Scott Morrison has been accused of misleading advice from government immunization advisers, Atagi, whom he has tried to blame for the slow rollout of Australia’s vaccination program.
The Prime Minister has erroneously claimed that Atagi adopted an “assumption” in his vaccine approval plan that Covid-19 cases would remain low – when their advice on AstraZeneca vaccines actually warned otherwise.
Morrison made the comments Thursday, doubling an earlier attempt to blame the Australian Technical Advisory Group on immunization for the unrolled rollout.
Labor accused Morrison of “misrepresenting” Atagi’s advice in an attempt to shift the blame for Australia’s rollout. As of Friday, only 12.95% of the eligible population over the age of 16 were fully vaccinated due to excessive trust in AstraZeneca, and the majority of Pfizer doses are not expected to be available until the last three months of the year.
On April 8, Atagi advised people under the age of 50 to get Pfizer vaccines, as the risk of complications from AstraZeneca blood clots outweighed the risk of Covid-19 for this group.
The age was later raised to 59, but the warning was softened this week when Atagi accepted that in the face of new Covid outbreaks and limited Pfizer supplies, those under 60 might want to reconsider the benefits of getting AstraZeneca jabs instead.
On Thursday, Morrison said the government had “received medical advice that has changed on two occasions”.
“And the medical advice, which I made very clear to Atagi at the time, was based on the assumption that cases in Australia would remain low,” he told ABC’s AM.
“Now I never made that assumption … And the balance of risk assessment that Atagi is very aware of was based on small cases in Australia.”
Morrison said that as the number of cases had increased, Atagi’s advice had changed, which had created some confusion among the public.
Although Morrison is right that Atagi’s balance between the risk and the benefit of AstraZeneca was made at a time of low cases – the original council explicitly warned that making cases may not continue forever.
“While Australia currently has very low or no societal transmission of Covid-19, this may change, especially in the context of high global transmission rates, including new variants of the virus,” Atagi said on April 8.
“The risk of serious illness and death in Australia remains even as border controls and other measures continue.”
“Although Australia has so far had few deaths from Covid-19 in young adults, major outbreaks in other countries have caused thousands of deaths in young adults, indicating that the risk of serious outcomes is found across the age spectrum.”
Labor’s shadow health minister Mark Butler said “with Scott Morrison it’s always someone else’s fault”.
“It is the prime minister’s responsibility to lead the nation, but 18 months into the pandemic and five months into the rollout, he is presenting wrong Atagi advice,” Butler told Guardian Australia.
Scott Morrison has failed to roll out the vaccine and set up a custom-built quarantine. Due to his failures, more than half of the country is locked up and the other half has restrictions imposed on them. ”
Although Atagi advised during the 1940s that Pfizer was the preferred vaccine for their age group, it also noted that individuals can consult their doctor and take the AstraZeneca vaccine if the benefits outweigh the costs.
At a news conference on the evening of April 8, Morrison told reporters in Canberra that the government had received the advice from Atagi just 15 minutes before announcing to the public because it was important that it was “immediately available to Australians”.
After conveying the advice almost immediately, it took the government more than two months to implement measures to facilitate younger Australians’ access to AstraZeneca.
On June 28, Morrison announced that the National Cabinet had agreed on an indemnity scheme for GPs to consult patients about vaccines and used its press conference to encourage those under 60 to consult their doctors about receiving AstraZeneca.
In response to a question, Morrison confirmed that under 40s would now be eligible for AstraZeneca vaccines, leading to a setback especially from the Queensland Prime Minister and Chief Health Officer and doctors who said they were surprised.
On Wednesday, Morrison told 2GB radio that 20,000 people under 40 had received the AstraZeneca vaccine since his comments on June 28.
Morrison said Atagi’s “very cautious” approach to AstraZeneca “significantly” had slowed the rollout and “put us behind”.
These comments provoked an angry reaction from Debra Petrys, the former consumer representative at Atagi for nine years before her retirement in June, who branded them as “disappointing” and “unfair”.
“This is not a time for guilt – everyone has made the decisions they have made, which were the best decisions with the evidence present at the time,” Petrys told Guardian Australia.
Atagi’s co – chair, Prof Allen Cheng, also responded by reminding the government that it remains responsible for making decisions and for rolling out the vaccination, while Atagi’s role is limited to advice.
On Friday, Labor leader Anthony Albanese said Morrison “had in fact undermined the Atagi Council” has been critical of [Atagi]”.
“It’s something I did not do,” he told reporters in Canberra. “And that’s something I do not want to do.”
Guardian Australia contacted Morrison for comment.