Australia’s prime minister on Wednesday blamed restricted vaccine supply from Europe for his country’s halting coronavirus inoculation efforts, as he faced down growing public frustration over the sluggish rollout.
Scott Morrison said vaccine shortages and “strict export controls” introduced by the European Commission meant Australia received only 700,000 of a contracted 3.8 million doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.
His government, which received global praise for successfully containing Australia’s coronavirus outbreak, has fallen far behind its schedule for vaccinating people.
It had initially pledged to administer four million doses by the end of March, but had instead managed about 850,000 shots by Wednesday – drawing increasing criticism that Morrison tried to address at a hastily organized press conference.
“I’m simply explaining to the Australian public that supply issues is what’s constraining and has constrained, particularly over the recent months, the overall rollout of the vaccine,” he said.
“3.1 million vaccines didn’t arrive in Australia – that’s just a simple fact,” he said. “It’s not a dispute. It’s not a conflict. It’s not an argument. It’s not a clash. It’s just a simple fact.”
Australia has reportedly received a million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which it is administering to frontline workers.
But authorities had been counting on imported and locally made AstraZeneca shots to cover most of the population.
Trouble surfaced last month when Italy blocked the export of 250,000 AstraZeneca doses as it struggled to cope with a severe coronavirus crisis at home.
Morrison’s government said at the time the Italy move would not affect its overall vaccine rollout plan.
‘Our ticket back to normal’
But since then, a wider debate across Europe on whether to export vaccines when EU countries are struggling to contain the virus has further held up supplies.
Morrison said Wednesday he had been reassured by statements from EU officials overnight that AstraZeneca export requests were being processed.
“So, if it is, indeed, the position of the European Union that they are happy for these export licenses to be granted … then we would encourage them to do that,” he said.
Morrison said he was also still awaiting an EU response to an urgent request for one million of Australia’s AstraZeneca doses to be diverted to neighboring Papua New Guinea, which is facing a worrying Covid-19 surge.
Early in the pandemic, Morrison had boasted that Australia would be “at the front of the queue” for vaccines after a slew of deals with AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Novavax.
But public frustration over the actual rollout has been building and prompted angry exchanges last week between the Morrison government and state officials tasked with administering much of the program.
“Australia is severely behind schedule with the vaccine rollout,” complained opposition leader Anthony Albanese.
“Scott Morrison needs to stop pretending like there’s no rush. Vaccinations are our ticket back to normal – the government needs to get a move on.”