The prime minister, Scott Morrison, has rejected claims Australia’s vaccine rollout has been held up by the batch testing of 2.5m domestically made doses and instead blamed international supply issues.
At a press conference on Tuesday after New Zealand announced a trans-Tasman travel bubble, Morrison said Australia had not received 3.1m AstraZeneca doses from overseas. He said that was to blame for the massive discrepancy between the 855,000 vaccinations administered so far and the missed target of 4m doses by the end of March.
The federal government is under fire for the slow pace of the rollout and a lack of transparency about how many doses have been manufactured locally and administered.
An Australian government source told the Reuters agency on Tuesday that the European Union had blocked the export of the 3.1m AstraZeneca doses and that Australia had little hope of getting the remaining 400,000 doses it has been promised on time.
“They’ve blocked 3.1m shots so far … we haven’t given up hope but we’ve stopped counting them in our expected supplies,” the source said.
A spokesman for the EU’s executive branch, the European commission, denied the claim, telling a news conference: “We cannot confirm any new decision to block vaccine exports to Australia or to any other country.”
The Nationals deputy leader, David Littleproud, said on Monday that Australia had been “badly let down” by the EU. “The arithmetic is simple on this,” he told the Nine Network. “We are 3m [doses] short because of the EU who cut us short.”
Morrison promised on Tuesday to increase the number of GPs administering vaccines from 1,500 to 4,000 but refused to say how many doses of AstraZeneca vaccine CSL was producing in Melbourne each week.
Morrison told reporters in Canberra it would be “misleading” to provide an average. At its fastest pace, the company had achieved “around the 800,000 [per week] mark”, the prime minister said. “We want to keep achieving that … if we can do better, we will.”
Previously, health officials have said they expected 1m locally made doses to be available per week. Morrison claimed in March that CSL was already producing more than 900,000 shots a week.
In response to a news.com.au report that some 2.5m CSL doses were being held up by testing, Morrison said there had been “no hold-up” because approval by the Therapeutic Goods Administration and batch testing was “a necessary part of the process to guarantee Australian safety”.
“It is very important that people understand [that] the fill and finish process doesn’t involve the little vial coming off the production line and then going straight to the courier and the GP or the hospital,” the Liberal leader said.
Morrison declined to set a vaccination new target for the end of April and sought to explain the missed 4m target by blaming “frustrated” supply and “non-delivery” of vaccines. “The simple explanation is that … 3.1m vaccines never came to Australia,” he said.
The health department secretary, Prof Brendan Murphy, offered the same explanation in mid-March when the government walked away from its pledge to “fully vaccinate” all Australians by October.
But on 5 March, after Italy blocked 250,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, the federal health minister, Greg Hunt, was keen to downplay the impact of overseas supply issues on the rollout.
Hunt said at the time Australia’s “forward projections did not involve this particular shipment of one set of doses from one country, from a firm which has a deep, broad global supply chain”.
Morrison said on Tuesday the government was providing weekly statistics on the number of vaccines administered but “there is no reason why these figures can’t be done on a more regular basis”.
“It is a good idea for us to have more data transparency on these issues and that is what we will be discussing with the premiers and chief ministers on Friday,” he said.
Morrison defended the rollout by noting 79,000 vaccinations were administered in one day last week – which he claimed was “actually better” than where New Zealand, Germany, South Korea and Japan were at the same point in their programs.
Australia’s ambitious rollout requires it to administer at least 180,000 vaccines per day – a curve that has only gotten steeper due to the sluggish start.
The opposition health spokesperson, Mark Butler, said on Tuesday the rollout was “so far behind every single commitment Scott Morrison and Greg Hunt has given to the Australian people”. “Surely, they must admit this is not going well,” Butler told reporters. “They have to admit that, get people around the table and adjust their strategy.”
Butler proposed allowing pharmacists to administer vaccines sooner than planned and considering “mass vaccination centres of the type you see in other countries”.
But Morrison said the available vaccines matched the current distribution network and without further doses, mass vaccination centres would make no difference to the pace of the rollout. “It was never the plan that pharmacists would be involved in the vaccination program at this point,” he said.
Morrison said the early phases of the rollout focused on vulnerable populations who would receive vaccines from their GPs and pharmacists would administer doses by mid-year.
A CSL spokesperson said the company was “committed to providing the Australian government with the doses required to fulfil its Covid-19 vaccination strategy”.
“In the first week of the local rollout, 832,000 doses were released ahead of schedule to the Australian government,” the spokesperson said.
“Further batches of finished doses are now being released on a rolling basis every week. When approved by the TGA, they are delivered to the national network of vaccination centres and GP clinics. CSL hopes to reach a rolling output of 1m doses a week as soon as possible.”