The four private companies responsible for vaccinating the aged care sector have given conflicting accounts about whether the government ever contracted them to inoculate staff, prompting further criticism about the confusing and delayed rollout.
The federal government, in the early stages of the rollout, said it would rely on private contractors to vaccinate 183,000 aged care residents and 339,000 staff, using in-reach teams that would attend each facility.
But the government’s in-reach teams focussed overwhelmingly on vaccinating residents, and data this week showed just 32,833 staff – less than 10% – were given the jab by in-reach teams, largely using leftovers from residents in accordance with the government’s excess dose policy.
The government’s panel of surge vaccination workforce providers – Aspen Medical, Healthcare Australia, International SOS and Sonic Clinical Services – have since given differing accounts on whether they were contracted to vaccinate staff.
Earlier this week, the Age reported that Aspen Medical was never contracted to vaccinate staff, quoting a company spokesman.
The company told the Guardian on Thursday that, in fact, it was contractually obliged to vaccinate staff.
“Aspen Medical has vaccination of aged care staff as part of its contractual obligations, and in that context has already vaccinated over 20,000 staff,” a spokesman said.
Healthcare Australia initially told the Guardian it was “contracted to provide vaccinations for aged care residents only”.
But it subsequently clarified it was “contracted to provide vaccinations to both the aged care residents and the workforce but was instructed by the department to prioritise the residents”.
Sonic Clinical Services, brought on after Aspen and HCA, said it was not contracted to do staff vaccinations.
“We have not been contracted to provide in-reach vaccination services to Residential Age Care staff in Victoria (or elsewhere) and have not been involved in a tender process to do so,” chief executive, Dr Ged Foley, said.
The fourth company, International SOS, refused to answer questions about what it was being paid by taxpayers to do, instead referring the Guardian to the health department.
The health department said all four contractors were contracted to provide vaccine administration support “for registered residential aged care residents and workers across residential aged care facilities”.
“Subsequent expert medical advice recommended against vaccinating aged care residents and workers at the same time based on overseas experience,” the department said. “In response to the medical advice, the contracted providers were encouraged to focus on vaccinating residents as they are most vulnerable to the impacts of Covid-19.”
Earlier this week, department associate secretary, Caroline Edwards, told Senate estimates that the four companies have shared in $76m worth of work.
United Workers Union aged care director Carolyn Smith said the differing responses showed “how badly organised this process was”.
“This is just another level of confusion, where the contractors themselves don’t seem to know what they’ve been contracted for and what they were supposed to be doing on the ground,” she told the Guardian.
The government’s initial plan contemplated using the in-reach teams to vaccinate residents and aged care staff at the same time.
But the government received advice that residents and staff should be done separately to avoid the prospect of having both groups sick from side-effects at the same time.
Unions say the separate in-reach teams for aged care staff never showed up. Workers only got the vaccinations by taking residents’ leftovers.
The plan then shifted significantly.
The government is now telling workers to get a vaccine wherever they can find one, either from GP clinics, state-run hubs, Commonwealth respiratory centres, or via dedicated aged care staff pop-up hubs.
There were supposed to be 13 pop-up hubs established during May. There is only three, and they are all located in Sydney.
On Friday, the government announced that in-principle agreement had been reached with states and territories to make the vaccination of workers mandatory.
“All of a sudden, the prime minister seems to be saying the problem with aged care vaccinations is hesitancy of aged care workers to have it,” Smith said.
“That’s not the problem. The problem has been, really, they forgot that aged care workers existed or were important in this process.”
Victoria and Queensland are also conducting targeted blitzes to give priority access to aged care workers.
Queensland health minister Yvette D’Ath said the blitz meant others seeking a vaccine may be disappointed this weekend.
“My message to you is this – you are likely to be waiting a very long time and you may not get a vaccine at all because we will prioritise those in this group,” she said on Friday.
“We will prioritise aged care workers, and then the 40-49 age group and those who are eligible and coming out on the weekend.”
The federal government conceded this week it did not have complete data on aged care workers, but that a survey of major aged care providers suggested about 11% of staff had received a first dose. Even less were fully vaccinated.
The health department said it had also engaged 50 roving teams in Victoria to vaccinate workers and residents in priority locations. It said it was discussing the worker vaccination plans further with the sector.