The fist-fight on the playing field was dumb for everyone. It began with a federal provocation, with figures from Canberra that showed states were only sending out about half the doses they received from the Commonwealth, which led to a state over-reaction, with premiers claiming the numbers were wrong and outrageous.
Both sides lose. The complaints undermine confidence in the vaccine rollout and infuriate doctors who need reliable guidance, not shrill arguments, from both governments.
And voters? They see politicians pointing the finger at others while patting themselves on the back. It is nauseating. The sermons of self-congratulation go on so long that viewers at home should put a bucket next to the television when a press conference starts.
In the past few weeks, for instance, Scott Morrison has fended off questions about the vaccine rollout by praising his own foresight in getting the vaccine made in Australia. The CSL contract was a great decision, but harking back to last August does not answer the question about what comes next.
The truth is that Australia needed more vaccine deals last year when Morrison and Health Minister Greg Hunt placed their bets on Pfizer and AstraZeneca. There is no deal with Moderna. To be fair, Morrison and Hunt doubled the number of Pfizer doses when the tensions with Europe emerged.
The biggest constraints are technical, not political. India began manufacturing the AstraZeneca vaccine in January and was shipping doses to Bhutan within weeks. Australia is still struggling to get enough doses from CSL for domestic needs, let alone helping Papua New Guinea.
One of the challenges is the final stage of production, the “fill finish” when vaccines are poured into vials and packaged for shipment. CSL has contractors trying to ramp this up so it can deliver 50 million doses this year, but the slow start means the target is in doubt.
While the production has reached one million doses per week, it needs to go higher. It will take at least 1.2 million per week to finish the task this year, and there is a good argument to do whatever it takes – with money, people and technology – to go beyond that level.
Australia has to be able to look after its neighbours in the Pacific because it is one of the few countries that can make the AstraZeneca vaccine (the other locations are in the US, Europe, Japan and India). This is a humanitarian priority. It is also smart strategy. Vaccines are the new currency in global power. China is trying to buy influence in the region with its vaccine, just as it has done with roads and railways.
This is why Hunt and other ministers are looking at ways to make newer vaccines, like Pfizer’s, in Australia. It will require hundreds of millions of dollars to build facilities that make doses using messenger ribonucleic acid, or mRNA.
This will be essential as new strains of COVID-19 emerge. University of Sydney professor Robert Booy says mRNA vaccines should be able to adjust to new variants every two or three months, while the AstraZeneca vaccine would take up to six.
Australia is not alone in facing a vaccine shortage. Japan only began manufacturing AstraZeneca last month. While it has been vaccinating health workers with Pfizer since February, it only starts jabs for people over 65 this month.
It will take a huge effort for Australia to reach the October deadline for having everyone given their first dose.
Morrison and Hunt should admit the delays and be more candid about the challenge in scaling up local production. As Queensland’s Chief Health Officer says, many of the problems are not of their making. But the political games are all their own.
Morrison pretended to be above it all this week when Trade Minister Dan Tehan and Agriculture Minister David Littleproud were getting stuck into the states. “I will leave the politics to those who want to play politics,” he said. Voters can see through that sort of chicanery.
Starting a blame game this week was clumsy work from a government that has been fumbling a few other things, not least the treatment of women. And it backfired.
That’s the problem with starting a fight on the playing field. The spectators can see you don’t have your eye on the ball.
David Crowe is chief political correspondent.
David Crowe is chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.