Adam Schwab: Why an entrepreneur should have handled Australia’s vaccine rollout

COVID-19-vaccine

Source: Unsplash/Louis Reed.

On Sunday, amidst widespread furore about the pace of vaccine rollout, the Australian Government responded — by delivering a grand total of 12,000 vaccine doses. Yep, 12,000.

The US delivered 4.6 million. On a per capita basis, the US delivered 29 times as many vaccines as Australia.

After the past six months, where Scott Morrison and Greg Hunt were holding press conference after press conference gloating about Australia’s vaccine achievements, it left a sense of grave concern. For two reasons.

People who are good at something generally don’t need to remind others of it, they let their actions speak for themselves. And second, the federal government never explained how they were planning on achieving such a difficult task. There was never any description of the hustle needed to get the vaccinations done. It was mission accomplished before the troops boarded the first vessel.

The UK, which alongside Israel is leading the world in vaccinations, martialled an army (both literally and figuratively) to supply its vaccine doses. Retired doctors, nurses and even podiatrists and dieticians were called up for a warlike effort. Even volunteers with no medical experience were summoned. Cometh the hour — cometh the men and women.

For all Britain’s earlier COVID bungling, it was understood that distributing the vaccine was the only way to return to a sense of normality. Just five months after starting their program, Britain’s average daily deaths have dropped from 1,250 to only 35.

But there was no hustle in Australia’s response.

The vaccine distribution was largely left in the hands of a poorly briefed GP network, who were given no booking systems, inadequate supply and too little funding. It was only after the people started realising the scale of the debacle, did federal and state governments act to start rolling out mass-vaccination hubs.

Australia’s vaccine rollout resembled what happens when a big corporate tries to compete against a nimble startup. Despite superior resources, the startup inevitably wins.

So, who should have led Australia’s vaccine rollout?

A founder. A gritty entrepreneur who knows what it is like to create a company with almost no money and no resources.

Founders need to find solutions to problems that they didn’t know existed the day before. Founders need to see around corners. They need to diagnose problems before they occur and solve them quickly. For a founder, time is the enemy. Time equals money.

What would I have done if I were running the vaccine rollout?

For a start, paid up enough to buy vaccines from every major supplier (any excess could have been donated to trading partners or developing neighbours as part of our aid budget) — this of course is easy in hindsight, but it’s also what nations like the UK and US did. As any founder knows, without a product, there’s no business. And you need to keep pivoting until you find the right product.

Then, in the six months between ordering the vaccines and their arrival, I would have worked with fast-moving businesses like Health Engine (disclosure: I’m a shareholder) or HotDoc to create an online booking portal to easily connect vaccines and people. There was plenty of time to build a product which would have cost almost nothing. The federal government never thought about this, instead, they simply told people to ‘call their GP’.

At the same time, I would have called for an army of volunteers — anyone aged over 60 with medical experience would have been conscripted to join an army of vaccinators. I would have used three massive vaccination hubs per major city, all close to transport. While vaccinations would have been from oldest to youngest, anyone who turned up at a hub towards the end of the day could get a vaccine to ensure none of the precious mRNA doses (from Pfizer) were wasted.

We’d vaccinate every day until the job was done. No downing tools on weekends to save on penalty rates. I’d also spend half my time in the hubs themselves, trying to work out where the inefficiencies lie. We wouldn’t hire expensive consultants from PwC or McKinsey to tell us what to do — startups can’t afford that. I’d incentivise the key team members on getting vaccinations done.

The math is simple.

If Australia is able to accelerate to 200,000 doses per day, it will take around five months to vaccinate 60% of the population (which is about where Israel is now, and they have completely suppressed the coronavirus). That means everyone over 40 could be vaccinated by October (even if the warnings on AstraZeneca aren’t lifted, there should be enough vaccine for that).

Founders set ambitious targets and do everything to achieve them. But Scott Morrison and Greg Hunt first need to stop looking in the mirror and start looking around corners.

Adam Schwab is an angel investor, start-up mentor and the founder of Luxury Escapes which turned over almost half a billion dollars in 2019, without ever raising capital.

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