The government’s vaccine booking website has been hit by technical issues hours after it was launched on Wednesday morning – five days before more than 6 million Australians become eligible to get the inoculation from GPs and local clinics.
Health department secretary Brendan Murphy has played down concerns GPs do not have enough vaccines to accept bookings for the beginning of the phase 1b rollout next Monday, declaring “we are not in a hurry in Australia” to vaccinate people aged over 70, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged over 55, healthcare workers not covered in phase 1a and adults with underlying medical conditions.
From Wednesday, Australians can use the Department of Health’s eligibility tool to book an appointment at their closest GP.
However several users received errors when attempting to click through to make a booking, while others were refused bookings from their closest clinics.
Several eligible vaccine recipients have also told the Guardian that after the booking website told them to call their nearest vaccinating clinic to book an appointment, receptionists had told them they could not take any bookings as they has not yet been told by the government how many doses they would be receiving.
Many of those who have contacted the Guardian are in their 80s, and after encountering errors with the booking website, they attempted to call their nearest clinics, but reported phone lines being busy throughout Wednesday morning.
The Guardian also understands MPs have begun fielding complaints from constituents attempting to book through the website, as many of the clinics listed will only accept bookings from existing patients in an effort to conserve limited supplies.
Health minister Greg Hunt said it was a surprise to hear reports of technical issues and of eligible recipients being rejected.
Regarding clinics rejecting bookings because they are unclear on their dose supplies, Hunt rejected claims the government had not communicated this to the clinics, telling 3AW radio “every clinic that has been listed is only listed because they have made and had confirmed an order”.
On reports of clinic receptionists telling callers they aren’t accepting bookings yet despite being listed on the website, Hunt suggested that it was only “the person on the front desk hasn’t been provided” supply details.
“Be calm this morning. This is a process that’s going to take some months,” Hunt said.
At a press conference, Hunt insisted the website had not been rushed and was always scheduled to be launched on Wednesday.
He said clinics were able to reject prospective patients in order to manage vaccine supplies for existing patients, even if they were eligible as part of 1b.
“Practices themselves will determine which patients they are able to serve … it is up to the individual practices,”
Murphy cautioned “it will take a while” for the GP rollout to scale up, and warned that even “if you are eligible, it may not be possible to make an appointment for some weeks”.
“Take time, we are not in a hurry in Australia, we do not have a burning platform. As I have said on many occasions, we can take our time to do this vaccination properly,” Murphy said.
The booking website’s launch follows criticism from the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and the Australian Medical Association, who were concerned that doctors had been left “ill-equipped” for the vaccine delivery, and that clinics might have to reject requests for appointments in the first weeks of phase 1b.
This is because so few doses have been provided to individual GPs that they would probably be limited to providing it to their oldest and most at-risk patients, rather than accepting appointments from new patients whose GPs are not participating in the initial rollout.
The Department of Health has been contacted for clarification.
Victorian resident Daniel, who asked that his surname not be used, is high risk for Covid-19 due to pre-existing medical issues.
He checked his eligibility for stage 1b using the government’s online tool and was given a list of local GP clinics participating in the vaccine rollout.
But when he began calling the clinics, he said they refused to accept his booking. The clinics he spoke to said they were only administering the vaccine to existing patients, not new ones.
“They said ‘we’re just not accepting anyone from the public, the vaccine is only for our current clients’,” he said.
“I just spoke to the Covid hotline, the federal government’s 1800 number, and they just said ‘oh well there’s not much we can do about that’.”
Daniel had only just moved to a new home and doesn’t have a local GP yet.
He said the operator on the government hotline said he had received numerous similar reports of GP clinics declining bookings on Wednesday.
Another eligible 1b recipient said their closest clinic was listed on the booking website as only accepting bookings via phone, but when they called the clinic to book, the receptionist told them they were only taking Covid vaccine appointment via the government’s website.
The phase 1b rollout will include AstraZeneca vaccines, and from next week, vaccines produced in Melbourne by CSL are set to be distributed, after the government reaffirmed its support for the jab following an investigation into reports it causes blood clots.