Mass cancellation of children’s vaccinations in NSW blamed on ‘technical glitch’

A “technical glitch” has forced the mass cancellation of children’s vaccinations at two vaccine hubs in New South Wales, prompting an apology from the state government, while commonwealth delays of Pfizer doses to general practitioners have caused chaos at a number of clinics.

The rollout of the vaccine to children aged five to 11 is due to start on Monday but is facing early problems including low dose allocations for vaccine providers, a reduced health workforce due to Covid cases, booking problems, and delivery issues.

Guardian Australia can reveal that two vaccination hubs in Sydney – at Mona Vale and Royal North Shore hospitals – were erroneously listed for weeks on NSW’s vaccine booking website as being available for appointments for children’s vaccinations. Mona Vale was listed on the government’s website as “Mona Vale Hospital Vaccination Hub KIDS Pfizer” and allowed users to book appointments for “First” and “Second Dose of Paediatric Pfizer”.

Parents booked in their children at the two hubs as far back as December but were contacted this week and told their appointments had been cancelled. The hubs, they were told, were not actually vaccinating children.

That forced families into a scramble to secure a booking prior to the return to school – a difficult prospect given the heightened demand and short time window.

In a statement to the Guardian on Friday, NSW Health apologised for the error, which had been fixed.

“Any family who booked at either clinic is being offered a priority appointment at Hornsby, as close to their child’s original booking date and time as possible,” a spokesperson said.

“NSW Health apologises sincerely for any inconvenience and encourages parents to please book their children in for a vaccination as soon as possible.”

The state government encouraged families affected by the error to book at Hornsby hospital, which had “ample supply” of the Pfizer paediatric vaccine.

One of those affected was Prof Alexandra Martiniuk, an epidemiologist at the University of Sydney, who booked in two of her children at Mona Vale at the earliest opportunity last month.

“We are in a chaotic state, we all know that, with Omicron, on so many fronts, and this is one more front,” she said. “But the thing is we knew child vaccinations were coming – we’ve known it for months.”

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Meanwhile, general practitioners are facing their own last-minute difficulties ahead of the rollout’s commencement on Monday.

Deliveries that were scheduled to arrive this week have been delayed for some clinics until sometime next week. That has forced clinics to cancel bookings made for the first days of the rollout.

Dr Elysia Thornton-Benko, a GP with Bondi Road Doctors, said her clinic received an email from the federal government’s vaccine operations centre on 23 December, advising that the first shipments would be delayed until sometime next week due to “unprecedented demand”.

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She said that had forced the clinic to cancel bookings made in the expectation shipments would arrive on time.

“It’s really hard when you’ve already made bookings. Our practice and multiple other practices received that email on 23 December, so they were scrambling around, moving bookings on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, trying to sort things out, not actually knowing when the shipment was going to arrive,” Thornton-Benko said.

Its affiliate practice, East Sydney Doctors in Darlinghurst, received the same message and had to cancel appointments.

“Parents are frustrated, because they’re wondering why they’ve been told it starts on the 10th, and then they don’t understand why they have to be cancelled and moved around,” Thornton-Benko said. “They’re concerned because the return to school is looming.”

The Sydney Morning Herald also reported that The Children’s Doctor at Castle Hill and Doctors on Darling in Balmain received the same email delaying their shipments.

The Guardian asked the federal health minister, Greg Hunt, about the issue on Thursday. In response, a spokesperson slammed the media for attempting to publish “unverified claims” about delivery delays and denied any such problems existed.

“Operation Covid Shield advises all orders are on track to be delivered as scheduled and advised to providers,” a spokesperson said.

The email from the commonwealth’s vaccine operations centre told clinics: “Due to unprecedented demand for the new paediatric formulation of Pfizer and orders to support booster doses, your delivery will arrive early in the week commencing 10 January.”

Hunt’s office was approached for additional comment.

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