Day: January 14, 2021

There’s no scientific need to expose Australians to suffering. We need vaccine reciprocity now

As the city of Brisbane once again goes into full lockdown, borders remain closed, and businesses nation-wide are being decimated, the Australian bureaucracy still refuses to allow its citizens access to the Covid-19 vaccine citing their own approval timetable. The good news is that the fix is easier than many think, and includes valuable lessons for any future pandemic Australia may face.  

With merely 28,000 cases and fewer than 1,000 deaths, Australia has been fairly well shielded from this global pandemic. But the price individuals and the whole economy paid for this is high: Australians are not allowed to leave the country, while tens of thousands of Australians are stranded overseas, unable to return home. Thousands of businesses have closed, and the tourism and hospitality industries have been devastated. State border closures have led to tragedies such as twin babies dying as border closures prevented the mother from giving birth at a hospital near her. Another mother miscarried after border closures prevented her from accessing immediate medical care. Other families were prevented from visiting their children in intensive care, and the list goes on.  

Bizarrely however, Australia’s government and regulatory bodies seem to be content with this strategy and seem to have no desire to get society back to normal. Until last week, the federal government was not contemplating rolling out inoculations until the end of march — a decision fortunately revised to mid-February but either way, Australia is months behind the global efforts to start vaccinating, and it suggests Australia’s regulatory agencies are not currently prepared to act as quickly as needed in a future pandemic. An international comparison shows how drastic the regulatory backlog is down under:

The United Kingdom’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (approved an effective COVID19 vaccine on December 2. By early January the same regulator allowed two additional vaccines to be used by doctors, nurses, and pharmacists around the country. And while the UK was the fastest to approve these highly needed vaccines, other countries followed quickly and managed to roll out mass vaccination at lightspeed. The UK, EU, Japan and Canada are rolling out vaccines, and as of writing three Middle Eastern countries spearhead the global race to immunize wide parts of society; Israel has vaccinated nearly one-fifth of its population, with a plan to have every citizen vaccinated by the end of March, the United Arab Emirates have provided 9 per cent of its resident with at least one jab, and Bahrain holds the third place with having reached 4 per cent of its people so far. 

Despite the international success of vaccine rollouts, and the opportunity it presents to save both lives and the economy on which people’s lives depend, Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration initially announced that it will approve the first vaccine only by late March 2021. That is nearly four months later than the UK’s or United States’ approval. Prime Minister Morrison has now announced that they will bring the approval forward to mid- or late-February but that still is still over a month longer than it needs to be  

These continued delays show the dangerous exceptionalism Australia’s government applies in this global public health crisis. Can the government really justify prolonged lockdowns, COVID cases, and deaths if there are already multiple effective vaccines used across developed countries?  There is no reason for the TGA to come to different conclusions than the UK’s MHRA, the US’ FDA, and the EU’s EMA: Australians are not a separate species who will somehow react differently and need additional studies. Bureaucratic inertia and a refusal to alter rigid timetables despite the circumstances, and a nationalist belief Australians need to do everything ourselves, is a degree of arrogance that comes at a great cost.   

Australians should demand mutual recognition of vaccine approvals (also called reciprocity) in vaccine approval with all regulatory agencies based in OECD countries. The costs of delaying the vaccination rollout are simply too high to justify the ongoing arrogance of the TGA. Given that all reputable medicines agencies across the OECD have already given their blessing, patients in Australia should receive immediate access to immunization shots. 

As a new and more virulent strain of Covid-19 has already begun circulating in Australia, the need for a vaccine has become even more urgent, particularly given evidence released today has proven the vaccine is effective against this mutation. Future COVID cases, deaths, and economic bankruptcies could be quickly prevented if the government acts swiftly by burying its ego. In addition, the next pandemic is likely to come sooner than later. A more agile vaccine approval system needs to be in place by then, so we can quickly respond to any potential future challenges. Reciprocity among OECD countries is an easy fix. Accepting our partners approval of vaccines is Australia’s quick and easy way out of the current situation and will ensure a swift and safe return to normal.

Admitting Australian’s don’t have to do everything ourselves will save lives and is the only moral course of action for the Government to take.  

Fred Roeder is a health economist and Managing Director of the Consumer Choice Center. Tim Andrews is the Founder of the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance and presently Director of Consumer Issues at Americans for Tax Reform.  

Originally published here.

Airlines need to be held accountable for reimbursements

Consumers are entitled to receive reimbursements, especially because of bailouts.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of EU member states were asking for changes to ticket cancellation policy rules, effectively exempting airlines from refunding their customers. As it stands, airlines have a week to fully refund their customers for cancelled flights. Additional compensation rules apply for long delays and other inconveniences. When consumers book flights, they anticipate these protections to be upheld.

Consumers who have purchased tickets at a precise moment in time did so under existing rules and regulations. The European Union cannot retroactively change these policies — this is a rule of law issue above all else. Consumers should not be forced to pay for the poor bookmaking of airline companies. COVID-19 is undoubtedly a disaster for airline companies, but that doesn’t mean that the obligation to refund consumers should be willed away by the stroke of a pen. It’s also important to point out the incredible hypocrisy on the part of policymakers. 

EU policymakers spent most of 2019 lecturing consumers about flights, and are now rigging the rules of commerce for the benefit of airline companies. It is outrageous that airline companies are getting special treatment when hotel and event bookings are not. Retroactively changing the terms of a contract is a severe blow to consumer trust and consumer protection. This move decimates the consumer trust in existing and incoming protections entirely and puts a question mark of the actual authority of law-makers.

The refund mechanism has since been sped up by many airlines, but mostly because billions in bailouts have been transferred all throughout spring and summer. Some airlines are going to receive additional funds as lockdowns and travel restrictions continue. In that context, airlines also need to be held to their word when it comes to refund policies.

That said, compensation policies aren’t what consumers need. Passengers can expect compensation for their flight cancellation, between €250 and €600 depending on the length of their route. This has been the reason for significant disputes and has proven to make neither companies nor passengers happy.

This compensation scheme is a government-mandated insurance policy, which increases the price of the ticket, despite passengers not wanting generalised insurances. How can I say that with confidence? It suffices to take a look at how many people conclude voluntary travel insurances upon checkout. The result of the compensation scheme has been long court battles, in which passengers rightfully demand the funds that they were promised. The procedures here are too costly for consumers to engage in them themselves, but resorting to large law firms leaves them with only a percentage of their expected compensation. While the policy sounds good in theory, it doesn’t work in practice. Instead, private travel insurances give consumers better leeway to act. 

However, while compensation rules can be controversial (and do not apply in cases of natural disasters), it seems fair and just that passengers are reimbursed for flights they did not get to take. This is not an argument from a David vs. Goliath perspective of the big company vs. the small consumer, but rather from the principle of contract law — i.e. rendering the service.

As I wrote in a letter to airline CEOs back in June:

“We want to be in the air with you as soon as possible, but please do your part and commit to the rule of law and don’t force us to bring you to court. Hundreds of millions of taxpayers across the world are already helping you through government bailouts. We do our part to advocate for fewer levies and taxes paid on airfares and against silly bans of domestic flights, like the ban being discussed in France right now. This will make the sector more competitive and will allow us, consumers, to fly more with you.”

Originally published here.

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