Across greater Sydney elderly nursing home residents brace themselves for the prospect of an open-ended lockdown, as aged care workers scramble to acquire their first vaccine dose to meet the upcoming September deadline.
NSW is now facing its most severe COVID-19 crisis to date, with over one hundred new infections reported over the weekend. Around a dozen aged care facilities are in Sydney’s south-west, an area which has seen multiple case clusters rise over the past few days.
On Monday, industry leaders will meet with health minister Greg Hunt and lieutenant general John Frewen to negotiate the terms of an urgent national vaccine rollout for staff.
The meeting comes amid last weeks' joint statement released by the major workers unions and aged care providers calling for swift action.
“I don’t think failure is an option here,” said Leading Aged Services Australia chief executive Sean Rooney, who is expected to be in attendance.
“We saw what happened sadly in aged care homes last year in Victoria. And nobody wants that to be experienced by any family, by any worker, by any service again.”
Later this month will mark the one-year anniversary of the deadly outbreak which caused the deaths of 45 residents living in St Basil’s in northern Melbourne. Recent supreme court hearings have since aired allegations of severe neglect and outdated infection protocol in the facility.
Now, as a third of all aged care workers remain unvaccinated, families, workers and employers have grown increasingly frustrated after waiting over six months to be prioritised for the jab. The "ticking clock" looming over staff waiting to access their vaccine in time for next month has further bred confusion and worry, according to Rooney.
“It’s been very challenging for them," he said.
“There is a high level of willingness that’s reported to me from workers wanting to get the vaccine. But they just can’t get it.
“They’ve had to either pick up the leftover vaccines from residents who have been vaccinated or find their own way in a system that has been constrained.”
Aged care workers will have until September 17th to be vaccinated or will risk losing their jobs, a move which is expected to trigger increased staff shortages in facilities across the country.
Many are calling for the government to take control over the situation to ensure that care for elderly residents is not further compromised by the mandates. Ensuring that staff have easy access to the vaccine will help mitigate safety risks, according to Rooney.
“Workers need to be enabled and supported.”
“They need to be given confidence that this will be made available to them so they actually can get vaccinated and feel that they are being congratulated and commended for that.
“Rather than what many of them have been feeling over the last week, that they are being blamed for not being vaccinated,” he added.
Aged care providers will present the five principles they have drafted to ensure a quick and effective rollout in the private meeting with the health minister today, which were outlined in last week's statement.
Dedicated workplace vaccine hubs, fast-tracked lanes for workers in state run clinics and two-days of paid vaccination leave per dose are the key points on the table.
Rooney said he is hopeful the government will heed providers’ warnings, considering the “genuine commitment” it has shown to genuine changes in the aftermath of the royal commission.
“It’s all there," he said of the new aged care act, the proposed council of elders, and the revisions of standards for quality and care – most of which have only been talked about at this stage.
“The funding is not there to deal with all the pain points that providers are feeling.
“There has been some relief but there is still more to go.”
Pressure to ramp up the vaccine rollout has accelerated efforts to drive wider systemic reforms in preparation for next year’s federal election.
Earlier this year, a coalition of non-profit, private and church-led aged care organisations known as the Australian Aged Care Collaboration launched a political campaign targeting 15 marginal federal electorates.
The ACCC’s strategy to lobby MPs, particularly those sitting in seats with older populations, is set to charge forward into the foreseeable future.
“We felt that we were successful in bringing the profile of aged care issues to the parliamentarians,” Rooney, who is a spokesperson for the ACCC, said of the ongoing campaign.
“We will be out there with our members taking those issues to the people seeking election in those specific electorates,” he said.
Australia’s "chequered history" of aged care reform will mean the details of the five-pillar reforms will need to be carefully worked through by all parties involved. Since the 90’s, over a dozen inquires and reviews of the system have gone underway, none of which have led to fundamental changes.
“We need to do things together,” said Rooney.
“We’re doing things with all stakeholders as opposed to just two stakeholders.
“We’ve been talking a lot about what needs to change; let’s focus on actually getting on with the job.”
This coming Thursday, the health minister alongside the Aged Care and Quality Commissioner, Janet Anderson, will front a stacked panel of aged care providers, consumers and experts to map out future plans to transform the sector.
Roadmap to Reform will clarify what changes will be made to the sector and when, according to Rooney.
“At the end of the day, what we want for older Australians is to be confident and have an aged care system that is designed to meet their needs.
“We want them to be high performing, and sustainable. That’s what will underpin a transformed aged care system.
“So, let’s start that conversation.“
Anyone wishing to attend the Roadmap To Reform forum this Thursday July 15th can register online here.
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