Another damning day of evidence has exposed further flaws in Australia’s aged-care system, with a bombshell admission that elderly deaths could have been avoided with faster action.
It comes as the federal government is urged to immediately reveal the findings of the Royal Commission’s special report on the COVID crisis in federal-run nursing homes.
The report is due to be handed to Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Wednesday.
Senior government sources told The New Daily that while there was no commitment to a specific timeframe, the PM would be “prompt” and look to widely share the report in coming days.
Health department secretary Professor Brendan Murphy admitted some of the 760 coronavirus deaths in aged care would have been avoidable if faster, more decisive action was taken in the early days of outbreaks, saying staff training was not up to scratch.
“If the public health response had been more prompt, we might have avoided some of the scale of the outbreaks in Victoria,” he told the Senate’s COVID committee inquiry on Tuesday.
“If we had stood up the Victorian aged-care response centre earlier on, if we’d been aware, had prior warning that the public health response may have been compromised, that’s something that might have prevented some of the spread amongst facilities.”
Professor Murphy added it would have been better if the federal aged-care response centre was enacted “a week earlier”, before the “devastating” situation of entire workforces at Melbourne’s Epping Gardens and St Basil’s being forced into quarantine.
In the view of Labor senator and committee chair Katy Gallagher, “the short answer” to the question was “yes – if the federal [government] had acted quicker in Victoria”.
663 people have died from #COVID19 in aged care facilities in Australia.
My direct question to Health Secretary: Were any of these deaths avoidable?
— Katy Gallagher (@SenKatyG) September 29, 2020
Professor Murphy – the nation’s chief medical officer in the pandemic’s early stages – admitted to “instances of poor quality care and system leadership and inconsistencies in staff training” in the aged-care sector.
The committee also heard more than a quarter of staff working in aged-care homes were on contracts, not in full-time work, raising questions about employment security and funding for the sector.
The Community and Public Sector Union, representing some aged-care workers, raised concerns over what this statistic meant for the spread of COVID-19 through homes.
It has been recognised that workers who could not stay home when sick, and who had to work in multiple centres part-time instead of one centre full-time, were a factor in spreading the virus.
We know that insecure work is driving the spread of COVID – yet 27% of staff who are making sure our aged care facilities are safe do NOT have access to paid sick leave. #agedCareCrisis #auspol #ausunions https://t.co/yL7Tdgixju
— CPSU (@CPSUnion) September 29, 2020
Earlier, The Australian newspaper revealed despite 2000 complaints to the aged-care regulator between April and June, the watchdog had issued zero fines to aged-care homes.
The damning COVID committee evidence came a day before another important milestone in the federal COVID response – the release of an interim report from the aged care royal commission, specifically focusing on impacts of the virus on the sector.
The special report was not originally planned but prompted by spiking deaths and infections in aged care.
The PM wouldn’t commit to a timeframe for making that report public, saying on Tuesday he would “wait for the Royal Commission to come down”.
“It’s a Royal Commission. It will make its report,” Mr Morrison said at a press conference.
“There will be many lessons to be taken out of what has occurred during the COVID period.
“Many lessons have already been taken in how we would respond in other states and territories and they’ve been discussed candidly at national cabinet and the Aged Care Response Centre.”
Shadow Minister for Ageing and Seniors Julie Collins wrote to Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck this week, urging him to ensure the Royal Commission’s report was released quickly.
“I seek your assurance that the Morrison government will not delay, in any way, the availability of this document to the public past Wednesday,” she wrote, in a letter seen by The New Daily.
Labor sources complained the government had taken days or weeks to release reports into other COVID outbreaks, such as at Sydney’s Newmarch House and Dorothy Henderson Lodge.
Ms Collins claimed the government “sat on” the reports, with damning findings about failings in the federal health response.
“We know the COVID-19 pandemic continues to significantly impact on aged-care services and it is vital that this special report on the COVID-19 pandemic is seen as another learning opportunity to ensure the safety and wellbeing of older Australians receiving aged-care services,” Ms Collins wrote in her letter to Senator Colbeck.
She claimed she had not received a response from the minister, after sending the letter last week.