General confusion: who is John Frewen, and what is his role in Australia’s vaccine rollout?

General confusion: who is John Frewen, and what is his role in Australia’s vaccine rollout?

Australian military, Vaccines and immunisation, Health, Coronavirus,Lieutenant General Frewen ,COVID Vaccine,scott Morrison,harbouchanews

An increasingly public role for the Lt Gen as the face, and uniform, of the beleaguered program begs the question: why call in the military?

He’s got stars and medals aplenty. Brass and experience galore.

But what exactly is Lt Gen John Frewen’s role in Australia’s vaccine rollout? What are his parameters? Where does he sit in the flow chart?

Questions, there are many. Answers, however, are in short supply.

Scott Morrison announced Frewen as the head of the national Covid vaccine taskforce on 4 June, taking over from the retiring health associate secretary, Caroline Edwards.

He was the second high-profile military figure appointed to a public facing role in the vaccine rollout – in April, navy Commodore Eric Young was appointed to manage logistics associated with the vaccine program.

In the statement announcing Frewen’s appointment, Young’s role was relegated to one line: “Commodore Eric Young will continue to have a senior leadership role in the Commonwealth Vaccine Operations Centre.”

State and territory leaders were told of Frewen’s appointment just ahead of the 4 June national cabinet meeting, which he attended, but the parameters of his role, who he reported to, and where he sat in the organisational chart, wasn’t discussed.

Even finding out who to ask those questions proved confusing: the Guardian contacted the health minister’s office on Thursday morning seeking clarity on Frewen’s responsibilities and reporting lines, but was initially told it was one for the health department to answer, before being advised to contact the prime minister’s office.

Inquiries were then referred back to the Department of Health. Guardian Australia also contacted the Department of Defence and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet regarding the arrangements. By late Friday afternoon, the health department was waiting for a response from Frewen’s people, to answer just four questions:

1. Where precisely does [Frewen] sit in the health or other machinery of government structures? For example, is he on secondment from defence to the health department, and at what level (associate secretary level)?

2. Who does he report to directly, and what is the reporting line up to the health minister/PM?

3. What are his specific responsibilities/tasks? Presumably there is some information about what he was assigned to do when appointed?

4. How long is his appointment expected to last? Is there a change of salary for this role or is it the same as assistant secretary or whoever he is replacing?

There was concern over the “tone” of the article, or why it was being written.

Just before 5pm on Friday a short response, attributable to a “spokesperson for Covid Shield”, sent from the health department, lobbed.

Australian military, Vaccines and immunisation, Health, Coronavirus,Lieutenant General Frewen ,COVID Vaccine,scott Morrison,harbouchanews

“Lieutenant General Frewen is a senior officer in the Australian Defence Force. LTGEN Frewen is currently seconded to Operation COVID Shield as Coordinator General and remains an Officer of the Australian Defence Force. More information about this role can be found in the Prime Minister’s 4 June 2021 National Cabinet Statement.

“Remuneration and benefits of serving senior officers can be found in the Department of Defence Annual Report.

“LTGEN outlined his role and responsibilities as Coordinator General of Operation COVID Shield at the Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 on Monday 21 June 2021.”

The information Frewen gave at that Senate hearing was not much more than what had been said publicly, although he said he was reporting directly to Morrison and the health minister, Greg Hunt. Later on Friday night a Defence spokesperson provided Guardian Australia with nearly identical information about Frewen’s secondment, while confirming his previous role – commander of Defence’s own Covid-19 taskforce – was now being conducted by Rear Admiral Robert Plath.

We do know Frewen’s office sits within the health department and is called the office of the coordinator general. That is a tangible fact that is listed on the health department’s own website.

On 18 June, Frewen wrote to the head of departments of the nation’s leaders on a document with the official Australian government crest. No department or agency name was listed on the missive, instead the letter was identified as coming from “operation Covid Shield”.

The letter gave a very broad overview of his responsibilities, albeit without an explanation of his reporting lines.

“As you are aware, the prime minister has appointed me to the role of Co-ordinator General of the National COVID Vaccine Taskforce,” Frewen wrote to state and territory governments.

“This Taskforce has operational control over the direction and activities of Commonwealth agencies involved in the National Vaccination Program. I am also responsible for engagement with states and territories, and the distribution of vaccines.”

He said the taskforce’s goals were to ensure confidence in the vaccine rollout and to ensure as many Australians were vaccinated as early as possible. He was also planning the next phase of the Australian government’s Covid-19 vaccination communications campaign.

In the meantime, Frewen has taken on an increasingly public role as the face, and uniform, of the vaccine rollout itself.

Frewen – who was the national commander of all ADF personnel in the Middle East, including Iraq and Afghanistan, in 2017 – has conducted at least six television interviews over the past two weeks. Those have seen him asked about the logistics of the rollout but also matters touching on government policy and performance.

He has also done several press conferences alongside health officials, not necessarily with a minister present. Frewen joined Morrison at the post-national cabinet press conference on 2 July and he was present with Josh Frydenberg last week to discuss the outcome of the business roundtable the government held with stakeholders.

At those pressers, government ministers are increasingly directing journalists’ questions to the Lt General. Last month, Morrison deflected Labor’s criticism over the use of the terminology “horizons” rather than targets (a horizon being something you never reach) as “mocking” the Lt General’s language. On Friday, Morrison directed any questions on when the vaccine program would be opened to under-40s to Frewen, who was not present at his press conference.

Frewen also met with state and territory leaders to “war game” the latest vaccine program refresh, the results of which he said he would release to the public at a later date.

On 6 July, at a press conference, Frewen was asked what exactly it was he had been brought on to do and defined his role as “operational control and messaging”.

“I was brought on by the prime minister to take operational control and the messaging around the rollout,” he said.

“I think the view is there’s a ... military planning, and the way that the military conduct operations, perhaps a more broader sense of coordination, to the plan [was required]. And the way that my position has been set up also gives me greater flexibility to reach across the full range of government agencies and departments and some of the other stakeholder groups that hasn’t been the case up until now.”

The opposition’s defence spokesperson, Brendan O’Connor, said Labor supported “utilising the Australian Defence Force’s significant logistical insight and expertise in aiding the vaccination rollout”.

But O’Connor said ADF members “should not be required to answer questions and publicly defend the government on their handling of the vaccine rollout and the ongoing questions of supply or lack thereof” adding ADF personnel “should not be placed in a position where they are offering public commentary on matters of government policy or crafting political messaging”.

“Those questions are for the prime minister and his ministers, and they should not be shirking their responsibility to be accountable to the Australian public,” he said.

“Scott Morrison should not be hiding from scrutiny behind military uniforms.”

Morrison has made no secret of the fact “operation Covid Shield” and Frewen’s appointment to head it, was inspired by Operation Sovereign Borders, which was instituted under the Abbott government with Lt Gen Angus Campbell in charge. Morrison was immigration minister at the time.

Operation Sovereign Borders became notorious for its secrecy, with Campbell declining to discuss “on-water matters” during joint press conferences with then immigration minister Morrison. Campbell was later promoted to chief of army and now is chief of the ADF.

Morrison said last month the appointment of Frewen “gives us the opportunity to step up another gear”, because Operation Sovereign Borders had showed how “a completely new organisational structure” could solve “a very big problem”.

The rebranding of the vaccine rollout has done little to quell criticism the military is being used more and more to head government responses usually handled by the public service.

John Blaxland, a professor at the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, is among those who have raised concerns about “Australia’s growing tendency to call in the defence force to deal with crises outside its usual remit”.

the guardian

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