The RACGP is distancing itself from the Commonwealth on the vaccine rollout, criticising its everchanging advice and poor communication.
The college, which at the start of the rollout claimed full involvement and relished the chance to get GPs in the national spotlight, seems to be fed up with the endless policy changes announced to the national media, with frontline GPs the last to know.
“The goalposts seem to be shifting every other day and I am concerned that some patients will find it all too difficult and delay or avoid getting vaccinated altogether,” Dr Price said in a media statement on Thursday.
She said the constantly changing advice and jurisdictional differences were “wasting time and causing unnecessary pain for practice teams”.
“The RACGP is calling on the federal, state, and territory governments to make it crystal clear who currently has access to which vaccine and where they can get them,” she said.
The message comes after several changes were made to the covid vaccine rollout in general practice, particularly around the eligibility of which patient groups could present for vaccination.
Dr Price also echoed the frustrations many GPs have had in regard to the government making changes without giving any warning to practices involved in the rollout.
“Sometimes new information is being delivered in the middle of a working day when they are busy delivering vaccines to patients whose eligibility may be subject to change,” she said.
“Due to this, our hard-working general practice staff are spending valuable time comprehending and explaining the new rules. They are bearing the frustrations and sometimes aggressive behaviour from patients who don’t understand why they can get a particular jab at one place and not another.
“It is wasting time and causing unnecessary pain for practice teams at a time when they are busier than ever doing the job of rolling out COVID-19 vaccines as quickly as possible, while also continuing regular care for their patients.
It’s a very different tone from January, when Dr Price appeared on television alongside the Health Minister Greg Hunt to celebrate the start of the rollout.
This was the birthplace of the RACGP and Department of Health phrase that GPs would be “front and centre” of the covid vaccination efforts. And in some ways, that statement has come true, with general practices around the country having delivered about five million doses, about half the national total of 10 million.
However, this centrality has also come with a significant cost to the GPs involved.
Added stresses, abuse from patients and having to finance a new day-to-day model of practice are just a few of the major changes of the last six months.
In January, Dr Price said the RACGP was working with government on the rollout.
“We are having constructive discussions with the Minister for Health and the Heath Department on the covid-19 vaccine rollout to help make sure Australia gets it right,” she said in a media statement.
“We are talking to Government to ensure GPs are appropriately supported to help with this mass vaccine drive, and ensure vaccines are delivered safely and effectively across Australia.
“We need to get this right. We need high immunisation rates to protect Australians from the covid-19 virus.”
Since then it’s been nothing but twists and turns.
These have included major changes to the ATAGI guidance on AstraZeneca eligibility in April. The advice, which said that the Pfizer mRNA vaccine would be preferred in patients under the age of 50, almost exclusively reformed the rollout in the general practice setting.
Some clinics were suddenly faced with appointment cancellations, while others suddenly struggled to match their allocated vaccine doses to the surge in demand from patients who had suddenly become eligible overnight.
By June, the RACGP had dropped the “front and centre” line from their media spiels, redirecting their attention to the need for increased renumeration and a national advertising campaign.
Pfizer vaccines were on their way to general practice by that stage, and questions were already circulating about whether the mRNA rollout in the sector would come with the same challenges that providers had experienced with AstraZeneca.
An RACGP member survey in June asked GPs what needed to be improved in the rollout of mRNA vaccines to general practice, based on their experience with administering the viral vector vaccines.
Overwhelmingly, 92% of members said that a greater focus was needed on public awareness and education.
More than half of respondents also said they considered the rollout to be somewhat or very ineffective.
The added pressure of the Delta outbreak and the pressure increasing on general practice to vaccinate may have spurred the college into turning on the government, rather than claiming close involvement in government planning.
Dr Price said today that a national conversation was needed to clarify individuals’ vaccine eligibility, particularly considering the Delta variant is spreading in NSW.
“The environment has changed the risk, and this can be communicated clearly,” she said.
“The federal government should seek ATAGI advice regarding opening up vaccine eligibility to teachers, pregnant women and people living with healthcare workers, older people or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who are currently not eligible to receive a Pfizer vaccine.”