“Extreme zero-COVID views look good, but they can have a fair few negative consequences that are difficult to count.”
Long-serving former Health Department secretary Jane Halton – who also sat on the government’s National COVID-19 Commission Advisory Board – did not agree with Dr Coatsworth about COVID-zero advocates but admitted the public health community had failed to counter misinformation about vaccines, especially AstraZeneca, and it was possibly too late to reverse the damage.
“I think nobody really understood how really problematic information that’s been circulating on social media – unchecked and unchallenged – has been for confidence in vaccines generally, and in AstraZeneca in particular,” Dr Halton told The Sun-Herald and The Sunday Age.
“We’ve all been out advocating vaccination. But I don’t think we’ve said enough about why people shouldn’t believe a lot of what they read. We shouldn’t assume that people understand all of these issues.”
Dr Halton said: “I don’t believe things are ever too late but once a lack of confidence sets in with AstraZeneca, it is very hard to counter it. There’s a big job now [for] all of us to try and counter what is potentially a real problem for us as we get to the back end of the vaccine rollout.”
A spokesperson for the federal health department said there had been a consistent message since the start of the pandemic that Australians should get their information from credible sources and “most Australians have heeded that message”.
“There will always be debate and diversity of opinion,” the spokesperson said. “Our focus has been on engaging health academics across the country … to share the latest information and advice and debate the diverse range of views in the academic community.
“This has helped to ensure debate is informed, as much as possible. While there is a diversity of opinion including amongst the medical profession the advice that has guided the government has led to Australia having one of the lowest death rates from COVID.
“Health spokespeople, including the Chief Medical Officer, Deputies and the Chief Nursing and Midwifery Officer continue to engage media and social media to tell Australians the latest information and encourage Australians to only rely on trusted information sources.”