Mass hubs might not be the best way to get Australia’s trouble-plagued coronavirus vaccination program back on track, the nation’s doctors have warned.
Vaccination hubs are back on the agenda across the country, after the federal government dropped its opposition to a plan long favoured by the states.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the first hubs – targeting millions of Australians over 50 – could be up and running by June.
“We will have a substantial number of vaccines in the fourth quarter of this year. We would like this done before the end of the year but that will only be possible if we can ensure mass vaccination programs are in place,” Mr Morrison said on Wednesday.
The change of direction is part of his plan to involve the states more as the federal government attempts to reboot the derailed national vaccine rollout.
But Australian Medical Association president Dr Omar Khorshid said regular supply of doses remained the biggest “handbrake” to the program.
“The problem with a centre that focuses on the 50 to 70-year-old age group using the AstraZeneca vaccine is that you’re using the same vaccines that we are currently rolling out through general practice,” he told ABC Radio in Melbourne on Thursday.
“The only way to actually fill those centres will be to take the vaccines off general practice, which is quite capably administering those vaccines as we speak.”
Dr Khorshid said the 4500 GP practices already involved in the nationwide program had the capacity to do step up their vaccination rates considerably.
“We’ve heard that loud and clear from them,” he said.
There were also a further 4000 practices that could be drafted into the program, with federal government approval.
GPs and state-run health centres have reported numerous supply issues with the COVID vaccines. NSW authorities have described “lumpy” supply as one of their biggest problems – with the number of shots promised by federal authorities and the number actually delivered varying widely.
Dr Khorshid said vaccination hubs also presented significant logistical issues, including with staffing, parking and queues.
“I don’t know if you’ve seen the queues that we’ve seen from other countries where they’ve set up mass vaccination centres, but they’re enormous. They’re huge logistic challenges,” he said.
He said mass vaccination centres made more sense for the Pfizer vaccine, which requires more stringent storage.
“The mass vaccination centres are, you know, not a bad thing, but we shouldn’t be robbing Peter to pay Paul and we should focus those centres on the vaccines that we can’t roll out through general practice,” Dr Khorsid said.
Later Royal Australian College of General Practitioners president Dr
Karen Price said a “multifaceted approach” would be best for the nationwide vaccine program.
“Everyone seems to be talking about GPs or mass vaccination. I think it’s going to be a combination of both and that would make sense,” she said.
“[GPs] do a lot of vaccination, we do the bulk. So, by having other mass vaccination clinics, particularly with the Pfizer vaccine … that’s going to help. I think the process here is to get as many people vaccinated as possible.”
The vaccine program is also going to be the focus of a strengthened national cabinet agenda. Mr Morrison wants the group – comprised of premiers and state leaders, as well as himself – to meet twice a week from Monday “until we solve the problems and get the program back on track”.
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszcuzk supports the plan, although she is worried about state leaders finding time for such regular meetings.
“It’s going to be a big task to try and get everybody at the same time, in the same place, because the jobs of premiers are pretty busy,” she said.
Ms Palaszczuk also plans to use more frequent meetings to push plans for a mass quarantine camp in Toowoomba.
The private proposal, which could host up to 1000 travellers and 300 staff, has been stalled with Queensland calling for federal approval for international flights to land at Toowoomba’s airport and the Commonwealth demanding more detail on the plan from the state.
Ms Palaszczuk also backs the idea of mass vaccination hubs, but has previously stressed that such facilities were only viable if there was consistent vaccine supplies.