Michelle Grattan, University of CanberraSeven in ten people aged 16 and over will need to be fully vaccinated for COVID restrictions to begin to be eased, under targets agreed in principle by national cabinet on Friday.
Further relaxation and opening beyond that, including a near end to lockdowns, will require 80% of those eligible to have had two doses.
At present the proportion of people 16 and over fully vaccinated is 18.24%, while nearly 40% have had a single dose.
Each targets is dual – it must be met at both the national level and in the particular state or territory. Scott Morrison described it as a “two key process”.
Announcing the targets on Friday night, Morrison said no timeline has been attached to them.
But he believed the 70% target could be reached by the end of the year.
“There will certainly be the supply and the distribution and the opportunity to do that. But whether that is achieved is up to all of us.”
The long-awaited numbers have been attached to the four-phase re-opening plan previously endorsed in principle by the national cabinet.
In the current phase, the objective is to suppress COVID, including by tough lockdowns.
The second “transition” phase, triggered by the 70% vaccination levels, seeks to minimise severe illness, hospitalisation and deaths with low level restrictions.
In this phase, lockdowns would still be possible but less likely.
Restrictions would be eased on vaccinated residents. Morrison said this was “because if you’re vaccinated, you present less of a public health risk.
“You are less likely to get the virus. You are less likely to transmit it.” But the detail of how this would operate is still to be worked out.
The third “consolidation” phase – triggered by the 80% threshold – would have only highly targeted lockdowns, such as for vulnerable communities, and would exempt vaccinated residents from all domestic restrictions.
In the final phase, COVID would be treated like other infectious diseases.
The targets follow modelling from the Doherty Institute and work by Treasury.
They come as the latest tally of cases in Sydney, where the lockdown has been extended by one month, was 170 new community cases.
Amid calls for the NSW government to impose an even tougher lockdown, Morrison said it had been agreed “under this plan, no state or territory is required to increase the restrictions beyond where they are right now.”
Morrison said in the suppression phase, “going
hard early” with lockdowns “ultimately results in less cost on the economy”.
But in phase B “then the calculus does change and lockdowns do cost a lot”.
After the announcement crossbench MP Craig Kelly, who was formerly in the Liberal party, lashed out on Twitter, claiming constitutional freedoms were being violated and declaring “WE MUST FIGHT THIS”.
Michelle Grattan, University of CanberraAs NSW on Wednesday extended its lockdown for another month and the federal government shelled out more money, it was as if we were back in 2020 and Victoria’s long incarceration.
Thankfully, one big difference is that the Sydney outbreak, where the latest figure is 177 new locally acquired cases, hasn’t had (at least so far) a high death rate.
Some deaths are occurring, including a woman in her 30s, but the nursing homes now seem substantially protected, although there remains concern immunisation of aged care workers has a long way to go.
In its latest funding, the federal government has resisted calls for the reinstatement of JobKeeper, but there is help for both individuals and businesses.
Scott Morrison announced the maximum COVID disaster payment for workers who lose hours would rise from $600 to a maximum of $750 (the original JobKeeper level). There will also be $200 for people on welfare payments who lose more than eight hours work.
The Prime Minister argued JobKeeper did not have the flexibility now required.
JobKeeper was “not the right solution for the problems we have now,” he told his news conference (held at The Lodge, where he’s isolating, with reporters clutching umbrellas).
“What we are doing now is faster [paying the money direct to workers rather than through the employers], it’s more effective, it’s more targeted, it’s getting help where it is needed
far more quickly.
“We’re not dealing with a pandemic outbreak across
the whole country.
“What we need now is the focused effort on where the need is right now. And so it can be turned on and off to the extent that we have outbreaks.
“JobKeeper was a great scheme. But you don’t play last year’s grand final this year. You deal with this year’s challenges.”
The cost of boosting the disaster payment and the welfare top up will depend on how long the NSW lockdown lasts – and what other (if any) future lockdowns occur there or elsewhere.
Under an expanded package for businesses hit by the NSW restrictions, more businesses will be covered, with the maximum turnover threshold increased from $50 million to $250 million.
Those eligible – including not-for-profits – will be able to receive $1,500 to $100,000 a week (compared to $1500 to $10,000 previously).
The government says up to an extra 1,900 businesses employing about 300,000 people could benefit from the widening of eligibility.
The total cost of the NSW package – funded on a 50-50 split with the state – is $600 million a week, up from $500 million in the previous package.
