(Image: Tom Red/Private Media)

So dire is the state of the vaccination rollout that the government’s targets and schedule now consist entirely of start dates for things, not end dates.

Invited by journalist Laura Tingle last night to explain why the government was unable to set a target for its vaccine rollout, Health Minister Greg Hunt, whose department has presided over the rollout, insisted that the government had targets and was meeting them.

“We set the target of commencing Pfizer for the 1as in late February and met that. We set the target of commencing AstraZeneca for 1as in early March and met that and we just recently set the target of commencing the Australian-made CSL production in late March, and met that.”

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So that’s the key metric by which the government now thinks it should be judged on its rollout: when it gets the first jab into an arm. The days of bold targets of four million vaccinations by the end of March, or even half that, are in the rear view mirror. Along with the idea that the rollout will be finished by this time next year.

While a generalised sense that the rollout has been bungled by the government will be politically damaging, impacts in specific sectors of community concern are likely to represent the sharp end of the political hurt the government will suffer.

One emerging sector in that regard is the residential disability sector.

Clients and workers in that sector are classified as part of Phase 1a and should be being vaccinated now. Major providers have already emerged to say that they have yet to hear from the government. The CEO of Aruma complained yesterday that none of his clients had yet been vaccinated.

When questioned about that, chief medical officer Paul Kelly sought to fob it off, saying that they would be vaccinated “by the middle of the year”.

“We’re very happy to talk with Aruma,” Kelly insisted, leaving open the question of why vaccinations had yet to begin when Greg Hunt was claiming that the aged care rollout was nearly finished. “We’ve got private contractors that are, you know, very reputable companies that are doing that work.”

One issue is that the logistics of rolling out to residential disability services are far more complex than to the aged care sector. Residential services are usually delivered in small locations with a small number of residents.

One NSW-based group, Civic, has around 260 clients in 50 locations. Organising access to all sites, and ensuring all staff who work in shifts in those homes can be available for vaccination, is far more challenging than vaccinating residents in a large aged care residence that might have around 75 beds on average and a large complement of staff. As most residential disability clients are on medication, they also need GP consultations to ensure they can safely have the vaccine.

A spokesperson for Civic told Crikey that the Department of Health had been in contact with them in late January to start preparations for the rollout and there had been a webinar in early March about the process that enabled them to undertake the necessary preparations, such as GP visits.

Health had prepared excellent resources for the sector, she said, including a checklist for facilities and a consent form that addressed the needs of people with intellectual disabilities — all a contrast with the dearth of information last year during the pandemic. However, since then Civic had had no contact to initiate the vaccination process itself, and none of its clients had yet been vaccinated.

That point appears to have coincided with the handover of the process from the Department of Health to the “very reputable contractors” Kelly was referring to.

Unlike the sourcing of vaccines, which has been disastrous, the rollout to residential disability providers appears to have been planned well and with consultation with the sector. But so far, the implementation has been found wanting. And it may become Exhibit A of the human impacts of a bungled rollout.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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