The head of the Australian public service, Phil Gaetjens, has shrugged off early vaccine rollout incidents including two excessive doses in a Brisbane nursing home and spoilage in Werribee as “noise” and “teething” problems.
Gaetjens told the Covid-19 Senate inquiry on Tuesday he is confident the issues are being managed, and believes Australia is still on track to fully vaccinate its adult population by the end of October.
The secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet also signalled his taskforce on the Covid risk in 2021 will push for an end to “non-proportional responses” – such as border closures and state-wide lockdowns – as the vaccination rate increases.
Australia’s vaccination rollout is ambitious, requiring an estimated 180,000 vaccinations per day, a rate higher than most countries are achieving. With just 91,000 doses given so far, Australia is a long way short of its target of 4m by the end of March.
The rollout suffered two early setbacks – when two residents of aged care were taken to hospital to be monitored after receiving excessive doses of Pfizer and at least 125 doses were spoiled at St Vincent’s care services in Werribee, Melbourne due to an unclear cold storage chain.
Labor’s chair of the committee, senator Katy Gallagher, noted both incidents occurred in aged care, where the commonwealth is responsible for the rollout.
Gaetjens described the incidents as “noise” and “teething” issues, arguing that both elderly people who received excessive Pfizer doses were discharged from hospital without incident, and similar quantities had been given to patients in clinical trials.
“In the whole scheme of things, issues like this will arise,” he said. “I think the more people go on about small issues like this – that affects confidence more than the impact of small issues themselves.”
Gaetjens said the incident “should not have happened” but queried how it could have been prevented when “an organisation”, Healthcare Australia, was “required to do something” (give the doctor immunisation training) and “did not do it”.
Gaetjens also dismissed as “noise” the suggestion that Pfizer had superior efficacy to the AstraZeneca vaccine, which will form the backbone of Australia’s rollout when local production of 1m doses per week begins in late March.
He said that AstraZeneca is “very similar and in some cases delivering better results than Pfizer” with both at around 80-90% efficacy at preventing contraction of Covid-19. “They’re very good outcomes.”
“Both Pfizer and AstraZeneca are seen … extremely effective at stopping serious illness and death.”
Gaetjens is also conducting an inquiry into the prime minister’s office’s handling of Brittany Higgins’ allegation she was raped by a Liberal staffer. He said that will soon be complete, insisting that both it and the vaccine rollout were “priority tasks” for him. “I fit them both in,” he told the committee.
Gaetjens refused to provide the terms of reference of the 2021 Covid risk taskforce, although read out the national cabinet statement which he said was a “very close facsimile”.
That statement said it would “provide recommendations to the national cabinet about consistent and coordinated Covid-19 responses across jurisdictions in the new risk environment”; and consider “changed risk indicators”, and the impact of the vaccine rollout.
Gaetjens described the taskforce’s job as ensuring Australia has the “data and information to give confidence that non-proportional responses are not necessary” given the increasing pace of the vaccine rollout.
Alison Frame, the department’s deputy secretary of social policy, told the committee there are still 39,142 Australians overseas who want to come home, 5,159 of whom are categorised as vulnerable. That is despite 20,000 returning home since 23 December.
Malcolm Thompson, the head of the taskforce responsible for the National Covid-19 Commission Advisory Board, also gave updated figures of the cost of the advisory body.
From March to June 2020 the Covid Commission, as it was then called, cost a total of $2.6m, and is now budgeted to cost $5m in the 2020-21 financial year.
Thompson said the board’s chair, Nev Power, had been paid $294,000 from July 2020 to 31 January 2021. Until December Power worked full-time but was not paid a salary, only expenses including his travel costs for his private plane and accommodation in Canberra.
Since then, Power has been paid a fee of $2,200 per day for up to three days’ a week work, and flight expenses are capped at the cost of a regular commercial flight.