Home | COVID-19 | Aged care minister embarrassed at senate inquiry, government preparedness questioned
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Aged care minister embarrassed at senate inquiry, government preparedness questioned

Senator Richard Colbeck faced intense questioning at the Senate Select Committee hearing on Australia’s response to COVID-19 on Friday, and was criticised for appearing not to know how many people in aged care have died from COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic.

The committee, made up of a senator from each of the major parties and chaired by Labor senator Katy Gallagher, tried to get to the bottom of whether the government was sufficiently prepared for outbreaks of the coronavirus in residential aged care, which resulted in a number of awkward, tense exchanges involving Senator Colbeck.

Gallagher asked the minister for aged care if he could confirm if the government was the primary funder and regulator of aged care in Australia and therefore responsible for the safety of those residents.

In what seemed like a continuation of the tactic Prime Minister Scott Morrison employed throughout the week; the senator tried his best to avoid answering the question.

“Our responsibility is to provide information to the aged care sector,” he replied. “And to ensure that they have the appropriate systems in place to provide high quality care to senior Australians.”

Gallagher rephrased a few times and asked if it wasn’t his government’s job to keep residents safe. To which the minister replied that it was “every bodies responsibility to prevent the spread of the virus”.

A numbers game

The most damming moment came when Colbeck was asked how many aged care residents have thus far died form COVID-19. The minister couldn’t answer and for the next minute fumbled through documents until a deputy secretary in attendance came up with the figure. He then couldn’t tell the committee how many people have the virus in aged care altogether.

As of 8am on the 20 August, 258 residents have died while there are 1811 active cases involving aged care residents.

“It’s not front of mind for you as the minister for aged care?” Gallagher asked.  

“I’m struggling to believe that you are not aware of these details,” she said.

Worst case scenario

Most of the two-and-a-half-hour session was spent disputing the preparedness for workforce shortages in aged care homes in the instance of large-scale outbreaks.

Colbeck and Gallagher argued over her assertion that the government has gone missing on aged care in Victoria, with Colbeck telling the chair he found the idea offensive.

The situation in Victoria remains “fragile” Colbeck said. The workforce is stretched, but considerable effort is going into helping alleviate this issue.

“There is now,” Gallagher retorted.

Gallagher, as well as Greens Senator Rachel Siewert and ALP senator Murray Watt, asked Colbeck repeatedly why there were workforce shortages in St. Basils aged care home when the senator and his department announced surge workforce plans in April.

The government sent letters to providers telling them that they could expect to lose 80 to 100 per cent of staff in the event of an outbreak, but Colbeck told senators that his department never imagined the scenario at St. Basil’s – where all staff were lost to isolation – and that his plan was for losing care direct care staff only.

Colbeck also told the committee that there was no official strategy to address surge workforce needs in aged care, which provoked an incredulous response from the chair.

“It’s just reactionary,” Gallagher said.

We learned that to date, there have been 1,426 aged care staff who have contracted the virus, with Colbeck telling the senators that four or five times that number would be isolating and therefoee out of the workforce.

No way to stop the virus

The government was accused of a double failure in aged care, first letting the virus in to homes and then allowing them to spread.

Colbeck said that it was his belief that there was no way to stop the virus entering aged care. The only way to do so would be to isolate the sector completely and as long as there is community transmission he said, there would be COVID-19 in aged care.

When asked if the government had looked into how much it might cost to protect aged care residents form the virus, Colbeck replied that he did not believe that was possible.

Anderson sets record straight

Aged Care Quality and Safety Commissioner Janet Anderson used the hearing to set the record straight about misleading information she provided in a previous session.

She had previously stated that she had no knowledge of the outbreak at St. Basil’s outbreak until 14 July, when in fact her commission had been alerted by staff at the home on July 10 that a positive test had been found.

St. Basil’s had previously been accused of keeping authorities in the dark.

“I am now aware that the Commission had received information on 10 July via our telephone assessment contact about a COVID-19 outbreak at the home,” Anderson said.

