Covid vaccine contracts signed under the former Coalition government could be altered or scrapped by the new Labor administration, with the health minister, Mark Butler, calling a review of jab supplies “as a matter of urgency” in the face of emerging virus variants.
Following criticism of the Morrison government’s delay in signing contracts with mRNA vaccine manufacturers and a sluggish initial rollout, Butler said the review – to be chaired by the former health department secretary Jane Halton – would compare Australia’s purchasing processes with those of other nations.
“What I want this review to go to, is to some good independent advice to government about our existing arrangements. The contracts that we have inherited from the former government, both in relation to vaccine delivery over the coming 12 or 18 months, and treatments,” he said.
“Also what supplies we currently have in country, whether they are adequate for our needs, or potentially even surplus to some of the needs we have.”
The finance minister, Katy Gallagher, is among Labor members who have called for a royal commission into the former government’s handling of the Covid pandemic. Butler, who was critical of the Coalition’s early vaccine procurement and rollout, said on Thursday that a major inquiry was warranted – but that Halton’s review would be forward-looking and probe Australia’s future needs, not past decisions.
“It’s not about looking back and examining the rights and wrongs of the former government’s approach to negotiating these contracts in the first place. It’s about about the now and the next 12 to 18 months,” Butler said.
“I think it’s entirely appropriate for us to have some independent advice about incredibly important arrangements that we have inherited.”
Australia recorded 38,265 Covid cases and 60 deaths on Thursday, according to data tracking website CovidLive.
In a written statement, Butler claimed the former government had been “caught flat-footed on protecting Australians” and said the review would be a “deep dive” into current supplies and future needs.
Australia signed vaccine contracts with Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Novavax. Pfizer and Moderna are developing promising vaccines for young children and to target specific new variants of Covid, with Moderna to build a vaccine manufacturing facility in Melbourne.
On Thursday, Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration granted a provisional determination to Pfizer, allowing the pharmaceutical company to apply for provisional registration of its vaccine for children aged above six months. The vaccine is currently approved for those aged over six years.
Butler said he had held productive discussions with Pfizer and Moderna in recent days about vaccines for children and specific variants.
When asked if the review could lead to the cancellation or alteration of existing vaccine contracts, or the signing of new ones, Butler said the government “might need to make some change”.
“I don’t want to predetermine what Ms Halton should or should not come up with, but I want her to look at the current arrangements in relation to vaccines and treatments, and ensure their suitability,” he said.
“But if she makes an assessment – and she is as well-placed as anyone in the country to do that – given the changing nature of this pandemic we might need to make some change. We will obviously look at that very carefully.”
Butler said he intended to publicly release the review’s key findings, excluding those which may be commercial-in-confidence – such as particular details around vaccine contracts.
The shadow health minister, Anne Ruston, cautiously backed the review, but said she did not want it to become a “stunt” to criticise the former government, criticising Butler for “derogatory comments” about the Coalition.
“I am somewhat surprised by the snap decision to do a review that we haven’t heard anything about prior to hearing about it today,” she told the ABC.
“I think Australians on the whole should have been reasonably pleased with the way the previous government handled the pandemic. The highest vaccination rates in the world, the economy remained strong, very low death rate in Australia. I hope that Mark Butler is intending to make this a positive thing to support Australians.”
Ruston added that she believed any wider inquiry into Australia’s handling of the pandemic must be independent and bipartisan, and include quarantine arrangements which were presided over by state governments.