New South Wales Health Minister Brad Hazzard has stoked further questions about a so-called ‘vaccine stockpile’ of extra doses held by the federal government, claiming such a reserve existed but that the states had “no idea what’s in it”.
The federal government has shot down claims of any such stockpile, saying it is sending out every dose of vaccine it receives.
But it’s the latest salvo in a simmering war on vaccine supplies, with states refusing to share any doses with the worst-hit parts of Sydney.
So is there a stockpile of vaccines sitting in a warehouse somewhere?
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt and vaccine rollout co-ordinator Lieutenant-General John Frewen say no, but that hasn’t stopped the talk.
“There are small variations in supply and delivery, which from time to time may ensure that there’s tens of thousands of doses that might be free at any given time,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.
“That is a simple supply and demand issue. It is not a contingency.”
It may come to an issue of semantics; that what the states call a “stockpile” is what the federal government calls “unallocated doses” from Pfizer shipments that are sometimes larger than expected.
However, Canberra denies it is hoarding doses, and that any “unallocated” jabs are sent out as soon as possible.
Where did the vaccine stockpile talk begin?
The discussion has been bubbling for days, sparked by an extra 50,000 Pfizer doses being sent to NSW as part of an ’emergency allocation’.
“The Commonwealth will constantly assess requests against any reserves held by the Commonwealth,” deputy chief medical officer Professor Michael Kidd said on Saturday.
Talk of “reserves” pricked the ears of several state and territory leaders, who said they were under the impression that every dose received by the government – of either locally produced AstraZeneca, or Pfizer imported from overseas – was being distributed.
Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan said on Monday a stockpile would be “news to us”, telling the federal government “if you have spare Pfizer, please give it to us”.
Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner said he too was “not aware of a national stockpile” of vaccines, and hoped it was just “a very poorly chosen set of words” from Professor Kidd.
“I am worried that maybe is just code for the fact that they took out of other people’s allocations,” he claimed.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews also alluded to the talk, saying on Tuesday: “I wish we were doing this press conference in a warehouse that was full of tens of millions of doses of Pfizer, Moderna, Novavax.”
On Sunday, Mr Hazzard took aim at the federal government, saying he and other state leaders had been “frustrated” because “we never got to find out what was in the national stockpile of personal protective equipment”.
On Tuesday, he was asked about it again at a press conference.
“I understand from the federal government there’s a national stockpile. Got no idea what’s in it. Never been told,” said Mr Hazzard, arching his eyebrows.
Is there a stockpile?
Not technically, according to the federal government.
Across a series of interviews and press conferences on Sunday and Monday, Mr Morrison, Mr Hunt, General Frewen and the health department sought to explain from where the extra doses for NSW had come.
All said the numbers of weekly vaccines available in Australia are sometimes slightly different week to week.
When state governments placed ‘orders’ for how many vaccine doses they want each week, the federal officials said they sometimes had a small number of unallocated doses left over.
That, they explained, is the “reserve supply” Professor Kidd referred to.
“These were previously unallocated doses … all state and territories are receiving exactly the per capita amount,” Mr Hunt said on Monday.
“The important thing is that no state or territory has had to have their amounts reduced,” he continued, adding that sending extra doses to Sydney was “exactly in line with what happened with Victoria” during previous outbreaks.
Mr Hunt said the federal government was “not holding large amounts of doses” and that “everything that possibly can be distributed each week, is distributed”.
Mr Morrison said the government was “distributing as far as we possibly can every single dose we have”.
The Covid picture is positive across most of the country tonight, but sadly, Sydney has recorded another day in triple digits. We chat to LT Gen. John Frewen about what’s happening with Australia’s vaccine rollout. #TheProjectTV pic.twitter.com/LVHhK7pi33
— The Project (@theprojecttv) July 26, 2021
In a Monday night interview with The Project, General Frewen explained in more detail. He said allocation numbers were a “week by week proposition” based on “figuring out exactly what’s coming in week by week”.
“Sometimes orders aren’t fully taken up, sometimes there are cancellations of orders, so if we’ve ever got stock in the margins or stock that isn’t being utilised, then we’ll seek to reallocate that as well,” General Frewen said.
He said “about 87,000 doses became available late Friday afternoon”, shortly before the Saturday announcement of NSW’s 50,000 extra.
“We’re looking at where those other doses will go right now,” General Frewen said.
Figures released on Tuesday showed the government had received some 1 million Pfizer doses last week, then released 1 million Pfizer doses for distribution, as part of more than 1.2 million doses delivered to clinics nationwide that week.
About 1.08 million doses were given out last week.
Australia gave out another 185,000 vaccine doses on Monday, taking the total number to 11.396 million jabs nationwide.
That includes nearly 8 million people with “first dose protection”, the health department said.