Prime Minister Scott Morrison says he has a “constant appeal” to medical regulators to remove age limits on the AstraZeneca vaccine, as he admitted the changes have delayed Australia’s jab rollout by months.
But Labor has accused the PM of trying to “mislead” Australians over previous comments the vaccine rollout was “not a race”, after Mr Morrison claimed political opponents had taken him out of context.
After returning from Sydney to Canberra in recent days, Mr Morrison broke his days-long silence with numerous radio interviews and a press conference on Wednesday.
He was half an hour late to his own briefing – which also followed notice of a “preference” for attending journalists to be vaccinated. But once out in front of The Lodge doors, Mr Morrison said the government expected a significant economic hit from simultaneous lockdowns in Sydney, Victoria and South Australia.
“The economic impact of this, of course, will be a heavy blow. But it’s not a blow we can’t recover from,” he said.
“How do I know that? Because last year when we faced the same heavy blow, we turned it around and got a million people back into work.”
He wouldn’t detail exactly what the Treasury department had forecast, but said government and Reserve Bank officials “expect that to turn around in the December quarter”.
‘Constant appeal’ to change ATAGI advice
Just hours earlier, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian again emphasised that avoiding lockdowns was tied almost entirely to vaccinations.
“We won’t live as freely as we need to or we would like until vaccination rates increase,” she said, calling for Canberra to send more Pfizer.
To that end, Mr Morrison again encouraged all Australians to seek a vaccination. In recent weeks, the PM has directed some of the blame for vaccination delays to changing advice on the AstraZeneca vaccine from the Technical Advisory Group on Immunisations (ATAGI).
It first recommended the vaccine to all Australians, then only those over 50, then only over-60s.
In a surprise announcement in June, Mr Morrison widened AstraZeneca access to those under 60, following GP consent.
However, when asked if he would appeal directly to ATAGI to widen access even further, the PM said he had made “a constant appeal”.
“When they made the decision to restrict or to have a preference for those under the age ultimately of 60 to have the Pfizer vaccine, they said that they made that decision on the balance of risk,” Mr Morrison said.
“It’s for them to now constantly reconsider how that balance of risk applies and provide their advice accordingly.”
He noted about 32,000 people under 40 had elected to have AstraZeneca, after his June announcement.
“I would encourage states to be using the AstraZeneca vaccines, to be dispensing them through those state-based clinics to get as many people vaccinated as possible, and I commend the Victorian Government for the way that they’ve led the way on that,” Mr Morrison said.
This morning on Jase & PJ, Jase asked @ScottMorrisonMP two simple questions.
What are the benefits of being vaccinated?
Will you admit the rollout has been a bit of mess across Australia and say sorry?
— KIIS 101.1 Melbourne (@kiis1011) July 21, 2021
Earlier, in a Melbourne radio interview, Mr Morrison declined requests to apologise for the pace of the vaccine rollout, but admitted he was “accountable”. In his press conference, he said: “I take responsibility for the problems that we have had”.
“But I am also taking responsibility for the solutions we’re putting in place and the vaccination rates that we are now achieving.”
It was a subtle switch in tone for Mr Morrison, noting “no country in the world has got everything right during this pandemic”, and admitting errors.
Morrison ‘playing us for mugs’: Labor
Australia is at 10.47 million vaccine doses, with another 174,000 given on Tuesday. About 14.5 per cent of the population over 16 has had two doses.
Australia’s vaccine rollout is setting records on several days a week, and with Pfizer deliveries jumping to one million a week, the government is pleased things are kicking into high gear.
But Labor accused Mr Morrison of “playing us for mugs”, after he claimed previous comments that the vaccine rollout was “not a race” were taken out of context.
“He tried to mislead Australians,” shadow health minister Mark Butler said.
In several interviews on Wednesday, Mr Morrison argued his comments that vaccination was “not a race” were specifically related to medical regulators taking time to consider and approve vaccines.
“When that was said by both [health department secretary] Professor Murphy and I at the time, what we were talking about was the regulation of vaccines and to ensuring that the vaccines that were being used in Australia had gone through their proper approvals authorities,” he told 5AA on Wednesday.
However, transcripts from Mr Morrison’s own office show he made the “not a race” comments in March 2021, nearly two months after Pfizer was approved in January and a month after AstraZeneca’s approval in February.
Professor Murphy’s own “not a race” comments on March 10 were also specifically about the rollout pace.
Australia’s COVID vaccinations began on February 21, 2021. Mr Morrison was among the first Australians to get a jab that day.
But on March 31, in South Australia, he said “We’re on track for our first dose for everyone by the end of October … it’s not a race, it’s not a competition.
He made similar “not a race” comments in interviews on March 11, and again on March 14, weeks after vaccines were approved.
This morning Mr Morrison is also trying to reinvent history.
He’s claiming when he said “it’s not a race” it was about vaccine approvals.
But the TGA had already approved it.
“Not a race” was always his excuse for his own delays.
He is playing us for mugs. https://t.co/5WF0UiI4Sz
— Senator Penny Wong (@SenatorWong) July 21, 2021
Labor’s shadow foreign minister, Penny Wong, claimed Mr Morrison was “trying to reinvent history”.