• rmacculloch

Are Academics Partly to Blame for our Slow Vaccine Roll-out? Could it be a Scandal?

I was never able to understand why more academics, like myself, were not hot on the trail of NZ's snail's pace vaccine roll-out. Isn't being a "critic and conscience" of society part of our job? For goodness sakes, we were bottom of the OECD for months in terms of vaccination rates. Now that slow roll-out has created untold economic & psychological costs. As we speak, it has put lives at risk. It was obvious that the government was moving too slow. That is why we raised alarm bells long ago. In Blogs back in April, 2021, we said:

"Vaccine Rollout Update: A Race to the Bottom, A headline that's not appearing in our mainstream media: NZ ranks 36th out of 37 OECD countries in terms of vaccinations per 100 people. That is, we're second to bottom".

It wasn't long before NZ actually became bottom. We also advocated for a "Cash for a Vaccine Jab" policy in April and again addressed our low vaccination rate, in particular the issue of vaccine hesitancy that we saw as being potentially dangerous for the country. We even interviewed former National Party MP Dr Parmjeet Parmar, who wrote on this topic.

Yet the silence from other academic commentators in terms of getting stuck into the government for the slow vaccination program was deafening. Why? I suspected some had vested interests. That maybe their own political leanings led them to refrain from attacking certain political parties. We don't care a fig about such issues at this Blog, and write with neither fear not favor. We simply saw the pace of the vaccine roll-out as being crucial in terms of helping save lives and that the program was evolving into a dangerous failure.

Now a reason behind the silence from some of the academic commentators, who the Kiwi public put their faith in as being independent, maybe beginning to emerge. It turns out that the government hired a PR firm to shape the media "narrative" on the vaccine roll-out & influence public perceptions that it was doing a great job. Kate McNamara has found out that the firm briefed certain, selected "COVID commentators". The Ministry of Business, Innovation & Skills refuses to name the full list. The only chance of finding out is through an Official Information Request.

She has uncovered, "The PR firm stated it "worked closely with [Covid] Taskforce agencies on key communications collateral to support the Pfizer announcement. Key stakeholders - especially those likely to be approached by media for comment - were provided with a 'heads up' prior to announcements going out. A number of these stakeholders have provided positive public comment as a result". Then at a later date, "we will again brief the 'COVID commentators' this week on progress to secure the vaccine portfolio…"

MacNamara says, "What is surprising here, and ill-advised, is the opaque endeavour to draw the independent voices of civil society, and particularly of academia, so close to the mechanism of Government spin".

Well here's a fact. I was never given a 'heads up' or 'briefed' by the PR firm even though I've written much commentary on this issue, including articles with a Former Finance Minister, Sir Roger Douglas, on NZ's COVID response, as well as a book chapter on the topic, with a forward by former PM Helen Clark and Prof. Nigel Haworth, a former Labor Party President. Without fear nor favor, Sir Roger & I got stuck into the leading law firms in Auckland, including Bell Gully, for taking the COVID wage subsidy, which they subsequently hurriedly repaid.

The reason that I've been kept at PR arms length is probably because the government doesn't like me very much. Yes, my "narrative" often threatens their "narrative". What I never knew was that it appears other academics may have been working in cahoots with a government-backed PR firm hired to steer people away from ways of thinking that make it look bad. At times it felt to me as if the media were even targeting the comments on this blog and trying to discredit them, as happened when Sir John Key appeared to quote some of them.

So who is on the full list of commentators briefed by the PR firm? Which of them hold full-time academic positions?