Australia’s Covid vaccine challenges have been ‘overcome’, Scott Morrison says


The prime minister, Scott Morrison, has declared the government has “overcome” the challenges of the national vaccine program, despite the states crying out for more mRNA vaccine supplies to curb the Delta outbreak tearing through NSW, Victoria and the ACT.

The prime minister’s assertion came as the country marked the grim milestone of the first Indigenous death from a Covid-19 case, in western NSW, and as the national death toll surpassed 1,000 since the pandemic began in early 2020.

On Monday, NSW reported an extra 1,290 cases, Victoria 73 and the ACT 26, bringing the total number of active cases to more than 17,000.

Amid ongoing debate about the phased easing of Covid restrictions once 70% and 80% of the country is vaccinated, Morrison said the government had overcome the problems plaguing the national vaccine program that has been hampered by shifting health advice, delays and supply constraints since it began in February this year.

“The fact that we’ve been able to bring forward doses, the fact that we’ve been able to achieve and realise additional supplies, and we have more irons in the fire … that will see further doses we believe being made available in this country – all of this demonstrates the vaccination program that had its challenges earlier have been overcome,” Morrison told parliament.

He also said the government had “overcome” the issue of vaccine hesitancy surrounding the AstraZeneca program, which remained a “crucial” component of the national vaccine program in the months ahead.

The Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, challenged the prime minister to “acknowledge his mistakes”, asking how Australians could be “confident that he won’t repeat them”.

“The reason why we’re in the current predicament is this prime minister thought it wasn’t a race to get vaccines out the door [and] it wasn’t a race to set up national quarantine,” Albanese said.

Morrison was also forced to respond to a question from Labor about a report in the Sydney Morning Herald that suggested the NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, had called him a “bully” and “evil”.

“The NSW premier has made it very clear to me in her message that she has never used such words, ever,” Morrison told parliament, saying the claim was “erroneous”.

The prime minister’s claim that the vaccine program’s challenges were in the past came as the states called on the commonwealth to urgently secure more supplies of mRNA vaccines that were in high demand, saying limited Pfizer supplies were holding them back from meeting vaccination targets.

The federal government’s decision to open up the vaccine program for those aged 16-40 from Monday also came under fire, given appointments were not available until October or November because of supply constraints.

The NSW health minister, Brad Hazzard, said for people wanting to get the Pfizer vaccine, “they will have to wait”, as he implored people to get the AstraZeneca vaccine that was available immediately.

“AstraZeneca is in abundant supplies but Pfizer is not,” Hazzard said.

“AstraZeneca is a perfectly good vaccine, it has been used right across the world and my strong advice, when we are in the breakout of the virus as we have at the moment, is go and get whatever vaccine you can get.

“Our advice is don’t wait. You could be the next person in intensive care and you could be the person who is exposing our health team to the virus and you could be the person who dies. Go and get whatever vaccine is available.”

He also said the state was already seeing the success of the vaccination program, pointing to the “positive story” for the health outcomes in age groups that had been vaccinated. However, Berejiklian is warning that October will be the most difficult month for the state’s health system as case numbers continue to rise.

On the Indigenous death in NSW, the state’s chief health officer, Kerry Chant, said she was concerned about the over-representation of Aboriginal people contracting the virus in western NSW and “the likelihood that Covid will be, and is, touching Aboriginal people disproportionately”.

Indigenous Australians were identified as a priority group for the vaccination rollout, but Guardian Australia has reported that a huge gap exists between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Covid vaccination rates in every region of the state, with the mid north coast and western NSW among the worst.

Meanwhile in Victoria, health minister Martin Foley said there were currently no Pfizer bookings available in state clinics, but appointments would be made available once more supplies became available from the commonwealth. He suggested those aged over 16 wanting a Pfizer vaccine attempted to get one through a pharmacy or through the GP network.

“It’s extraordinarily difficult to get a Pfizer vaccine for the age group we’re talking about … because they’re all booked.

“And you can only get out what you’re given. Our GPs and our pharmacies can only allocate what they’re given. The real problem has been from the start and is today, the lack of supply.”

As Victoria began lockdown, Foley also strongly endorsed the national plan signed off by all states and territories, saying hastening vaccination rates was the best way to return to normal – stressing again the federal government’s role in securing supplies.

“The way that we get to the other side of this, the quickest way is by keeping our infection levels low and our vaccination levels high and the thing that’s holding us back on the vaccination levels is supply,” Foley said.

“The sooner the commonwealth opens its cheque book and starts providing us more vaccinations, the sooner we can get there.”

The ACT chief minister, Andrew Barr, also blamed the federal government for the fact 16- to 39-year-olds were not yet able to book Pfizer vaccination appointments.

Barr told reporters in Canberra that Scott Morrison had “made an off the cuff announcement in a press conference without telling anyone – that’s why there’s confusion” about when that age group was eligible. Although it was Morrison’s right to expand eligibility, doing so without consultation was “not always helpful”, he said.

Barr encouraged people aged 16 to 39 to register with the ACT’s online system so they will be able to make a booking later, but said vaccine appointments were likely “some months away” due to constrained supplies – as late as late October, or November. He noted that people aged 18 and over can “get AstraZeneca today”, subject to getting health advice.

Pfizer has been the preferred vaccine for younger Australians since advice was issued by the Australian technical advisory group on immunisation (Atagi) in April on the risk of rare blood clots from AstraZeneca.

Atagi member Katie Flanagan said on Monday that she didn’t regret the advice for Pfizer to be the preferred vaccine for those aged under 50, but conceded it played a role in vaccine hesitancy.

“I am sure it has played a role but unfortunately this was a necessary change that we have had to do and it is really a matter of adapting to this emerging data,” she told the ABC.