On January 25, the companies running Canberra's disability care homes received a request from the federal government.
It was marked "urgent".
The Commonwealth's NDIS Quality and Safety Commission told providers they had a week to report back with information about their homes and the residents and staff who lived and worked in them, to help it plan for the looming rollout of the coronavirus vaccine.
The short window to respond left providers with the impression that vaccination dates would soon be marked in the calendar.
Disability care residents and staff were placed at the front of the vaccine queue, judged alongside aged care residents and staff, frontline health and hotel quarantine workers as the cohort most vulnerable and therefore in most immediate need of inoculation.
But three months after that first "urgent" alert was issued, and more than eight weeks since the first dose of Pfizer vaccine was injected into the arm of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a tiny fraction of the country's 25,000 disability care residents have received a shot.
If the rollout for the wider population has been considered slow, the pace of vaccination at Australia's 6000 disability care homes can best be described as glacial.
Revelations earlier this month exposing just how far the program had veered off track sparked an outpouring of anger in the disability community, who were left feeling, not for the first time in the pandemic, that they had been overlooked.
Senior health department officials have now conceded they underestimated the challenge.
Nicolas Lawler, the chief executive of Canberra-based disability group Advocacy for Inclusion, had a blunt message for the Morrison government.
"The federal government needs to stop disregarding people with disability and pushing us to the back of the line," he said.
'Much slower than we would have liked'
The pace of vaccinations at disability care homes was slow from the start.
Minutes from a March 4 meeting of the government's COVID-19 disability advisory panel showe just 94 injections at eight homes were administered in the first 11 days of the program - a rate of fewer than 10 a day.
As the end of March neared, the date Mr Morrison had penciled in to vaccinate the entire 1a cohort, some disability providers in Canberra hadn't even been contacted about vaccination appointments - let alone received injections.
The government planned three vaccination trials at homes in Canberra, but only one has started. The other two were abruptly cancelled, for reasons the government says were out of its control.
Because the government has only published a combined figure on vaccinations at disability and aged care homes in their daily update, the real progress was unknown.
That was until Health Department secretary Brendan Murphy and associate secretary Caroline Edwards fronted the Senate's COVID-19 committee inside Parliament House about 2.30pm on April 20.
Under questioning from Labor's committee chair Katy Gallagher, Ms Edwards conceded there had been a "much slower start than we would have liked" in disability care homes.
She admitted just 1640 of 25,000 residents - roughly 6.5 per cent - had received a shot. Injections had been administered at just 93 of 6000 homes.
The numbers were startlingly low, but it was the explanation for why the pace had been so slow which so alarmed and infuriated the disability sector.
Prof Murphy and Ms Edwards admitted as vaccine supply problems plagued the start of the rollout, a decision was made to "pivot" the program to prioritise aged care homes over disability care residents and staff, due to a perceived higher risk.
As Prof Murphy noted, residential aged care had been hardest hit by the pandemic, with 75 per cent of Australia's 910 coronavirus-related deaths linked to that setting.
New advice about the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine for under-50s - which would soon prompt an overhaul of Australia's entire vaccine strategy - caused the government to "pause and rethink" the rollout in disability care, Ms Edwards said.
On radio the morning after the Senate committee hearing, Health Minister Greg Hunt contradicted his officials when he insisted it had always planned to vaccinate the groups in "stages".
Whether it was secretly planned from the outset or occurred after the first jabs were administered, the salient fact remained: the federal government had decided aged care was a higher priority than disability care.
That wasn't what the disability community and general public had been led to believe. The government's vaccine strategy - as with its daily updates - has never made a distinction between the two cohorts.
There wasn't supposed to be a hierarchy of vulnerability within the hierarchy of vulnerability.
Echoes of past failure
Ross Joyce, the chief executive of peak advocacy group Australian Federation of Disability Organisations, conveyed the sector's fury in a strongly worded letter to Mr Hunt on April 26.
Mr Joyce noted in multiple meetings with federal health officials, not once did they mention aged care would be prioritised.
