The royal commission into aged care has heard blistering evidence that not only was the system not ready for the COVID pandemic – it is still not prepared, more than eight months on.
The federal government is being hammered for its failure to properly protect older Australians from coronavirus in nursing homes, with day after day of damning testimony that health officials did not foresee or plan for outbreaks at dozens of aged-care facilities in Sydney and Melbourne.
“Based on the evidence you’ve heard, the sector is not properly prepared now,” Peter Rozen QC, counsel assisting the royal commission, said on Thursday in his closing remarks to the latest hearing.
Despite early infections running rampant at the Newmarch House and Dorothy Henderson Lodge centres in Sydney, leading to more than 20 deaths, the royal commission heard that lessons were not learned and used to prevent outbreaks in Victoria.
“The lessons of those two outbreaks was not properly conveyed to the sector and, as a result, the sector was not properly prepared in June 2020 when we witnessed high levels of community transmission of the virus in Melbourne,” Mr Rozen said.
The virus has killed 361 Australians, about 70 per cent of them were aged-care residents. That includes 160 deaths linked to aged-care homes in Victoria alone.
Mr Rozen has levelled scorching allegations about the actions and mistakes of the federal government, which has sole responsibility for the aged-care system, since the beginning of the pandemic.
He said major deficiencies identified in the response – such as planning for the bulk of staff to be quarantined, slow response times, and a lack of communication with families – should not have come as a surprise.
“None of the problems that have been associated with the response of the aged-care sector to COVID-19 were unforeseeable,” he said.
Earlier in the week, Mr Rozen had said “neither the Commonwealth Department of Health nor the aged-care regulator developed a COVID-19 plan specifically for the aged-care sector”.
On Thursday, he reiterated this, again slamming the government for not thinking further ahead.
For instance, the royal commission heard on Wednesday that federal plans had anticipated up to a 30 per cent reduction in aged-care workforce, due to quarantine or infection forcing staff to stay home.
However, at the St Basil’s home in Melbourne, all workers were forced into an immediate quarantine, with an entirely different set of employees shipped in.
This unanticipated quarantining was blamed for horror stories from the facility, including families not being able to locate loved ones for days only to hear later that their family member had died.
Despite the NSW and Commonwealth governments striking a deal with aged-care providers in June on arrangements in that state, Mr Rozen said the protocol did not appear to exist in other jurisdictions.
“This is what we mean when we say the aged-care sector is still not properly prepared for COVID-19,” he said.
“It is unacceptable that such arrangements were not in place in February. It’s unforgivable that they are not in place in August.”
He said masks should have been made compulsory in aged-care homes earlier, and said “a degree of self-congratulation, and even hubris, was displayed by the Commonwealth government” between the Newmarch House cluster in April and Victoria’s outbreak in June.
The commission has previously heard of “dysfunctional” discussions between Newmarch House and government, particularly about whether residents should be hospitalised.
The federal opposition is ramping up pressure on Prime Minister Scott Morrison to answer questions about the latest damning evidence presented to the royal commission.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese has claimed the government is “determined to avoid scrutiny at every single turn”, with Labor sources pointing out that Mr Morrison has not fronted a media conference or interview since Monday morning – before the royal commission began hearings this week.
Instead, the PM delivered a pre-recorded video message on his Facebook page overnight, in which he expressed condolences for those who have died from the disease.
His government has full responsibility for privately operated aged-care facilities.
My message to those who have lost loved ones during this terrible COVID-19 pandemic.
Posted by Scott Morrison (ScoMo) on Tuesday, August 11, 2020
“I want to assure that where there are shortcomings in these areas they’ll be acknowledged and the lessons will be learned,” Mr Morrison said.
He has been criticised for choosing to release the pre-recorded video rather than facing the scrutiny of a news conference.
Mr Albanese accused Mr Morrison of trying to shirk responsibility for aged care.
“What we know now from the aged-care royal commission is that they didn’t have a plan,” he said.
“We know as well, from expert evidence, that many hundreds of aged-care residents will have a premature death as a result of the failure to put in place an appropriate plan.”