Sorry seems to be the hardest word to say when you’re Scott Morrison.
This week marked an inflection point for Australia’s experience of the coronavirus pandemic. Months after quashing its last outbreak, New South Wales is recording more than a hundred new community infections each day. After its own period of relative tranquility, South Australia is facing a new week-long lockdown. And Victoria, the state hardest-hit by industry closures through 2020, saw its industry shutdown — its fifth since the dawn of the COVID-19 crisis — extended by another five days, with Premier Daniel Andrews giving no assurances it will end on Tuesday.
The outbreak will eventually cost the nation billions of dollars. It has already cost lives. Moreover, the Delta variant’s transmissibility suggests the only way through the pandemic is through the nation’s mass vaccination program, which has been hamstrung by supply chain shortages and rampant misinformation.
Another shift occurred this week at the federal level. Following months of criticism of Canberra’s handling of the vaccine rollout, and the manner in which Australia’s home-field advantage was overcome by the Delta variant, Prime Minister Scott Morrison issued an apology.
“I’m certainly sorry that we haven’t been able to achieve the marks that we had hoped for at the beginning of this year,” Morrison told reporters on Wednesday. “Of course I am. But what’s more important is that we’re totally focused on ensuring that we’ve been turning this around.”
It was a small but telling moment — not just for the fact he said it, but because the Prime Minister turned down ample opportunities to apologise in the days beforehand, instead assuring interviewers, the press, and the broader public that everyone is doing the best they can.
Here are some of the key moments which led to that apology.
Monday, July 12
On the morning of Monday, July 12, NSW Health revealed 112 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the total number of infections detected in the state since mid-June to 678. On the same day, Sky News host Kieran Gilbert questioned Morrison over his March proclamation that the vaccine rollout is “not a race”.
“If we treated the vaccination rollout as a race, would we still be having lockdowns like we’re seeing now?” Gilbert asked.
“No, those comments were made at a time when we were talking about the approval, the approval of those vaccines by the official bodies here in Australia,” Morrison said, referring to the Therapeutic Goods Administration’s vaccine testing protocols.
Gilbert asked if Morrison “could take yourself back to that point, would you have stepped up the acquisition of Pfizer then?”
“Well, I don’t have that opportunity and no one could have known at that time Kieran and that’s the point,” the Prime Minister said, adding, “there’s been serious challenges. I don’t deny that. But, you know, you can’t dwell on those challenges. You overcome them as we have.”
Thursday, July 15
The NSW coronavirus case load grew by 65, with the state told to expect increasing numbers in the days to come. Across the border, Victoria plunged into a five-day lockdown in response to its own growing outbreak, which grew to 18 the day prior.
Speaking to Sabra Lane on ABC Radio, Morrison again defended the nation’s early vaccine strategy.
“If you had your time again, what would you have done differently with your procurement policy?” Lane asked.
“Well, it’s interesting to be wise in hindsight. What matters is what we do now, what matters is…” Morrison said, before he was cut off.
“It does, but voters also want to hear from you,” Lane said. “Many have told me that, that they want to hear what you would have done differently.”
“Well, we would have foreseen the future better,” the Prime Minister replied.
“And that’s the problem with the pandemic. There’s no roadmap. And certainly events don’t always play out as you would like them to. But when those events play out differently to what you’d expected, then you take action, which is what we’ve done, and that’s what we’ll continue to do with every lockdown.”
Friday, July 16
Questioning intensified on Friday, July 16, but Morrison was no more forthcoming with an apology.
A media conference transcript, provided by the Prime Minister’s office, shows a journalist asking a pointed question: “What do you say to people who say this is a stuff-up?”
Reflecting on Australia’s financial resilience after the long lockdowns of 2020, Morrison said: “We’re a tough generation of Australians, just like the generations before us. And we’ll deal with these troubles and we’ll deal with these challenges. And we’ll come through. We’ll get through. And on the other side, Australia will be even stronger.”
Wednesday, July 21
Morrison received the clearest invitation yet to apologise on Wednesday morning. He turned down the opportunity.
“I have never heard the word ‘sorry’ – ‘guys, you know what, sorry, we did screw it up, but we are getting it right now’,” KIIS FM host Jason Hawkins told the Prime Minister.
What followed was a telling back-and-forward, in which Morrison stuck to the government’s key narrative: that it is focused on fixing the problems inherent in the vaccine rollout.
“Can you just say ‘sorry Jase’?” Hawkins asked. “It will make me feel so much better and then I feel like I can move on.”
“I’ve got one for you – what does this spell, S-O-R-R-Y?” he added.
Morrison told Hawkins he is “accountable for fixing it, and that is what I am doing.”
Thursday, July 22
The apology arrived on Thursday, when Morrison dropped the five-letter word at a Canberra press conference.
“I’m certainly sorry that we haven’t been able to achieve the marks that we had hoped for at the beginning of this year,” he said. “Of course I am. But what’s more important is that we’re totally focused on ensuring that we’ve been turning this around.”
“You were asked a number of times to say sorry yesterday,” a reporter said. “Why couldn’t you say that then? And, can you understand your reluctance in saying that, why people might think that perhaps you aren’t taking accountability?”
“I take responsibility for the things that haven’t gone as well as we’d liked, and I take responsibility for the things that have worked, as well,” the Prime Minister said in response.
Friday, July 23
As of midday Friday, some 37% of the eligible adult population over 16 has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. 15.4% is fully vaccinated. Both figures stand well below initial and revised targets for the rollout.
Morrison’s apology did foreshadow some tweaks to the nation’s vaccine administration. The Pfizer vaccine, ever in short supply, and the only jab in Australia’s current arsenal which the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation reccommends for every eligible adult under 40, is now approved for use in children. Morrison said the integration of pharmacies into the rollout will be accelerated. And Lieutenant General John Frewen, tasked with rebooting the rollout, presented his findings to National Cabinet on Friday afternoon.
But for many Australians locked out of work, barred from visiting loved ones interstate, or ravaged by the virus itself, it may feel that larger changes to the rollout — and Morrison’s expression of personal culpability — could have occurred much earlier.