Aged-care worker unions say it’s “disgraceful” the federal government removed rules and supports allowing staff to work in single homes, with multiple staff testing positive to COVID after having worked across Victorian sites.
“I feel as if the federal government has totally abandoned Victoria and the private aged-care workforce, across the entire country,” the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation’s Victorian state secretary, Lisa Fitzpatrick, told The New Daily.
The Arcare Maidstone facility announced on Monday that a second worker and a resident had tested positive to COVID as Melbourne’s coronavirus outbreak rose to 51 infections.
State Health Minister Martin Foley said that second employee also worked at the Blue Cross Western Gardens home in nearby Sunshine. Both are now in lockdown, along with two homes in Footscray, also in Melbourne’s inner-west, and another in Hawthorn, in the city’s inner-east.
In 2020, at the height of devastating COVID outbreaks in aged care, the federal government implemented safeguards and funding to ensure staff in Commonwealth-run private homes worked in only one facility. This was to prevent staff, who often work across multiple sites, spreading infections between homes.
But Ms Fitzpatrick said the federal government wound up those funds and restrictions in late 2020. They were reinstated only last week, as Melbourne’s latest virus cluster emerged.
Arcare’s Maidstone facility is privately (or Commonwealth) run, Ms Fitzpatrick said.
“That’s in comparison to the Victorian government, which retained that restriction for public aged-care workers, so public sector workers must only work at one facility,” Ms Fitzpatrick told TND.
“Once again we’ve got this stark contrast of how the aged care workforce is managed.”
It comes amid further scrutiny of COVID vaccinations of aged care workers, with data showing only a third of staff at the Arcare home had had even a single jab. One infected worker had a first dose, but the second staffer has had none.
Victoria’s chief health officer, Brett Sutton, said it was “massively risky” for aged-care staff to move between facilities, and called on the federal government to “minimise that to the fullest extent possible”.
Public facilities, managed by the state government, are not governed by the same rules. Acting Premier James Merlino said of those homes, “100 per cent of aged care workers in metropolitan Melbourne are not working across multiple sites”.
Mr Foley said COVID “does not make a distinction between Commonwealth and state facilities”.
Aged Care Services Minister Richard Colbeck said the single-site rules were “triggered” on Thursday, when greater Melbourne was declared a COVID hot spot zone. The federal government is providing funding to private aged-care homes so they can pay their staff more so they do not need to work in multiple locations.
“This will support residential aged-care providers to implement single site workforce arrangements,” he told TND.
“Providers are asked to adjust their rosters and ensure staff are only working at one residential aged-care facility during this time.”
Senator Colbeck said the funding was initially available from May 27 until June 10, but would be extended if the hotspot declaration is also extended.
At Monday’s media conference, Mr Merlino would not rule out extending Victoria’s lockdown, which is due to end on Thursday night.
Aged care workers are struggling to get vaccinated, and now some have been infected.
They should have been a priority.
The Morrison Government needs to do better.
— Anthony Albanese (@AlboMP) May 31, 2021
Labor leader Anthony Albanese called on the federal government to “do better”.
Senior federal government sources said it was difficult to restrict the movement of staff outside of specific lockdowns or outbreaks, saying staff should be allowed to work freely in normal circumstances. The additional single-site funding is available only in outbreaks, and was implemented when Victoria went into lockdown.
But Ms Fitzpatrick claimed that, in a meeting with Arcare staff on Sunday, senior employees said they were “unaware of the direction” around single-site work.
TND has contacted Arcare for comment. Health Minister Greg Hunt will provide an update at 3pm.
Professor Sutton and Mr Foley were asked multiple times about aged care on Monday. They said the staffing issue was one for the Commonwealth, with Professor Sutton saying the state government might not legally be able to intervene in federal-run facilities.
“The risk is manifest in a needs to be minimised to the fullest extent possible,” he said, of workers moving between sites.
Mr Merlino said the state government had continued its own restrictions in public-run, or state-managed, aged-care homes “for a reason”, and turned the torch back onto Canberra for not following suit.
“These are high-risk venues,” he said.
“Public aged care is the responsibility of state government. Private aged care is the responsibility of the federal government … these are absolutely relevant questions everyone is asking, they should be put to the federal government.”
Dr Sarah Russell, director of the Aged Care Matters advocacy group, said the latest COVID outbreak in Victoria was a “disaster waiting to happen”.
“Surely we learnt something last year, didn’t we?” she said.
Dr Russell, a public health researcher, slammed the federal government for failing to block aged-care workers from working across multiple facilities.
“It’s absolutely appalling that we’ve got unvaccinated staff going to work and unvaccinated staff moving between facilities, and unvaccinated residents,” she said.
“It’s just so terrible.”
Melbourne woman Angela Lowe said her husband’s aged-care home in Hawthorn was in lockdown after it was discovered an agency worker had taken a shift at Arcare Maidstone just a few days earlier.
“I just thought it was inevitable. It’s groundhog day. We’ve seen this all before and there are no lessons learnt,” she said.