Families who lost loved ones to COVID-19 in Victorian aged-care homes say it’s “unacceptable” the federal government has kept them in the dark about an inquiry into the outbreak.
It comes amid revelations the Morrison government is a month behind schedule and won’t be publicly releasing a report into the handling of the virus until Christmas.
Following devastating outbreaks in Commonwealth-run aged-care homes during Victoria’s second wave of the coronavirus, the federal government commissioned independent reviews into failures at St Basil’s Home for the Aged and the Epping Gardens facility.
Those homes recorded 44 and 36 deaths respectively, according to figures reported in September.
“The reviews will examine the extent, impact, management and contributory causes of the COVID-19 outbreaks at these services,” the health department said in a September 9 update.
“The reviews will be carried out during September and October with the final reports due in mid-November 2020 … [and] published shortly after completion.”
But as of December 16, neither report has been released. On Wednesday, Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck said the federal government had the reports, and promised would be released some time before Christmas, but would not specify when.
“We also said we had some processes to go through before they were released including consideration by the aged care advisory group, and others, and those processes are still occurring,” Senator Colbeck told a press conference in Tasmania.
“There have been some procedural fairness issues we have had to deal with as part of that process as well.
“Those reports will be released very soon. It is a matter of completing the processes that we said we would go through.”
The minister held the press conference to announce the government would pour another $1 billion into aged care as part of Thursday’s Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO).
The injection includes $850 million to fund 10,000 extra home care places, allowing seniors to live in their own homes instead of entering a care facility.
Labor’s shadow minister for ageing Julie Collins called on the government to reassure Australians it had “learnt from its previous failings in aged care”.
Senator Colbeck defended the delay to the reports’ release, saying that the experts who completed the reports – Professor Lyn Gilbert and Adjunct Professor Alan Lilly – were also members of the government’s Aged Care Advisory Group.
This meant, he said, the experts’ key findings had been known to health authorities.
“The work that they have done has been incorporated into the advice that we have provided to the sector and that provided to government, as a matter of ongoing business,” Senator Colbeck told The New Daily.
“We continue to learn from the events of the pandemic … There are obvious learnings.”
Health department secretary and former chief medical officer, Brendan Murphy, admitted some of the 650 COVID deaths in Australian aged-care homes could have been “avoided” if health authorities had worked faster to stem the virus’ onslaught.
‘Zero to 100’
But families of COVID victims in the affected homes are upset at the delay to the reports.
Jack Karikas, whose mother-in-law contracted coronavirus in St Basil’s and later died, said he wanted the reports made public.
“All the families are entitled, at the minimum, to an explanation,” Mr Karikas told TND.
“The findings of the report, what they mean, what the government is going to do.”
He said he wished the government would have given families a private briefing on the reports prior to release, but said his family had received no contact.
“As individual families, it’s not hard. We know 44 residents lost their lives. At the least, those families should be reached out to,” Mr Karikas said.
“We want to know what happened. Everyone wants an understanding of how we go to zero to 100 in the blink of an eye, from one case to 200 within weeks. How did that happen? How did it start? How was it allowed to go to a wild inferno?”
Mr Karikas said individual staff from St Basil’s had been “brilliant”, and contacted his wife to express their condolences over her mother’s death. But he claimed neither the management of the home, nor the church that manages it, have apologised.
“Neither me or my wife have any grievances with the staff. What happened has happened, but we want to know how it happened,” he said.
“In an environment where you have a pandemic, this [report] should be front and centre, highest priority. You know people have passed away because of a lack of action.”
Ms Collins called on the federal government to “immediately” release the Epping Gardens and St Basil’s reports.
“It is vitally important that all aged-care providers across the country have the benefit of these reviews so lessons can be learnt and applied,” she told TND.
“It’s not good enough that the Morrison government hasn’t been more transparent about these reports and other reviews into previous outbreaks of COVID-19 in aged care.”
Ms Collins wrote to Senator Colbeck on November 11, asking him to commit to releasing the reports immediately after the government received them.
She said it would be “unacceptable” to delay the release.