We’re now about a month into Australia’s vaccine rollout and things are starting to get messy.
So far, we’re well behind schedule, goalposts keep shifting, batches are getting blockaded in Europe, and doubts about the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is going to do the bulk of our rollout heavy lifting, have started to creep in.
Now GPs are becoming the latest challenge. While some feel they are unable to express their concerns about the rollout, others say they’ve been left poorly equipped to handle the next phase of the vaccination drive, beginning next week.
Australia’s rollout is going slower than the Morrison government anticipated. Last week Health secretary Brendan Murphy said the much trumpeted October date for full adult vaccination was unlikely, with many Australians having to wait until next year for their second jab.
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Part of that is because of overseas supply problems — Italy blocked 250,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccine recently. But another reason, Murphy said, was the October timeline was based on a previous assumption that the wait between doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine was four weeks. Now it’s 12, meaning some people might need to wait.
But to confound things more, Murphy said “The first dose is nearly as good as the second dose” when it comes to immunity — we’re not clear just how much of a difference the second jab makes just yet.
Either way, we’re well behind schedule. According to Guardian Australia’s vaccine tracker, we’ve given out aboout 182,000 doses, some 2.1 million behind where we need to be to reach the 4 million dose target for the end of March.
On top of the slow rollout, there’s also plenty of confusion among the doctors handling things. First, GPs said they might have to pull out of the vaccination program because they weren’t getting paid enough to make it economically viable.
That drew sharp criticism of the federal government’s plan from NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard — a sign of the tension between state and federal health bureaucracies that experts predicted months ago might cause teething problems for the rollout.
With GPs due to start delivering the vaccine next week, there’s no online booking site, which the peak body says means the phase won’t necessarily get started on time.
As of today, still no booking site.
The AstraZeneca problem
But the latest challenge to Australia’s rollout comes from overseas, and is one which could drain confidence and fortify vaccine hesitancy.
Last week Thailand, followed by Germany, Italy, France and others, stopped using the AstraZeneca vaccine amid concerns over side effects including blood clots. Australian regulators have said there’s no cause for concern.
But the issue has caused a ripple of disquiet through our already uncertain rollout. Some GPs told The Australian Financial Review they’d got directives from the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency and the Therapeutic Goods Administration not to raise concerns about the AstraZeneca vaccine.
In particular they were warned not to use their social media accounts to promote one vaccine over another.
Yesterday Parliament’s vaccine sceptics jumped on the latest news out of Europe to push Australia to stop using AstraZeneca. Nationals Senator Matt Canavan led the calls, which were quickly adopted by crossbench conspiracy theorist Craig Kelly and One Nation leader Pauline Hanson.
Canavan was chastised by his leader, and Australia’s health regulators aren’t going to listen to any of that crew. Still it’s enough to sow hesitancy among the population and create more bumps in a vaccine rollout that’s gotten off to an uneasy start.