The federal government and Pfizer have shrugged off reports that former prime minister Kevin Rudd helped procure faster supply of COVID vaccines for Australia, with the company saying the claims were “inaccurate”.
“I did chuckle when I saw the story,” Health Minister Greg Hunt said on Monday.
Speaking on 2GB radio, the health minister claimed Mr Rudd only became involved “after we’d done the work with Pfizer and we knew the outcome was likely to be exactly as it was”.
But Mr Rudd is sticking by his story, saying he was not claiming responsibility for the increased Pfizer flow but that current PM Scott Morrison gave “some advice” before the phone call.
The ABC reported on Sunday that former Labor PM Mr Rudd used business connections to secure a phone call with Pfizer’s global chairman Albert Bourla on June 30. In a letter to PM Scott Morrison that day, Mr Rudd said he asked the drug company if it could “advance the dispatch of significant quantities of the Pfizer vaccine to Australia as early as possible”
Mr Rudd’s letter reported that Dr Bourla said he would look at “what further might be able to be done”.
Just days later, Mr Morrison announced a slight ramp-up to Australia’s expected deliveries of Pfizer in coming months, with some supplies arriving earlier than projected. He said Australia had “success in recent days of accessing additional doses”, but did elaborate further.
Some have suggested Mr Rudd’s call was a catalyst in bringing forward those supplies, but Pfizer seemed to refute this on Monday.
“Recent media reports suggesting that any third party or individual has had any role in contractual agreements reached between Pfizer and the Australian government are inaccurate. The only two parties involved in these agreements are Pfizer and the Australian Government,” a Pfizer spokesperson told The New Daily.
However, Mr Rudd’s letter specifically notes that he was aware of ongoing contractual agreements, that he was not seeking to intervene or participate in these, and that such issues were “a matter for the Australian government”.
The Pfizer spokesperson said it was only dealing with the Australian government.
“All agreements and supply arrangements, including dose planning are exclusively made with the federal government, and details of the agreement and discussions are confidential,” the Pfizer spokesperson said.
“All discussions on supply and procurement with the federal government are led by Pfizer representatives in Australia.”
Pfizer said it was still committed to sending 40 million doses to Australia by year’s end, and spoke of its “strong relationship” with the government.
The federal government has also denied Mr Rudd’s actions had any bearing.
“We thank anybody who puts in a good word for Australia, but Pfizer couldn’t be clearer, this was an outcome that was already set,” Mr Hunt said at a press conference on Monday.
“Did it make a difference? No.”
Mr Rudd has knocked back media requests for further comment since the initial ABC story broke, but in a statement on Monday afternoon, he was sticking by his story.
Here’s a statement from my office responding to media enquiries. pic.twitter.com/xsUWIHohM0
— Kevin Rudd (@MrKRudd) July 12, 2021
The former PM said he was speaking with Pfizer “in a personal capacity” and “not as a representative of the federal government”, and was “not seeking to negotiate on the government’s behalf”.
“Mr Rudd’s letter is entirely consistent with public statements by Pfizer,” the statement read.
Mr Hunt also dismissed as “a grassy knoll story” claims that Australia had ‘penny-pinched’ or offended Pfizer during negotiations. However, Mr Hunt did not refute the ABC’s reporting that the federal government itself hadn’t negotiated directly with Dr Boula, as other national governments had, and said only that he was dealing with Pfizer’s Australian arm.
In a Sky News interview, Mr Morrison confirmed the same, not directly answering if he had negotiations with Dr Bourla.
In the 2GB interview, Mr Hunt took a veiled swipe at Mr Rudd, claiming he “knew” the former PM would release the letter to media.
“We did, as a group, say, well, we know that once the government announces it, that letter from the former prime minister is likely to be put out there,” Mr Hunt said.
“But we appreciate all the help, even if it hasn’t added to the outcome.”
“I’ll let others speak for themselves. But that action came after the fact but we were certain that the letter would be put out there.”
Mr Hunt said he had engaged with Pfizer’s Australian head “on multiple occasions”.
In a statement to the ABC, Mr Hunt’s office said it was “aware of Mr Rudd’s approach” but they were “not aware this approach had any impact on the outcome” and said it “made no material difference”.
Mr Rudd has not yet responded directly to the ABC report or the fallout. In a tweet on Monday, he claimed Mr Morrison had “squandered” Australia’s status as the “envy of the world”, and said vaccination “bloody well was” a race.
On Sunday, hours before the ABC story was published, Mr Rudd tweeted “Sydney is desperate for Pfizer”.
Another former PM, Malcolm Turnbull, tweeted “thank you” to Mr Rudd, and also took a shot at Mr Hunt and Mr Morrison.
Thank you @MrKRudd for speaking to the Chairman of Pfizer to secure an earlier delivery of vaccines. Staggered the vaccination of Australians was apparently not important enough to warrant a call from @ScottMorrisonMP or @GregHuntMP to the Pfizer boss.
— Malcolm Turnbull (@TurnbullMalcolm) July 11, 2021
On Monday morning, Defence Minister Peter Dutton also downplayed Mr Rudd’s role.
“I suspect it wouldn’t take our greatest detective within the Queensland Police Service to identify who leaked that self-serving letter,” Mr Dutton told 4BC radio.
“Kevin claims credit for many things.”
Mr Dutton suggested Mr Rudd was inserting himself into the public debate because he was “bored to death in retirement”.
“I wouldn’t pay much attention to it,” he said.
Labor’s shadow climate change minister, Chris Bowen, praised Mr Rudd for playing a “constructive” role, and criticised Mr Hunt’s comments.
“We know that higher level engagement works … I think all Australians regardless of your politics can welcome all former Prime Minister’s playing constructive role,” he told Radio National.
“I think we should all welcome it. You know I think it’s a little petty as the government to make those comments.”