Failures with the federal government’s Covid-19 vaccine rollout are forcing residential disability care providers to circumvent the system and approach general practitioners directly to secure supplies for vulnerable residents, rather than waiting for deliveries to arrive at their facilities.
Disability care residents and their support workers were included in the highest priority stage for the commonwealth’s vaccine rollout, phase 1a, and were to be serviced by in-reach teams who would visit disability accomodation to administer the vaccine.
But phase 1a is now well behind schedule. The roughly six weeks the government gave itself to complete the stage has now elapsed, and only 112,830 of the 190,000 aged and disability care residents in Australia have been vaccinated.
National Disability Services, the peak group for 1,100 non-governmental service providers, said it was receiving a significant number of complaints about the rollout from its members, including about poor communications from government on when and where to expect vaccine deliveries.
The NDS chief executive, David Moody, said some of his members had now begun “taking matters into their own hands”.
“We do know, and this as recently as this morning, that a number of our provider members are taking matters into their own hands, and doing their best to support clients – often with very significant behavioural challenges – to access the vaccines through their local GP, rather than waiting for the vaccine to be delivered to the disability accomodation where they might be living,” Moody told the Guardian on Tuesday.
“They’re doing that because they haven’t been able to get the vaccine where their clients have been living. And so it is with their own workforce. The intention with phase 1a had been that it would allow people with a disability and the workers supporting them to get the vaccine … at their place of residence.
“That hasn’t proven to be possible in many cases.”
Moody acknowledged the rollout was a complex and difficult exercise.
But he said providers needed more information from government, including at least an “understanding of when they might expect to get the vaccine, how they might expect to get the vaccine, and where they might expect to get the vaccine from”.
Visiting GP clinics, he said, was not ideal for disability care residents. It added more pressure on already overwhelmed GP clinics, and was not suitable for many people living in disability care.
“Many people living in disability accomodation are living there because they exhibit quite challenging behaviours and these are behaviours which are, if you like, provoked when a person has been asked to attend a doctor’s surgery that they are not familiar with to receive an injection, otherwise known as an invasive procedure, from someone they also might not be absolutely familiar with,” he said.
“The main point of allowing for the vaccination to be delivered to and provided at disability accomodation was in anticipation of these issues.”
The health department said in a statement that it continued to work “closely with disability advocates, stakeholders, and disability providers”.
“The priority is to deliver vaccines in a safe and efficient way in settings where multiple people living with a disability reside and to provide access that supports individual’s personal choice,” the department said.
“This includes enabling people living with disability to access a vaccine through a GP if that is their preference.”
The criticism comes as the federal government continues to face sustained pressure over its vaccine rollout. By Tuesday, about 854,983 Australians had been vaccinated, still well short of the initial target of four million by the end of March. That target has since shifted to providing one dose to all Australians by October.
Epidemiologist Mary-Louise McLaws said the current average rate for the last six weeks was about 22,000 doses per day.
“I calculate to have 85% population vaccinated by end of year we need 133,000/day every day from tomorrow to Dec 31,” she tweeted.
On Tuesday, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, sought to blame the slower-than-expected rollout squarely on import obstructions by European nations.
“The challenges Australia have had has been a supply problem,” he said. “It is pure and simple. There were over 3m doses from overseas that never came. And that’s obviously resulted in an inability to get 3m doses out and distributed through the network.
“I think it is really important that these points are made very clearly when we are talking about the rollout of the vaccine.”
Experts responded to the claim by saying failed supply was “not an act of god”.
“They reflect failures in procurement, especially in failing to diversify supplies to insure against these kinds of risks,” the Grattan Institute’s Brendan Coates tweeted.
Morrison committed to providing more data transparency on the rollout. At the same press conference, he said he would not give a weekly average figure for the volume of AstraZeneca vaccine being produced by CSL at its Melbourne facility.