What happened to the promised vaccine rollout?

Remember when PM Scott Morrison announced to the nation that the vaccine rollout would administer four million vaccine doses by the end of March?

To be more precise: “…to start with around 80,000 [doses] a week and then seeing that build up over the next four to six weeks [so] by the end of March to have reached four million [people].”

Yes. That’s right. Four million doses of two vaccines – Pfizer and AstraZeneca – delivered in under 42 days. Back then – as Cosmos reported – it sounded impossible.  Now, at the end of March, it turns out it was. Instead of four million we are set to achieve just over 400,000.

What went wrong? 

To begin, let’s return the day of the PM’s announcement. That was 7 January, the same day Israel reported administering 1.78 million doses to its population in 20 days. They would go on to hit four million doses by 25 January, achieving the PM’s target in just 38 days. This was great news for us. Surely we could duplicate Israel’s success. Both countries have well-run and universal health-care systems. Instead, we were hit with a curveball.

While Israel celebrated their four million milestone, federal health minister Greg Hunt announced that the makers of AstraZeneca would cut our vaccine allocation to just 1.2 million doses, 2.6 million fewer than promised.

So without a secure supply of AstraZeneca would that mean a rethink on our distribution plan?

Rollout team: silence.

Things worsened the following week when the EU threatened to block all shipments of AstraZeneca to Australia. Production shortfalls were affecting allocations for EU nations, where COVID-19 was running rampant. This was considered the best option by the EU given that Australia was set to produce its own supply of AstraZeneca by the end of March. 

Fair enough. 

Australia would need to get by with limited vaccine imports before it could start making its own. So that would mean moving the deadline, right?

Rollout team: no way.

By the end of January it was clear that the original plan presented by PM Morrison was on the rocks. Supply was under a cloud and the idea of hitting four million by March-end was highly unlikely. But it wasn’t until week three of the six-week vaccine rollout period that anyone from the team said as much.

On 10 March, Professor Brendan Murphy, head of the vaccine rollout, explained the situation during a Senate Select Committee on COVID-19: “We haven’t had access to the international doses that we thought we’d get, because we thought we would get 3.8 million AstraZeneca doses and, with sovereign vaccine issues in Europe, we’ve only had 700-odd thousand AstraZeneca vaccines.”

How was this a surprise? The 3.8 million doses of AstraZeneca were already in question six weeks before. But Murphy went on to say: “On top of that, the early rollout of the vaccines, both in the state and territory clinics and in the commonwealth aged-care clinics, has been cautious and slow and they are all being scaled up progressively.”

Why was the government blaming its rollout partners for being slow and cautious? What exactly was going on? As it turns out, the government didn’t know.

In the first week of the rollout, 50,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine were expected from state-run vaccination sites. Greg Hunt said the states would meet this target “either by Sunday night or within 24 hours afterwards.” In reality it took until Thursday that week. To make matters worse, by the end of the second week only 60% the states’ 100,000 allocation was administered.

There was a serious disconnect.

But was that to be expected? Given the scale of this unprecedented logistical undertaking, could we have done better? Yes – by following Israel’s example. 

Israel has had clear communication from their central government to the organisations responsible for administering doses. Australia lacked this. The federal government has been sending doses to the states who claim they are finding out about their allocations too late. This has made efficient planning of their programs impossible.

It isn’t an encouraging sign for the rollout’s next stage.

This week 1,210 GPs, community health services, and respiratory clinics started administering domestically produced AstraZeneca vaccine. This begins rollout stage 1B, with a new goal of six million doses by early May.

But wait, does this include the original six-week rollout? 

No. It doesn’t. 

Those remaining 3.6 million doses will still be administered in addition to the six million. But don’t worry – deputy chief medical officer Professor Michael Kidd assures us that original four million will be completed in the next 6–8 weeks and will not impact the new six million target and deadline. 

How about that assurance? 

Given the current track record all we can be sure of is the government setting deadlines and apologising for missing them later. All of this doesn’t give us much clarity for achieving herd immunity – and a return to life as we knew it – by October this year.

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