A former chief health official has blasted the federal government's COVID-19 vaccine rollout, calling it an "expensive shambles" and "train wreck" shrouded in secrecy about the use of contractors and consultants.
Ex-Health Department secretary Stephen Duckett said the lack of transparency in the government's spending on private companies to deliver parts of the rollout had contributed to delays vaccinating the population against the coronavirus.
In an opinion article in The Canberra Times, Dr Duckett said the program had deteriorated so much that the government had given up setting meaningful targets.
But he reserved his strongest criticism for the government's reliance on private operators to help deliver vaccines.
"The federal government has paid millions of dollars to private companies to help with the rollout - but exactly who has been paid how much and for what is shrouded in secrecy," Dr Duckett wrote.
"What we do know is that the private contractors haven't been able to prevent the numerous failures - in acquisition of vaccines, distribution to GPs and states, ensuring that priority groups are vaccinated, and maintaining public confidence in the program."
Dr Duckett later said in an interview that the vaccine rollout had been a "complete and utter train wreck on every dimension you could possibly think about".
"The government has obtained advice more or less every step of the way and has also contracted out significant tasks to private enterprise groups," he said.
"Patently there's been a failure and yet there are these groups that are being paid who are associated with that failure, and so there's a lack of transparency and who knows what the consultancy groups were actually being paid for."
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Dr Duckett said secrecy about the contracts had contributed to the vaccine rollout "shambles" by reducing accountability and pressure on the government to perform.
He described the government's contracts for the COVID-19 vaccine rollout as "vague" and said much of the information about the role of contractors and consultants could not even be discovered.
Among the spending under the spotlight were a distribution and logistics contract with DHL Supply Chain and Linfox, data tracking for doses conducted by Accenture, and a contract with Pricewaterhouse Coopers to help the Department of Health deliver the vaccine rollout.
Dr Duckett said other "vague-sounding" contracts signed by the Department of Health with elite consulting firms included a $3 million two-month contract with McKinsey and Company for "information technology consultation services", and a $560,000 contract with Ernst and Young to conduct a vaccine "readiness review".
"We don't know how much the government's lead vaccine rollout consultants, including PwC and Accenture, were paid," he said.
Dr Duckett, who led the Health Department between 1994 and 1996 and is now Health and Aged Care Program Director at the Grattan Institute, said there would be outsourcing hidden from public view and not reported on the government tender website AusTender.
"Further, what information is reported by the government on AusTender - a public depository of information about government-signed contracts - is often so general as to be rendered meaningless," he said.
Dr Duckett said "transparency and accountability has gone out the window" in 2021 despite a resurgence last year in the earlier months of the pandemic.
"It's understandable that the government wants to get help to manage such an enormous project. But the secrecy surrounding these contracts is unacceptable," he said.
"Perhaps the government is embarrassed about how much it has shelled out for so little effect. Or maybe it wants to protect the consultants from the reputational damage they could suffer if we knew more about their role."
A Health Department spokeswoman said the government was using the services of private operators to inform and support the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccination with expert knowledge and skills.
"The department has conducted competitive procurement processes to identify the best options for the provision of services relating to the vaccine rollout," the spokeswoman said.
"Given the scale and complexity of Australia's COVID-19 vaccination program, the department continues to work with and seek expertise from the private sector to inform the rollout, with aspects including program delivery, logistics, administration of vaccines and data support.
"The Australian government is not currently concerned that its engagement with any partner will contribute to any potential future vaccination rollout issue."
The government's growing use of private operators has been the target of criticism as its spend on contractors and consultants has grown by hundreds of millions of dollars since the Coalition's 2013 election victory.
A major review of the public service, released in 2019, warned the government's growing reliance on consultants and contractors had given rise to credible concerns about declining capabilities in the bureaucracy.
Despite this, the federal government has signed up for at least $850 million in spending on the largest consultancy firms since COVID-19 erupted in Australia.
The government has previously said the public service has helped keep Australians safe during the COVID-19 crisis, and delivered increased services, partly by using contractors and consultants for limited time periods and tasks.
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