Slow-moving government red tape is causing further delays to Australia’s vaccine rollout, experts say, with pharmacies left waiting for two months to be given the green light to administer doses.
It comes as Prime Minister Scott Morrison faces another blast of criticism over his handling of the nation’s globally infamous slow vaccination drive.
On Wednesday, pressure increased further when doctors and state health officers publicly slammed Mr Morrison’s snap decision to announce that Australians under the age of 40 can get an AstraZeneca vaccine if they want one.
The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation’s official advice does not recommend AstraZeneca for people under 60 because risks of extremely rare but serious blood clots outweigh benefits.
Pharmacies ready, willing, frustrated
In February, federal Health Minister Greg Hunt announced 5800 community pharmacies nationwide would be able to apply to administer vaccines as part of our rollout.
Of those, the government approved 4000 pharmacies to start giving COVID jabs to Australians eligible under Phase 2a from May 1.
Eager to help, pharmacists completed a COVID vaccine qualification course, and the Pharmacy Guild of Australia raced to set up the infrastructure to support a national booking system.
All engines were go.
Two months later, only 49 pharmacies in Queensland have been allowed to administer vaccines across the country.
According to correspondence obtained by The Australian, health officials have now approved plans to expand the program to include 207 sites in all states and territories, except Tasmania and the ACT.
The expansion is due to start in the Northern Territory and Western Australia on July 12 and in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia a week later.
But the Pharmacy Guild, which represents community pharmacies in Australia, say it’s too little, too late.
“We’re exhausted and frustrated,” NSW Pharmacy Guild president David Heffernan told The New Daily.
“The national cabinet said in April they were going to roll out to pharmacies, starting in regional and rural areas where there may be deficiencies in delivery.
“That was meant to be done, but so far that has not been implemented anywhere except in Queensland.”
Meanwhile, community pharmacists have been left waiting.
And it’s likely the delay is making it harder for Australians who want to get vaccinated, said Dr Holly Seale, an infectious diseases social scientist at the University of NSW.
She pointed to data from a vaccination trial, led by Professor Lisa Nissen of Queensland University of Technology, that showed 18 per cent of those surveyed said if they hadn’t been given access to the flu vaccine at a pharmacy, then they wouldn’t have been able to get it any other way.
“While pharmacy-based vaccination isn’t for everybody, we need to acknowledge that not everybody can access a GP,” Dr Seale told The New Daily.
“This is what we need right now, these pop-up opportunities for people who feel comfortable … and understand vaccine safety.
“Some people may prefer the pharmacist setting because it may be more intimate than a mass vaccination hub. We’ve got to take vaccines to a range of settings.”
Out of the 4000 pharmacies approved to administer COVID vaccines, 1250 are in NSW, Mr Heffernan said.
“We were asked to come on board and help. We put our hand up, and now we’re left just shaking our heads,” he said.
It’s worked for them
The Morrison government’s decision to funnel vaccines to GPs over community pharmacies is at odds with vaccine strategy in the United Kingdom and the United States.
For example, British pharmacies started giving out vaccines as early as January.
US President Joe Biden expanded the number of pharmacies included in the national vaccine program from 17,000 to nearly 40,000.
The move was part of a plan to ensure 90 per cent of eligible American adults would be able to get a vaccine within eight kilometres of their home.
More than 53 per cent of the US adult population have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine, compared with 23 per cent of adult Australians, according to Our World in Data.
That’s more than 164 million people – six times Australia’s population.