The federal government has again been forced to defend its rollout of the COVID vaccine, as it lags millions of doses behind initial estimates.
On Tuesday as many as 1000 GPs started administering vaccinations for phase 1B, which includes our vulnerable community members such as the elderly and those with specified medical conditions.
The timing of this phase is crucial, health experts have warned – vaccinating these six million people before winter arrives is a milestone we cannot miss.
The vaccine rollout started in late February and the federal government touted October as the target month for inoculating all Australian adults.
But that is looking almost impossible as the slow start to the rollout threatens to blow out the timeline far into 2022.
By the end of March, the government expected to have four million people vaccinated.
The timeline has slipped so far behind schedule, that figure will be lucky to reach 300,000.
Deakin University epidemiology chair Professor Catherine Bennett said it was normal to see issues at the start of a program of this size, and she expects it to hit its stride soon.
“A rollout you can design on paper, but it needs to be tested and refined as you go along,” Professor Bennett told The New Daily.
“I’m less worried about the start. We need to keep getting it right and then scale up.
“That’s what we need to be doing over the next four to six weeks.”
Professor Bennett said it was important we had the most vulnerable, which includes elderly people and those with underlying medical conditions, vaccinated before winter.
“Winter is an important time. We know that risk goes up in winter when people spend more time indoors,” she said.
She said the country is still in a respectable position, but we need to start vaccinating this key cohort soon.
“There are six million in the next group. We won’t get to them all by the end of April, but we could get close to the end of May, maybe the start of June, as we go into the winter months,” she said.
“We want to get the balance right. The earlier we can get these vaccines out, the less jittery health departments will be.”
The government had said it wanted to deliver 80,000 vaccines a week in the beginning, but the first week totalled only 33,7000 – followed by 53,000 in the second week.
To reach our October deadline we will have to be hitting 200,000 doses a day.
There is confusion inside the government about the October deadline, with Scott Morrison telling reporters last week it was only for the first dose.
Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Phil Gaetjens then contradicted this, telling the Senate Select Committee his understanding was people would be “fully vaccinated” by October.
A mix of internal supply issues and vaccine protectionism mean the vaccine has not been as easy to get as the government hoped.
On Monday the Therapeutic Goods Administration granted approval for AstraZeneca to be manufactured in Australia.
Making the announcement, Health Minister Greg Hunt defended the rollout, telling reporters this meant there would be enough supply to speed up the rollout.
“The speed-limiting factor is simply vaccines in, so supply dictates the distribution,” Mr Hunt said, in relation to the phase 1B rollout.
“But we have a strong supply. As of [Sunday], we have very, very strong supply.”
Charlotte Hespe, from the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, said it was always going to be difficult to get everyone vaccinated before the end of the year, but going at a slow pace had its advantages.
“We do not need to rush, unlike Europe and the UK where there is a large number of deaths,” Dr Hespe said.
“Our problem is trying to make sure we engage with everyone to get as many to participate as possible, so we can open up again.”