It has been a year since the world locked down to help stop the spread of COVID-19. In Australia, cities and towns shut up shop, borders were closed and loved ones were separated.
Governments fumbled over jurisdictional responsibility, capacity was tested, patience challenged, jobs were lost, and livelihoods were ruined.
For a year – almost to the day – hope has been pinned to the COVID-19 vaccine as the catalyst for reopening our borders and our economy, while protecting the health and wellbeing of Australians.
Now that it has arrived, new arguments have surfaced and public pressure on the Federal Government is mounting. Arguments are raging about the timing of the rollout, how much of the vaccine we can procure and the capacity of Australia’s health infrastructure. Despite this clearly being the most important task facing government today, there are serious operational issues, magnified by communications failings.
The first doses of AstraZeneca arrived in Australia in mid-February - and only a tenth of the targeted population planned to be vaccinated in phase one of the rollout have had their jab. Amid delays, some state health ministers claim to not have been briefed about which aged care facilities would receive the jab – or even whether assistance from ADF was being deployed. This chaos has played out in the media, creating anxiety and confusion.
In times of desperation, especially during a pandemic, playing political handball on health issues is far from ideal. Icon Reputation’s takeaway is that these woes can be fixed with a clear communications strategy. It may sound simple – but it must be done.
The Federal Minister for health is juggling a few hefty tasks – including management and funding of a public health education campaign, onshore development of the vaccine and trying to reach targets that seem near unachievable.
While his own responses in the press have arguably been measured and quite sensible, this approach needs to be cascaded into other parts of this national effort.
It should be noted that Australia has the gift of time, with the death toll and infection rate managed through a combined effort of state and federal government pandemic mitigation. This is a stark contrast to the UK and the US who are in a race against the clock to vaccinate millions – and quickly. But the government still needs to communicate a clear path forward and manage public expectations. These include:
1. Streamlined and timely communication processes between federal and state governments about health infrastructure and capacity.
2. Clear communication with GPs about vaccine allocation, ordering of stock and provision of assets to communicate with their patients.
3. Fast-tracking the public education campaign for those who are worried about the health impacts of the vaccine.
4. Announcing more achievable vaccine targets.
The coming months will be a challenge for governments across the world. Similar arguments are happening in OECD and developing countries. This will be a time that history will reflect on how governments respond to public health crises – and crisis communications is core to that.
Read more about communication in the health sector on Icon Agency’s website.
Written by Shelley Maher