Morrison said Commonwealth support to NSW amounted to $750 million a week.
There is also a new joint federal-state package (funded on a 50-50 basis) to give Victorian small and medium businesses extra support to recover from the recent lockdown. This will total an extra $400 million.
On the vaccine front the NSW government, having failed to get more Pfizer from other states, has decided to divert some Pfizer doses from regional areas to inoculate Year 12 students in the COVID hot spots.
These students will be able to return to face to face learning on August 16.
We’ve yet to see how the reallocation decision will go down in the regions.
Morrison was upbeat in predicting Australia’s economy would bounce back strongly from the lockdown, as it did after the earlier dive. It’s crystal ball territory. The September quarter is set to be negative. The December quarter result is unforeseeable.
A poll done by Utting Research in NSW on Monday underlines the message of other polls: COVID currently is taking serious skin off the PM. Only 37% were satisfied with the job he is doing handling the COVID crisis; 51% were dissatisfied.
Morrison said on Wednesday: “I would expect by Christmas we will be seeing a very different Australia to what we’re seeing now”.
He knows if we don’t, he could be in dire straits.
This is based on a sample of 1,607, conducted from July 13 to July 17.
Two party estimates are not provided by Resolve, but The Poll Bludger estimates 51.5-48.5 to Labor from these primary votes, which is a one-point gain for Labor.
Negative ratings for Joyce, Morrison and Albanese
Of those surveyed, 45% said they had a negative view of Nationals leader and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce. Just 16% had a positive view, for a net likeability of -29. Former Nationals leader Michael McCormack had a 17% negative, 11% positive rating for a net -6 in June.
This poll suggests the ousting of McCormack in favour of Joyce could hurt the Coalition, as I wrote about last month.
Also in the Resolve poll, 46% (up six) gave Prime Minister Scott Morrison a poor rating for his performance in recent weeks and 45% (down three) a good rating. Morrison’s net -1 rating is his first negative rating from any pollster since the COVID pandemic began, though Resolve’s ratings are harsher than other pollsters.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese’s net rating fell three points to -16. Morrison continued to lead Albanese by 45-24 as preferred prime minister (46-23 in June).
On COVID, voters thought lockdowns and border restrictions should be gradually eased over the coming months as more people are vaccinated by a margin of 54-19%. By 54-19%, they thought fully vaccinated people should be given more freedom, though they believed (45-34%) this should not occur until everyone has had an opportunity to be vaccinated.
On economic management, the Liberals and Morrison led Labor and Albanese by 41-25% in July (43-20% in June). On COVID management, the Liberals led by 37-25% (40-20% previously).
Essential voting intentions, and anti-vaxxer sentiment
The Essential poll no longer publishes voting intentions with each poll. Instead they release them every few months for all polls they conducted during that period. Essential’s voting intentions numbers include undecided voters.
Last week’s Essential report gave Labor a 47-45% lead with 8% undecided. If undecided voters are removed (as other pollsters do), Labor led by 51-49.
This is a slightly different result from early July when Labor led by 48-44 (52-48 without undecided). They have led by two or four points since April. The Poll Bludger said applying last election preferences instead of respondent preferences to the current poll gives Labor above a 52-48 lead,
With the Sydney and Melbourne lockdowns, anti-vaxxer sentiment has dropped. In Essential, 11% (down five from early July) said they’d never get vaccinated, and 27% (down six) said they’d get vaccinated but not straight away. In Resolve, 21% (down eight since May) said they were unlikely to get vaccinated.
The federal government had a 46-31 good rating for response to COVID in Essential, slightly better than 44-30 in early July, but a long way below the 58-18 rating in late May, before the Victorian and NSW outbreaks. 54% (down three) gave the NSW government a good rating.
Morgan poll and BludgerTrack poll aggregate
A Morgan poll, conducted over July 10-11 and 17-18 from a sample of over 2,700, gave Labor a 52.5-47.5 lead, a 2% gain for Labor since mid-June. Primary votes were 39% Coalition (down 2.5%), 37% Labor (up 2.5%), 11.5% Greens (down 0.5%) and 3% One Nation (down 0.5%).
With polls from Newspoll, Resolve, Essential and Morgan, the Poll Bludger’s BludgerTrack aggregate of recent polls has Labor ahead by 52.0-48.0, from primary votes of Coalition 39.8%, Labor 37.3%, Greens 10.7% and One Nation 2.9%. Labor has been gaining during this year.
