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Slow vaccine rollout could keep Australia isolated into 2022

Slow vaccine rollout could keep Australia isolated into 2022

A doctor sits in the recovery area of the post vaccination room at Austin Hospital in Melbourne, on February 22. Image: Bloomberg
A doctor sits in the recovery area of the post vaccination room at Austin Hospital in Melbourne, on February 22. Image: Bloomberg

While much of the world contends with a surge in Covid-19 cases, Australia takes another big step toward normality this weekend when about 100 000 football fans will gather in the nation’s largest sports stadium, without having to wear masks.

The government has tamed the virus by shuttering the international border and through rigorous testing and contact tracing, giving Australians an enviable level of freedom. But after winning the containment battle, the country now risks losing the vaccination war as supply shortages and a slow rollout jeopardise the economic recovery.

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The vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre in Melbourne on April 21.

International tourism and higher education have little chance of recovering until the borders reopen — and that won’t happen until most of the population has been vaccinated. With only 1.7 million shots delivered so far in a nation of almost 26 million, covering just 3.2% of its citizens, Australia is ranked 93rd on Bloomberg’s Global Vaccine Tracker.

The timeline for vaccinating all Australians by October has slipped, potentially into early next year, when Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government will seek re-election.

“Some voters will feel the shine of managing the pandemic wear off if they see Australia trailing all these other countries in their vaccination rollouts,” said Jill Sheppard, a political analyst at the Australian National University in Canberra. “That could particularly hit Morrison around election time if they feel poor decision-making by the government is affecting their hip pocket.”

Falling short

Australia is in a group of countries including neighboring New Zealand, South Korea and Taiwan that were successful in controlling the spread of Covid-19, but have fallen short of the massive vaccination pushes seen in the US, UK and Europe.

Scott Morrison

Morrison says he’s secured access to 170 million doses and that his rollout strategy is now hostage to vaccine nationalism, with the European Union barring delivery of some 3 million AstraZeneca Plc. shots.

His plans have also been impacted by blood-clotting concerns, with Australia joining other nations in preferring not to give the Astra shot to people aged under 50. Locally made AstraZeneca jabs form the backbone of Australia’s vaccination effort and the health guidance has heightened concerns the rollout won’t be completed this year.

The main opposition Labour party is on the attack.

“The federal government hasn’t made the vaccines available,” Labour leader Anthony Albanese told reporters. “They have put all of their eggs in the AstraZeneca basket.”

The government also faces criticism for tasking family doctors to administer the bulk of jabs, rather than establishing mass vaccination hubs. Along with supply shortages, that’s contributing to the hold up, according to Catherine Bennett, the chair in epidemiology at Melbourne’s Deakin University.

“There’s been more of a trickle feed in the early stages of the distribution,” she said.

Airlines critical

With the threat of infection relatively low in Australia, concerns about the safety of vaccines may also be slowing the rollout. A survey of Australians released last month showed that while 59% of respondents intend to get vaccinated, 29% had low levels of hesitancy, 7% had high levels of hesitancy and 6% were resistant to getting the jab.

According to an Essential Report survey published last week, 52% of voters think Australians are being vaccinated too slowly. Some 42% blamed Morrison’s government, while 24% said it was due to international supply chains. The same poll predicted a narrow election victory for Labour.

Airlines and tourism operators are among the most vocal in demanding a quicker rollout. Qantas Airways Ltd.’s Chief Executive Officer Alan Joyce told reporters last week that Australia “cannot be laggards here and fall behind the rest of the world.”

Paul Bloxham, chief economist in Australia for HSBC Global Research, says Australia’s economy won’t reach its potential until the international border reopens.

Open borders support “migrant flow (population growth), tourism, foreign student arrivals and the movement of workers,” he wrote in an April 18 research note. “Recent delays in the vaccine rollout mean a clear risk of a delayed border reopening.”

That may not immediately worry the thousands of sports fans who’ll gather in Melbourne to watch the football on Saturday night.

Greg Hunt

“Enjoy the footy,” Health Minister Greg Hunt told Australians on Tuesday. “Revel in the fact that Australia is in an almost unique and a deeply privileged position in a world which otherwise is facing a pandemic.”

Yet should Australia’s remain cut off from most of the world into next year, the government may face a backlash, said Helen Pringle, a researcher at the University of New South Wales.

“The government has consistently asked Australians to contrast their experience of what’s happened in the US and Europe,” Pringle said. It could be punished “if it becomes clear that we’ve lost that edge.”

Global virus resurgence threatens vigorous growth momentum
Global virus resurgence threatens vigorous growth momentum

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