In January Prime Minister Scott Morrison set a target of having 4 million Australians vaccinated against COVID-19 by the end of March.

Thursday marks the first day of April – and we will have missed that target by about 3.4 million people.

Health Minister Greg Hunt remains adamant the vaccine rollout “is accelerating exactly as intended”.

Health Minister Greg Hunt remains adamant the vaccine rollout “is accelerating exactly as intended”.Credit:Joe Armao

The numbers are stark. The states are furious and frustrated, as are GPs. But the federal government, particularly Health Minister Greg Hunt, remains adamant everything is on track.

So how did we end up here?

Australia is one the world’s leaders in vaccine purchases per capita. We have bought almost 140 million doses of vaccine: five doses for every man, woman and child. The federal government secured on-shore manufacturing capacity via CSL – a move that now looks extremely prescient.

Pfizer’s vaccine has been flowing into Australia fairly smoothly. About 140,000 doses arrive here every week, most destined for quarantine workers and front-line health staff who are part of the first phase of the vaccine rollout, the 1.4-million-dose phase 1a.

The first major problem was not receiving more than 3 million AstraZeneca doses by the end of February.

Australia had contracts with AstraZeneca to import 3.8 million vaccines from Europe while we were getting CSL’s local production line up and running. The 4 million target was based on receiving those doses.


But AstraZeneca was struggling to meet its own contracts. It slashed its production target for Europe by 66 per cent.

The nations there, many in the middle of outbreaks, took drastic action and in early March blocked AstraZeneca’s exports to Australia. That left us with about 735,000 of the 3.8 million doses of AstraZeneca we had been expecting.

The federal government has now essentially given up on getting any more – with all hopes on CSL’s production line.

But issues manufacturing the vaccine meant the first two batches yielded less than hoped. And the first doses only received approval from the Therapeutic Goods Administration in March.

Phase 1b, which started on Monday last week, requires 14.8 million doses to be administered.

While other countries have opted for a mass-vaccine-clinic approach, our federal government opted for a GP-led rollout.

The thinking seems to have been that GPs knew their patients, and were more able to help the elderly and people with underlying health conditions. And Australia had no cases of COVID-19, meaning we could trade speed for quality.

GPs signed up in droves, many purchasing expensive fridges to store the doses of vaccine. But they got far fewer doses than they expected. Some practices got as few as 50 doses a week, without much information on when that number would increase. Many GPs now say they have received so few doses they will make a financial loss giving them.

All this was bubbling along in the background for weeks, yet the federal government continued to insist everything was going perfectly well.

Then COVID-19 cases emerged in Queensland, quickly pushing the state into lockdown. Suddenly, Australia’s slow and steady rollout had a new urgency. Some of the cases were in healthcare workers who had not yet received their vaccine.

Queensland blamed a lack of vaccine supply for not having all healthcare workers fully vaccinated – while also revealing it had not been administering all the doses it received from the federal government, holding some back for the mandatory second dose due to concerns over supply.

The federal government responded immediately, saying there was no need for the states to hold back supply as they knew exactly how many doses they were getting and when.

On Wednesday, News Corp reported NSW had administered just 96,273 doses of 190,610 given to it by the federal government.

That led to an extraordinary news conference by NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard, who claimed the federal government was trying to undermine the state’s rollout.

“I’m extremely angry, and I know there are other health ministers in the country who share similar views, state and territory health ministers,” Mr Hazzard said.

The ACT’s Health Minister soon backed her NSW and Queensland colleagues.

”If you don’t know you’re getting them, you can’t plan to deliver them,“ the ACT’s Rachel Stephen-Smith said.

Despite all that, Mr Hunt was still adamant all was well. “The national vaccination program is accelerating exactly as intended in the manner that was intended at the time it was intended,” he said on Wednesday afternoon.

Ultimately, all this needs to be kept in perspective.

Australia has spent weeks this year without a confirmed COVID-19 case, let alone a death; meanwhile, much of the rest of the world is fighting out-of-control infections.

We are far from alone in issues with our vaccine rollout. As CSL’s on-shore supply comes online, supply issues should soon be resolved.

But for a government that once looked to be on top of vaccine issues, it has scored some serious own-goals.

Liam is The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald’s science reporter

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