‘We need action’: Merlino urges Morrison to show more urgency on vaccines

Victoria’s acting Premier James Merlino has urged the federal government to show more urgency on the country’s struggling COVID-19 vaccine program as he lamented Canberra’s failure to take up two state proposals to reinvigorate the rollout.

Mr Merlino said on Wednesday that Victoria was eager to assist with Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s desire for states and territories to scale up their involvement ahead of national cabinet on Monday, the first meeting since Mr Morrison announced they would occur twice a week to iron out the vaccine rollout.

Acting Premier James Merlino said Victoria was willing to scale up its involvement in the vaccine program.Credit:Simon Schluter

Just over 3500 vaccines were administered in Victoria on Wednesday, down from a daily average of about 6000 a fortnight ago. It follows last week’s advice from the Australian Technical Group on Immunisation that the Pfizer vaccine should become the preferred vaccine for people aged under 50, rather than the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Victoria wrote to the federal government on Monday suggesting its supply of AstraZeneca vaccines over the next fortnight, totalling 80,000, should be directed from vaccination hubs to GPs whom Mr Merlino said were “crying out” for more supply to give to Victorians over 50.

Mr Merlino said he had not received a response as of Thursday morning and that the federal government was still processing Victoria’s additional request to give doctors multilingual information and new training on administering the AstraZeneca vaccine to under 50s.

“Time is absolutely of the essence. Now is not the time to slow down. I welcome the Prime Minister’s comments that national cabinet will now be twice weekly, but we need answers. We need action,” the acting Premier said.

“We had a hit to public confidence in terms of the Commonwealth announcement [on AstraZeneca] last Thursday night. We need to get on with it.”

Health Minister Greg Hunt and Prime Minister Scott Morrison are going back to the drawing board to work out how complete its COVID-19 vaccination program. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Mr Merlino said Australia needed an “urgent recallibration” on vaccines and Victoria was open to the idea of mass vaccination hubs beyond ones already active at the Melbourne Exhibition and Convention Centre and Royal Exhibition Centre in Carlton, as flagged by Mr Morrison on Wednesday.

“These are the things that we will be urgently raising with the federal government at national cabinet,” Mr Merlino said.

“In hourly conversations between our public health officials and Commonwealth health officials, we put on the table that Pfizer should be under 50s, AstraZeneca should be diverted to Victorian GPs. We’re open to do much more.”

The mass vaccination centre at Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition Building.Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui

In addition to mass vaccination centres, which are focusing on health workers, police and other frontline workers in Victoria, the aged care sector suggested on Wednesday that state hospital hubs could be established to immunise aged care and disability workers – currently a federal responsibility.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian is planning similar mass vaccination sites.

Former Australian Medical Association president Tony Bartone revealed he was “surprised” by Mr Morrison’s new inclination towards mass vaccination hubs on Wednesday.

In a sign of support for Victoria’s suggestion to send spare AstraZeneca vaccines to GPs as soon as possible, Dr Bartone said most people in the current phase 1b of the rollout preferred to receive the vaccine at their GP.

Phase 1b includes those aged over 70, Indigenous people over 50, adults with underlying medical conditions or a disability, healthcare workers not in phase 1a and household contacts of quarantine and border workers.

“GP clinics were always going to be the focus of the 1b rollout, then into 2a pharmacists were going to join on board,” Dr Bartone said.

“But 1b is general-practice led, and that’s where patients want to go to have their concerns about this vaccine spoken about and to have that reliability of supply.”

He said mass vaccination clinics were always “going to have a place” but they relied on consistent supply, which Dr Bartone said could be improved by the backlog of AstraZeneca vaccines, particularly if pharmaceutical giant CSL reached its goal of locally producing 1 million doses a week.

Following the Prime Minister’s statement over the weekend that he could not set a new goal for vaccinating all Australians due to a series of uncertainties, on Wednesday he floated the target of vaccinating all Australians against coronavirus before 2022.

Victoria’s vaccination numbers dipped as low as 903 on Sunday, typically the lowest day of the week, before growing slightly to 2426 on Monday and 2890 on Tuesday. Australia’s original plan was for vaccinations to increase exponentially throughout April.

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