NSW Coalition retains large lead in Resolve state poll
In a Resolve NSW poll for The Sydney Morning Herald, Berejiklian’s Coalition had 43% of the primary vote (down just one point since May), Labor 28% (steady), the Greens 12% (steady) and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers 1% (down three).
This poll was conducted at the same time as the federal June and July Resolve polls from a sample of 1,100. While the July poll was conducted during Sydney’s lockdown, the June poll
occurred after Jodi McKay was ousted in favour of Chris Minns as Labor leader, owing to a disappointing result in the May 22 Upper Hunter byelection.
The Sydney Morning Herald’s poll article says the Coalition’s position was worse in July than in June. With NSW’s optional preferential voting, the Coalition would lead by around 55-45 from these primary votes. Incumbent Gladys Berejiklian led Minns as preferred premier by 55-16 (compared to 57-17 vs McKay in May).
In questions on the outbreak (only asked of the July sample), 56% thought Sydney was too slow to go into lockdown and 52% said the government should have been more proactive in urging people to get vaccinated. Almost half (46% agreed) the state has handled the outbreak well.
In Essential, 44% of NSW respondents (down seven since early July) thought NSW had moved at about the right speed to enforce lockdown restrictions. But 44% (up five) thought NSW was too slow, and 12% (up two) too quick.
Other states were unsympathetic to NSW, bringing the national figure to 56% for too slow, 34% for about right and 10% for too quick.
Labor easily holds Stretton at byelection
A state byelection for the Queensland Labor-held seat of Stretton occurred on Saturday. It was caused by the death of the previous member, Duncan Pegg.
With 73% of enrolled voters counted, the ABC’s results currently give Labor a 63.8-36.2 win over the LNP, a mere 1.0% swing to the LNP from the 2020 election. Primary votes are 56.6% Labor (no change), 32.7% LNP (up 2.5%) and 6.5% Greens (down 2.2%). The anti-vaxxer Informed Medical Options Party won just 2.5%.
Parties defending seats at byelections normally suffer from the loss of the previous MP’s personal vote. State Labor has held government since 2015, so this is a good result for them. 62% of Queensland respondents in Essential gave their government a good rating on dealing with COVID.
Michelle Grattan, University of CanberraWhile still struggling with a current shortage of Pfizer, the Morrison government announced it has secured 85 million doses of that vaccine for future “booster” shots.
This will be made up of 60 million doses in 2022, and 25 million doses in 2023. Delivery will start in the first quarter of next year.
Scott Morrison said on Sunday this was “prudent future proofing”, although there is still not definitive advice on when boosters will be needed.
Meanwhile the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) has liberalised its advice on AstraZeneca.
It said in a statement on Saturday all people aged 18 and over in greater Sydney, including those under 60, “should strongly consider getting vaccinated with any available vaccine including COVID-19 Vaccine AstraZeneca”.
This was on the basis of the increasing risk of COVID and “ongoing constraints” of Pfizer, the advice said.
Last week Scott Morrison said the government was constantly appealing to ATAGI to review its advice on AZ according to the balance of risk. Many people have shied away from AZ, supplies of which are plentiful, after ATAGI’s caution about it for younger people because of rare blood clots.
Asked about some general practioners being reluctant to give AZ to people under 40, Morrison said he certainly hoped GPs “would be very mindful of the ATAGI advice”.
ATAGI is presently considering whether children between 12 and 15 years old should be vaccinated against COVID, with the government expecting advice in mid-August.
As the crisis continues in Sydney, on Sunday NSW reported 141 new locally acquired cases and two deaths, including a woman in her 30s. This followed Saturday’s report of 163 new cases in the previous 24 hours.
Victoria on Sunday reported 11 new local cases, and is on track to end its lockdown soon, as is South Australia.
Morrison again stressed the lockdown was the primary weapon in fighting the Sydney outbreak.
“There’s not an easy way to bring these cases down. And it’s the lockdown that does that work. The vaccines can provide some assistance, but they are not going to end this lockdown. What’s going to end this lockdown is it being effective.”
But NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, who tried unsuccessfully to get the vaccination program refocused on south west Sydney, the centre of the outbreak, has a different emphasis. “Please know that what will get us through this outbreak is a combination of our restrictions, but also of more people being vaccinated”.
Morrison has refused to alter the focus, saying this would “interrupt the rhythm of the national vaccine program”.
The federal government has found 50,000 extra Pfizer doses for NSW. Asked where these came from, Morrison said: “There are small variations in supply and delivery, which from time to time may ensure that there’s tens of thousands of doses that might be free at any given time.”
