Australian prime minister Scott Morrison has apologised for his government’s bungling of its Covid-19 vaccine rollout, amid a worsening outbreak that has forced authorities to put 14 million people under lockdown.
The apology represented a sharp turnround for Mr Morrison, who until recently enjoyed high approval ratings thanks to Australia’s success in suppressing the pandemic and limiting deaths to fewer than 1,000.
But an outbreak of the highly infectious Delta variant across three states has exposed the vulnerability of Australia’s largely unvaccinated public.
Sydney reported 124 new cases on Thursday, the highest number of infections since the start of the latest outbreak in mid-June. There are more than 1,500 active cases in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.
Just over 12 per cent of Australians have been fully vaccinated, among the lowest rates in the developed world. Health experts said shortages of mRNA vaccines, confusing messaging over who was eligible for the AstraZeneca jab and bureaucratic bungling have delayed the inoculation programme.
“I’m certainly sorry that we haven’t been able to achieve the [vaccination] marks that we had hoped for at the beginning of this year. Of course I am,” Mr Morrison said. “But what’s more important is that we’re totally focused on ensuring that we’ve been turning this around.”
A Newspoll published this week showed the opposition Labor Party had surged to a lead of 53 per cent to 47 per cent over the conservative Liberal-National coalition. Mr Morrison’s net approval rating as prime minister has fallen 8 points in a month.
“Until this [vaccine rollout] is resolved, I would think it will continue to undermine the government’s popularity,” said Ian McAllister, professor of politics at Australian National University.
“The disaster will be if there is a big surge in cases in one or more of the states which causes many deaths/extended lockdowns. That will be sheeted right back to the federal government.”
Australia is due to hold an election within a year.
Mr Morrison repeatedly refused to apologise this week when questioned by journalists about the delayed vaccine rollout. But he has been under mounting political pressure since his comment in March that vaccination was “not a race”.
“The problem is, you know, [Mr Morrison] said so many times that it’s not a race. And the truth is it is a race. It always was a race,” said Anthony Albanese, Labor leader.
“I reckon he was channelling Elton John, ” Mr Albanese added. “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.”– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021