SUBJECTS: Vaccine Rollout Delays; Astra Zeneca Safety; When will Australians be vaccinated? 

KARL STEFANOVIC, HOST: Let’s bring in our pollies, the newly appointed Defence Minister, Peter Dutton in Townsville and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Richard Marles in Melbourne. Peter, first to you in Townsville, this is a massive problem.

PETER DUTTON, MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: All along, we’ve taken the medical advice. And we’ve done exactly that, in relation to this latest development, I think it should be reassured by that. We have the best science, the best immunologists and the best team put together to analyse all the world data. And they’ve come up with this recommendation and we’ve followed that, and we’ve got one of the best responses in the world. People should be very reassured by that medical advice.

STEFANOVIC: I’m not sure they got to be though, Pete. I mean, how can Australians trust the vaccine is safe people over 50, when they’ve been told it’s no longer the preferred recommendation for younger people?

DUTTON: Well, in the United Kingdom, there were over 18 million doses that were given to people and you’re talking about 20 cases, for example. If you’re talking about a population where people are older with co-morbidities or underlying medical conditions, if they’re younger, then there will be anomalies. We have that each year with a rollout of the flu vaccination, of course, there’s a greater focus on the rollout of this vaccine because of the pandemic, that is COVID. But from our perspective, I believe very strongly in the TGA, and in the expert panel, on vaccinations that we do have the best people in the world advising us and they’ve advised us to take this step, we’ve done that, and people should continue to speak to their GP, and make sure that if they’re able to get a vaccine that they do, because we know people die from COVID, we know that there are many complications that come from COVID. And the very clear, consistent medical advice that people should get the vaccine. And that’s the advice they should take.

STEFANOVIC: Richard, thank goodness, the rollout was so slow?

MARLES: Well, the rollout is slow, there’s no doubt about that Karl. And I wish we were experiencing the best response in the world. But we’re seeing other countries in the world right now vaccinating millions of people every day. And I think we’ve got to understand that it’s fantastic that there’s no community transmission. It’s fantastic that we’ve kept the levels of the disease very low in Australia. But ultimately, to get to the other side of this, we need to have the country vaccinated. And given the decision which the government has now made, and I don’t question the medical advice that Peter has been referring to, and it is great medical advice. But how is the country going to get vaccinated this year now? Given this decision, how is the country going to get vaccinated? And ultimately, it’s a matter for the PM.

STEFANOVIC: You can’t bag Prime Minister’s decision, you support it?

MARLES: Well, it’s not about this decision now, we’ve been concerned all along that this government has been very slow out of the box, in terms of placing us in the queue of the various vaccines around the world. We were making that point last year, you know, we needed to have access to the widest range of vaccines from day one. And that appears now not to be the case. But at the end of the day, the responsibility lies with Scott Morrison, he’s got one job this year, it’s to vaccinate Australia, and he said four million of us would be vaccinated in March, that hasn’t happened. Are we going to get vaccinated this year? And if we’re not vaccinated this year, and we’re not on the other side of this by the end of 2021. Are we going watch the rest of the world get on with life and us be left behind? They’re the questions the Prime Minister needs to be answering today.

STEFANOVIC: He has some valid questions, Pete – let’s drill into that, if we can. I’m not sure how many under 50s there are in Australia, but presumably millions – when will the other vaccines arrive for them, in order to be vaccinate?

DUTTON: Well, Karl, a couple points to make here, yes, and with all due respect to Richard, Anthony Albanese has been trying to carve out at every twist and turn in this debate, some sort of political opportunity. Now, our country is facing a pandemic like the rest of the world. It is a war-like condition, essentially, that we’ve been living in where the whole of government needs to respond, and we’re working with global partners, etc. Normally, in that time, you would expect the Opposition to be united with us instead they are looking for political opportunity, which I think reflects very poorly on them – that’s the first point. The second point is that we have signed a number of contracts. We took a decision early on last year, more than 12 months ago, to close our borders, first with China and then the rest of the world. That is what has put Australia in the best possible position we are in at the moment. And we took a decision to manufacture the vaccine locally – so that we wouldn’t have supply chain disruption. Now we’ve done as much as we can possibly do in that regard. We’ve got a number of other vaccines that we’ve signed up to – we have hedged our bets, if you like early on when the science wasn’t as clear. That is the absolute prudent way to approach this and scaring people at the moment, particularly people who are older, and that we know face a very severe outcome in some cases, as a result of COVID, those people need to be vaccinated and the medical advice is very clear.

