Politics

Doctors seek better communication, more transparency from expert vaccine group

“It is my job as Prime Minister not just to simply accept advice uncritically,” he said.

“Of course I challenge the advice that I receive. I ask questions. I drill into it. You would expect me to do that. I think Australians would not expect me to just take this advice simply on the face of it. We must interrogate it.”

Mr Morrison argued the “balance of risk” had shifted since the April and June decisions because of rising COVID-19 case numbers and the greater threat of infection among people, especially in older age groups, who had decided against vaccination because of the ATAGI advice.

“Those people are now at risk in south-western Sydney in particular, but more broadly across Sydney, and I need AstraZeneca vaccines in their arms to protect them and their lives,” he said.

While Australia’s imports of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine are ramping up, it currently has more stock of AstraZeneca, which is being manufactured by CSL in Melbourne.

Dr Moy said the AMA would propose changes to ATAGI so there was more transparency around its decision making and improvements in the way it communicated its advice.

“We’re always offering suggestions to help improve the functioning of any committee,” Dr Moy said.

“I think it’s absolutely reasonable for the Prime Minister to be able to do that. Every stakeholder should be able to do that.

“But if it is construed that you’re trying to influence an independent committee, that’s where you have a problem.”

Asked if he believed Mr Morrison did create such a problem, Dr Moy said: “I think that would have been easily construed by some.”

Stephen Duckett, a former Health Department secretary who now heads the Grattan Institute’s health program, said poor communication around the changes to ATAGI’s advice had undermined the AstraZeneca vaccine and the advisory group.

In normal times, the group’s work was not at all political, Dr Duckett said.

But decisions that balanced risks were necessarily political calls, unlike a straight epidemiological decision based on evidence about a vaccine’s side effects. Because of this, he said it wasn’t unreasonable for Mr Morrison to ask the group to re-examine its advice.

“The advice process and the announcement process, I think contributed a lot to the undermining of confidence in AstraZeneca,” Dr Duckett said.

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University of Sydney vaccination communication expert Julie Leask said ATAGI had provided leeway in its statements – saying Pfizer should be the preferred vaccine for under-60s rather than banning AstraZeneca – but this flexibility had either gone unnoticed or been miscommunicated.

“The communication has been wanting all the way along, such that when people were told by the PM that it would okay to have it under 40, everyone was shocked as if it was a reversing of the recommendation,” Professor Leask told ABC’s Radio National. “I think in retrospect that should have been picked up on and the communication around that, the leeway they were giving made clear.”

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