Scott Morrison has apologized for Australia’s slow vaccination, a day after repeatedly refusing to apologize for the government’s missteps during an interview with a radio host in Melbourne.
“I am certainly sorry that we were unable to achieve the numbers we had hoped for at the beginning of this year,” the prime minister told reporters in Canberra on Thursday when he announced that pharmacies, backed by Commonwealth compensation, would be able to to administer AstraZeneca vaccinations from August.
“Of course I am [sorry]. But what’s important is that we’re fully focused on making sure we turn this around. I take responsibility for the vaccination program [and] I also take responsibility for the challenges we have faced.”
With new Covid infections continuing to rise and millions of Australians locked up, Morrison used a number of media interviews on Thursday to encourage people to get vaccinated. The prime minister said the risks associated with the Delta variant made it necessary to get more “horsepower” behind the AstraZeneca vaccine.
In a live interview with Triple J’s Hack program on Thursday night, Morrison admitted he was unhappy with the state of the vaccine rollout.
“No, I’m not – I’m not happy with where we are now,” said the prime minister. He said that’s why he appointed Lieutenant General John Frewen to oversee the federal government’s vaccine task force.
Morrison engaged in public lobbying on Wednesday by the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunization (Atagi) to change its public health advice on AstraZeneca.
The prime minister said the latest outbreak required a new risk assessment to ensure more people were vaccinated. As public backlash over a lack of vaccine stocks has grown, Morrison has sought to shift criticism of the problematic vaccine rollout to the independent advisory board.
On Thursday, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) confirmed in its weekly safety report that two more deaths had occurred in Australia from rare blood clots likely linked to AstraZeneca. One was a 44-year-old man from Tasmania and the other was a 48-year-old woman from Victoria.
A total of five deaths from thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome have now been reported in Australia from 6.1 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine. All deaths were related to a first dose.
The TGA has noted that in Australia severe cases of TTS are more common in women in younger age groups.
Morrison’s reflections on Atagi on Thursday angered Victorian Health Secretary Martin Foley. Foley stated that Morrison “shouldn’t try to blame people for doing their job”.
Foley said Morrison’s negative commentary on Atagi was “unusual” and an “unnecessary opportunity for professionals doing their job”. He said that Atagi included the most “eminent physicians and experts in their fields and” [the experts] respond to the questions and problems posed by governments”.
The Victorian health minister said that rather than blaming expert advisers for the reluctance to turbocharge vaccines and contribute to rollout delays, the prime minister should “work constructively” with Atagi and find a solution.
“Try not to blame people for doing their job,” Foley said, before doubling down on a direct criticism of the prime minister. “If we all did our job, we might not be in the position we are in now with a very low vaccine rate.”
Morrison nuanced his criticism of the expert group on Thursday. He told reporters at the Lodge in Canberra that he fully respected Atagi, but said prime ministers should not just “take advice uncritically”.
“Whether in cabinet meetings or in other forums, of course I dispute the advice I get,” the prime minister said.
“I ask questions. I drill into it. You would expect me to do that. Australians wouldn’t expect me to just take this advice at face value. We have to question it.”
Morrison said the changing public health advice on AstraZeneca had “caused some hesitation in people, particularly older people”. But he said his comments on Wednesday did not reflect a lack of trust or respect for experts, but a shift in the balance of risk.
The Prime Minister confirmed that the Commonwealth would compensate GPs and pharmacies willing to administer the AstraZeneca vaccination to people under the age of 60. But he said it would be left to state governments to indemnify people who administer vaccinations in their mass hubs.
Morrison was made aware that the Western Australian government was unwilling to operate AstraZeneca through its hubs. The prime minister said it was “a decision for state governments on what to offer”.
“I want to get AstraZeneca vaccines into people’s arms to protect them, their families and their communities,” the prime minister said.
“That’s what I want. I’m trying to boost vaccination rates, and states that have relied on AstraZeneca vaccination have much higher vaccination rates than those that haven’t.”
New South Wales Health Minister Brad Hazzard also took another veiled swipe at the federal government over the vaccine rollout.
Hazzard said the vaccine’s hesitation over the AstraZeneca shot was “a shocker”.
“That is clearly the result of advice that came from Atagi and was subsequently also translated by the federal government,” said the liberal minister. “We need to step back and say… most of us can’t afford the luxury of sitting back and saying I don’t want the vaccine that’s actually been taken by almost every country in the world.”