doses secured from overseas now putting Australia back on its original target of having sufficient vaccine coverage for all Australians by October.

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“When you come up against these challenges in a global crisis, you adapt, you overcome and you seek to make up the ground, and that’s exactly what the government has done,” Morrison said.

“Of course there’ll be critics in the middle of a crisis and there will be lots of hindsight heroes.

“If they want to focus on the past, that’s fine. My government is focusing on the future.”

A nurse at Qudos Bank Arena in Sydney administers a Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine.
A nurse at Qudos Bank Arena in Sydney administers a Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine. Australia’s vaccine rollout has been delayed because of a lack of supply. Photograph: Brendon Thorne/AAP

Morrison’s defence of the government’s vaccine program comes as Labor seized on the Pfizer correspondence to harden its criticism of the rollout, saying Australia had signed the Pfizer deal months after other equivalent countries.

“While every other developed country in the world was tearing a hamstring to get into a meeting room with Pfizer and sign a supply deal on behalf of their people, there was a go-slow in Australia. It was too little, too late for Scott Morrison,” Labor’s shadow health minister Mark Butler said.

Morrison welcomes NSW reopening plan

On Thursday, Morrison also welcomed the NSW government’s reopening plan, saying it “kept the faith” with Australians by honouring the national plan agreed by national cabinet. He said other states should also outline their plans for vaccinated citizens.

“I look forward to similar steps being taken by other premiers around the country, which no doubt they will, because I know they want to keep that deal with Australians,” Morrison said.

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Where can I get vaccinated in Australia?

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The majority of Australians aged 18 and over are now eligible for a Covid vaccination if they are willing to consider the AstraZeneca vaccine, and provided they do not have a history of specific health conditions.

In addition to the government’s official eligibility checker, which lists some clinics near your location which might have vaccination appointments available, there are a number of other helpful resources that can help you to find somewhere that has appointments open.

You can find our comprehensive guide to finding a vaccination appointment here.

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Under the national plan, a gradual easing of restrictions is proposed once vaccination rates reach 70% and 80%, although the fine detail of what this will mean is yet to be agreed.

Morrison also this week told Australians overseas – of which there are an estimated 45,000 – that he was hopeful they could return by the year’s end.

But as the federal government has been laying the groundwork for a reopening of international borders, the Western Australia premier Mark McGowan suggested on Thursday that the state may keep its borders closed until April next year. Morrison, however, said he thought Western Australians would want to get vaccinated to allow the state to reopen sooner.

“He (McGowan) is making assumptions that Western Australians won’t get vaccinated until some time in January. I don’t think Western Australians will be that complacent,” Morrison said.

He said that all states would need to go “through the tunnel” to begin living with the virus, and urged WA to prepare.

“My advice to Western Australia is get vaccinated and get ready – get your hospital system ready, get your health system ready, and push through and we can all reconnect and be one again.”

According to the latest vaccination data, more than 40% of the eligible population over the age of 16 are now fully vaccinated, with 65.4% having received a first dose.

A total of 21.85 million doses have now been administered.

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