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Labor has reignited the debate over the government’s handling of the coronavirus vaccine program as research showed the delayed rollout cost the country more than $30 billion in potentially avoidable lockdowns last year.

Australia’s vaccine rollout began in February last year but suffered delays, and the program didn’t start to ramp up until July – a month after the Delta outbreak had begun in Sydney. Major lockdowns were subsequently ordered in NSW and then Victoria.

Shadow assistant treasurer Dr Andrew Leigh, a former professor of economics at the Australian National University, said the slow vaccine rollout had a “massive effect” on the economy last year.

Labor’s Dr Andrew Leigh.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

“[Former prime minister] Malcolm Turnbull put it best, talking about this as being the greatest public policy failure of the post-war era,” Leigh said.

“We know it cost lives, but this research also shows that it had a massive economic cost as well.

“There was the ability – if the vaccines had been procured – to roll out the vaccine as quickly as Israel. And if we’d done that, we wouldn’t have had lockdowns that lasted longer than Israel’s lockdowns and Israel’s last lockdown was February 2021.”

Peer-reviewed research by Leigh and UNSW economics professor Richard Holden, which will be published in the Oxford Review of Economic Policy later this year, used Treasury’s estimates to calculate the effect of lockdowns in 2021.

Leigh and Holden calculated there were 68 days of national-equivalent lockdowns in 2021. Treasury put the cost of a national lockdown at $3.2 billion a week, which would add up to $31 billion over 68 days.



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