Scott Morrison denies his government has presented the public with overly rosy assessments about the state of its Covid-19 vaccine rollout, as he steps up calls for the European Union to allow 3.1m outstanding AstraZeneca doses to be shipped to Australia.
While declaring that vaccine supply issues were a matter of “straightforward maths”, the prime minister also attempted to calm a growing diplomatic dispute between Australia and the EU, insisting he had not made any criticism of Brussels over its handling of the matter.
Earlier on Wednesday, the Morrison government issued a statement accusing the European Commission of “arguing semantics” by saying just one shipment of 250,000 AstraZeneca doses had been formally blocked. The government said the commission had signalled it would block other applications to export vaccine doses from the region.
The government also complained that the European Commission has not responded to Australia’s request for 1m doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to be made available to Papua New Guinea, one of the countries hardest hit in the region.
The latest statements follow comments by a European Commission spokesman on Tuesday that the only export request rejected out of nearly 500 received has been a shipment of 250,000 doses to Australia in March.
Morrison told reporters on Wednesday the government was asking AstraZeneca to resubmit its application to the European Commission to export the remaining 3.1m of the 3.8m contracted vaccine doses to Australia. He was seeking further talks with the commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, to discuss the issue.
The prime minister said he was “pleased to hear that the European Union overnight has indicated that they are not seeking to restrict these vaccines to Australia”.
He said the government would therefore encourage Brussels to allow the rest of the 3.8m does to come to Australia, including 1m “to provide support to our Pacific family in Papua New Guinea that are undergoing a humanitarian crisis”. He also wanted the remaining doses to “be part of the vaccination rollout here in this country”.
The Morrison government is under intense domestic pressure over its failure to meet initial targets for the Covid-19 vaccine rollout.
Asked about the importance of trust in government to ensure public confidence in the vaccine rollout, and whether the handling of the program may contribute to hesitancy, Morrison said he was not concerned there would be any such impacts.
“I mean, all I’ve simply done today is set out very clearly that 3.1 million vaccines didn’t arrive in Australia,” 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. And 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.”
But on 5 March, after Italy blocked 250,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, the federal health minister, Greg Hunt, was keen to play down the impact, saying Australia’s “forward projections did not involve this particular shipment of one set of doses from one country, from a firm which has a deep, broad global supply chain”.
“We are very clear that this does not affect the pace of the roll out,” Hunt said at the time, later adding: “I think that’s important reassurance for every Australian.”
When asked on Wednesday about Hunt’s comments, Morrison said: “We’d already adjusted the rollout. We’d already adjusted the rollout to not include the 3.1 million.”
Pressed on whether the government had been overly rosy about the state of the rollout, Morrison replied: “That would mischaracterise what the minister was saying and fail to appreciate the context of what he said. We had already taken into account, and we’d already shared with this very gallery, in this very place in late January, the concerns that we had about the European distribution at that point.”
Morrison urged the media to understand that “circumstances change” and “there are a lot of variables in this process”.
The prime minister’s office pointed to Hunt’s comments at a press conference on 25 January in which the health minister raised concerns about international supply: “So at this stage, we are expecting about 1.2 million doses of AstraZeneca international.”
Many EU countries are currently experiencing large numbers of Covid-19 infections, and the bloc has been concerned about the pace of delivery of AstraZeneca doses for use in Europe.
The Italian government indicated last month that the blocking of the export of 250,000 doses was not directed against Australia, but said Australia was classified as “a non-vulnerable country” and noted “the continuing shortage of vaccines in the EU”.
An Australian government spokesperson said on Wednesday that AstraZeneca had “not been able to secure an export licence from Europe to send the remaining doses, and they know they would never be approved by the European Commission”.
“The EC itself has confirmed their export control regime has blocked the export of a number of those doses, including a shipment of 250,000 doses, and they also requested we withdraw other export permit applications,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
“Of the 3.8m AZ doses Australia has pre-purchased from overseas supplies, only 700,000 have been delivered to date, with the government continuing to seek access to 3.1m manufactured in the EU.”
The treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, told ABC TV: “So the fact that they’re not giving approval is effectively the same as blocking.”
The trade minister, Dan Tehan, conducted a round of interviews on Wednesday morning, saying the EU now seemed to be saying it would not block any future shipments, which would be a “wonderful” development.
The Australian government has been under fire for the slow pace of the rollout and a lack of transparency about how many doses have been manufactured locally and administered.
Morrison said on Tuesday the vaccine supply issues were to blame for the massive discrepancy between the 855,000 vaccinations administered so far and the missed target of 4m doses by the end of March.
The opposition health spokesperson, Mark Butler, said on Tuesday the rollout was “so far behind every single commitment” the government had given Australians, and it was time to adjust the strategy.