The vaccination booster rollout was always going to be a Commonwealth affair.
Announcing eligibility for booster shots back at the end of October, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said: “The booster program will roll out directly to people living in residential aged care facilities and people with a disability through an in-reach program… The Pfizer COVID-19 booster shots are free and will be available through the primary healthcare network (GPs, community pharmacies, Aboriginal community controlled health services, and Commonwealth vaccination clinics) and state and territory vaccination hubs.”
Within days of the commencement, Health Minister Greg Hunt was claiming success: “We’re off to a flying start. GPs, state clinics, Commonwealth clinics, Indigenous medical centres, aged care and disability… they’ve been vaccinating people with boosters so it’s a great start and good news for Australians.”
As other vaccines were added to the program, the emphasis stayed on Commonwealth-funded services — mainly GPs, pharmacies and community health bodies, with state and territory hubs as an afterthought.
“There are over 8500 GPs, community pharmacies, Aboriginal community controlled health organisations, Commonwealth and state clinics providing access to either or both of Moderna and Pfizer for boosters,” Hunt said just 10 days ago.
Remember that the original vaccination rollout was intended to be mostly a Commonwealth responsibility: states and territories would vaccinate their frontline health workers while the Commonwealth took care of aged care and residential disability care, then open up to the bulk of the population in stages relying on primary care.
Commonwealth-funded GP respiratory clinics would be set up, and with GPs and Aboriginal health services would be responsible for vaccinating millions of Australians. GPs would be the “backbone” of the vaccination program, Hunt said.
Then it became clear what a debacle the Commonwealth program was, especially as the Delta variant exploded across Sydney, then Canberra and Melbourne.
The aged care and residential disability care rollout was a disaster, and GPs constantly lamented they weren’t getting enough vaccines because the government had relied too heavily on locally manufactured AstraZeneca. The states were forced to step up, opening up and expanding vaccination hubs from frontline workers to everyone in the face of thousands of cases a day.
Now Morrison wants the states to again step up and open up vaccination hubs to shoulder the burden of a booster program that suddenly looks as much of a race as the initial vaccination effort. Or as his apologists at The Australian put it, he’s “putting the heat on” the states. Meantime, GPs are complaining of a lack of funding and supply to meet the demand purely for those who are deemed eligible for one — which under the federal government’s rules is still only a minority of the population.
There are “plenty of doses in the fridge”, Morrison says, but apparently insufficient funding to make it worthwhile for GPs to run vaccinations at scale.
It’s early yet, but it looks increasingly like Morrison has again planned a Commonwealth rollout, it has again gone wrong, and he’s again demanding the states and territories save him. What will the price be this time?
Will the booster rollout be another Scott Morrison debacle? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name if you would like to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say column. We reserve the right to edit for length and clarity.