STEFANOVIC: You’re a straight shooter, Pete? When will everyone under the age of 50 get first jabs in the arm from the Pfizer vaccine? I think it’s a pretty difficult question, obviously, to answer, but it’s an important one for anyone under the age of 50. It’s got to start at some point, when does this rollout?

DUTTON: Well, again Karl, I think the way that we’ve approached this is firstly, to take the medical advice and secondly, to be calm in the response. We haven’t got under 50’s at the moment that need to be vaccinated, our priority of people in aged care homes, health care workers, and those who are vulnerable otherwise. So the Astra Zeneca vaccine is safe for them – and that’s the medical advice. And we will continue to rollout we’ll continue to secure more product, including Pfizer. We’ll make announcements about all that in due course. But at the moment, we don’t have thousands of people dying whereas in Europe, and in the United States and elsewhere, thousands of people a week are being diagnosed, thousands of people a week or a month, depending on where you are, are dying. We don’t have that in this country and we’ve got a balanced, measured calm approach to dealing with this issue. We will continue to go down that path, we’re not going to be distracted by the political opportunists.

STEFANOVIC: OK, so under 50’s need the Pfizer jab, we don’t know when they’re going to arrive, so the timetable now for vaccinating Australians is out the window?

DUTTON: No, Karl, I wouldn’t assume that at all, we’ll have announcements to make and they’ll be positive announcements. But all of that discussion, negotiation goes on behind the scenes, and the Prime Minister has been personally involved in this along with Greg Hunt right from the start to make sure that the vaccine is being secured. That’s why we’ve got the rollout plan, available. There will be hiccups along the way, that’s accepted, we are in the middle of a war-like arrangement and we will respond accordingly in a competent way, as we’ve done right over the course of this pandemic. We’ll continue that during the course of the rollout, so this year, we will have domestic production, many other countries will not have that domestic production of the vaccines, they will be safe for people in their millions. And if there is an alternative that we need for a Pfizer or other product, then we will secure that supply. And we’ll make announcements about that in the coming weeks or months and people will be vaccinated, and we’ll get our country back up and running again.

STEFANOVIC: Richard, you can’t tell me that you would have done any better, would you?

MARLES: Well, the question I ask is, did they do their best last year? I mean, I think that’s the way to put it. But it’s just not clear to me that they did hedge their bets at all.  And was it calm and prudent to say that four million people would be vaccinated in March, when clearly we weren’t within a bull’s roar of that happening. I mean, I don’t think calmness and prudence has in fact been the order of the day here. And what is now clear is that you know what, the rollout is way behind time, with real questions about whether it gets done this year. And in a health sense, we have been very fortunate in terms of our ability to deal with community transmission and the States have done a remarkable job in relation to that. But this is an economic question as well. We don’t get to open the border until we’ve been vaccinated. We don’t get to have international students back here. We don’t get to have trade up and running until we all get vaccinated. And in that sense, there is a need and there is a need to do it in a timely way. And you know, Peter saying there are going to be announcements, great news, we look forward to what those announcements actually are. But in the meantime, you know, it would be good to get some calmness and prudence on the part of this government where they actually tell us what’s going on, rather than, you know, giving heroic forecasts like millions of people being vaccinated in March.

STEFANOVIC: OK, Richard, thank you for your time today and the newly appointed Defence Minister from Townsville. I know you were at the base last night, so we appreciate your time. We’ll talk defence this time next week. Thanks for your time, appreciate it.


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