There are calls to make the process around access to the national medical stockpile more transparent as Australia prepares to face another increase in the number of coronavirus cases.
As the coronavirus pandemic first hit, hospitals, doctors, aged care centres, disability organisations and many others around the world rushed to buy personal protective equipment to protect staff and patients against the highly-contagious disease, causing huge increases in the price of items.
Uniting NSW and ACT, the non-profit that runs 73 aged care facilities across NSW and the ACT, paid $4.6 million for personal protective equipment at the start of the pandemic, preparing for possible outbreaks at its centres. Surgical masks cost five times their normal prices and some items like gowns are still in short supply.
The organisation has told a Senate committee inquiring into Australia's response to the pandemic that communication and transparency around the national medical stockpile needs to be improved so operators know what they are entitled to and under what circumstances.
At the start of the pandemic, Uniting's head of procurement Chris Heptinstall said emails to the national stockpile address went unanswered for two to three weeks, and the eventual reply that came was a template that didn't give him confidence.
"There was this smoke screen about what was available, it was hard to ascertain what we could get, in what circumstances we could get it, how much we could get, whether we had to pay for it," Mr Hepinstall said.
A meeting with the department also shed little light on the situation.
"It was really a very opaque process dealing with the national stockpile."
Demand on the stockpile could increase again after Melbourne residents were advised to wear masks in public where social distancing isn't possible, and some hospitals increased requirements on staff to wear masks. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said on Friday he expected the state government wouldn't need to call on the stockpile.
There is a wide range of workers who need to use protective equipment, including general practitioners. Royal Australian College of General Practitioners president Harry Nespolon said the government had listened to a request from GPs to provide equipment from the stockpile.
"GPs need to request access to PPE from the national medical stockpile through their local Primary Health Network (PHNs). They can also look to purchase it from businesses in the private market," Dr Nespolon said.
Dr Nespolon said protective equipment was more than just masks. While GPs are able to go directly to primary health networks, it is still not always clear how much is on hand in different parts of the country.
"We know some GPs are still finding it difficult to buy PPE through their normal channels and prices in the private market have increased - this extra financial burden is the last thing GPs need right now," he said.
A spokeswoman for the federal health department said there are more than half a billion surgical masks and approximately 166 million P2/N95 masks scheduled for delivery to the stockpile throughout the rest of the year, and more than 49 million masks have already been dispatched to primary health networks, pharmacies and Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations (ACCHOs). Hundreds of millions of masks have been added to the stockpile since March.
"The department is providing masks through the stockpile based on clinical advice to health care workers who are most at risk, in the context of continuing global shortages," the spokeswoman said.
"The Department is continuing to engage aged care and disability providers around masks. More than half a billion masks have been secured by the Department of Health to ensure continued supply over the coming months. The rapid procurement of additional masks, along with local production later this year, will support improved supply and enable current arrangements to be reviewed."
The spokeswoman said extensive communication about the stockpile had been undertaken to ensure organisations were aware of processes to access the stockpile.