On 9 December 2020, Regional Health Minister, Mark Coulton, chaired the 11th special rural and remote health COVID-19 roundtable with members of the Rural Health Stakeholder group.
Minister Coulton acknowledged the continuing value and importance of these regular Roundtable meetings, with the focus now shifting to vaccine rollout. Minister Coulton advised of the significant work being undertaken regarding COVID-19 vaccines, noting the logistical considerations to support access to, and delivery of, a safe and effective vaccine.
Senior Department staff provided updates on the Commonwealth COVID-19 response. Participants provided valuable feedback to the Minister on the current focus and efforts of their own organisations in response to the outbreak.
Update on the Rural Procedural Grants Program (RPGP)
The RPGP supports procedural GPs and rural generalists in rural and remote areas to attend relevant continuing professional development (CPD) activities, focused on both skills maintenance and upskilling. Procedural GPs and rural generalists are able to receive financial assistance to maintain their additional skills in emergency medicine and upskill in anaesthetics, obstetrics and/or surgery. The financial assistance contributes to the costs incurred by the GP or rural generalist to attend CPD activities, including travel, accommodation and engagement of a locum.
Stakeholders welcomed the announcement that temporary flexibilities allowing RPGP participants to claim support for CPD activities delivered online have been extended to
30 June 2021.
These flexibilities were introduced in May 2020 as part of the Government’s COVID response and have been well received by program participants, with a good uptake of online options. Due to ongoing limitations in accessing face-to-face training, the Government has extended these arrangements.
COVID-19 Vaccine Update
The Department provided a comprehensive report on the COVID-19 vaccine strategy to support access to, and delivery of, safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, as soon as they are available. Australia has secured over 114 million doses of potential vaccines, if proven safe and effective, and registered by the Therapeutic Goods Administration.
The Government has entered in to a range of agreements for the supply of COVID-19 vaccines. Detailed information can be found at: https://www.pm.gov.au/media/australia-secures-onshore-manufacturing-agreements-two-covid-19-vaccines*.
*Following this Roundtable, the Australian Government announced that the University of QLD/CSL vaccine would not be proceeding to phase 3.
The Government has joined the COVAX facility, as part of a global effort to support rapid, fair and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines. This participation enables the purchase of COVID-19 vaccine doses as they become available. The COVAX facility provides access to a large portfolio of COVID-19 vaccine candidates and manufacturers across the world. Information is available at: https://www.health.gov.au/ministers/the-hon-greg-hunt-mp/media/australia-now-eligible-to-purchase-covid-19-vaccine-doses-through-covax.
Stakeholders were advised that the rollout of safe and effective vaccines will be guided by Australia’s COVID-19 Vaccination Policy, which was endorsed by National Cabinet on
13 November 2020. The Policy sets out key principles, including that COVID-19 vaccines will be made available for free to:
- all Australian citizens;
- permanent residents; and
- most visa-holders.
The Policy sets out the roles and responsibilities of the Australian Government and state and territory governments to implement a COVID-19 vaccine program in Australia from early 2021. Each jurisdiction, including the Australian Government, will develop supporting Implementation Plans, which will articulate how it will give effect to its responsibilities under this Policy.
Responsibilities of the Australian Government will include the regulation of vaccines, their acceptance from manufacturers, setting funding policy, ensuring appropriate data collection and monitoring systems are in place, and national communications and information.
States and territories’ responsibilities include ensuring appropriately qualified and trained workforce for vaccines delivered at their vaccination sites, providing sites where vaccinations can safely take place, and ensuring that immunisation providers at state and territory vaccination sites remain compliant at all times with their safety, ethical, and reporting obligations.
The Policy also outlines that while the Australian Government strongly supports immunisation and will run a strong campaign to encourage vaccination, it is not mandatory and individuals may choose not to vaccinate.
Detailed information on the Vaccine Policy can be found here.
The Department reported that as doses will initially be limited, access to vaccines during the early period of the roll out will be made available to highest priority groups.
The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation has provided initial advice to the Australian Government on which groups should be prioritised for the first doses for possible COVID-19 vaccination in Australia, being people who:
- have an increased risk of developing severe disease
- are at risk of exposure, being infected with and transmitting the virus
- are working in services critical to society functioning.
Further information can be found at: https://www.health.gov.au/news/preliminary-advice-from-atagi-on-general-principles-for-the-covid-19-vaccination-program
Logistics and distribution
Stakeholders were advised that the Government is currently consulting with the states and territories, and medical experts on how a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine will be distributed.
The Australian Government will be responsible for:
- safely transporting vaccine doses to storage and administration sites within each state and territory, and between these sites and vaccination locations where necessary;
- ensuring relevant logistics and storage chains are in place for each vaccine type; and
- establishing a mechanism to track and trace all doses of vaccine as they move through the system.
Data and reporting
Managing the most effective and efficient roll-out of COVID-19 vaccine/s will require significant coordinated data and reporting mechanisms. The Australian Immunisation Register (AIR) will be used to:
- monitor immunisation coverage levels and service delivery, which can help to identify regions at risk during disease outbreaks;
- measure vaccination coverage at a local, state and national level;
- determine an individual’s immunisation status, regardless of who immunised them; and
- provide an Immunisation History Statement to prove their immunisation status for child care, school, employment or travel purposes.
The Department reported that it is highly likely that two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine will be required for immunisation. Further, each patient will need to have two doses of the same vaccine, i.e. two doses of the Pfizer vaccine or two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
The AIR will monitor overall immunisation levels and individual immunisation status. It will be mandatory for vaccination providers to make timely recordings of any COVID-19 vaccinations into AIR.
Rural and Remote
Stakeholders were assured that the Commonwealth is mindful of the unique issues relating to distribution and access in rural and remote Australian communities and is engaging with states and territories to work through the complexities and challenges.
A range of communications materials will be developed regarding the vaccine rollout, targeted at Health Professionals and consumers. The Department will work with representatives of this forum to assist targeted dissemination to rural and remote Australians.
Workforce and Primary Care updates
Stakeholders expressed concerns that the ongoing impact of COVID-19 has heightened risks around workforce fatigue and burnout due to inability to take leave or undertake professional development. Reporting indicates that although Australian state and territory borders are re-opening, availability of locum support is problematic. The Department and stakeholders agreed to keep a watching brief on this issue.
The Department confirmed that the continuation of MBS telehealth items will be a key focus of the 10 year Primary Healthcare Plan.
Minister Coulton thanked members for their ongoing participation, particularly over the past 12 months. The rollout of COVID-19 vaccines will be a standing item at future meetings.
Twenty-one rural stakeholder organisations are members of the group, along with the National Rural Health Commissioner and the Commonwealth Department of Health.
Members participating in the teleconference for the 9 December 2020 were:
- Rural Workforce Agencies Network
- Australian Rural Health Education Network
- Services for Australian Rural and Remote Allied Health
- Indigenous Allied Health Australia
- Royal Flying Doctor Service
- National Rural Health Alliance
- Pharmacy Guild of Australia
- Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine
- Australian Medical Association
- Federation of Rural Australian Medical Educators
- Rural Doctors Association of Australia
- Australian Dental Association
- Royal Australian College of General Practitioners- Rural Faculty
- National Rural Health Commissioner
- Pharmaceutical Society of Australia
- Rural Health Workforce Australia
- Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association
- National Rural Health Student Network
- National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Worker Association
- Allied Health Professions Australia
- Congress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nurses and Midwives