Govt backflips on booking priority for vaccine

3 minute read

GPs have been reassured they will have full control of their bookings despite earlier instructions to the contrary.

The Department of Health has softened its approach to practices just days before the GP COVID vaccine rollout, with officials saying primary care will be the master of its own bookings.

The advice comes as a noticeable change from instructions earlier this month, which directed practices to withdraw from phase 1b if they were unwilling to vaccinate people outside their patient cohort.

In the original announcement from the DoH, practices were told they wouldn’t be able to turn away other patients or withhold appointments to primarily vaccinate their existing patients.

But the narrative shifted in a webinar for GPs hosted this week by the department, with practices being complimented by senior department officials for knowing their patient cohorts “better than anyone else”.

“Practices are in absolute and total control of bookings, appointments, when they schedule them and how they schedule them,” Dr Lucas de Toca, acting first assistant secretary for the Primary Care Response to COVID-19, said.

“Practices do not have to segment or protect appointments for non-regular clients.”

There remains a general recommendation that practices cannot turn back non-regular clients if they have available appointments. 

“But that in no way means that you cannot prioritise your regular patients. You’re encouraged to proactively reach out to those who have the underlying conditions that qualify them for 1b and elderly patients and make sure they get [the vaccine when] they need it,” Dr de Toca said.

And if reaching out to the existing patient cohort fills all the available vaccination appointments, Dr de Toca said “that’s great”.

“It means that the people who need the vaccine are accessing it.”

The latest backflip comes after a week of blunders in Canberra following the failed launch of the online booking system for COVID vaccination.

Almost 200,000 Australians tried to book an appointment through the government’s booking site on Wednesday, but were redirected to call practices directly.

Health Minister Greg Hunt also sparked confusion when he directed the public to book their appointment for the COVID vaccination either online or by phone at an eligible general practice.

Many GP practices were subsequently inundated with phone calls, unaware that the national booking system was not yet integrated with their existing online booking engines.  

The shadow health minister Mark Butler slammed the Morrison government for prioritising “spin and empty announcements” instead of getting on with the job of a successful vaccine rollout.

“It didn’t have to be this way – we knew the vaccine rollout was coming, the online booking system should have been tested and finalised weeks ago. Instead, all older Australians and GPs have experienced is chaos and confusion,” he said in a media statement.

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