Embattled Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck has apologised for an embarrassing blunder where he didn’t know the number of COVID deaths in nursing homes, as Labor piles pressure on Prime Minister Scott Morrison to sack him.
The Minister’s backdown came the same day as an explosive report into the Newmarch House coronavirus outbreak – which claimed 19 lives – alleged residents were left without medication because staff were “ill-prepared” to deal with the unprecedented cluster.
Senator Colbeck went viral for the wrong reasons last week, after admitting at a Senate committee hearing into the COVID response in the aged care sector – broadcast on live TV – that he didn’t immediately know how many nursing home residents had contracted or died from the virus.
“I don’t have the report with the detail in front of me,” Senator Colbeck said, as he flipped through briefing notes.
A department official had to intervene and offer an answer.
Committee chair, Labor senator Katy Gallagher, was aghast.
“You don’t know how many people have passed away and you’re now telling me you don’t know how many people have the infection?” she said.
“You’re the Minister for Aged Care.”
Mr Morrison backed Senator Colbeck last week, saying he was working in a “demanding environment” as he monitored the aged care outbreak in Victoria. On Monday, as federal parliament resumed for the first time in 10 weeks, Labor leader Anthony Albanese called for Senator Colbeck’s head, saying he was “not sure [Colbeck] was ever fit to be made a minister in the government.”
In Senate question time on Monday, Senator Gallagher directed the first question to Senator Colbeck, repeating her query from Friday about the number of deaths in aged care.
“I should have had the data on Friday and I apologise for not having done that. To my colleagues who I have successfully taken the attention off what it should be, which is our efforts to combat the virus, but also to the Senate, I should have had the information,” he said.
“My fault, my responsibility, and I take full responsibility for not having that information available to me at the time.”
Senator Colbeck said 328 people had died in connection to aged care in Australia – 321 residents and seven staff.
here's aged care minister Richard Colbeck apologising for not knowing the number of aged care deaths in the COVID committee last week:
"I should have had the data on Friday and I apologise… I take full responsibility for not having that information available to me at the time" pic.twitter.com/DcC5DnArOX
— Josh Butler (@JoshButler) August 24, 2020
On the other side of Parliament House, in the House of Representatives, Mr Albanese was again railing at the government’s aged-care response. The Labor leader continued a line of attack begun in recent weeks, repeating evidence heard by the royal commission into aged care that the federal government did not enact a specific plan for COVID in the sector.
“The fact is there wasn’t a plan. And there wasn’t the action
that was required,” Mr Albanese said.
“If actions speak than words, then the Morrison government is truly the quiet Australian. The fact is, that this could also have been foreseen.”
The Labor leader also took aim at Senator Colbeck again.
“Last Friday, we saw, frankly, a minister appear before the COVID-19 committee, who is just not up to this task. Just not up to it,” Mr Albanese said.
Mr Morrison rebuffed suggestions there was no plan for aged care, in the face of the royal commission evidence.
“We reject the assertion that has been made and have done so in evidence to the royal commission,” the PM said, listing again his government’s response on aged care, including releasing an “overarching” health plan and holding forums with the sector.
“There was a plan. The plan was regularly updated and the plan continues to be implemented with over $1 billion of funding from this government,” he said.
Earlier in the day, the much-anticipated independent report into the outbreak at Sydney’s Newmarch House – at the time, Australia’s worst aged-care outbreak – had dropped. The report savaged the government’s claims that the sector had been prepared for a COVID outbreak, listing “a vicious cycle of staff and PPE shortages, sub-optimal infection prevention and control practice”.
it said staff were “ill-prepared”, with inadequate training and a confusing set of instructions from competing agencies, state and federal bodies.
The report said staff did not understand or abide properly by physical distancing rules, with the sudden exit of large swathes of staff due to their own infections leading to “medication errors, pressure sores and skin conditions” among residents.
“I couldn’t believe this was happening in my country,” said a staff member at Aspen Medical, quoted in the report.
A medical specialist frpom Nepean Hospital was quoted as saying “nothing prepared us for what was to come”.
Mr Morrison said further reports into the St Basil’s home in Melbourne, the scene of more than two dozen deaths, would also be released.