Australia’s bungled vaccine rollout exposed

 

The vaccine rollout has started to cause tension as targets are missed and deadlines abandoned. The botched program is threatening Australia's reputation as a coronavirus response leader.

The Federal government initially planned to have millions of Australians vaccinated by the end of last month - a goal it missed by more than three million.

This week Professor Stephen Duckett, the director of the Grattan Institute's Health Program, criticised the Morrison government, saying the rollout had exposed the "chasm between the rhetoric and the reality".

Last week GPs said they'd been left high and dry after signing up to administer hundreds of doses a week. Some doctors said their practices had been sent as little as 50 doses of the vaccine.

The NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard also lashed out at the Federal Government, joining the Queensland government in its criticism of the rollout.

Mr Hazzard said the rollout had been chaotic and states had little idea of how many doses they had receive at any time.

In another hurdle for the rollout, a Melbourne man was hospitalised on Friday after suffering blood clots after receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine. Health officials have confirmed the rollout will continue despite the man's condition.

Professor Duckett said the government has been too focused on messaging and had lacked focus on policy.

"The federal government has made vaccine announcements thick and fast since then, with every minor milestone celebrated with media hype," Professor Duckett wrote on The Conversation.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison meets CSL staff working on the COVID vaccine in Melbourne in March. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Andrew Henshaw
Prime Minister Scott Morrison meets CSL staff working on the COVID vaccine in Melbourne in March. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Andrew Henshaw

"It was only when vaccine announcements had to become actual vaccinations that the public became aware of the chasm between the rhetoric and the reality."

He said there had been four key mistakes that have characterised the vaccine rollout. These mistakes have been caused by politicians prioritising political stories over sound policy.

The wrong pace

At the beginning of 2021 Australians were comfortably enjoying eased restrictions after virtually eliminating community transmission in most states.

In March, Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt declared the country's vaccine rollout would be a "marathon, not a sprint".

But Professor Duckett says this relaxed attitude to the rollout has continued for too long and he points out that delays come with heightened risk.

"We know the virus can escape hotel quarantine and vaccination delays slow border reopenings, and economic recovery."

Greg Hunt said the vaccine rollout would be a ‘marathon, not a sprint’ in March. Picture: NCA NewsWire / David Crosling
Greg Hunt said the vaccine rollout would be a ‘marathon, not a sprint’ in March. Picture: NCA NewsWire / David Crosling


The wrong phasing

Prof Duckett said the government made errors in its phasing of the vaccine rollout.

Phase 1A of the rollout including hotel quarantine workers, health care workers and aged care residents.

He said vaccinating hotel quarantine workers was "especially important" because "it appears the vaccine protects against both severe disease and - to some extent - transmission".

Health care workers, especially those treating people with coronavirus, are an "obvious second priority.

However, with an absence of widespread community transmission Prof Duckett said the urgency to vaccinate all aged care residents could have been eased.

If the government had instead focused on just inoculating quarantine and frontline healthcare workers states could have moved through the first phase more quickly.

On March 19, Mr Hunt announced a further six million Australians would become eligible for a vaccine by March 22. He urged people to book an appointment with their local clinic and GPs complained of being flooded with calls with no warning from the government.

The Federal government was also not equipped to deliver doses to GP clinics nationally and many have been left waiting after GPOs had to cancel appointments because they didn't have enough vaccine.

"The logistics nightmares continue with the federal government persistently failing to provide clarity about dose distribution to either states or GPs," Prof Duckett writes.

The wrong model

"The federal government has seen the vaccine rollout not as a public health program but as a political issue, complete with the Liberal Party logo on a vaccine announcement," Prof Duckett said.

"The focus has been on announceables and good news stories with the glory to shine back on the government in the lead-up to an election."


Prof Duckett says the Federal government's focus on announcements meant a priority rollout was completely handed to GP clinics - which was an unsustainable model.

"Involvement of GPs was the right call - it's good for doctors to provide a comprehensive range of services to their patients. But reliance on GPs was the mistake," he said.

"GP clinics rarely have the space for significant numbers of people waiting to be vaccinated and to be observed after being vaccinated.

"Mass vaccination requires large centres such as sports venues and town halls."

He said the government adopted a dual strategy of a "slow, boutique" rollout while also setting ambitious goals - including vaccinating four million people by the end of March.

Some of the issues are due to international supply issues caused by the European Union blocking millions of doses from being shipped to Australia.

The wrong messaging

Minister Hunt said the government's plan for the vaccine rollout was to "underpromise and overdeliver". However Prof Duckett believes the reverse has played out.

"The biggest problem with the relentlessly optimistic political messaging is it makes it harder for the government to admit its mistakes, learn from them, and reset the rollout."

He suggests the Federal government should begin engaging with the states as opposed to alienating them.

"What's more, it should set realistic targets to get vaccines into arms as quickly as possible and be prepared to admit when it falls short."

Originally published as Australia's bungled vaccine rollout exposed


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