Morrison condemned Saturday’s Sydney anti-lockdown demonstration attended by thousands of people, which saw violence, dozens of people charged, and more being pursued where they can be identified.
He said it was not just selfish. “It was also self-defeating. It achieves no purpose. It will not end the lockdown sooner, it will only risk the lockdowns running further,” he said.
Asked about Queensland Nationals MP George Christensen, who attended a rally in Mackay, Morrison said: “As for other parts of the country that aren’t in lockdown, well, there is such a thing as free speech, and I’m not about to be imposing those sorts of restrictions on people’s free speech”.
Christensen said on Facebook, “Civil disobedience eventually becomes the only response to laws that restrict freedom. This is what we’ve seen in Melbourne today.”
Pressed on this, Morrison said: “The comments I made before related to an event that took place in Queensland where there are no lockdowns”.
The Prime Minister told the Liberal National Party state council in a virtual address on Sunday: “After a difficult start, the vaccine program is now making up lost ground, and quickly”.
As COVID-19 infection numbers in locked-down Sydney show little sign of abating and Victoria extends its fifth lockdown, the prospect of life resuming some level of normality appears distant.
In recent weeks, we have learned more about the flaws in the federal Coalition government’s vaccination program. There’s the failure to procure sufficient vaccine and an accompanying over-reliance on the AstraZeneca vaccine.
The complications with rolling out the latter have exposed the shortage of supply of the Pfizer vaccine.
But are we ready to conclude that what we are seeing is a near-unprecedented instance of policy failure, especially when there are other pressing public policy issues on which the government has also been found wanting, most noticeably climate change?
There are three principal factors for measuring public policy success or failure.
The first is an assessment of how successfully the policy action ameliorates the problem it seeks to solve. This appraisal must take into account the consequences of that action. Consequences are often unintended and unanticipated. They might not become apparent for some time and can be difficult to quantify and link unequivocally to the policy in question. For example, the Coalition’s inclination to cease support for manufacturing in Australia has led, as is now evident, to our incapacity to meet the demand even for COVID vaccine production.
Second, an assessment of policy success or failure must consider the significance of the policy. That is, the failure of a minor government program has less negative impact than the failure of an economic, social, environmental or public health policy that affects the entire community.
Third, we must take account of the reputational enhancement or damage ensuing from a particular course of action. This may have decisive effects on a government’s electoral prospects.
Applying these measures, we can say that, to date, the Morrison government’s approach to the COVID vaccination rollout fares badly on all three criteria.
The vaccine rollout has failed the tests of public policy success
The problem is not that the proposal – a level of vaccination that will enable the community to “live with” endemic COVID – is misconceived. It is that incompetent planning, logistics and implementation have so far prevented it from sufficiently ameliorating the threat we face.
Second, the significance of success or failure in this domain – brought home by recurrent lockdowns – is manifest. There are negative flow-on effects for the entire community, not only in containing the virus, but also with clear impact on the economy, mental health, domestic violence and trust in government.
We are also confronted with counter examples: Seattle, for instance, in dire circumstances not so long ago, is now more or less back to normal because of the swift uptake of vaccination.
Third, the reputational damage to the federal government is evident in a string of public opinion polls that have found a substantial decline in confidence in the Coalition and the prime minister.
… but there is one that is worse
Some other examples help us flesh out the picture. One is a public policy from recent decades that did not achieve its intended purpose: the Rudd government’s Resource Super Profits Tax and its successor negotiated by the Gillard government, the Minerals Resource Rent Tax.
These policies failed on at least two levels. First, they did not reap anything like the revenue that was forecast. Second, the taxes were electorally damaging for the Labor governments, engendering a fierce backlash from the mining industry.
A more significant public policy failure, with consequences that took much longer to become apparent, was the Howard government’s Aged Care Act of 1997. This legislation established the framework for the funding and regulation of the aged care system. Partially privatising the aged care sector, that policy regime is widely recognised as being responsible for the underfunding of the system and associated chronic shortcomings, which the recent royal commission thoroughly documented.
This has been a product of the failure of the parties, but in particular of internecine battles within the Coalition and a brutal politics that, as Martin Parkinson argues, brought about “a fracture of the political centre”, rendering it incapable of the negotiation and consensus necessary for resolution.
Indeed, the intractability of climate change as a policy problem suggests that it, rather than the handling of vaccine rollout, is the biggest failure of modern times.
