THE COST OF AUSTRALIA’S ‘PHENOMENAL FAILURE’ ON VACCINATION
The Australian, 6 May 2022
Australians aim high. Whether it’s the quality of our beaches, the speed of our Olympic swimmers, or the talent of our novelists, we like to think that we can be the best of the world. And we often succeed.
Yet a year ago, Australia was doing the very opposite. Of all the advanced countries in the 38-member Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Australia had the lowest rate of full vaccination. This wasn’t a temporary thing. From 12 May 2021 to 26 July 2021, Australia ranked last in the OECD, underperforming countries with significantly lower levels of economic development, such as Mexico, Turkey and Portugal.
We didn’t end up with the wooden spoon because Australians refused to get the jab. It happened because the Morrison Government refused to do its job. While other countries were signing vaccine deals with multiple manufacturers, the Liberals bet the house on a University of Queensland vaccine (which turned out to produce false positive HIV tests) and the AstraZeneca vaccine (which occasionally caused blood clots).
The vaccination delays weren’t accidental. On 2 January 2021, a major paper carried a front-page headline ‘Vaccine Can Wait, Says PM’. The accompanying story noted that Scott Morrison ‘warned it would be dangerous to rush a coronavirus vaccine rollout’. Two months later, on 10 March 2021, Morrison declared ‘This is not a race’, and said ‘We can take our time’.
In a new research paper, University of New South Wales professor Richard Holden and I ask the question: what was the economic cost of these vaccine delays? What would have happened if Australia had been first in the OECD rather than last?
To answer this question, we compare Australia’s vaccine rollout to Israel’s, which had one of the speediest vaccine programs in the world. Israel’s last lockdown occurred in February 2021. If Australia had an equally fast vaccination program, we might have done the same.
The benefit to Australia of avoiding most of the 2021 lockdowns can be calculated using numbers from the Australian Treasury. Treasury’s own estimate is that each week of a national lockdown cost the economy $3.2 billion. In the period after February 2021, Australia’s lockdowns equated to nearly a ten-week national lockdown.
Multiplying the weekly cost by the length of the lockdown, Professor Holden and I estimate that the national economic cost of the COVID lockdowns came to $31 billion. That equates to more than $3,000 for every household in Australia. This is probably an underestimate, since it ignores the longer-term impacts of lockdowns on mental wellbeing, education, and employee morale. It doesn’t account for the cost of the additional government payments, and the debt taken on to cover them.
The delays in Australia’s vaccination program have been described by former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull as a ‘phenomenal failure’. Indeed, Turnbull argues that Morrison’s vaccine strollout takes the title for worst government blunder ever, observing candidly ‘I can’t think of a bigger black-and-white failure of public administration than this’.
When it came to getting vaccines, Israel’s Prime Minister spoke with the head of Pfizer more than 30 times. Scott Morrison didn’t make a single call to Pfizer. It was classic Morrison – leave the details to others, and focus on marketing. Morrison even had the gall to tell Australians that we were ‘at the front of the queue’, when he knew that the truth was precisely the opposite.
It wasn’t the first time that Morrison has been shown to put spin above substance. Yet this time, the cost was measured in lives and lockdowns. Australians suffered because the Prime Minister reverted to his old marketing ways, and failed to do the job he’s paid for.
As we come into the election, the Morrison Government will seek to airbrush history. The Liberals will try to claim credit for the fact that once vaccines finally arrived, millions of Australians lined up promptly to get them. The Liberals desperately hope that now lockdowns have ended, they should get off ‘Scott free’.
But elections are partly a judgment on how well governments have performed. When it comes to the speed of the vaccine rollout, Scott Morrison should listen to his Liberal predecessor, who calls it a ‘phenomenal failure’.
Vaccinating Australia was always a race. Australia could have been number one from start to finish. But this time last year, Morrison had us coming last.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra