Covid vaccine shortfalls leaving Australia’s private health workers at risk, AMA warns

Melissa DaveySat, 27 March 2021, 4:48 am·5-min read

<img src="https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/uWxdrRlVSIwl8Ydv4AbpYQ–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3NjtjZj13ZWJw/https://s.yimg.com/uu/api/res/1.2/bbVXAv.vXqRHGso5j5KOzA–~B/aD02MDA7dz0xMDAwO2FwcGlkPXl0YWNoeW9u/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/e5759e0b5f98ffe5f869e64f25c3da29&quot; alt="<span>Photograph: James Ross/AAP
Photograph: James Ross/AAP

Private practice specialist doctors are being left out of the vaccine rollout, with limited supply and difficulties with the booking system making it “impossible” for doctors and their staff to access their own vaccinations, the peak body for doctors has said, blaming ongoing issues in supply from the federal government.

The president of the NSW branch of the Australian Medical Association (AMA), Dr Danielle McMullen, said private healthcare workers such as specialist physicians in phase 1b of the rollout should have access to NSW Health Covid-19 vaccine hubs.

“While New South Wales has committed to vaccinating all NSW Health staff and has done an excellent job commencing vaccinations through hospital hubs, the ongoing issues with the commonwealth vaccination process are leading to concerns about access for private practice doctors and staff,” McMullen said.

Related: Australia’s Covid vaccine rollout and why it has GPs beating their heads ‘against a wall’

McMullen said private medical practices worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic to provide ongoing care to patients, sourcing their own personal protective equipment and introducing telehealth services. However, private practice doctors were being left out of the rollout, McMullen said, struggling with the booking system when trying to organise their own vaccine due to vaccine supply difficulties.

Guardian Australia previously reported that huge demand for the vaccine was compounded by problems with both the federal government’s vaccine website and private booking websites. Sources told Guardian Australia the website’s launch had been rushed – a claim disputed by the federal department of health who said during Senate estimates last week that GPs were informed of the website rollout and consulted.

“We expect doctors and other healthcare staff in phase 1b to be able to access vaccinations via the state government hubs, as well as through GP practices or vaccination clinics,” McMullen said.

“Prioritising doctors and other high-risk staff to receive their vaccines must remain a necessity. Throughout the pandemic, healthcare workers have remained dedicated to their patients and the healthcare system despite the fear of becoming infected and infecting others.

“Governments must respect the continued risk doctors and their staff members face and ensure healthcare workers are provided with timely access to vaccinations.”

A spokesperson for the federal health minister, Greg Hunt, said the vaccination of healthcare workers in NSW was the responsibility of the NSW government, and that to date NSW had vaccinated more than 95,000 healthcare and quarantine and border workers. The federal government is responsible for accessing and delivering the vaccines, while state and territory governments are responsible for administering them.

“The NSW government has been provided with a 12-week forecast vaccine delivery schedule,” he said. “With the commencement of more than 1,000 general practice sites, healthcare workers now also have the option of being vaccinated in NSW government vaccine clinics, commonwealth vaccine clinics or at their general practice.”

The spokesperson said that all general practices involved in week one of the rollout were delivered vaccines during the week despite the floods.

“Vaccination of frontline healthcare workers has always been a priority of the vaccination rollout and will remain so.”

The president of the Royal Australasian College of General Practitioners (RACGP), Dr Karen Price, said while she had heard of access issues during phase 1a of the rollout, she did not understand why private practice doctors were struggling to get vaccinated. She called for patience, saying she also had not been vaccinated yet, despite being heavily involved in the process including helping to run a vaccination clinic on the Gold Coast.

Related: ‘What the hell?’: Industry sources say Australia government rushed launch of Covid vaccine booking website

“Those doctors just need to put their name down like everybody else going through the 1b process, and the direction is they should go and get their vaccine from their own GP,” Price said.

“In terms of supply issues, department of health has said it was a combination of European politics and supply from AstraZeneca that meant they only got half of the anticipated doses. OK that happened, that was disappointing but it happens during what is the biggest public health rollout and our way out of the pandemic.”

Price said part of the reason vaccine delivery to GPs was limited was also because so many clinics had applied to take part. The government originally anticipated the vaccine would be divided in the early stages of the rollout among a smaller number of key vaccine hubs. Some GPs have since complained that they have been given such small deliveries of the vaccine it is not profitable for them to administer it.

But Price said the government had listened to GPs and their desire to be part of the rollout.

“It meant the vaccine that we did have got divided,” she said.

“In terms of the payment structures, well, there are many doctors and GPs I have spoken to who are making it work. The RACGP’s position on that was that it won’t be for every practice, so they don’t have to take part. I’ve been on the Gold Coast at practices and asked them if they are losing money that said ‘No, we’re not losing money at all, we’ve worked it out in a way that we can cover our costs’.

“We live in a democracy so people can say what they want, without some critical voices don’t know where the problems are. But I also think many are just getting on with the job. I’m so proud to be a part of the rollout and I know many others are too.”

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