Despite the chaos that has been well documented, the required levels of vaccination can still be achieved, even if belatedly. The situation is potentially capable of resolution, and possibly in time for Seattle-like “normality” to be re-established. Adequate climate action, on the other hand, still appears to be incapable of resolution under this government.
But will the Morrison government’s mishandling of the vaccine rollout be politically fatal? Certainly, falling confidence in the rollout is translating into a decline in support for the Coalition. Yet we should be wary of jumping to conclusions.
The prime minister has until next May to hold an election. The government has ample time to play catch-up with the rollout. If further outbreaks are contained and the elusive herd immunity is achieved by then, lockdowns will have become a thing of the past. The relief at being able to move on may obliterate current disquiet.
Further, in normal circumstances, policy virtue is not necessarily synonymous with political success. The last federal election was an indicator of this. The Coalition triumphed despite a threadbare policy program. In other words, policy prowess is only ever one measure of a government’s success.
Labor has surged to a two-party lead of 53-47%, compared with 51-49% in the previous poll in late June.
The Australian reports the latest result is the worse for the Coalition this term, and if replicated at an election would deliver the government a clear loss.
Satisfaction with Morrison’s handling of the pandemic – which now sees lockdowns in the nation’s two largest states – plunged nine points in the last three weeks to 52%.
As the brought-forward Pfizer supplies start to arrive, confidence in the government’s management of the rollout is negative for the first time, with only 40% believing it being handled satisfactorily.
Morrison’s net approval in Newspoll – plus 6 – is at its lowest since the bushfire crisis, with an eight point overall shift. Anthony Albanese’s position worsened a little – he is on net minus 8. Despite a small drop, Morrison retains a solid lead over Albanese as better PM – 51-33%
Both Labor and the Coalition are polling 39% on primary votes – a two point fall for the Coalition and an equal rise for Labor.
The poll saw an 18 point drop in satisfaction with Morrison’s handling of COVID since April.
Satisfaction with the government’s handling of the rollout was 53% in April and 50% in late June – in this poll 40% are satisfied with the handling and 57% are not.
Sky News at the weekend reported Morrison had urged NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian to strengthen the Sydney lockdown. She did so soon after.
The prime ministerial intervention was likely superfluous because it was already clear harsher measures were needed. But it was notable on a couple of grounds.
In the past Morrison strongly leaned to lockdown scepticism, praising Berejiklian as a woman after his own heart and pointing to the NSW gold standard of limiting restrictions.
The much more infectious Delta variant has forced a change in the positions of both leaders.
Also, the Morrison intervention looked like the prime minister playing himself into the sharp end of the current COVID action, which is concentrated at the state level.
As both the NSW and Victorian governments struggle with serious outbreaks and the detail of their lockdowns, Morrison must be frustrated with his lack of direct power – apart from repeatedly restocking the ATM.
That’s of course leaving aside the vaccine rollout, a federal responsibility, the mishandling of which Newspoll shows is dramatically burning the PM’s voter support.
Late last week, Morrison finally spoke with Pfizer chairman and CEO Albert Bouria. This call, federal sources say, had been scheduled some while ago. It is not clear whether that was before or after the PM heard of Kevin Rudd’s contact with Bouria.
The federal government insists the Pfizer bring-forward was entirely due to its efforts and nothing to do with Rudd. Even so, it was a bad look to be talking direct to Bouria so late in the piece, and after Rudd. It had all the appearance of catch up.
As things stand, Berejiklian, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and Morrison are simultaneously under a great deal of heat.
In dealing with COVID, as Berejiklian will attest, you can go from hero to villain very rapidly; hailed in May as “the woman who saved Australia”, she’s pilloried in July for stuffing things up.
Morrison is suffering the same shift in public judgement. And things are not likely to change in the near future – despite the brought-forward Pfizer supplies, there will be shortages for some time yet.
Of the two premiers fighting outbreaks, Berejiklian is under the greater pressure. She and Andrews took different approaches: Andrews locking down immediately and Berejiklian starting with a soft lockdown that had to be toughened (then going further on shutting construction than Andrews ever has).
Even if the five-day Victorian lockdown has to be extended, the situation there appears more manageable than in NSW. On Sunday, Victoria reported 16 locally acquired new cases, while in NSW there were 105.
Berejiklian is under siege simultaneously for not acting fast and strongly enough, and for abandoning her basic less restrictive approach.
