EDITORIAL: Confusion threatens to mar vaccine rollout

Prime Minister Scott Morrison spoke to the nation on Monday night offering what seemed a way to speed up Australia's sluggish COVID vaccine rollout.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced more changes to the Covid vaccination program on Monday. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced more changes to the Covid vaccination program on Monday. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

It wasn't long before the latest major changes to the vaccination program came with a hangover.

Confusion and uncertainty followed the Prime Minister's announcement that under-60s would be able to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine if they chose, and that the Commonwealth would indemnify doctors who administer the vaccine.

The peak body for GPs said it wasn't warned of the changes. It was not the first time the government hadn't kept doctors abreast of important rollout decisions, and it played out in a poor way for the medical practices swamped by queries from the community.

The president of another representative body, the Australian Medical Association, refused to endorse the Prime Minister's announcement and urged people to follow the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation's advice that Pfizer was the preferred vaccine for under-60s.

The association's president, Dr Omar Khorshid, said Mr Morrison's announcement took him by surprise, too. Given the crucial role of medical experts in informing the public about Covid and vaccines, it's hard to understand why the government didn't make even a short phone call to these groups.

Under-60s had this to consider over the course of 24 hours: they were encouraged by the Prime Minister to discuss getting the AstraZeneca vaccine with their GP, and then cautioned the next day by the AMA to follow the official advice recommending Pfizer.

The potential for greater confusion is an unfortunate outcome of the latest changes to the vaccine rollout.

It does nothing to relieve the uncertainty marring one of Australia's most important government programs in decades, one that depends on public trust and clear messages from the government.

It's not reasonable to expect total certainty and clarity in what is a fast-moving pandemic and a crisis like no other in recent decades. Governments are muddling through and learning from mistakes as they go, and the public has given them their fair share of patience along the way.

While much of the criticism towards Australia's vaccine program is deserved, a lot of it has also been unhelpful. Comparisons to the United States and the United Kingdom ignore the vast differences in the population sizes, manufacturing capacity and numbers of Covid deaths that have influenced the speed of their vaccinations.

But patience is finite, and each day the rollout fails to gather pace, the government is testing its limits.

The public might not look so kindly on what it judges to be poorly communicated and implemented changes to the rollout program.

Mr Morrison's announcement raised questions, including about why the government appeared to open the way for under-60s to take the AstraZeneca vaccine despite advice from ATAGI recommending that age group receive the Pfizer vaccine.

The quick about-turn looks like policy on the run from a government that, faced with a growing outbreak of COVID-19 in Sydney and other major cities, lacks options in speeding up the vaccine rollout.

It needs to clarify that the medical advice regarding AstraZeneca vaccines still stands, and explain why it has made its latest change to the rollout program.