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From ‘it’s not a race’ to ‘go for gold’: how Scott Morrison pivoted on Australia’s Covid vaccine rollout

·5-min read

It is the phrase the prime minister used repeatedly at the start of the Covid-19 vaccine rollout: “It’s not a race.” As Australia lags behind much of the world in getting jabs into arms, his choice of words has come back to haunt him.

Scott Morrison’s critics accuse him of attempting to rewrite history by claiming he wasn’t talking about getting people vaccinated when he uttered the now infamous phrase, but the regulatory approval process that preceded it.

“When we made those remarks, we were talking about the regulation of the vaccines. I’m not sure if people are aware of that,” Morris told Seven’s Sunrise program on Thursday.

However, the Pfizer vaccine was approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) on 25 January and AstraZeneca on 16 February, but the first recorded mention of “not a race” wasn’t until March, when the vaccine rollout had already commenced.

Related: Covid Australia vaccine rollout tracker: total number of people and per cent vaccinated, daily vaccine doses and rate of progress

10 March

Morrison said it at a press conference on 10 March after more than 100,000 vaccine doses had already been administered. The prime minister was not the first person to say it, it was the secretary of the health department, Prof Brendan Murphy, who first uttered the line when asked about when Australia would get to 1m doses administered:

This is not a race. We have no burning platform in Australia. We are taking it as quickly and carefully and safely as we can. We’re not like the US or the UK or most other countries in the world where they’ve got people in hospital dying. We can take our time, set up our systems, do it safely and carefully, we are expanding our rollout every day.

11 March

Morrison ran with this line on Sunrise on 11 March when asked whether the vaccine rollout had been slow in some states. He initially credited Murphy:

We will get this done by October as we said we would. But we have got to do it safely and as Brendan Murphy said yesterday, this is not a race, what is most important is the health and safety of Australians in the vaccination program and that is what we are principally focused on. And that rollout will gain speed towards the end of this month and we will see the Australian produce vaccines coming into the program and that means we will be able to be rolling them out in terms of supplies, around a million a week. When we get to that scale, I think we will see a real gear change.

On the same day on Nine’s Today Show he repeated it when asked if Australia would meet its October deadline for the vaccine rollout:

The key is, it’s not a race, right. It’s not a competition. You’ve got to do it safely, you’ve got to do it carefully and you’ve got to do it in partnership. And that’s what we are doing. We’re vaccinating Australia, that will open Australia again, and importantly, that will be great news for the tourism industry together with the packages we’ve announced today.

And then at a doorstop when asked if Australia would still open international borders as planned by the end of October:

The vaccination program done safely, done properly, which is what we’re doing here in Australia. It’s not a race. It’s not a competition for the sake of people’s health – you get it right. And that’s exactly what we’re doing and, where we are, our October deadline is the one we’re absolutely working to – there’s no change to that.

Related: From the front to the back of the queue: how Australia’s vaccine rollout unravelled

14 March

Then Morrison was asked at a doorstop in Castle Hill in Sydney’s north-west about whether Australia was still on target to have everyone receive their second dose of vaccine by the end of October. He indicated GPs meeting targets could get more vaccine to meet demand:

Now, those who are actually meeting the targets and ensuring the doses are administered. Now, where there’s spare capacity in state systems, well, we’ll send doses there too on a dynamic basis to ensure that we are keeping pace. But it’s not a race. It’s not a competition. It’s about the health and safety of Australians.

31 March

In Adelaide he was again asked about the slow vaccine rollout, and repeated Australia was on track for its October deadline:

It’s not a race, it’s not a competition, I am not interested in, you know, this state or that state. I’m interested in Australians being vaccinated safely, with appropriate care and support given to all of them. Australia has put itself into position to have a manufactured vaccine here in Australia. We’re not relying, like most of the countries in the world, for vaccines to be coming from somewhere else.

Since then, the prime minister stopped using the phrase, and it only appears in press conferences or interview transcripts when the phrase is being repeated back to the prime minister. Now with the Olympics buoying the spirit of Australians stuck in lockdown, Morrison has had a change of heart on sporting analogies when it comes to the vaccine.

“What we want to do is make sure we hit, hit these targets, set these targets right,” Morrison said of the vaccine rollout on Wednesday. “And, then all of Australia, like our Olympians, we go for gold on, on getting those vaccination rates where we need to go, because the supply’s there, the distribution’s there, the pharmacists, the GPs, the clinics, and we make a, we make a gold medal run all the way to the end of this year.”

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