OPINION

COVID lockdowns: Vaccine supply at 'the heart' of Australia's problems

Covid lockdowns are the cost of inaction

As large parts of NSW continue to struggle with COVID lockdowns, nations that acted early to roll out COVID vaccinations are starting to see the benefits.

In London, crowds attended Wimbledon this year to watch Australia's Ash Barty claim the women's title.

In June, rock band Foo Fighters played to a packed Madison Square Gardens in New York, stipulating that attendees must have been vaccinated. Also in New York, Bruce Springsteen is planning a series of concerts in August and September.

In Paris, most COVID restrictions have been lifted. The Louvre is open. Nightclubs are open. Although people are asked to wear masks and wash their hands, life is starting to look normal again.

Sadly, Australia is way off the pace.

Only 13 per cent of us are fully vaccinated, compared to 49 per cent of Americans, 45.6 in France and 55.9 per cent in the UK.

Because of the low vaccination rate, Australian cities are still going into lockdown. And the heart of this problem is the inadequate supply of vaccines.

Scott Morrison had two jobs in 2021 - roll out the vaccination program and fix our broken quarantine system. He has failed both in my view. And Australians are paying a heavy price.

Last year, as drug companies began developing vaccines, smart governments began placing advance orders. The US, the UK and France, which obtained vaccine through the European Union, were early movers. They ordered more than enough doses to meet their needs. And they hedged their bets by ordering as many as six different vaccines, meaning that if one proved ineffective, they would have other options.

While other nations were racing against time, Mr Morrison was sitting on his hands.

When he should have been thinking ahead, he was complacent.

Drug company Pfizer approached our government in July, but it took until November for our government to actually sign a contract with the company.

Instead, Mr Morrison focused on domestic production of the AstraZeneca vaccine, assuring Australians we were "at the front of the queue'' for vaccinations.

This was never true. The vaccine queue was already snaking around the block before Mr Morrison started moving.

By the time Mr Morrison got around to signing the Pfizer deal, 34 nations had slipped in ahead of him and the company had contracts for more than a billion doses.

Mr Morrison also promised that 51 million doses of a third vaccine - Novavax - would be delivered in the second half of this year. But we learned last week that the vaccine, which has not yet been cleared for use by the Therapeutic Goods Administration, will not arrive in Australia until 2022.

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Our Prime Minister put all of his eggs in the AstraZeneca basket. Now the chickens are coming home to roost. In my view he was too slow. And he was too short-sighted to spread the risk by seeking deals with a range of vaccine producers.

This criticism is not made with the benefit of hindsight. From about the middle of last year, Labor was daily calling on the Government to ramp up the purchase of vaccines and to sign multiple contracts.

But when challenged on his tardiness, the Prime Minister kept insisting that fighting COVID was "not a race''.

It was a race. It still is. It is a race to acquire enough vaccines to keep Australians safe and protect jobs. And our nation is still well behind. It is still the case that three-quarters of aged care and disability workers aren't fully vaccinate. As few as five per cent of workers who provide in-home services for elderly people are vaccinated.

Large numbers of extremely vulnerable people are still at risk. This is despite the fact that in February, Mr Morrison promised that all aged-care residents and their carers would be vaccinated by Easter.

The human costs of this inaction are heavy. The virus is again moving through our community. People are falling ill and, tragically, people are dying, including 11 in the current NSW outbreak.

Lockdowns are shutting down economic activity. Many Australians have lost their jobs and are relying upon government support to make ends meet. Small businesses are struggling. Economists are again warning of a possible new recession.

And when it comes to quarantine for people arriving in Australia, we are still relying largely on hotels.

Hotels are not designed as quarantine centres. They are built for tourists. That is why there have been 27 leaks from hotel quarantine since the pandemic began.

If Labor was in government today, we would pursue four steps.

First, fix up the vaccine rollout by securing the supplies needed to get the job done. Then build dedicated quarantine facilities to contain the virus.

We should then commence a mass advertising campaign to promote vaccination.

Finally, we should be working now to deliver mRNA vaccine manufacturing capacity right here in Australia, creating jobs and new high-tech manufacturing industry.

Anthony Albanese is the Leader of the Opposition

This story Covid lockdowns are the cost of inaction first appeared on Newcastle Herald.