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Australia’s Covid vaccination relying on opaque private contracts worth millions

Ben Butler and Christopher Knaus
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP</span>
Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP

The Australian government is funnelling millions of dollars to private contractors for its beleaguered Covid vaccine rollout using opaque deals – some of which are hidden from the public and ignore transparency standards.

The government is relying heavily on contractors to aid its vaccine rollout, including multinational consultants PwC and Accenture, logistics companies DHL and Linfox, and healthcare contractors Healthcare Australia, International SOS, Sonic Clinical Services and Aspen.

But the health department has repeatedly refused to tell the Guardian how much each of the companies is being paid. It has also failed to publish any information about the key rollout contracts on the AusTender website, which is the public’s only window into government procurement.

It is also not clear whether PwC, which in December was touted by the federal health minister, Greg Hunt, as “the Department of Health’s program delivery partner for the vaccine rollout”, is still working for the government. The company declined to comment and the health department did not answer Guardian Australia’s questions about whether any contracts had been cancelled or terminated early.

Related: Scott Morrison spun a Covid vaccine story the public believed – and then it fell apart | Paul Karp

Other contracts relating to the program have been published on AusTender, including a deal with McKinsey to provide “Support Services – Vaccine Rollout” that on 1 April was extended by a month and almost doubled in size from $1.65m to $3m.

However, both McKinsey and the health department have refused to provide details of what the consultancy is doing for the money. A similar silence has descended over a $557,000 contract with global accounting group Ernst & Young that began in November last year and is described as being for a “2020 Influenza Evaluation and Covid Vaccine System Readiness Review”.

While McKinsey’s contract is categorised as being for “information technology consultation services”, market sources have told Guardian Australia that crucial bridges between the systems used by government and GPs that are needed to book and track vaccinations have in fact been built by Accenture.

The Medical Software Industry Association, which has a $330,000 contract, has also helped with IT by coordinating medical software providers so that they can interface with the system, chief executive Emma Hossack told Guardian Australia.

However, PwC’s function remains unclear. It was originally supposed to oversee “the operation, and coordinate activities of several actors working on specific functional areas, including – for instance – logistics partners DHL and Linfox”, according to an article published in January by specialist news website consultancy.com.au.

Behind the scenes, some of the companies blamed each other for delays in the program, with providers blaming transport companies for delays while transport groups say the problem is a lack of vaccine supply.

The Morrison government is facing sustained pressure over the botched program.It has repeatedly said supply issues are to blame.

Related: ‘Public trust is vital’: what should happen next in Australia’s vaccine rollout | Bruce Thompson, Jennifer Doggett, Hassan Vally, Meru Sheel

But the use of private contractors and the lack of transparency from government is obstructing attempts at accountability over other elements of the program, including logistics, planning and communication failures.

Questions about the rollout are referred to the health department by the contractors but the department claims information is commercial-in-confidence when asked about its contracts.

The government initially promised 4m Australians would be vaccinated by the end of March but missed that target by about 3.4m people.

Problem areas include the aged care rollout, which was designed to immunise vulnerable elderly Australians before winter but is well behind schedule.

Logistic companies Linfox and DHL are responsible for delivering the doses to aged care facilities, while the private health contractors are responsible for providing the immunisation workforce that delivers the jabs to aged care residents.

Multiple reports have emerged of either the vaccines not showing up on the scheduled delivery day, leaving immunisation teams stranded, or of immunisation workers not appearing on the scheduled delivery day.

The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Foundation, which represents aged care nurses, said it had repeatedly questioned the government on how the immunisation workforce would be delivered.

“They were very clear that the federal government would be solely responsible for the aged care rollout,” federal secretary Annie Butler told the Guardian. “The first thing they do is subcontract the companies. They make them responsible and put themselves at arm’s-length, yet again.

“The number of layers of confusion – we’ve had reports of the in-reach teams turning up and the vaccine’s not there. Or the vaccine turns up and the in-reach teams are not there.”

A health department spokesperson did not answer Guardian Australia’s detailed questions about its Covid-19 vaccination contracts, including how long they ran, who they were with and how much they were worth.

“The department has conducted competitive procurement processes to identify the best value for money options for the provision of services relating to the vaccine rollout,” the spokesperson said.

“A number of companies have been engaged by the Department of Health to provide services assisting in the national rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine and have been engaged to deliver on activities as required for a period or periods of time as determined by the department.

“The value and details of associated contracts may be commercial in confidence.”

The spokesperson claimed the rollout, which is well behind its previously promised schedule, was “progressing as planned and is progressively scaling up in accordance with the plan set out on 14 March”.

All the companies with contracts mentioned in this story were contacted for comment.