"All vulnerable or at-risk groups included in 1a quite rightly expected that they should have been receiving vaccinations distributed on a prioritised equitable basis," he said in a letter seen by The Canberra Times.
For Mr Joyce, and many others in the disability community, the troubled vaccine rollout had echoes of the early stages of the pandemic in Australia.
As the Disability Royal Commission concluded in a report published in November, the government failed in those first weeks to consult or develop a plan to address the specific needs of people with disabilities. That led to, among other things, people experiencing "extreme stress and anxiety" about catching the virus because support staff couldn't access personal protective equipment.
In his letter to Mr Hunt, Mr Joyce referenced the commission's report to highlight the harm caused by a lack of clear and consistent information.
"[It causes] significant distress, particularly among people with a cognitive disability, due to the lack of clear and consistent information about the pandemic and the measures taken to control it," the letter read.
"[There are] threats to mental health due to a belief by some people with disability, including those in disability accommodation settings that they had been forgotten and ignored, which was exacerbated by enforced isolation from family, friends and social networks and the absence of strategies to ameliorate the consequences of isolation."
Mr Lawler saidit was "deeply concerning" the next phase of the rollout had started before the most vulnerable cohorts had been fully inoculated.
"It shows a complete lack of regard for all those individuals with disability left behind and ignored in phase 1a," he said.
ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said she had spoken directly to Mr Hunt a number of times about the lack of information available to disability care residents and providers. Territory officials had also repeatedly raised concerns about the pace of vaccine rollout with their federal counterparts, she said.
A complex task
On April 23 - two days after Prof Murphy and Ms Edwards fronted the committee - providers received another alert from the federal government.
The message informed them the government had deployed Canberra-based Aspen Medical to "ramp up" vaccinations in disability care homes from early May, starting in the ACT and NT before expanding to other states.
A week on from that announcement, providers were still yet to hear concrete plans, causing concern this might yet prove another false dawn. The alert also made clear if providers hadn't supplied information about their residents before the end of the day, they would need to arrange "alternative vaccination options".
Although the government insists disability care homes are a priority, it cannot say exactly when all of the 25,000 residents who want a jab will receive one. The "middle of year" is the only target it is willing to set.
As of April 23, 10 disability homes in Canberra had received vaccinations.
Fronting Gallagher's committee again on Tuesday, Ms Edwards admitted the "complexity" of the vaccine program "was unknown or at least underestimated" by the department. One of the challenges had been obtaining consent from residents, which required dealing with their guardians.
It is important to note not all residents and staff have been clamouring to receive the jab, particularly after reports emerged of very rare cases of blood clotting linked to the AstraZeneca vaccine.
One provider told The Canberra Times some residents, particularly those with psychosocial disabilities, had been sceptical about the vaccine and were comfortable waiting a few more months.
A recent survey of 350 disability support workers showed only 50 per cent wanted to receive the vaccine as soon as possible, while almost one in five didn't want the jab at all. The high levels of vaccine hesitancy, concerns about safety, and the lack of trust in the government suggested that significant work needs to be done to build trust, the researchers said.
'It warrants an investigation'
The Morrison government last week responded to the Disability Royal Commission's November report, agreeing to 21 of the 22 recommendations to improve how it consults and supports the disability community through the pandemic.
But it pointed out in its response the government had already acted quickly to deal with many of the issues.
"We acknowledge the importance of involving people with disability and their representative organisations in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and other emergencies and are committed to even closer engagement in the future, as the need arises," Social Services Minister Anne Ruston said.
If lessons have indeed been learnt, the disability community have struggled to see the evidence in the government's handling of the vaccine rollout.
The mounting concern last week prompted the Disability Royal Commission's chair, Ronald Sackville, to announce a special hearing on May 17 to examine the troubled rollout.
In an interview with The Canberra Times, Mr Sackville said disability organisations had raised a number of issues in recent meetings with him, including rollout delays and the "confusion and uncertainty" caused by the lack of clear information.
"What was communicated to us was a sense of frustration," he said.
"Enough has happened since February [when rollout started] to warrant an investigation."
Our journalists work hard to provide local, up-to-date news to the community. This is how you can continue to access our trusted content: