It was in November that Scott Morrison said the government’s Covid-19 strategy would put “Australia at the front of the queue for a safe and effective vaccine”.

After the subsequent disasters of 3.1m AstraZeneca vaccines that have not arrived and now a blood clot warning slapped on the use by everyone under 50 of what is our only domestically-produced vaccine, it’s worth noting that this boast was already doomed from the moment it was uttered.

With the United Kingdom working towards an emergency use authorisation, later granted in December, and no such mechanism available or under consideration in Australia, we were always gearing up for a marathon not a sprint – happy to let other countries with far more Covid-19 cases break away at the front of the pack.

But the Morrison government raised expectations sky-high.

In January it did so again, bringing forward the start of the rollout to mid-to-late February and announcing a target of four million to receive the jab by the end of March, an ambitious interim goal on top of the heroic claim we’d be “fully vaccinated” by October.

Given Labor had targeted Morrison all through 2020 for being “there for the photo-op but not the follow-up” – particularly on bushfire funding – the prime minister should have been especially cautious not to over-promise and under-deliver.

After a dispute between AstraZeneca and the European Union, in March Italy and the EU blocked 250,000 doses coming to Australia.

But rather than adjust expectations and slowly deflate the bubble of optimism he had been blowing, Morrison gave a very technical and limited reassurance that “this particular shipment was not one we’d counted on for the rollout, and so we will continue unabated”.

If you missed the nuance that while this shipment may not ruin the rollout, if the problem persisted we’d be way behind, the health minister, Greg Hunt, then reinforced the misleading impression this was not a large setback.

Hunt said “this does not affect the pace of the rollout” and “there are more than enough [doses] to see that bridge through to the arrival of the Australian-made CSL AstraZeneca doses”.

Spoiler alert: the AstraZeneca supply issue did affect the pace of the rollout.

In early March the Morrison government walked away from the “fully vaccinated” by October pledge, citing the fact it had received only 700,000 of the 3.8m expected AstraZeneca doses.

But the health department secretary, Brendan Murphy, claimed everyone will have had at least their first dose by October so it “doesn’t really matter”. Another opportunity to manage expectations was lost.

When the 4m target was missed (in fact we only just passed the 1m mark this week), Morrison said on 31 March that “at the outset” when 3m vaccines weren’t delivered “that was obviously going to impact the early success” of the rollout.

So we have a prime minister content to gaslight Australians by telling them it was obvious supply interruptions would harm the rollout when the government message at the time was the opposite.

This week, Morrison again rightly blamed lack of supply for the big miss. The European Union denied blocking shipments. An Australian government spokesperson responded the EU was “arguing semantics” because it had made clear exports would not be approved and asked Australia to withdraw requests.

Just hours after his spokesperson had fired back at the EU, the prime minister claimed on Wednesday that “at no time yesterday did I make any comment about the actions of the European Union”.

Morrison evidently thought it was worth arguing the toss over the fact he personally didn’t attack the EU (although his spokesperson did) and seemed tricky when the simpler point that the Australian government was not at fault should have been his only message.

The government wanted us to think we were close to the right tempo, just a few bars behind, but the tune was interrupted by a note so discordant the other setbacks will fade to white noise.

The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation recommended, and the federal government accepted, that an advisory must be slapped on the AstraZeneca vaccine warning people under 50 it may cause extremely rare but potentially deadly blood clots.

Pfizer is now the preferred vaccine for under 50s, who will be warned AstraZeneca should only be taken if it is clear the benefits outweigh the risks.

Atagi’s advice accepts the safety concern will “likely” affect confidence in the AstraZeneca vaccine among all age groups and the timeframe for full protection against Covid-19.

Morrison said there will be a “recalibration” in the rollout, but it is “too early” to say what impact it will have on targets. Asked on Thursday and again on Friday if all Australians will get their first jab by the end of 2021 or Christmas, he pointedly refused to get out the crystal ball or make a firm commitment.

The lack of a new target makes clear how significantly this shock could derail the rollout, but Hunt insists as most under 50s are in the 2b group the plan is “largely unchanged”.

Australia’s initial 20m Pfizer doses have been brought forward a little, and an extra 20m ordered, to arrive some time in the October to December quarter, but the scale of disruption will depend on how many Australians knock back AstraZeneca jabs, including over 50s who should still be taking it.

Labor will seek to ruthlessly exploit the shambles of the rollout, pointing to their warnings back in 2020 that the more vaccines Australia could get access to the better, and that the government unnecessarily raised expectations.

How forgiving are the Australian electorate likely to be? We’re about to find out. But if history is any guide, things could get extremely ugly for Morrison.

Kevin Rudd led Australia out of the global financial crisis but still lost economic credibility in the long run due to government debt and perceived waste and mismanagement of stimulus programs.

Voters may credit Morrison for joining with the states through national cabinet to mostly keep Covid-19 out of Australia and for lockdowns that suppressed the virus that had already got in.

But from the Covidsafe app, to the aged care response and now the vaccination rollout, there is a strong case to be made that the areas of sole or dominant commonwealth responsibility have been the worst managed of the pandemic.

Morrison had already signalled a 2021 election was unlikely but with no “jabs for all by Christmas” slogan in sight, it seems a 2022 election is near set in stone.

In the meantime, communication is key. The lesson to under-promise and over-deliver may be sinking in for Covid-19, but there are alarming signs spin still reigns in that other rolling crisis: the government’s handling of sexual harassment.

This week the government responded to sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins’s Respect@Work report – claiming to have agreed in whole, in principle or in part to all recommendations, or noted those where there were other means to achieve their intent.

In fact, it has done no such thing. Key recommendations such as a positive duty on employers to stamp out discrimination and harassment and signing on to an International Labour Organisation convention to do the same have been merely noted with no alternatives proposed – leading Jenkins to describe the response as a missed opportunity.

Whether it’s Covid-19 vaccines, sexual harassment or any other public policy issue, spin is dangerous for the government, and not because of the immediate risk it will not be believed.

This week proved spin is dangerous because there is a risk the government will be believed, for a time, and held to the standard it set for itself before reality comes crashing down on it.

This content first appear on the guardian

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