The concentration of the NSW infection in south west Sydney has also complicated the situation, because (as Victoria knows) a heavily multicultural area needs particularly good communications and sensitive handling.
This new COVID crisis has seen another round of inter-governmental bickering.
Victoria seethes with retrospective resentment about how Coalition figures (federal and NSW) blamed it last year over its second wave that resulted in hundreds of deaths, mostly aged care residents.
Melbourne then and Sydney currently both had their crises triggered by lapses in quarantine arrangements. NSW is in a much better position to cope than Victoria was – but now the virus is more virulent, and there’s little confidence the Sydney lockdown won’t extend into August.
Last week the Andrews government labelled Morrison the “prime minister of NSW”, declaring that state had been treated more generously than Victoria was in its earlier lockdown this year. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg accused Andrews of “whingeing”. Andrews had a dig at NSW.
Andrews is always a tough operator – probably why he and Morrison have a grudging mutual respect. Last week Andrews made it clear he expected Victorian workers to get the latest full federal financial help, even though, if the lockdown were only five days, they’d fall short of fully meeting the federal conditions. Morrison complied.
The latest lockdowns come as polling just released by the Australia Institute, a progressive think tank, shows people’s faith in state governments’ handling of COVID at an all-time high.
The Australia Institute has been regularly polling the question “which level of government do you think is doing a better job of handling the COVID-19 crisis?”. Respondents were asked to choose between their state or territory, the federal government, both equally, or say they didn’t know.
In August last year, 31% chose their state/territory, 25% the federal government, and 32% rated the performances of both levels of government equally.
By April, 39% nominated their state or territory; 18% the federal government; 28% both.
Early this month (just as the NSW lockdown was starting) 42% rated their state or territory as the government doing better, 16% the federal government, and 24% both equally.
In NSW in July, 39% said the state government was doing the better job, 13% nominated the federal government; and 28% put both equally. The Victorian figures were 34%, 25% and 21%.
The Australia Institute interprets the response to COVID representing “a potential realignment of state-federal relations”.
Certainly the second year of the pandemic, like the first, is seeing the states showing little deference to the federal government when they perceive their core interests are at stake. They determine the lockdowns and, now JobKeeper has gone, NSW and Victoria have shown they are willing to play hardball to extract the best financial support for their citizens. And the Morrison government knows it will pay a political price if it is seen as a skinflint.
Michelle Grattan, University of CanberraScott Morrison this week more or less trashed Australia’s top advisory body on immunisation, in remarks that were at best ill-judged and at worst alarming.
On Wednesday Morrison told a news conference he (or the government) made a “constant appeal” to the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) to review its advice on AstraZeneca according to the balance of risk.
On Thursday he said on radio: “I’ve just simply said balance of risk is changing, guys, so how is that impacting on your advice, and it’s time to think about that”.
The “guys” (and girls) on ATAGI are obviously as aware as anyone of the changing risk profile as cases increase.
Indeed ATAGI has already altered its advice on AstraZeneca in light of the Sydney outbreak. On July 13 it said where there was an outbreak and the Pfizer supply was constrained, people under 60 without immediate access to Pfizer should “reassess the benefits to them and their contacts from being vaccinated with COVID-19 Vaccine AstraZeneca, versus the rare risk of a serious side effect”.
ATAGI, whose members have qualifications in immunisation and infectious diseases, is charged with advising the health minister on immunisation issues.
There’s no doubt its advice on AstraZeneca has been very cautious. It threw a spanner in the vaccination works when it said that Pfizer (of which Australia doesn’t yet have enough) was preferred for those under 50, and then raised the age to under 60.
This was based on the very small risk of blood clots, which are more likely to occur in younger people. Two more recent deaths associating AZ and clots were announced by the Therapeutic Goods Administration on Thursday – the people were in their 40s.
Whether ATAGI is right or wrong in its caution is disputed.
But it is not the only expert source in Australia taking this position. A paper by the Kirby Institute’s Raina MacIntyre and other authors published in this month’s issue of the international journal Vaccine reported their “risk-benefit analysis for Australians aged 18–59”, comparing the risk of AZ vaccination with the risk of COVID infection.
The authors concluded: “In Australia, the potential risks of the AZD1222 vaccine in younger adults, who are at low risk of dying from COVID-19, may outweigh the benefits”.
The article also said: “The latest policy decision to avoid use of this vaccine in adults < 60 years in Australia is entirely consistent with past vaccine risk–benefit policy decisions when rare but serious adverse events were identified”.
