The Morrison government is under fire after the European Union rejected assertions by the prime minister on Tuesday that it blocked more than three million Covid vaccines from being shipped to Australia.
The federal government has blamed international supply issues for the country's vaccine rollout falling woefully behind schedule in the first six weeks, with Mr Morrison telling a press conference on Tuesday that three million doses had been blocked, "pure and simple".
Earlier, Nationals deputy leader David Littleproud said Australia had been "badly let down" by the EU.
"The arithmetic is simple on this. We are three million short because of the EU, who cut us short," he said.
However, the EU took umbrage at the claim overnight, pointing to the fact it had only blocked the shipment of 250,000 AstraZeneca doses to Australia in a well publicised move in early March.
"We cannot confirm any new decision to block vaccine exports to Australia or to any other country," an EU spokesman told a news conference.
'Who is fibbing?': MPs grilled over rollout
The government says it commissioned 3.8 million doses from overseas however, about 3.1 million never made it to Australian shores amid manufacturing supply issues in Europe. Those vaccines remain in limbo with approval for export not yet making it to the EU.
The Morrison government accused the EU on Wednesday of playing semantics after it refuted the claim the doses were effectively blocked.
In a tense interview on ABC radio on Wednesday morning, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg avoided saying who was misrepresenting the truth over the three million doses which failed to materialise.
"Who is fibbing?" ABC political journalist Sabra Lane asked him.
He replied by citing a humanitarian request the government says it sent for Europe to approve a million doses to be sent to Papua New Guinea.
"There is a request in for a million and they haven't approved it," he said.
Government accused of vaccine 'excuses'
As the government sought to defend the rollout on Wednesday, Tourism Minister Dan Tehan also faced criticism the government was misrepresenting the situation.
Mr Tehan reiterated export controls were the reason the AstraZeneca doses hadn't made it to the approval stage to be shipped to Australia.
"But this is not the reason though for the slow rollout in Australia is it?" asked Q&A host Hamish Macdonald on RN Breakfast this morning.
"Because there are currently 2.5 million doses in CSL's cold storage awaiting batch testing by the TGA in Australia right now.
"Why won't the federal government accept there are some problems with the rollout given that these excuses about Europe blocking the vaccine clearly are not the reason it's not getting out to GP clinics?" he asked.
Mr Tehan said overseas doses "didn't arrive to fill the gap" before local production could be tested and approved. He said approval for the 2.5 million CSL doses was being "ramped up as we speak".
The EU has repeatedly said AstraZeneca may not be allowed to export from the EU until it fulfils its contractual obligations towards the bloc – a position that has led the company to refrain from submitting some export requests.
Mr Morrison had previously said any hold up of vaccine imports would not impact Australia's planned rollout.
Morrison backs away from EU criticism
Speaking to reporters in Canberra on Wednesday, Scott Morrison sought to throw cold water on the war of words overnight, saying he was not critical of the EU for delays.
"First of all, I want to stress that at no time yesterday did I make any comment about the actions of the European Union, nor did I indicate any of the background reasons for the lack of supply that we have received from those contracted doses," he said.
"Any suggestion that I, in any way, made any criticism of the European Union yesterday would be completely incorrect.
Hours earlier, Mr Morrison put out a statement accusing the European Union of "arguing semantics".
"I simply stated a fact: that 3.1 million of the contracted vaccines that we had been relying upon in early January when we'd set out a series of targets did not turn up in Australia," he told reporters.
"That is just a simple fact."
NSW offers to help with mass vaccine hub
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced on Wednesday that NSW is willing to "step up" and help the Commonwealth roll out the jabs at a faster rate.
The state will set up a mass vaccination site at Homebush which the premier said could administer 30,000 jabs a week if the federal government is able to provide supply.
The state has been tasked with vaccinating 300,000 people, but said the Homebush hub, as well as 100 sites across NSW, could continue to rollout the vaccine, offering to do 60,000 doses a week to get the rollout back on track.
"We’re ready to step up," she told reporters. “It’s in our state's interest, it’s in our nation’s interest to help the Commonwealth get out the jabs.
"We can have it physically up and running by May, it just depends on getting the doses from the Commonwealth."
Public health experts have been calling on the federal government to include mass vaccination sites in its rollout plan.
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