What is the National Medical Stockpile?

Dr Nick Coatsworth, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, talks about the National Medical Stockpile.


Hi, I’m Dr Nick Coatsworth, Deputy Chief Medical Officer at the Australian Government Department of Health.

And welcome to the National Incident Room in Canberra, the nerve centre of the Australian Government’s response to COVID-19.

It’s always important to plan for the unexpected. And in the event of a large scale emergency or disaster, we need to be prepared by having on hand the right medicines and medical equipment so that frontline health services, such as hospitals, can ensure Australians get the health and medical care they need – and get it quickly.

Bushfires, floods, extreme weather and cyclones – and, of course, global pandemics like COVID-19 that we’re dealing with right now – are just some of the challenges we face in Australia.

A very important way that the Australian Government prepares for unexpected events like these, is the National Medical Stockpile.

Today I want to talk to you about the Stockpile – what it is, what it isn’t, why it exists, and the important role it plays.

The National Medical Stockpile is a reserve of essential drugs, vaccines, antidotes and personal protective equipment. The Stockpile was initially created to address the threat of terrorism. Nowadays, it is part of our strategy for managing major national emergencies.

The Stockpile isn’t just about COVID-19. It’s there for all national emergencies.

In 2009, it was used to deploy medical supplies to public hospitals and flu clinics across Australia during the H1N1 pandemic.

Earlier this year, it released masks to protect Australians affected by smoke from the bushfires, which was the first time the Stockpile had been used for a natural disaster.

But the Stockpile is not a general national supply line – an open cupboard, so to speak. 

In times of national emergency, the Stockpile’s role is to ensure there are enough of the right medicines and equipment to provide essential health and medical services.

The Australian Government purchases and stockpiles these items so that Australia can be more self-sufficient during an emergency and be able to meet new or increased levels of demand.

Some of the highly specialised drugs and equipment in the Stockpile may be difficult to get through normal channels in a national emergency.

The Stockpile is part of the nation’s security. Its supplies are kept in strategic locations around Australia – which helps with quick deployment when needed. It is regularly reviewed and maintained so that we can be as ready as possible. And details about the content of the Stockpile – what’s actually in it at any given time – are not released publicly for security reasons.

The Commonwealth manages the Stockpile during a national emergency. It works with state and territory health authorities and receives advice from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, the expert body comprising all state and territory Chief Health Officers and chaired by Australia’s Chief Medical Officer.

There will always be pressures around Stockpile access and supply. The Department of Health can release supplies from the Stockpile at the request of state and territory government, and is responsible for maintaining the Stockpile on an ongoing basis.

Some other Commonwealth Departments such as Defence, Home Affairs and Foreign Affairs and Trade can access items from the Stockpile if required in an emergency, for example to assist overseas posts.

And while we don’t reveal the actual amounts in the Stockpile, during this pandemic we have been able to keep everyone fully informed about the quantity of personal protective equipment coming into and going out of the Stockpile.

Every national emergency, whether it’s bushfires or a pandemic, teaches us something new about how we as a nation can respond. And certainly the lessons learned from COVID-19 will feed into the ongoing decisions around the type of items, and their quantity, that we keep in the National Medical Stockpile.

You can be assured that Australia is well prepared for these events now, and into the future – and that the Stockpile will continue to play a critical role in supporting frontline health services in our nation’s response.

Thanks for watching.

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In this video, Dr Nick Coatsworth explains what the National Medical Stockpile is, what it does, and why it is important.

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