The authors say their analysis, done after the death of a 48-year-old woman, was “shared with senior health officials in Australia on April 8, 2021”. That was the same day ATAGI advised against AZ for under 50s, with the government announcing this at a hastily-called night news conference.
It’s up to the government whether it accepts whatever ATAGI says – as ATAGI’s remit indicates, it only “advises”.
Certainly we know ATAGI’s advice (and the debate it prompted) contributed to vaccine hesitancy including among those for whom AZ is most appropriate – older people – and this is very unfortunate.
It would be legitimate – if difficult and some would say irresponsible – for Morrison at any point to say he thought ATAGI wrong, that other advisers were telling him something else, and so the government rejected ATAGI’s advice.
But what he – a leader with his back against the wall because of the Pfizer shortage and the rollout shambles – should not do is try to lean on a supposedly independent expert group to change its advice.
The PM’s aim seemed obvious. If ATAGI was pliable, he could say, “this is the new health advice – everyone should follow it”. He would have the best of all worlds.
Or perhaps not. If and when ATAGI changes its advice from now on – even if the PM’s view has nothing to do with that change – will it have the same credibility? Won’t many people, already suspicious and cynical, think: that’s just ATAGI giving into political pressure?
If the perception of ATAGI’s independence is going to be undermined, the usefulness of the body – whatever it says – becomes questionable.
At his Thursday news conference, Morrison tried to re-spin his pressure on ATAGI. He completely respected its advice, he said. “That’s why we’ve followed the advice of ATAGI. It’s my job as prime minister not just to simply accept advice uncritically. Whether it’s sitting in cabinet meetings or in other forums, of course I challenge the advice that I receive. I ask questions. I drill into it. You would expect me to do that. I think Australians would not expect me to just take this advice simply on the face of it.”
Actually, on numerous occasions, the government has made a virtue of just accepting health advice without question.
In the Australian Financial Review two economists, Ashley Craig and Matthew Lilley, have criticised ATAGI for not building into its recommendations social benefits versus risks.
They write: “ask yourself whether ATAGI made the right call by refusing to properly account for social benefits in its advice, which encouraged millions of Australians to delay vaccination”.
“It is not too late to change this message. With millions stuck in lockdowns, ATAGI could instead be emphasising how accelerating vaccinations will make society better off.”
This, however, seems wrong-headed. ATAGI is a narrow, specialist vaccination advisory body. You wouldn’t ask Treasury to assess the effectiveness of Pfizer against AstraZeneca. ATAGI’s advice is part of a wider picture, which government has the job of bringing together into one frame.
The ATAGI episode is just the latest chapter in the evolving story of the role of health experts in this pandemic.
Early on, their status was substantially unquestioned. Morrison and other leaders constantly referred and deferred to them.
But then health officials especially at state level became controversial figures, accused of being political.
Although the federal bureaucrats have not been targets in the same way as state officials, there has been a growing perception their advice is influenced by the political needs of their masters.
This makes it all the more important that independent advisory groups like ATAGI are not perceived as having a political tinge.
As Morrison struggled with what he was saying, or not saying, about ATAGI, on Thursday he did what he hates doing, to get the media off his back on another front.
Michelle Grattan, University of CanberraAs the Delta strain escalated our COVID experience to a new stage of national disruption, Scott Morrison has been under a form of political house arrest, driven by circumstances and choice.
The prime minister arrived back from his G7 excursion – which seems an age ago – on June 17. He spent a fortnight in quarantine at The Lodge (including joining the House of Representatives remotely) before going home to Sydney – already in lockdown – on July 2.
Since then, after several days absent from view, it’s been COVID-dominated Kirribilli news conferences, media interviews, and no doubt an encouraging word to Jen about the coming test of home schooling. Next week Morrison moves to Canberra – to quarantine for the parliamentary sitting that starts August 3.
Anthony Albanese took a different course. He hasn’t returned to Sydney since parliament rose. He hung around Canberra initially, then headed north for a swing through Queensland. He might be missing his son and his dog but he has covered a lot of kilometres.
On Monday of last week he was in Toowoomba, in the electorate of Groom.
The following days saw him at Redcliffe (Petrie), Cairns (Leichhardt), Mackay (Dawson), and Gladstone (Flynn). He visited the seat of Griffith in Brisbane before going to Moranbah (Capricornia), where he went to a coal mine.
