Lieutenant-General John Frewen was used to commanding battalions overseas, but in the midst of a global pandemic, he was asked to fix the "huge logistics problem" that was Australia's COVID-19 vaccine rollout.
General Frewen has been now been recognised for his leadership in the Australia Day Honours List, being appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia for his service as commander of the Defence COVID-19 taskforce and coordinator general of the national COVID-19 vaccine taskforce.
General Frewen oversaw the Defence COVID-19 taskforce, coordinating the Department of Defence response to the pandemic from March 2020 to July 2021.
In June 2021, he was hand-picked by then-prime minister Scott Morrison, who often called him "JJ", to be coordinator general of the national COVID vaccine taskforce, also known as Operation COVID Shield, which lead the national vaccine rollout.
"When I was appointed as the leader of the vaccine rollout, it was an immense national undertaking, a huge logistics problem. But with the rollout at that time, people weren't confident that rollout was going as fast as it could be going," General Frewen told The Canberra Times.
"I think we did manage to accelerate the vaccine rollout, which at the time was really important to enhancing our national resilience and trying to minimise the effects of the pandemic, both on the population and on the border economy."
General Frewen was appointed the Order of Australia as part of a special COVID-19 Honour Roll recognising people who contributed to the COVID-19 response. Other recipients included Dr Norman Swan and vaccine commander for Western Australia, Chris Dawson.
General Frewen is no stranger to the Australia Day Honours List, he was previously appointed a Member of the Order of Australia in 2004 for commanding combined joint-taskforce 635 in the Solomon Islands and a Distinguished Service Cross in 2019 for commanding the joint-taskforce 633 in the Middle East.
He said it is always a great honour to be recognised in the Australia Day awards, but the COVID Honour Roll is special because of the hard work he and his teams did during an "uncertain and challenging time".
"We did a lot of planning, we did a lot of work on the logistics and making it as efficient and as fast as it could be and we also did a lot of work on helping restore or create public confidence around the rollout, which I think we managed to do, and we ended up getting some of the best vaccination rates in the world."
However, General Frewen said he was not aware Scott Morrison had secretly appointed himself as health minister in March 2020.
"All that came to light long after I'd finished with the vaccine rollout," he said.
The former prime minister later blamed the Department of Health for the slow vaccine rollout and said he should have appointed General Frewen sooner.
Mr Morrison was known for occasionally militarising government responsibilities, deploying the military during Operation Sovereign Borders and during the bushfires.
General Frewen said he saw his appointment as a duty, not a political move, and he worked for the Prime Minister of the day to provide "a fresh set of eyes" to the rollout.
"I think at the time there is an attractiveness to the military. I think one of the things that we do bring in a unique way is that planning capacity."
"I personally don't see it as a political thing. I see it as I was given a problem to solve, and I solved the problem as I would do and have done for any government. That's what's expected of us and that's what we serve to do," he said.
"It's really a matter for government about how they want to set up command and control those sorts of things.
"But there are immensely capable people all through the public service and I was very fortunate, both during my time with the Defence COVID taskforce and with the national vaccine rollout, to work with and among very exceptional public servants."
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