The federal health department failed to make a specific plan for COVID in nursing homes, according to a scathing assessment from the royal commission into aged care.
The extraordinary evidence comes the same day the federal government was accused of a “catastrophic failure”, after revelations the aged-care regulator took days to inform federal health authorities of a coronavirus outbreak at Melbourne’s St Basil’s facility.
Twenty people have so far died in the outbreak, with more than 100 infected.
“There’d been a breakdown in that communication. And that’s not good,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.
On Monday, the aged care royal commission held a dedicated session to probe the response to COVID-19.
In an opening address, Peter Rozen QC, counsel assisting, claimed the federal government dropped the ball.
“While there was undoubtedly a great deal done to prepare the Australian health sector more generally for the pandemic, the evidence will reveal that neither the Commonwealth Department of Health nor the aged-care regulator developed a COVID-19 plan specifically for the aged-care sector,” he said.
This was despite federal Health Minister Greg Hunt saying in late July that aged care was “immensely prepared”, Mr Rozen said.
He claimed the sector was offered no virus advice from the health department or the regulator between June 19 and August 3, a “crucial period” in the pandemic.
Mr Rozen said 68 per cent of all virus deaths in Australia related to aged care, with the country among the worst in that measure.
The commission heard 168 aged-care residents have died from the virus and 1000 have tested positive.
Labor MP Kate Thwaites, from the Melbourne seat of Jagajaga, asked “Why weren’t plans put in place?”
We had time to prepare. Why weren’t plans put in place so that older people were kept safe? @ScottMorrisonMP you need to explain this to all the families who have lost loved ones. https://t.co/a3BWdn54zn
— Kate Thwaites (@ThwaitesKate) August 10, 2020
The commission received 364 submissions since April referring to inadequate staff infection training and lack of access to personal protective equipment, Mr Rozen said.
Separately on Monday, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians released a survey revealing one in five of its members in public hospitals had reported being forced to find their own PPE, while nearly half said they had no or limited access to higher-quality N95 masks.
At the royal commission, Mr Rozen said inconsistent messaging and confusion about virus guidelines were coming from providers and government.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has starkly exposed all of the flaws of the aged-care sector,” he said.
The royal commission will examine the cases of two Sydney homes that had deadly outbreaks, Newmarch House and Dorothy Henderson Lodge.
Mr Rozen said there had been a “standoff” between federal and state authorities about whether virus-positive Newmarch House residents should be hospitalised.
Of 37 positive residents, two were transferred to hospital. One died, with 16 more fatalities at the home.
Also on Monday, Mission Australia called for automatic hospitalisation of positive cases in NSW aged care.
“We urgently need NSW Health to commit to an outbreak management measure that ensures residential services consumers who test positive for COVID-19 are immediately transferred to hospital,” CEO James Toomey said.
Mr Rozen said records showed NSW Health in April had a preference not to move residents into hospital to avoid setting “a precedent” around transfers.
“To put it very directly, older people are not less deserving of care because they are old. Such an approach is ageist,” he said.
He added there was a lack of high-level infection control expertise at Newmarch House until at least a fortnight into the outbreak.
Victoria’s aged-care outbreak is not part of the commission’s scope due to a lack of time and sensitivities around the state’s current situation.
However, more information about aged-care outbreaks that have fuelled the spiralling cases and deaths in Victoria has been revealed.
Last week, a Senate hearing heard five days passed before the federal government was notified of the COVID outbreak at St Basil’s.
On Monday, it was revealed in a letter from Aged Care Quality and Safety Commissioner Janet Anderson that the watchdog knew on July 10 – but didn’t pass it on to the health department until July 14.
A St Basil’s staff member phoned the aged care commission to inform them, with the Victorian public health unit also notified.
The information didn’t reach the federal government for several days.
Mr Morrison said he was learned about the updated timeline on Sunday.
“I am concerned about that breakdown in the communications,” he said on Monday.
“I understand the processes that led to that have been changed and I’m undertaking further inquiries into this.”
What a catastrophic failure.
The Morrison Government’s aged care regulator knew about an outbreak of COVID-19 at St Basil’s for four days and failed to inform the Department of Health. pic.twitter.com/rAG5dSZK5n
— Julie Collins (@JulieCollinsMP) August 10, 2020
Labor’s aged care spokeswoman Julie Collins said the communication failure led to a potentially deadly delay.
“Time and time again the Morrison government has been warned about information-sharing failures between its regulator and the Department of Health but has not acted,” she said.
“We are now seeing the tragic and avoidable consequences of not properly heeding these warnings.”
Mr Morrison also spoke out against what he called “amoral and hideous” suggestions in some media outlets, that elderly Australians be “offered up” in the name of society opening up earlier from COVID restrictions.
At a media briefing, he criticised “pieces that have been written in the outlets that you represent”.
— Josh Butler (@JoshButler) August 10, 2020
“That is just a hideous thought,” he said.
“An absolutely amoral, hideous thought. One I have had no countenance with from the very first time it was suggested.”