grattan on saturday: shortage of fuel hampers the general’s vaccine advance

grattan on saturday: shortage of fuel hampers the general’s vaccine advance Picture: Lukas Coch/AAP

Despite some questioning about a military man being in charge of the vaccine rollout, when it comes to communicating, Lieutenant General JJ Frewen is a refreshing change from the pollie-speak and fudges we hear all the time.

At a Tuesday news conference, after his virtual meeting with the states and territories, Frewen answered questions directly and briefly.

He was distinctly “forward leaning”, indeed pre-empting the content of the roundtable Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and he were to have with business representatives the following day.

Frewen sounds like a man who knows what he’s doing. Coming days will tell whether that’s the reality. (You can find a touch of scepticism in certain state quarters.)

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is naturally inclined to put faith in the military, especially after his Sovereign Borders experience. But bringing in Frewen was also a response to what was becoming a desperate situation. It was a call to Triple Zero. He’s now very impressed with the general and relying on him heavily.

While critics baulk at the “men in uniform” pictures (Frewen flanked by colleagues), a degree of concern is also being expressed from quite another quarter. Some defence sources are wary of the danger of politicising the military.

The Australia Defence Association tweeted this week: “Relying on the ADF to head emergency efforts (not just assist the civil community) risks dragging a necessarily non-partisan institution into #auspol controversy”.

The ADA referenced the 2007 Northern Territory intervention over child sex abuse, when the seconded general heading a multi-departmental operation was targeted in a highly politicised environment.

At the moment, however, Frewen has more immediate worries. The general has landed on the beach, reworked the maps, and is marshalling available forces. But his advance is hampered by the shortage of fit-for-purpose fuel.

As each day goes by, the limited quantities of Pfizer and the absence of any other currently available alternative to AstraZeneca (which is subject to restrictive health advice) is being highlighted more starkly.

The fact this will change later (we are assured) doesn’t help when the here-and-now is urgent, as the Sydney outbreak and the extension of the lockdown there underline.

It’s a time-gap that so far Australia has not been able to significantly narrow.

We’re hearing about vaccine transfers abroad – for example, Israel is providing doses to South Korea, to be repaid later.

But it is hard for a country like Australia, with relatively few cases, to make a plea. Morrison was asked why we haven’t been able to use our “special relationship” with the US to get some of its surplus doses. Unsurprisingly, others have greater needs or better arrangements.

Announcing on Thursday a liberalising of the COVID disaster payment to assist in the Sydney outbreak, Morrison also said the state would be provided with 300,000 extra vaccine doses next week, equally divided between Pfizer and AstraZeneca. This won’t affect what other states receive (on the per head of population formula), and NSW’s numbers will be smoothed out later.

Somehow the federal government has rustled up a small number of additional shots of Pfizer, apparently from higher than forecast allocations. Morrison claimed he couldn’t give details for commercial-in-confidence reasons.

Health Minister Greg Hunt said on Thursday he was “increasingly confident that we’ll be able to bring forward supplies in August from later on in the year.

“I’m increasingly confident that we will have additional supplies arriving on shore in August, and we’ll have confirmation in the coming days. But we’re quietly working behind the scenes every single day to ensure that, and that’s beginning to bear fruit.”

The supply problem came through strongly when Frydenberg and Frewen spoke after Wednesday’s business meeting.

The roundtable canvassed workplace vaccinations. Frydenberg said there were a lot of offers. Virgin Group CEO Jayne Hrdlicka said, “Big employers have the ability to stand up vaccination programs very quickly and would welcome the opportunity to be able to vaccinate as much of the workforce as quickly as possible”.

According to Treasury sources, when the rollout was being prepared, Treasury put forward the view that employers should be used as a channel, as with the flu vaccine. But up to now, we’ve heard little from the government about such an obvious way to boost rates. And, among other things, that goes back to supply.

If we had more Pfizer, there is no reason why this could not have been happening now. (Except where there’s lockdown and work from home!) But employers can’t be in the thick of the rollout when the supply problem means the younger people in their workforces could not be given the vaccine preferred for them. The workplace sites will be for later in the year.

If there had been more Pfizer, the under 40 cohort could have been brought into the general rollout program much earlier – these people are still waiting, unless their job or health puts them into a special category, or they choose AstraZeneca.

And with adequate Pfizer supplies the PM wouldn’t have needed to encourage younger people to consult their doctor about taking AstraZeneca.

The extension for another week of the Sydney lockdown further removes the special status NSW has claimed – and has been accorded by the federal government – as the gold standard for handling COVID without having to resort to extreme measures. The virus again has proved itself the great leveller.

NSW’s decision would be especially disappointing to Morrison. But there is a tone of greater tolerance towards his home state than he displayed to Victoria, in its recent troubles, when he held out for some days before announcing assistance. (In fairness, the Delta outbreak in Sydney is particularly bad.)

“We’re working very cooperatively and positively together [with NSW] because let me be clear – what is happening in Sydney just doesn’t have implications for Sydney,” he said.

“What is happening in Sydney has very serious implications not only for the health of Sydneysiders but also for the economy of Sydney, but also the economy of NSW and indeed the national economy.”

At the moment, one in three eligible people in Australia has had a first vaccine dose, and one in ten has received both doses.

The government has been foreshadowing for a while that by year’s end, all eligible Australians will have had the opportunity of a first jab. On Thursday, Morrison pointedly said this was the government’s intention “based on the advice of Lieutenant General John Frewen that that will be possible”.

That’s assuming “the supply lines hold”.

The PM said this would mean the vaccination program would be only two months behind the schedule the government had when it talked about an October deadline.

No pressure, JJ.


This article was written by:

Michelle Grattan – [Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra]

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