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Are private consultants to blame for Australia’s botched vaccine rollout? As a feud erupts over delays about the vaccine, private contractors have so far avoided scrutiny.

Big multinational consulting firms like McKinsey, PwC and Accenture have all made millions in lucrative contracts to assist the government’s rollout.

But more than a month in, the vaccine rollout has been characterised by sluggishness and inefficiency. We’re more than 3 million doses behind schedule, and state and federal governments are at war over who is responsible for the mess we’re in.

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By the numbers

Tender documents go some way to revealing the extent to which the vaccine program has become a honeypot for big consulting firms, despite their lack of experience running national health programs.

McKinsey and Co is the latest to be brought in to advise the vaccine taskforce after PwC was appointed last year. The Australian arm of the global firm was awarded $1.6 million in February to provide support services for the vaccine rollout between February 25 and March 26 — an equivalent of almost $57,000 a day.

So what exactly has it been doing?

There are few details about the contract except that it was to provide “information technology consultation services”. And in typical private sector style, it has been completely mum on the details of its work, telling the ABC that it doesn’t comment on “client matters”. The company did not respond to questions from Crikey by deadline.

It’s not the first vaccine contract McKinsey has scored in Australia. It also won a separate gig for another month’s work for the Department of Health in August last year to provide “strategic planning” regarding the vaccine treatment strategy. That contract was worth $660,000 — or $22,000 a day.

Ernst and Young (EY) has also clipped the ticket, with a $557,000 contract to evaluate Australia’s COVID vaccine “readiness”. That contract runs until June.

Accenture will get a staggering $7.8 million for tracking of vaccine doses, program implementation and monitoring. And while PwC was made a program delivery partner, the value of its contract with the federal government is unclear. The details aren’t available on AusTender and, when asked about it, a spokesperson told us they don’t comment on client matters.

The PwC contract highlights the considerable lack of clarity about the role of consultants in the vaccine program. The deals with Accenture and PwC (value currently unknown) were announced by Health Minister Greg Hunt on Christmas Eve last year, with little of the usual fanfare brought in for vaccine updates. Both McKinsey contracts were announced quietly.

We’ve got little idea what these companies actually do or whether that money is well spent — let alone whether they should be handling such a critical phase of our response to the pandemic at all.

Dr Stephen Duckett, director of health programs at the Grattan Institute, said the lack of transparency around what work the consultants were doing was concerning.

“There needs to be public reporting of what advice they are giving because it’s public money,” he told Crikey.

Writing in The Sydney Morning Herald, economists Steven Hamilton and Richard Holden suggested consulting firms used to penny-pinching are unsuited for the kind of necessary spending needed during a vaccination drive.

McKinsey in the gun

Australia isn’t alone in outsourcing its vaccine rollout to the big consulting firms. These same companies have come under fire overseas for their failures in assisting the vaccination drive.

McKinsey has been the target of widespread criticism in France for being behind extensive delays to the vaccine rollout. The country is set to enter another four-week lockdown with a devastating new wave of cases.

In February, President Emmanuel Macron admitted he had turned to outside consulting firms to help manage the response. This prompted lawmakers to pose questions as to why McKinsey, a global consulting firm, had been tasked to support French agencies charged with rolling out the vaccine.

In a letter, furious lawmakers mentioned McKinsey’s recent agreement to pay nearly $600 million to authorities in the US to settle claims over its role in contributing to the “devastating opioid crisis” as one reason to be skeptical of its involvement in the vaccine program.

In December, the firm’s Australian head Angus Dawson addressed staff at a Zoom meeting where he offered a tepid half-apology for McKinsey’s role in the crisis.

Considered the doyen of big consulting firms, McKinsey’s client list — from Purdue Pharma (the maker of opioid oxycontin) to the Saudi government — has a shroud of villainy. But the company is also something of a breeding ground for the powerful: federal ministers Angus Taylor and Greg Hunt are both McKinsey alumni.

Each year, it rakes in government contracts, restructuring agencies and eating away at what was once the public service.

Crikey asked the Health Department whether the outsourcing of work to private consultants like McKinsey was to blame for delays in the rollout, and what it was doing to avoid the same mistakes in France. We also asked for a complete list of the consultancy firms that have been contracted out to help roll out the vaccine. We’re yet to get a response.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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