Officials behind Australia’s COVID vaccine rollout have admitted the government has shunned a public advertising blitz because it remains worried about supply.
It’s a disclosure labelled “extraordinary” by Labor leader Anthony Albanese.
But federal health experts have shot down claims they could have bought more vaccines earlier, shrugging off sensational reports the government rejected an early offer from Pfizer for tens of millions of doses.
“There were no numbers or details put on the table at that discussion,” a senior health department official said of a July 2020 meeting.
Weeks of criticism from state leaders about vaccine supplies is threatening to boil over, with Victoria’s James Merlino and NSW’s Gladys Berejiklian openly hammering Prime Minister Scott Morrison as they demand more jabs.
States say they have capacity to give many more doses than are being delivered.
Mr Morrison and his federal team have repeatedly played down concerns, saying the rollout is “not a race” and shrugging off calls for an advertising campaign to boost public support.
The federal government dismissed the absence of a big-name advertising campaign, as seen overseas, saying it had initially focused on information about vaccine safety and access.
But the government’s vaccine commander, Lieutenant General John Frewen, this week admitted another reason.
“We want to make sure we don’t start the campaign until we are comfortable we can meet the demand we hope will be engendered by the campaign,” he said.
Lieutenant General Frewen said the Morrison government was “close to moving into a rallying phase of the campaign”, hoping to “inspire as many Australians as possible” to get vaccinated.
Australia’s vaccine supplies remain constrained by limitations on supply from overseas, particularly after last week’s health advice to limit AstraZeneca shots to those over 60.
More than one million AstraZeneca doses are produced each week at CSL’s Melbourne plant, but the bulk of Australians will now rely on imported Pfizer shots.
Australia receives about 300,000 doses of Pfizer a week.
That is expected to jump to about 700,000 a week in July and then leap significantly again towards the end of 2021, when the majority of our 40 million contracted doses are due to arrive.
Lieutenant General Frewen said the vaccine program was “still in a resource-constrained environment we need to carefully manage”.
Mr Albanese seized on the admission to again pillory the federal government for its rollout problems.
“That says it all,” Mr Albanese said on Tuesday.
“Now they’re saying they can’t roll out a public information campaign to encourage people to be vaccinated because we don’t have a supply of the vaccine to actually be used.
“It’s an extraordinary concession by a government, particularly a government that’s obsessed by advertising and marketing.”
Mr Albanese said it was “no wonder” that “our vaccination rates are so low”.
Health Minister Greg Hunt told Parliament on Tuesday that 27 per cent of Australians had received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine.
He did not report how many had had both doses, although that number is expected to be considerably lower.
The government faces criticism from all sides, as premiers round on the numerous issues plaguing the vaccine rollout.
On Tuesday, Mr Merlino said he was “not happy” with Victoria’s supplies.
The state had a temporary but significant boost to doses during its recent COVID outbreak, but that will soon to return to normal, as all states are allocated supplies according to population.
“It’s going to get worse in terms of the supply of the vaccine from the Commonwealth before it gets better,” Mr Merlino said.
“There will be weeks in July and August that we’ll have a reduction in vaccines to our state sites. So there will be a mad rush in October, November and December.”
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said she was pleased Canberra would resume allocating vaccine supplies based on population, but warned “until the vast majority of our population is vaccinated, we’re going to have these outbreaks”.
Elsewhere, senior health officials have shot down claims the Morrison government knocked back early offers from Pfizer to buy tens of millions of doses in July 2020.
It has been widely reported that a “junior officer” in the health department attended the meeting with Pfizer, and tried to haggle on costs. The government did not lock in a Pfizer deal until November.
On Tuesday, Mr Merlino claimed it was a “sliding doors” moment and the federal government “didn’t take it up”. But Health Department secretary Brendan Murphy – the nation’s chief medical officer early in the pandemic – flatly denied Australia had knocked back a deal and claimed an agreement was reached as soon as possible.
“I would note Pfizer have put a statement out refuting those claims in the media,” Professor Murphy told a Senate hearing on Monday night.
He said Pfizer’s first offer was for only 10 million vaccines, which Australia took up in November. It was later bumped up to 40 million.
Professor Murphy denied reports Pfizer had offered Australia “whole of population” coverage at the 2020 meeting. Lisa Schofield, first assistant secretary in the COVID Vaccine Taskforce, told the Senate hearing she attended the July 10, 2020, meeting with Pfizer.
“Both Pfizer and the department would say those claims in the media are incorrect,” she said.
Ms Schofield said Pfizer did not offer “any level of detail” about a possible vaccine deal for Australia at the time. Claims Australia rejected a deal at that stage were “not true”, she said.
In a statement, Pfizer confirmed the same, saying it had “a constructive relationship with the Australian Government”.
‘Claims raised about the meeting between Pfizer and the Australian Government on 10 July 2020 are incorrect,” a spokesperson told TND.
“As Pfizer informed Parliament whilst giving evidence on the record to the Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 hearing on 28 January 2021, Pfizer proposed to the Australian Government the procurement of 10 million doses of our COVID-19 vaccine and that was the number initially contracted by the Government. The parties have since signed agreements for a further 30 million doses for 2021.”
Pfizer said discussions were “confidential” but that Australian agreements were “based on the availability of doses and earliest schedule that could be provided at that time.”