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Exclusive: Colbeck discusses aged care in a time of pandemic

The Minister for Aged Care and Senior Australians is one of the tougher jobs going in Australian politics.

The present incumbent, Tasmanian Senator Richard Colbeck, got the job after the last federal election and bang in the middle of an aged care royal commission, whose commissioners have described the business at the heart of the minister’s new portfolio as “cruel and harmful”.

And now the sector faces a once in a generation pandemic, during which 16 people all over age 70 have died, and outbreaks have happened in several aged care home across the country.

This has led to tough new restrictions on who can come and go from aged care homes, with government limiting residents to two visitors a day for limited time periods and no outside entertainment allowed to enter.

These restrictions may become tighter still as the virus spreads and government advice changes, leading some advocates to worry about the rights of older Australians.

Peak bodies such as COTA are worried that providers are using the restrictions as an “excuse for unacceptable restraint on the rights of residents”, and others are worried that the worst abuses uncovered by the royal commission will now go on unchecked.

Minister Colbeck tells Aged Care Insite: “The advice from the HPPC was to put the measures in place. It’s caused some dislocation in some areas. It’s caused some concern in others. And the way that it’s managed is just as important and I’ve had that conversation with the sector and with the aged care quality and safety commissioner.

“The quality standards don’t go away because of the current circumstances around COVID-19, so we still expect that providers across Australia continue to comply with the quality standards. The quality standards take into account quite significantly the needs of the residents. The new quality standard is very much a resident-focused approach.”

Of the outbreaks at facilities in Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales, Colbeck says that these homes have immediate engagement from the state health authority which continues through the outbreak. He says that every aged care provider in Australia had been contacted by the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commissioner as part of its promised COVID-19 audits of poor performers.

As for the workforce, Colbeck says the government is constantly working on strategies for a scenario where a portion of aged care staff fall ill or even walk off the job, as was the case at the Dorothy Henderson Lodge facility.

“We’ve been working to ensure that there is an available surge workforce in the circumstance where we do get an outbreak within a facility, particularly if it has a direct impact on staffing,” he says.

“We announced last week a retention bonus for frontline staff who were working care workers and nurses in the facilities, so that we’d give them an incentive to continue to come to work. It’s extremely important that they do.

“Our capacity to look after senior Australians is dependent on those staff. And we continue to work with the facilities and other groups around ensuring there’s the capacity within the system.”

Colbeck says that the government is striving to make sure providers and staff have adequate PPE to feel safe and to carry out their work. And, as flu season approaches, he is also aiming to have flu vaccinations available to the aged care sector earlier than usual this year.

He says his department also has strategies in place for home care providers should any home care recipients contract COVID-19 or need to be in isolation, and these providers and their staff will have access to the PPE stockpile should the need arise.

The federal government has been accused at times of dragging its feet and sending mixed messages to the public during this pandemic, and it has also copped criticism from within the medical community.

An open letter, supported by the ANMF, has urged the government to lock down all non-essential services in Australia and has called on the government to better prepare and support frontline workers.

“We need more time and resources at the front line. Preparations remain incomplete. These include obtaining adequate supplies of PPE, training to use it properly and environmental changes to minimise the risk to staff from COVID-19,” the letter reads.

Colbeck remains unmoved and believes the government is currently acting on the best advice available.

“I’ll take the advice of the medical experts that are advising government through the HPPC. I think that’s the appropriate thing to do,” he says.

“I don’t think it’s helpful that we have other organisations who are creating levels of uncertainty in the community by making demands that don’t line up with what the medical experts who are providing advice to the government is.

“So I’ll continue to take the advice of the HPPC via the group of experts with a team of people behind them to provide the appropriate advice to government.”

On Thursday, part two of Aged Care Insite’s interview with Minister Richard Colbeck covers ACAT, the royal commission and how we can fund the system going into the future.

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