Inundated general practitioners say the government has undersupplied them with Covid-19 vaccine doses, mixed up their contact details on its national booking system, and failed to properly forewarn the sector of the content of Wednesday’s public announcement.
Some GP clinics are continuing to report scenes of chaos and huge demand from the public after the government’s troubled launch of its website to coordinate Covid vaccination appointments as part of stage 1b of the vaccine rollout.
However, the health minister, Greg Hunt, has played down reports of GP clinics frustrated at the website launch, reacting to concerns by saying “you would rather be in Australia than anywhere else in the world”.
The website first determines a person’s eligibility – assessing age, pre-existing medical conditions and other factors – before linking an estimated 6m people in the cohort with 1,000 local GP clinics currently participating in the program.
Guardian Australia has seen notes from the last weekly primary care implementation group meeting – designed to communicate with GPs and other primary care providers – held the week before Wednesday’s announcement.
The notes show some GPs raising concerns about how the government was going to manage the public’s expectations in its announcement, given the vast size of the stage 1b cohort and the limited supply of vaccines.
GPs were assured the issue was in hand.
Instead, Wednesday’s announcement triggered mass demand for bookings and chaos for GPs.
One Melbourne-based GP, who asked for anonymity, said the government erroneously listed contact details for the head office of the company that owns his clinic, rather than the clinic itself, which has caused mass confusion.
The clinic was also promised 400 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, but only received 320 on Wednesday, he said.
They’ve been given no instruction on how to prioritise those 320 vaccine doses among the large 1b cohort now requesting bookings.
“This should have been done as a very soft approach, if we’d just been allowed to work through it … we would have, through our marketing SMS process, just contacted people quietly and got them in and done it,” the GP said.
“But when we get flooded, it leads to meltdown and chaos.”
Other GPs, including Geelong-based Dr Cameron Loy, reported that they were being given no guarantee on delivery dates for the vaccines, or any certainty on forward supply. That meant they were unable to book people in when they called.
He compared the government’s announcement to a “denial of service attack by telephone instigated by government on private businesses”.
“We are promised 80 doses only in the first week. They are days away from reaching us. They said the delivery is not assured on the day,” he tweeted.
“We can immunise 80 people at some point next week. That’s why you can’t book wks ahead.”
Mukesh Haikerwal, a Melbourne-based GP and former president of the Australian Medical Association, said his clinic had been inundated with calls.
Haikerwal, now a deputy chair with the Australian General Practice Alliance, said his clinic had received no doses of the vaccine.
“The switchboard turned red again today,” he told the Guardian. “It has just not stopped. Every time you put it down, another two come in.”
“The message has to be that … we’ve got to do it in order, we’ve got to have vaccinations to do it. To say that 4m people will be done on Monday, which is currently the message that went out, really wasn’t helpful to anybody.”
Patients continued to report problems if their usual GP was not one of the 1,000 currently participating in the rollout. Other clinics were not accepting new clients for vaccination, leaving them with nowhere to go.
Hunt hit back at claims medical industry sources made in the Guardian this morning that they were told the government website being used to coordinate Covid vaccination appointments wasn’t going to launch until next week – despite the health minister insisting during Wednesday’s troubled launch “today was always the day”.
Asked about the allegations the online appointment booking platform providers were told the system wouldn’t launch until next week, and that individual clinics were also not aware the website would launch yesterday, Hunt said “with great respect, I disagree on both fronts”.
Hunt also dodged a question about whether GPs deserved an apology after Wednesday’s launch, instead saying “I think they deserve our thanks”.
Hunt said 870 clinics were set to receive their phase 1b vaccines by the end of Thursday, and 300 further clinics would receive doses by tomorrow.
Hunt also noted 100 commonwealth vaccination clinics would be added into the vaccine booking system, providing on average 1,000 vaccinations per week to “all comers” – as opposed to some GP clinics that have been prioritising their limited supplies for existing patients.
“The key message at the end of the day is be patient, there are enough vaccines for every Australian three times over … honestly, you would rather be in Australia than anywhere else in the world,” Hunt said.
However, the opposition health spokesman, Mark Butler, accused Hunt of re-announcing the 100 commonwealth vaccination clinics that had previously been announced as respiratory centres in October last year.
“This is just an empty re-announcement of existing clinics that have been in place doing important work for 12 months now.”
“The government needs to focus on getting this chaotic vaccine strategy back on track … We’ve known for months that we would need a national booking system,” Butler said.
The health department told the Guardian that the number of GP clinics would ramp up to 4,000 by the end of April. The department said it has consistently communicated to GPs that their contact details would be posted publicly, including through an on-boarding pack, webinars, and FAQ documents provided to clinics.
“Over 1,000 GP clinics were emailed on Tuesday morning advising their details would be listed on the vaccine clinic finder on Wednesday,” a spokeswoman said.