Health Minister Hunt failed to take up Pfizer’s June 2020 invitation to meet

Michelle Grattan, University of CanberraDocuments show Pfizer reached out in June 2020 for a meeting with federal Health Minister Greg Hunt, but he did not take up the invitation.

Labor obtained the documents under freedom of information and the opposition health spokesman Mark Butler said they showed the government “took a deliberate ‘wait and see’ approach to vaccine deals”, a claim Hunt rejected in a statement late Wednesday.

Inadequate supplies of Pfizer slowed the rollout, becoming an increasing problem after AstraZeneca was set back by health warnings for some age groups and resultant hesitancy among many people.

The government announced in November last year it had an agreement to obtain ten million Pfizer doses. More were subsequently purchased, but the supply timetable left persistent shortages.

The government scrambled to bring forward some of the Pfizer doses and recently Scott Morrison intervened with some vaccine diplomacy to get extra doses from Poland, Singapore and Britain. Efforts to get doses from the US failed.

The documents include a letter from the managing director of Pfizer Australia to Hunt dated June 30 2020 requesting “a meeting with you to open discussions regarding your planning for potential COVID-19 vaccination programs”.

“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 said Pfizer would “be in touch to schedule a meeting. I look forward to meeting you and working with you into the future.”

It canvassed progress on developing a mRNA-based vaccine that, if approved, “could be deployed at unprecedented speed for the prevention of COVID-19 infection”.

The letter foreshadowed Pfizer had the potential to supply millions of vaccine doses by the end of 2020, subject to technical success and regulatory approvals and hundred of millions in 2021.

A covering email from a Pfizer representative noted a request for a formal engagement opportunity with members of the Vaccines Taskforce.

Senior members of Pfizer’s global leadership team would be available for this “particularly if the Minister and/or Departmental leadership can be involved,” it said.

“As the vaccine development landscape is moving swiftly, including through engagements with other nations, I am requesting this meeting occur at the earliest opportunity,” the email said.

On July 3 Lisa Schofield, first assistant secretary, health economics and research division, in the health department, wrote to say she was managing the whole of government work on COVID vaccine and would appreciate an opportunity to talk about Pfizer’s plans.

Pfizer wanted a confidentiality agreement for any detailed talks, which would include several senior global representatives. The alternative it put up was a more general exploratory session, with local Pfizer representatives, including the MD of Pfizer Australia.

Schofield said the confidentiality agreement was being considered, although it was not the government’s usual practice to sign such documents. She proposed the more general session adding “we can always line up subsequent ones as needed”.

On July 23 Pfizer drew Schofield’s attention to “recent news of Pfizer’s agreements with the UK and US on vaccine supply”.

Hunt said in a statement that “both Pfizer and the Health Department have consistently confirmed, including on the public record at Senate Estimates, that the Australian government entered into formal discussions on the purchase of vaccines, as soon as the company was in a position to do so, and were in discussions prior to this”.

“When formal discussions began, no country had a contract with Pfizer.”

Hunt said there had been regular discussions with the minister’s office and Pfizer, including a meeting on 26 June 2020, initiated by his office. This was referenced in an email in the documents, and was followed by the June 30 letter, he said.

“The Australian government moved immediately to formal negotiations with the first step being to agree and negotiate a Confidentiality Disclosure Agreement.”

Hunt said the reference to millions of doses was about global capacity, not to what was on offer to Australia.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos quits, lashing out at Daniel Andrews

AAP/James Ross

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Victoria’s health minister Jenny Mikakos has resigned, pointing the finger at Premier Daniel Andrews’ evidence that hung her out to dry in the hotel quarantine inquiry on Friday.

Mikakos said in a Saturday statement she will also quit parliament.

She said she never wanted to leave a job unfinished but in light of Andrews’ statement to the inquiry “and the fact that there are elements in it that I strongly disagree with, I believe that I cannot continue to serve in his Cabinet”.

“I am disappointed that my integrity has sought to be undermined. I know that my statement [to the inquiry] and evidence would have been uncomfortable for some.”

Andrews told the inquiry in his written statement that after an April 8 cabinet meeting, Mikakos was in charge of the hotel quarantine program, in which private security guards were used. This program went horribly wrong when COVID got out, triggering Victoria’s second wave. Andrews, Mikakos and other witnesses have all said they do not know who made the decision to use private guards.

Andrews said: “At the start of the program, I regarded Minister Mikakos and Minister Pakula as responsible for informing cabinet about, and seeking cabinet’s endorsement of, the initial overall service model and costings that had been determined for the program. They did so at the Crisis Council of Cabinet meeting on 8 April 2020.

“I then regarded Minister Mikakos as accountable for the program. The CCC was provided with regular reports by Minister Mikakos containing data relevant to Victoria’s response to the public health emergency, key insights from the data, as well as other updates, including in relation to the program.”

Mikakos, in her statement posted on Twitter, said: “For 3 months I had looked forward to learning who made the fateful decision to use security guards. Victorians deserve to know who.”

She said she had never shirked her responsibility for her department “but it is not my responsibility alone”.

“As I said to the Board of Inquiry, I take responsibility for my department, the buck stops with me. With the benefit of hindsight, there are clearly matters that my department should have briefed me on. Whether they would have changed the course of events only the Board and history can determine,”

“I look forward to the Board of Inquiry’s final report.”

Mikakos said she was “deeply sorry” for the situation Victorians found themselves in. “In good conscience, I do not believe that my actions led to them.”

On Thursday she told the inquiry she was “not at all” involved in the decision to use private security guards, and “I do not know who made that decision”. She said she didn’t know private security guards were being used until late May after a COVID outbreak at Rydges, almost two months after the program started.

“I can‘t imagine why it [the use of private security guards] would be brought to my attention, because […][the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions] held the contracts with the security companies,” she said.

But her evidence immediately came into question, because she had been at a press conference in late March when the use of private security was confirmed, and private security was mentioned in a briefing note for caucus on April 8. In a statement to the inquiry on Friday, Mikakos denied misleading it.

Andrews announced at a news conference on Saturday afternoon that the Mental Health Minister, Martin Foley, will replace Mikakos as health minister.

Andrews said Mikakos had taken the “appropriate course” in resigning. But he said he had not spoken to her beforehand – or since. She has texted him that she had sent a letter to the governor, of which he was already aware.

NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard said on Twitter:

But the Health Workers Union, which had called for Mikakos’ resignation earlier this week, welcomed her departure.

Andrews said Labor would aim to have a replacement for Mikakos in the upper house before parliament next meets. Labor’s national executive will formally determine who fills the seat because the state ALP is being federally administered at present.

There will also be a replacement in cabinet, drawn from the upper house.

Foley told the Andrews news conference he had nothing but confidence in the health department and its secretary.

Andrews said the latest Victorian COVID tally was 12 new cases, and he would be making a statement on Sunday about the easing of restrictions. He said there was no dramatic variation from the road map but there were a couple of areas where more could be done.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.