Home | Top Stories | ‘This is a time for pulling out all the stops’: WHO urges COVID-19 action, unions call for more support for frontline staff
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‘This is a time for pulling out all the stops’: WHO urges COVID-19 action, unions call for more support for frontline staff

In the wake of a coronavirus outbreak at a Sydney aged care facility, with two staff confirmed to have contracted COVID-19, along with two residents – both of whom have died – health service unions are calling on the government to better support frontline workers to tackle the virus.

The BaptistCare-owned Dorothy Henderson Lodge in Macquarie Park, Sydney, confirmed on Wednesday that a 50-year-old aged care worker contracted the virus and, since then, a 95-year-old woman has died and an 80-year-old man has been diagnosed with the virus. The fourth case is another staff member while 13 other residents have been quarantined and the facility put on lockdown.

It was reported that staff members at the facility collectively walked off the job after news of the outbreak spread, calling into question the communication between management and staff as well as our national preparedness to deal with the virus.

Gerard Hayes, secretary of the NSW branch of the Health Services Union, said that staff anxiety was understandable and urged the government to increase funding for extra staff and better pay during the crisis.

“Staff at BaptistCare were understandably anxious about returning to the facility. Some, for example, have immunocompromised relatives and we completely understand their anxiety. The quality of communication could certainly improve,” he said.

“The industry as a whole is really going to struggle with Coronavirus. The cost of protective equipment alone will increase tenfold. And any facility that goes into a 14-day lockdown will need to double staff.

“The federal government should therefore direct a significant chunk of the forthcoming stimulus to aged care to prepared for this pandemic and boost the income of workers. This makes excellent public health sense but also excellent economic sense. Aged care workers are modestly paid and any increase to their income will quickly recirculate in the broader economy.”

Meanwhile, the United Workers union called on the government and employers to better support frontline workers and accused the federal government of shirking their responsibility to workers thus far. The union called on the government to prioritise safe working conditions and make sure workers do not lose pay if affected by the virus.

Union director Carolyn Smith said: “Already we have seen employers and the Federal Government try to shirk their role in supporting our workers through these challenging times.

“Any Federal Government assistance package must be targeted to supporting workers, including casual and low paid.

“Instead Scott Morrison and the Federal Coalition is focused on helping big business get out of paying sick leave. Airport workers have had to fight for PPE and had their shifts cut, while cleaners have been asked to clean the Diamond Princess cruise ship without any safety information.

“We want to reassure our members that ensuring they are safe and fairly paid is our top priority.”

The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation’s assistant federal secretary, Lori-Ann Sharp told Aged Care Insite that her union has been campaigning for more staff in aged care, including nurses on staff at all times, for years and the lack of any legislation enforcing this may be an issue as we face a potential pandemic.

“We’re asking aged care providers to make sure that they communicate with their staff and we know that a lot of personal care workers come from diverse backgrounds – CALD communities – so we would expect that the communication is frequent, accessible and clear,” Sharp said.

“And also that these adequate contingency plans in place for not only enough supplies and equipment to prevent the outbreak, but personal protective equipment and sufficiently, properly skilled and trained staff, which is immense in effective infection control measures.

“We are concerned because we know and you know the Royal Commission has highlighted even further that nursing homes are chronically understaffed.”

Sharp was worried that the government’s reaction to the virus could be too little, too late.

“Well, we could say it’s decades late without the coronavirus but things are evolving pretty quickly,” she said.

“We had been saying for many decades now that nursing homes are insufficiently staffed and don’t have the appropriate experience of staff, which means that it’s going to be much more difficult to be able to respond to these pandemic if it takes over nursing homes.”

Canberra forum devises plan of attack

More than 70 representatives attended a forum in Canberra on Friday to discuss the virus, including providers, peak bodies, workforce, consumers, state and territory governments and professional bodies.

Minister for Aged Care and Senior Australians Richard Colbeck told those assembled that ensuring aged care providers across Australia are ready to implement infection control plans as safeguards to stop the spread of coronavirus was a top priority.

“The advice for the aged care sector is the same advice to the general community,” Minister Colbeck said.

“Australians should practice good hygiene and go about their lives as they normally would.”

Colbeck, addressing the staff walk-out at Dorothy Henderson Lodge, said: “There is no reason for staff at aged care centres to avoid going to work unless they are showing symptoms, have been in contact with somebody showing symptoms or have been specifically ordered to isolate.”

Government restrictions for staff who have travelled from mainland China, Iran and the Republic of Korea also remain in place. Anybody returning from mainland China or Iran should isolate for 14 days.

“Good hygiene is critical in our aged care sector and an important defence against this virus,” Colbeck said.

“All aged care providers have been contacted with information to pass on to their staff, residents and their families.”

Rallying cry

In a media conference on 5 March the World Health Organization director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged countries around the world not to give up the fight to control the epidemic.

“This epidemic can be pushed back, but only with a collective, coordinated and comprehensive approach that engages the entire machinery of government,” he said.

“We are calling on every country to act with speed, scale and clear-minded determination. 

“This is not a drill. This is not the time to give up. This is not a time for excuses. 

“This is a time for pulling out all the stops,” he said.

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