Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt and Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews have taken veiled public swipes at each other, with the fragile peace between federal and state governments cracking somewhat amid the emerging COVID “catastrophe” in Melbourne’s nursing homes.
On Tuesday, Mr Andrews said he wouldn’t want his parents in a private nursing home – a statement quickly slammed by Mr Hunt as “dangerous”.
It came as Victoria confirmed 384 new coronavirus cases and six deaths on Tuesday. There are 764 active infections in residents and staff in more than 80 of the state’s private residential aged-care facilities.
Those whose deaths were reported on Tuesday were a man and a woman in their 90s, two women and a man in their 80s and a man in his 70s. Four of them were linked to aged-care outbreaks.
The state government said some private providers were “struggling to maintain staffing levels and basic standards of care”, with ballooning infections and many staff forced into isolation due to risk.
Federal and state authorities have both come under fire for their response to the aged-care crisis.
Both levels of government are responsible – aged care is a federal responsibility, but Prime Minister Scott Morrison pointed out on Tuesday that “public health is a matter for state governments”.
Melbourne’s situation is so bad it has prompted Mr Morrison to cut short a planned three-day working trip to Queensland. He will return to Canberra to help respond to the Victorian crisis.
The federal-led Victorian Aged Care Response Centre has been called in, with officials from both levels of government meant to work more closely.
However, Mr Andrews began Tuesday’s daily briefing on Victoria’s coronavirus situation by saying he lacked confidence in private nursing homes in his state.
“I cannot stand here and tell you that I have confidence that staff and management across a number of private sector aged-care facilities are able to provide the care that is appropriate to keep their residents safe,” he said.
“I won’t stand here also and say, ‘this is just a Commonwealth government matter’. We don’t run this sector but the residents in these homes are all Victorians.”
Mr Andrews said most elective surgery would be suspended in Victoria to allow state-employed nurses and staff to “take over” at some of the hardest-hit aged-care facilities, to deal with the mounting health emergency.
“Some of the stories we’ve heard, some of what’s gone on in some of these settings is simply not acceptable and it’s not about blame, it’s not about demarcations and having disputes about who is in charge of what. It’s just about getting on and getting this done,” Mr Andrews said.
“It is not helpful for me to be running critiques on other governments … a finger-pointing exercise between governments is not something I am prepared to do.”
— Bridget Rollason (@bridgerollo) July 28, 2020
But he later said he would not want his own mother as a resident of one of the homes. Horror stories from inside the homes have emerged in recent days, with families complaining of a lack of communication, inadequate provision of personal protective equipment, and alleging haphazard disposal of used and potentially infectious equipment.
Federal Labor MP Bill Shorten said on Tuesday that one of his neighbours, 92-year-old Theo Makridis, had died in the St Basil’s nursing home after five days missing in the aged-care system.
His worried family said they could not find him or get any news of his condition for days, after Mr Makridis was admitted for respite care.
Later on Tuesday, Mr Hunt outlined the beefed-up federal response to the aged-care crisis, including the deployment of AUSMAT teams usually reserved for disaster zones – described by Mr Hunt as the “SAS of the medical world”.
Another five million face masks will be released from the national stockpile, following concerns Victorian homes did not have the required PPE.
Nursing staff from interstate will also be called in.
However, Mr Hunt took umbrage at Mr Andrews’ comments about not wanting his mother in one of the homes.
“My father lived in one and we knew that that meant he was in the latest stages of his life. I cannot imagine better care that my family and my father could have got and I speak, I think, for hundreds of thousands of families around the country,” Mr Hunt said.
“The idea that our carers, that our nurses are not providing that care, I think, is a dangerous statement to make. They are wonderful human beings and I will not hear a word against them.”
When a reporter tried following up with another question, Mr Hunt repeated – loudly – “I will not hear a word against them”.
Deputy Labor leader Richard Marles has called the situation in Victoria a “catastrophe”.
“For all of us who have family and loved ones in the aged-care system right now in Victoria, this is the single most terrifying moment since the pandemic broke out,” he said.
“It’s all well and good for the federal government to be in hiding in terms of the coronavirus crisis which is impacting Victoria right now. But the aged care system is the federal government’s responsibility.”