Health department secretary 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.
Professor Murphy – the nation’s Chief Medical Officer through the beginning of the pandemic, who has now moved into a more senior bureaucratic role – said it wasn’t possible to know what proportion of cases could have been avoided, but with the benefit of hindsight, that some spread could have been prevented.
“If the public health response had been more prompt we might have avoided some of the scale in the outbreaks in Victoria,” Professor Murphy told a Senate 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.”
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
Referring to previous horror story examples from the aged care sector in Melbourne, where staff reported a lack of training and inadequate personal protective equipment supplies, the secretary said it was clear that infection control was an area that needed urgent addressing.
“There are instances of poor quality care and system leadership and inconsistencies in staff training and leadership,” Professor Murphy said.
“Home care needs reform and further investment.”
Also at the Senate hearing, the aged care quality commission revealed more than a quarter of employees in aged care homes were contractors, not full-time employees.
Labor senator Katy Gallagher, the committee chair, later tweeted “Surely the regulator that keeps older Australians safe in aged care facilities should be resourced properly so it can do its job.”
Professor Murphy said a reform agenda was underway, but it would take years to fully implement.
“At the conclusion of this reform journey, the residential aged care sector will be in an even better position to respond to disease outbreaks in the context of another pandemic.”
The federal government has been under intense scrutiny for its handling of the aged care sector.
More than 650 aged care residents across 220 facilities have died from coronavirus and thousands more have been infected.
Yet, the aged care regulator has visited just 13 per cent of nursing homes with outbreaks. Figures publicised on Tuesday found fewer than 10 per cent have been sanctioned since the start of the pandemic, with zero fines handed out/
“More evidence of the Morrison government’s regulator failing older Australians in the middle of a deadly pandemic,” said Labor’s shadow aged care minister, Julie Collins.
Earlier, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he would not discuss whether the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission had enough resources and power until he received an COVID-focused interim report from the aged care royal commission. The PM would not commit to immediately releasing the report due to be given to government on Wednesday, saying the government would consider the findings.
“There has always been a direct link between what has been happening in the community with what has been happening in aged care facilities,” he said.
“As the number of cases in the community have fallen in Victoria, so have the numbers of cases in Victorian aged care.”
Victoria still has 326 active COVID cases, including 158 linked to aged care facilities.