Alan Kohler: What the hell is going on with vaccines and quarantine?

Alan Kohler has some questions about the government's vaccine strategy. Photo: TND

Sitting here stewing in another Victorian Stage 4 lockdown, I have some questions.

Why aren’t we being vaccinated yet?

On August 19 Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that “Australians will be among the first in the world to receive a COVID-19 vaccine”.

We were happy. Morrison’s poll numbers soared. But we’re still waiting!

Seventy seven countries have administered 186 million doses to their citizens, so it turns out we’re among the last.

What happened? Are we waiting for the sale?

The Israeli government is on top of vaccines. Why didn’t the Australian government do what Israel did?

Israel started negotiating for vaccines in June and began vaccinating in December.

It has now inoculated more than 70 per cent of its population, and 20 per cent have had two doses.

On Sunday Health Minister Greg Hunt announced that the first shipment of Pfizer vaccine would arrive later this week, more than two months after Israel started vaccinating.

Is this result because Israel paid more and agreed to share data with Pfizer? Did Australia try to chisel drug makers and refuse to share any data?

A leading epidemiologist told me on the weekend that this is the difference between Australia and Israel.

“Follow the money,” I was told.

Israel paid $47 per dose, more than twice other countries.

Maybe Israel paid too much and violated its citizens privacy by agreeing to share the data, but it would be good to know how much we saved and what the data was that we refused to share, given what the delay is now costing us.

Is the federal government mobilising a national vaccination effort? Or leaving it to the states again?

According to the Health Department website, it is “consulting with” states and territories about who is responsible for the logistics of vaccination.

Surely this is one time when urgent national logistics are needed.

The federal government has offered a wishy-washy response to an urgent situation.

In January, Greg Hunt said he was confident Australia would achieve herd immunity through vaccinations by the end of October.

Why isn’t vaccination compulsory?

Or at least make access to Medicare conditional on being vaccinated.

Are we really going to treat unvaccinated people who get COVID-19 for free?

Why isn’t quarantine a national matter?

Quarantine is a federal responsibility, yet apparently the states agreed to take it off the Commonwealth’s hands at the outset of the pandemic.

Why did this happen?

Why didn’t the Commonwealth say, ‘no, we’ve got this’?

Why doesn’t the Morrison government say that now?

Why isn’t quarantine at least being properly co-ordinated, so each state does exactly the same?

We have a national cabinet – what do they talk about if not quarantine?

Where you live in Australia should not determine whether you are at risk from infected travellers.

If quarantine and other coronavirus response measures were co-ordinated, maybe we could at least travel within Australia, between states, instead of having these ridiculous and dangerous border closures.

The pandemic has disastrously turned Australia into eight separate countries because of failures of leadership.

Why have other states not copied what Dr Ian Norton is doing in the Howard Springs quarantine facility in the Northern Territory?

Staff at Howard Springs are given rapid point of care (RPC) tests, which take 15 minutes, before they go home, to ensure they aren’t taking the virus with them.

Staff at the Holiday Inn hotel quarantine in Victoria were given slower, more expensive PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction, currently the standard) tests and allowed to go home before the results were in, which is why we’re in this mess.

Some people gave the virus to their families and went shopping before the results of their tests came in and authorities were left trying to trace all their contacts and locking down the entire state.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced a five-day lockdown on Friday. Photo: AAP

Why don’t all quarantine staff have some medical and/or quarantine experience?

Surely, if you’re going for elimination, as the Australian state governments are doing, then quarantine must be impervious, otherwise you’re condemning your citizens to regular lockdowns whenever the virus escapes quarantine.

The past two devastating Victorian lockdowns are the result of inexpert, probably underpaid, quarantine staff resulting in porous quarantine.

Why aren’t all quarantine facilities in more remote areas?

Again, given the elimination strategy that’s in use, surely it’s best not to take any chances.

State premiers are proud of their contact tracing, but that is hardly the point.

The virus shouldn’t be getting out of quarantine in the first place.

Why wasn’t there a plan for dealing with nebulisers?

Some people in quarantine need to use them, fair enough, but they are incredibly dangerous in spreading virus through the air, as seems to have happened in Victoria.

Why hasn’t more attention been paid to air flow and ventilation in quarantine facilities?

This is clearly an important issue, given that in the Holiday Inn the virus was apparently floating around the corridors and slipping into rooms when the door was opened for food.

What’s the plan for the next pandemic?

For a start, how about building some fit-for-purpose quarantine facilities such as, dare we say it, the North Head quarantine station in Sydney, at which all migrants were confined between 1830 and 1984, when it was turned into a wedding venue and conference centre.

And how about the federal government accept its responsibility for quarantine, pay for the buildings and make a plan for operating them in a pandemic.

Did the authorities, both state and federal, get complacent because we achieved zero community transmission?

Of course they did. Maybe we all did.

My final question comes from Coen Brothers’ movie The Big Lebowski.

The Dude and Walter are farewelling their deceased mate Donny.

Walter is in charge of releasing the Folger’s coffee tin containing his ashes into the sea, when the wind changes and the pair get covered in ashes.

The Dude: God damn it Walter, you asshole. Why is everything such a travesty with you, man?

I know the feeling.

Alan Kohler writes for The New Daily twice a week. He is editor in chief of Eureka Report and finance presenter on ABC News.