Returning to Brisbane, he took in Lilley on the way to the airport and a flight to Canberra this week – to avoid Sydney and so retain flexibility (although the country is now so closed, he’s running out of places to go).
Being confined during this winter parliamentary recess obviously doesn’t make any decisive difference for Morrison’s electoral fortunes. Nevertheless, it is an interference to his campaigning.
The government makes the counterpoints that the opposition leader has nothing else to do but campaign, and anyway it’s a bad look to be away from your home city in its hour of need.
Normally, Morrison would have used some of the winter break to be on the road, seen in several parts of the country, getting to out-of-the-way seats.
Instead, that work will have to be crunched into later. It all takes time, and Morrison will be even more time-poor if he makes any of several possible trips overseas between now and Christmas – to the US, the East Asia summit, the G20, Glasgow. Also eating into time are the parliamentary weeks between now and year’s end.
Maximum seat-by-seat campaigning is especially important when the chaotic vaccine program and the Sydney lockdown – and now a short one in Victoria – are throwing curveballs into the political outlook.
Until relatively recently it appeared most likely Morrison, like state and territory leaders, would have the strong advantage of “COVID incumbency” when facing the voters, probably in March or May.
Even with a slow rollout, there seemed enough time to get the job done and for things to settle. Although the Coalition has been trailing or level in the polls, the government could feel reasonably confident.
But at the moment lockdown upheavals, rollout confusion, and community anger make any assumptions courageous.
An analysis published this week of Newspolls taken between April 21 and June 26 found two-party swings against the Coalition in every state except Victoria, with the biggest swings in Queensland and Western Australia.
The analysis concluded that if this were replicated at an election, the ALP could win majority government with 78 seats (in a 151 seat House).
This should be treated cautiously, even apart from any scepticism about polls. The election isn’t imminent. And translating general swings to particular seats is hazardous. For instance, on these figures Peter Dutton would lose his Queensland seat of Dickson. Yet all we know from the past suggests Dutton is well dug in there.
On the other hand, the Coalition’s seat numbers are at a high point in Queensland and Western Australia, making it difficult for it to look for any significant gains.
It’s no wonder Morrison, dubbed by his critics the “prime minister for NSW”, is pinning hope on gaining seats in his home state. Throughout the pandemic he has heaped praise on the Berejiklian government. In the Sydney lockdown, now extended for at least an extra fortnight, the federal government’s package for the state drew accusations from Victoria of “double standards”.
Anyway, NSW can no longer be celebrated for its model handling of COVID, and the state government is under criticism for the timing (too late) and nature (too soft) of the lockdown.
People might not be enthusiastic about Albanese’s Labor, but if the opposition picked off a few seats (in net terms), it would not take much to change the map. Think a hung parliament.
The chances of that might be statistically unlikely. But it wouldn’t be a total surprise – given the government is on a razor’s edge (current House numbers are Coalition 76 and Labor plus crossbench 75), and an unfavourable redistribution has scrapped a Liberal seat in Western Australia and created a Labor one in Victoria.
The election is unlikely to see any significant influx of independents (that’s not to preclude one turning up) but on present indications we could expect most of the current House crossbenchers to be returned (excepting Liberal defector Craig Kelly).
Politically, these crossbenchers are a mixed bunch and it would be fascinating to see how Morrison and Albanese matched off as negotiators, if they were in a 2010 situation.
A small event this week triggered a comparison between how Morrison’s political persona came across in the run up to the “miracle” election and his image now.
It was announced the charges against a woman alleged to have put needles into strawberries in 2018 had been dropped. Morrison turned the Great Strawberry Crisis into a dramatic national event, rushing legislation through at breakneck speed. This was more stunt than substance but it was all about portraying him as a man of action.
The action-man image was punctured before the vaccine debacle but the failures in this stage of a real crisis (after the earlier successes) are dealing him a serious blow.
In 2019 many voters actively disliked Bill Shorten; they found Morrison a more neutral figure, the man next door, not a world-beater but okay. Since then opinions have sharpened. Women look at Morrison differently from back then. The coating of teflon has many scratches. Albanese is now the inoffensive man next door.
With the rollout a battle, this week reinforced that Morrison is hostage to events beyond his control, struggling to respond to them, a leader forced to repeatedly change tack and lines, find excuses, slap on sticking plaster, spend more money. The package for NSW, announced on Tuesday, was followed on Thursday by a proposed “more simple and streamlined” set of arrangements.
The health challenge in trying to get in front of COVID’s Delta strain is formidable. Morrison finds the politics as hard.