A Senate hearing has descended into a fiery stand-off after Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck admitted the federal government still doesn’t know exactly how many staff in Victoria have had COVID doses.
It’s now 100 days into the federal vaccination rollout, and federal health officials have admitted that 21 aged-care homes across Australia are yet to receive even a single dose of vaccine – while the number of vaccinated staff may be as low as 8 per cent.
Health department officials could only confirm that around 32,000 aged care workers, out of 366,000 nationally, had gotten their first doses – but stressed this was a “minimum”, and that many more workers would be vaccinated, but they weren’t sure how many exactly.
Labor frontbencher Katy Gallagher clashed with Senator Colbeck after his admission on the vaccine statistics on Tuesday. He maintained that whether the federal government was responsible for aged-care staff vaccinations was not a “yes or no answer”.
Senator Colbeck said the rollout for workers was a joint responsibility between federal, state and territory governments. The federal government is responsible for funding and regulating private aged-care sites.
“If you want to stop being rude and talking over the top of me, I’m very happy to continue,” Senator Colbeck told Senator Gallagher and Labor colleague Murray Watt during a heated exchange.
He later accused the Labor senators of “verballing” him and “grandstanding” as they sought information on vaccines among aged-care staff and residents.
Later, Labor leader Anthony Albanese described the vaccine rollout as a “debacle”.
“This is just extraordinary,” he said.
“These people are heroes of the pandemic … and what they’ve had from this government is abandonment.”
The federal government is scrambling to get more data on just how many aged-care workers – who are in the highest-risk phase 1a and top priority for shots – have received vaccinations. Residents are also phase 1a – the group federal Health minister Greg Hunt initially said would be fully vaccinated by April.
Senator Colbeck blamed changes in the rollout timetable and shifting advice on the AstraZeneca for Canberra failing to have all the data it needs.
“I’m not going to give you a number that I’m not certain,” he told ABC’s Radio National on Tuesday morning, when asked how many aged care staff had been vaccinated.
Pressure is continuing to mount on the federal government to speed up vaccinations in Commonwealth aged care, after two staff and a resident in a Victorian nursing home tested positive to COVID this week.
On Tuesday, Senator Colbeck couldn’t say with certainty even how many workers had received vaccines.
He said federal statistics showed just 40,000 aged care workers nationwide had been fully vaccinated (two doses). Later, Senate estimates figures revealed that was actually just 32,833. This data is only for workers who get shots at clinics in aged-care homes, using leftover doses after residents have been vaccinated. Health Department officials say the federal stats represent a “minimum”.
The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation told The New Daily that federal government data from 2016 – the most recent available – estimated there were at least 366,000 workers in residential aged care in Australia.
That means the 32,833 fully vaccinated workers represent just 8.9 per cent of the sector.
Another 1887 workers have gotten jabs at ‘pop-up clinics’ for aged care workers.
But the federal government maintains the true number is much higher, saying it has no access to overarching data of shots administered in other settings, including by GPs or mass clinics.
On Monday, Mr Hunt said about 70,000 aged-care workers had received at least one dose.
The federal opposition is outraged the Morrison government doesn’t have clearer figures.
The federal aged care minister doesn’t know how many staff in aged care have been vaccinated.
— Anthony Albanese (@AlboMP) May 31, 2021
Senator Colbeck said the government was working to make it compulsory for aged-care centres to collect and report employee vaccination data.
“We’ve had to reset this whole program because of the health advice that we’ve received,” he said.
“But at this point in time it’s not complete enough for us to be able to provide [the data].”
Senator Colbeck said the government would soon pass legislation making it compulsory for homes to collect and provide the figures. He said the Australian Immunisation Record did not have capability to record employment information.
The estimates hearing was also told that, of 13 specialised ‘pop-up’ clinics meant to speed up vaccinations for aged care workers, only three had actually been established – all in NSW, and none in Victoria.
Imagine turning up to Estimates with a lockdown unfolding + a crisis in aged care and still not having data on how many people in the aged care system in Victoria have been vaccinated.#auspol pic.twitter.com/EEaLsOkx17
— Katy Gallagher (@SenKatyG) May 31, 2021
The Department of Health said all of Victoria’s 596 residential aged-care facilities had been visited to offer at least one dose of vaccine, with 382 having ‘second dose visits’. There are also 21 homes across Australia that are yet to have even one visit.
“Of those 21, all but three are or are being scheduled for the next day or two,” department associate secretary Caroline Edwards said.
The Department also revealed just 3500 of the 22,285 NDIS participants living in disability care had received at least one dose, including only 355 who’d received two doses.
Department officials were initially unable to immediately provide data on how many staff or residents had been vaccinated in aged care.
“I can’t believe you don’t have it available,” Senator Gallagher said.