Industry sources say 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”.
The Morrison government has been accused of rushing the launch of its national booking system without informing key platforms. Critics say the poor planning has wreaked havoc on GP clinic phone lines and forced doctors to refuse appointments to Australians who were told they were eligible.
On Wednesday, the government launched its national vaccine booking website, which could be used by Australians deemed eligible for vaccination after completing the Department of Health’s eligibility tool.
The Guardian understands that the website, which is hosted as a module on the government’s HealthDirect website, was intended to collate a list of clinics participating in the rollout from phase 1b, sort them based on proximity to the patient, and offer a link to book a vaccine appointment online.
If the clinic already offered online booking, the national booking website was expected to link to their booking portal. Most clinics in Australia rely on a handful of booking software platform providers used in the industry.
For clinics that didn’t already offer online booking, the government had contracted HealthEngine – one of the industry’s largest online appointment booking platforms – to provide an online booking service for vaccine appointments.
However, on Wednesday morning, a majority of clinics that the national booking website listed did not offer online booking, and instead only instructed eligible vaccine recipients to call the clinic.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and the Australian Medical Association lashed the Morrison government over the website’s launch, warning clinics across Australia had been “inundated” with calls and were forced to reject older Australians trying to book vaccine appointments.
Many clinics are understood to have subsequently contacted the companies they used for their online bookings to vent their concern that they had not been prepared for the launch.
The federal health minister, Greg Hunt, insisted on Wednesday that the platform had not been launched ahead of schedule, declaring “today was always the day”.
However, the Guardian can reveal the medical appointment booking industry had been told to prepare their platforms to feed into HealthDirect, and for their client GP clinics to be trained with the software, by next Monday, when phase 1b begins.
The Guardian understands the industry was caught by surprise, with those working with the government platform first learning about the early launch after reading media reports on Wednesday morning.
“We were shocked to see it had gone up because we had been told to prepare for it going live on Monday,” an industry source told the Guardian on condition of anonymity. “What the hell happened?”
The source claimed the government had left it “way too late” to contract HealthEngine to provide booking solutions for clinics not currently offering online bookings – and felt pressured to launch the site early due to negative media coverage of the rollout.
They also claimed HealthDirect had only begun working with the major platforms in recent weeks and that “it would have been a miracle” for the companies to have coordinated to have the national vaccine booking website ready by Monday.
They claimed providers were nevertheless on track to achieve the Monday deadline, but Wednesday’s early launch had “eroded patients’ trust in online bookings in one day”.
“What launched wasn’t a national booking service at all, it’s mostly just a phone directory of the clinics, some of which aren’t ready for next week,” they said.
When the Guardian contacted Hunt regarding the allegation that booking platform providers had been told the national system would launch on Monday, his office referred the question to the health department, which in turn did not address the claim in its response.
A department spokeswoman said over 1,000 individual clinics were emailed on Tuesday advising them their details would be listed on the vaccine clinic finder on Wednesday, suggesting the booking platform providers that clinics rely on for their online systems were not notified. Clinics have also contested this claim that they were notified on Tuesday.
A different department spokeswoman told the Guardian a glitch preventing some users from accessing the booking platform affected about 2% of the 62,000 Australians who accessed the site after being deemed part of phase 1b by the eligibility checker tool.
The booking website’s launch followed concerns revealed by the Guardian on Tuesday that doctors had been left “ill-equipped” for the vaccine delivery, and that clinics might have to reject requests for appointments in the first weeks of phase 1b due to inadequate supplies.
The federal health department secretary, Prof Brendan Murphy, on Wednesday played down concerns GPs do not have enough vaccines to accept bookings for the beginning of the phase 1b rollout.
He declared “we are not in a hurry in Australia” to vaccinate the 6.14m people aged over 70, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged over 55, healthcare workers not covered in phase 1a, and adults with underlying medical conditions who are set to receive the jab from Monday.
Throughout Wednesday, GP clinics were inundated with requests for bookings by those deemed eligible for vaccination. Widespread reports soon emerged of patients being turned away.
Some were told that GP clinics would not take on new clients for vaccinations, which would only be provided to existing patients. Others said that their entire city or region was without a single participating GP.
In Caloundra, Queensland, resident Tony Magrathea could not find a GP clinic in the area for his 85-year-old mother, who is eligible in phase 1b.
He tried three participating GPs in suburbs just outside of Caloundra: Golden Beach, Little Mountain and Currimundi. He was told by each clinic that they would not accept new patients.
“It’s a shambles,” Magrathea told the Guardian. He said his mother, at least, had him as a carer to help her.
“She said ‘Well what am I going to do’ and I said ‘I’m going to try to get you into the hospital and get you the injection there,” he said. “Her brother and sister-in-law in England both got Covid and were very sick from it. They survived it.”
One report suggested that Mount Gambier – South Australia’s second-biggest city – had no participating GPs.
Another patient from Victoria, Daniel, also reported problems with GP clinics refusing to take new patients for vaccination.
“They said ‘We’re just not accepting anyone from the public, the vaccine is only for our current clients,” he said.
“I just spoke to the Covid hotline, the federal government’s 1800 number, and they just said ‘Oh well there’s not much we can do about that’.”
After the RACGP and AMA accused the government of raising “unrealistic expectations” that Australians would be vaccinated by their local GP next week, the Australian General Practice Alliance said many clinics were only being offered 50 doses of the vaccine a week.
Practice owner and AGPA director Maria Boulton said that was nowhere near enough.
“If we only get 50 a week, it will take a very long time to vaccinate all of Australia,” she told the Guardian. “We know our patients’ medical history and we do the bulk of vaccines in Australia safely. We need the supply so we can get it done.”
She called for patience from the public, saying there was little clinics could do until the vaccines arrived and more supply was available.