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26 October 2020

Independent Senator Rex Patrick has called on the Australian Government to immediately commit to much greater transparency in the development and implementation of its COVID-19 vaccination strategy. 

“The maximum possible transparency will be critical to build and maintain public confidence in what will be the most ambitious vaccination programme Australia has ever undertaken,” Senator Patrick said.  

“The Federal Government’s habitual resort to secrecy and obfuscation is absolutely unacceptable. It’s ridiculous to claim that the vaccine strategy is a national security matter. COVID-19 is the biggest public health issue of the past hundred years and maximum transparency is vital.”

In evidence to the Senate Select Committee on Covid-19 on 29 September 2020, Health Department Secretary, Dr Brendan Murphy said: “My intention would be, subject to the approval of government, to be as transparent as possible in our approach to vaccination.  Once we've developed our prioritisation strategies and our vaccination plans, I would hope that we would be able to be transparent as we go.”

“Despite this apparent commitment to transparency, the Health Department has decided to withhold a large amount of information concerning the Australian Government’s COVID19 vaccine strategy. Remarkably they have claimed national security as part of their responses for redacting information.”

“In a response to a recent Freedom of Information application by myself, the Department decided last week to withhold from release the vast majority of three briefings for Health Minister Greg Hunt on the COVID-19 vaccine strategy, including entirely redacting 42 of 51 pages and heavily redacting the remainder.” 

“Dr Murphy’s transparency undertaking has delivered little more than blank sheets of paper. It would be a joke if it were not such a serious matter.” 

Among Health’s stated reasons for redaction of information was a claim that information regarding procurement, supply and distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine was ‘crucial to the security of Australia at this current time’.

Health has also redacted information on foreign policy grounds; claiming confidentiality over all information received from GAVI - the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation; with further exemptions claimed on the basis of Cabinet confidentiality, trade secrets, commercial confidentiality, and the infamous ‘deliberative matter’ exemption, stating that disclosure of advice on the evaluation of vaccine models and options would prejudice the Department’s future ‘thinking process’.   

“This is an absolute disgrace,” Senator Patrick said. “Presumably with the concurrence of Ministers, the Health Department has claimed every FOI exemption in the book to withhold information on the vaccine strategy from the Australian people. They have wilfully refused to consider the public interest in being as transparent as possible about this critical public health issue.”

“This is vitally important information given the assumption made in the Federal Budget that a population wide Australian COVID-19 vaccination program will be ‘fully in place by late 2021’.” 

“The failure of Dr Murphy to provide any satisfactory answers at Senate Estimates today on timeframes for vaccine distribution and the priority groups to be vaccinated has only deepened my concern. Ten months into the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s hardly reassuring for the Government to say that that there’s a committee somewhere that’s talking about these problems.”

A copy of the Department's response to Senator Patrick's FOI can be found here.