“Although the Commission is not the first responder in a COVID-19 outbreak, and our understanding at the time was that the public health unit had been contacted, I recognise that we erred in not escalating this information to the Commonwealth Department of Health at the time and we should have done better.”

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  1. Rosemary Oates RN RMN RGerN DNA

    As a very qualified Nurse of over 40 years experience working & managing aged care facilities ranging from 40 beds to over 600, I am extremely frustrated by the constant ‘blame’ being sheeted to Government for the appalling failures of the system in the current pandemic situation.
    1. Where were the operators / owners of the facilities ?????
    2. Where were the Managers of these facilities – why were they not planning, organising, directing & controlling the delivery of care in a safe & infection controlled manner while at the same time, supporting & encouraging the staff ???
    3. Why weren’t the MANAGERS communicating with residents & relatives in a proper & personal manner ?????
    4. Where were the highly experienced & qualified staff who’s responsibility it is to provide the highly complex care required for all these older people in their care ???
    NB: The ‘Government’ can only provide the rules / regulation & compliance requirements. It is then up to the MANAGEMENT to operate the facility on a daily basis & to ENSURE that all care requirements are delivered as required to each individual resident according to the set standards. !!!!!!
    The aged care system has been compromised since changes were made in 1997 which in part, removed the requirement for qualified staff to be employed & creating a so-called “homelike” environment.
    It needs to recognised that older people enter aged care facilities these days due to the fact that they required highly complex care & services!!!!
    This then, requires highly qualified & experienced staff who are able to deliver ongoing training & supervision on a daily basis to ensure care needs are met for each individual resident.
    It is NOW time to set proper staffing ratios & qualifications required, to ensure care is appropriately delivered. This may also include offering English language skills !!!!!

  2. Shirley Fletcher

    Thank you so much, I was starting to feel very much alone with the same thoughts and opinions as you have so succinctly expressed. I too have a similar background in aged care and despair for the current and future aged care environment for both residents and staff.
    I agree that facility managers seem to be conspicuous by their absence. Is this due in part, to the trend for DON’s to be replaced by RN’s with no management experience or even non clinical managers? Maybe the old days had merit where a DON knew about everything that was happening on the floor and actually interacted with residents, family and staff.
    And maybe if we stopped pretending that aged care residents don’t need high level nursing care, the standard of training and expertise might be raised to meet the need.
    Nurses, thank you, keep up the good work. Please don’t let your voice or your skills be taken away just because of where you work.

  3. Rosemary Oates RN RMN RGerN DNA

    Thanks Shirley for your support…….I can feel a letter coming on to the PM re this issue !!!!

    Somehow we need to make those in government listen & understand what those of us who have made aged care such a wonderful career path for so long know that…..all the money in the world can be directed to aged care but, if it is not spent appropriately, then the effect will be NIL or worse !!!.

    Operators & Managers need to understand that properly trained / qualified staff employed will make for excellence in resident care & ALL Standards will be MET, ALL of the time at a consistently high level – as used to be the situation !!!

    Professional staff would maintain ‘ownership’ & pride in the facility in which they worked and together with good rostering, would provide stability in the workforce which in turn, would eliminate staff need to work across different facilities which, promotes harmful disloyalty & inconsistency. The current casualisation of the workforce is counterproductive & damaging in so many ways.

    The very urgent need NOW if for:
    1. Clearly stated ratios of care staff required to deliver resident care per 24 hr. day.
    2. Clearly stated hours required for activities / allied health staff .
    3. Clearly stated hours of Domestic / Catering / Gardening / Maintenance staff.
    4. Staffing stability / consistency – has been demonstrated to actually SAVE money rather than paying out so much in casual rates as well as promoting staff care & respect for each other.

    This then, multiplied by the $ value for each category would provide a very workable budget process for the facility management as well as for the Government – as was the case prior to 1997 !!!!!

    It seems sadly, that common sense is not so common these days !!!!!