Prime Minister Scott Morrison has backed in his "sleepless" Health Minister and attacked "hindsight heroes" for second guessing 2020 COVID vaccine negotiations with pharmaceutical giant Pfizer that meant Australia got doses later than many other developed nations.
But he has kept key details of the procurement timeframe in doubt by pointing to still confidential evidence of engagement with the company.
Federal Health Department emails released under the Freedom of Information Actreveal that urgent appeals from Pfizer in mid-2020 to meet the Minister Greg Hunt were put off for more than a month, weeks after the US and UK signed massive multimillion dose deals. All up, the correspondence shows, a five-month gap between Pfizer urging to meet the Minister and the signing of Australia's first 10 million-dose Pfizer contract.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese says the emails show remarkable complacency in the middle of a pandemic, but Mr Morrison has rejected the opposition's analysis.
"No-one has put more effort into that task than the Minister for Health," the Prime Minister said on Thursday. "No-one has had more sleepless nights and lengthy hours than the Minister for Health in securing the best possible health outcome for every single Australian."
"Of course there'll be critics in the middle of a crisis and there'll be lots of hindsight heroes and others who say, 'this could have been done or that could have been done'.
"If they want to focus on the past, that's fine. We're focusing on the future."
But Mr Morrison says the emails don't show the full story of securing vaccine doses and has accused Labor of cherry-picking details. He uses the word "engagement" which could mean a variety of forms of communication, including text messages, emails, phone and video calls.
Mr Morrison said the Health Minister was engaging in the first half of last year, but asked by journalists when the Health Minister actually spoke to a representative of Pfizer, he deferred to the Health Minister.
As for the Prime Minister, he said, "I would have been talking to them in the second half of last year." Asked what effort he made to get more than 10 million Pfizer vaccine doses, he responded, "every effort we could," but he would not elaborate.
He said he would let others make judgments about the government's Pfizer deal, but he said there was more than one discussion going on, and not just with Pfizer.
"To suggest that they weren't would be false. There were many records of the engagement between the government and Pfizer at the time," Mr Morrison told reporters, again without elaborating.
"Our political opponents have highlighted one set of correspondence but there are many others which highlight the connections and engagements that were taking place between Pfizer and the government."
"At the end of the day we were able to secure the doses that we did."
The Prime Minister also indicated Pfizer, as a global giant, had other priorities as COVID savagely hit the northern hemisphere and he raised the Australian decision in mid 2020 to focus on establishing and producing the AstraZeneca vaccine on shore, a sovereign capability.
"It was very clear from those discussions that the focus was not on Australia, the focus was on where people were dying in their thousands, tens of thousands, in the Northern Hemisphere," he said.
"And it was very clear to us that what we would have to do is ensure that we had a home, manufactured vaccine.
"Had we not done that then you would have seen the vaccination rates in Australia half what they are today."
The Opposition Leader has urged the Morrison government to release all the vaccine procurement documentation.
"We'd be happy with that. The only reason why this was released was as a result of a Freedom of Information request," Mr Albanese said.
"And what we have here in black and white is emails from the company to the Australian government last June, requesting a meeting with the Health Minister, and they didn't get it.
"The emails explicitly say that millions of vaccines would be available in 2020. And we didn't get them. They said explicitly that other countries were moving quickly. And we stayed still. As a result, we're in lockdown today."
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