News Coronavirus COVID vaccine rollout ‘hysteria’: Take a chill pill, Australia
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COVID vaccine rollout ‘hysteria’: Take a chill pill, Australia

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Oh no. Europe is about to curb exports of the AstraZeneca vaccine to the rest of the world for six weeks – including Australia. Those damn arrogant Continentals are putting Aussie lives at risk, right?

After all, our federal government secured 3.8 million doses of the AstraZeneca jab – the vaccine going into the arms of most Australians – and we’ve only received 700,000 so far. So we need the rest, right?

Well, no. Not now, and probably not ever. And there’s no point holding your breath waiting for them, anyway.

As Health Department secretary Professor Brendan Murphy told a Senate Estimates committee hearing on Wednesday, the government has “no expectation that we will get that additional international AstraZeneca anytime soon”.

He said the doses “may come at some stage later in the year. But at the moment, now that we’ve got the local production, it’s less important to us.”

Indeed. That same day, the first-locally made AstraZeneca vaccines left the factory in Melbourne by truck – with a million doses a week set to follow.

There are two things to keep in mind here

Firstly, those 3.8 million doses imported from Europe were meant to bridge the gap in March, while waiting for the locally-made doses to come off the CSL factory line.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the fact that a country of 25 million people has its own COVID-19 vaccine factory to serve local need is a luxury, when you look at what’s going on overseas.

The 50 million doses produced by CSL just about covers the entire population – keeping in mind there are 10 million doses from Pfizer being deployed for frontline workers and people in aged care.

Meanwhile, Australia is virtually COVID free, at least for the moment – and if that changes, it will most likely be among international visitors in hotel quarantine.

But to look at the media coverage in the last week, you’d think the vaccination rollout was a disaster.

On Wednesday, as those factory doses were hitting the highway, The Guardian reported: ‘Australia’s COVID vaccine rollout hit by ‘significant’ teething errors, health department admits’.

The “exclusive” detail in this stir was “Email sent to GPs reveals that many practices haven’t yet received needles.”

On Tuesday, the Grattan Institute’s Stephen Duckett wrote an opinion piece in The Age headlined: ‘Delays, confusion: Vaccine rollout needs less hype, more efficiency’.

Mr Duckett made some good points about the federal government needing to set realistic targets, provide updates and otherwise manage the rollout in an open, transparent fashion.

All true: in many ways the government, via poor communication with GPs, and over-promising on vaccination rates, has got in the way of a good story.

Professor Murphy, when addressing Senate Estimates this week, admitted that early predictions of vaccinating four million people by the end of March were “patently unachievable”.

Common sense would have said so all along. Raising community expectations – especially a community that has done the hard work to rid Australia of COVID-19 – is foolish and damages public trust. It deserves calling out.

But there’s mischief-making too

Some of the carping in the media is just plain silly, and serves to needlessly worry a COVID-weary population.

An example from Stephen Duckett, a health economist:

“People in the first rollout group are now also complaining that the second phase – strangely named ‘Phase 1b’ – to older and at-risk Australians has started before this first stage is anywhere near finalised.”

The first rollout involves the Pfizer vaccine, which is arriving in dribs and drabs, and is given in hospital and care settings to front-line workers and people in aged care.

The second rollout – the AstraZeneca vaccine to a broader section of the community – is largely being managed by GPs and is in no way reliant on the completion of the first phase.

Australian Medical Association vice-president Chris Moy called for an end to “hysteria” over the rollout.

On Thursday Dr Moy told The New Daily: “There is so much noise and hysteria at the moment … this overwhelming perception of failure. And guess what? It’s day four.”

What Australians appreciate is honesty – such as that from Professor Murphy when he described the 1b rollout as a “huge and complex” exercise and urged patience.

For a sober, practical explainer as to how this phase of the rollout works – remembering that it covers about six million Australians – see here.

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