COMMENT: Almost 700 deaths. Zero heads have rolled. Why?
Under Richard Colbeck’s watch almost 700 aged care residents have died of Covid-19. That’s three-quarters of all Australian deaths from the disease. If this doesn’t call for a ministerial sacking, Dr Sarah Russell asks, what does?
Dr Sarah Russell
While the federal Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck was asleep at the wheel, 685 older Australians living in aged care homes died of Covid.
If 685 deaths don’t warrant a ministerial resignation, what will?
Minister Colbeck continues to put lives at risk by allowing staff to work at multiple aged care homes without residents and staff being vaccinated. While the government put out guidelines on this issue, Minister Colbeck and Brendan Murphy, secretary of the Department of Health, would surely have known that guidelines alone would not stop aged care workers working in more than one aged care home.
And to make matters worse, these guidelines do not apply to agency staff, including labour hire contractors and emergency workers – a large portion of the aged care workforce.
The single site workforce arrangements excluded agency staff so as to ensure no aged care home was left without sufficient or appropriate staff.
Low pay and casual, insecure work mean staff have to work in several aged care homes simply to make ends meet. We had hoped a $104 million Royal Commission might fix this problem, but it didn’t.
While the Royal Commissioners recommended changes, including an increase in wages, the federal government simply ignored this.
Still employed: Aged Care Services Minister Richard Colbeck. Source: ABC
So yet again, the systemic problems identified over decades within aged care have put Victoria on a knife’s edge. It also plunged several aged care homes back into lockdown, with some older people being confined to their room.
In their special report the aged care royal commissioners expressed concern about providers’ decision to keep residents locked in, and families locked out, of aged care homes.
These lockdowns had a devastating effect on residents, increasing their depression, anxiety, confusion and loneliness due to the absence of visitors and long confinements in their rooms. Such lockdowns are also possibly illegal.
Make no mistake: aged care homes are in lockdown in Victoria because Minister Colbeck failed to deliver a successful vaccination rollout. While Minister Colbeck says he is “very comfortable” with the vaccination rollout in aged care homes, many families in Victoria are extremely worried their loved one may catch the potentially fatal illness.
In a dance that has become all too familiar, Minister Colbeck again tried to shift the blame. He suggested aged care homes that hadn’t received a single dose of the vaccine had opted out. This simply was not true.
These aged care homes have been waiting for months for a visit from the so-called “vaccination workforce”.
And whose decision was it to hire a private vaccination workforce rather than rely on the structures used to successfully administer the annual flu vaccine to residents in aged care homes?
Hiring Aspen Medical, Health Care Australia, Sonic Healthcare and International SOS to rollout the vaccine in aged care homes has cost the taxpayer $76m. Questions must be asked about the impact of donations to the Liberal Party.
Sonic Healthcare gave $533,500 to the Liberal Party between 2011 and 2017, with $450,000 of the cash going directly to the federal branch.
Failure by Anglicare board to take action against CEO Millard “shocking”. Source: The Klaxon
Let’s be clear: the only way to ensure residents in aged care homes are protected against Covid is to make sure residents and staff are vaccinated. So it was reassuring to hear the Health Minister announce on 16 February: “In the coming weeks, the vaccination program will reach more than 2,600 residential aged care facilities, more than 183,000 residents and 339,000 staff.” A few days later, the Prime Minister said: “We’re ready to go. … We have been preparing, we have been planning, we have been dotting the Is and crossing the Ts.”
Yet months after these vacuous announcements, about 30 per cent of aged care homes have not received their second dose. And it is anyone’s guess how many staff have been vaccinated.
At a Senate inquiry last year, Minister Colbeck was unable to recall how many residents had died during the pandemic. His lack of empathy was truly heartless.
This year, Minister Colbeck admitted he didn’t know how many staff have been vaccinated.
In fact no one knows because the Department of Health failed to collect this data. A guesstimate is that 11 per cent of the aged care workforce have been vaccinated. Minister Colbeck needs to come clean about why the Department of Health contracted the vaccination workforce to vaccinate residents but not staff.
It is gobsmacking that Minister Colbeck failed to ensure aged care staff were a priority in the vaccine rollout. Staff only receive a jab from the private contractors if there are leftovers. So who is responsible for vaccinating staff?
According to the Department of Health fact sheet for staff, the “priority is to deliver choice and flexibility for aged care staff to receive a Covid-19 vaccination as quickly as possible in the safest way”. “Choice and flexibility” is actually code for staff having to make their own appointments at a GP clinic or a state run vaccination site.
In response to the federal government’s failure, the Victorian government announced it would fast-track COVID vaccinations for staff who work in private aged care homes as part of a five-day blitz.
The vaccination rollout in private aged care homes has been an unmitigated disaster. In contrast, Victoria’s hospital vaccination hub outreach teams have successfully vaccinated staff and residents in Victorian public sector residential aged care homes.
Under the Westminster system, a minister is expected to resign if misdeeds are found to have occurred in a ministry. However, the Morrison government has redefined Westminster ministerial responsibility. No longer does a minister bear ultimate responsibility for the actions of its ministry or department.
It is also possible for a minister to face criminal charges for malfeasance under their watch. Under Minister Colbeck’s watch, deaths in aged care homes account for 74.6% of all deaths from Covid-19 in Australia. Many of these deaths were preventable.
We are now all hoping his latest stuff up does not lead to any more deaths.
Dr Sarah Russell is a public health researcher and the director of advocacy group Aged Care Matters. She has also been director of Research Matters, a public health, mental health and aged care research specialist, since 1999.
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