Labor leader Anthony Albanese has blasted the Coalition government for overseeing a COVID “crisis” in aged care, with barely half of Commonwealth facilities having received vaccine booster shots so far and hundreds of homes battling active outbreaks.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said 1500 of the nation’s 2600 Commonwealth aged-care facilities had received vaccine boosters, with the remainder scheduled to receive them by the end of January.
But with hundreds of homes battling outbreaks and thousands of residents in effective lockdown, Mr Albanese claimed the Morrison government had dropped the ball.
“How is it that in spite of what has occurred before, the aged-care system, which is run, funded and regulated by the federal government, still hasn’t got this right?” the Labor leader said.
“It’s something that should just not have happened. It could have been foreseen.”
Federal government figures released on Saturday showed there were 495 COVID outbreaks in aged-care homes as of January 7 – up from 105 on December 23 – with 1370 residents and 1835 staff infected.
New South Wales had 168 of the active home outbreaks; Victoria, 133; Queensland, 110; and South Australia, 69.
In response to the growing outbreaks, the federal government has provided five million rapid antigen tests to the aged-care system as well as staff sourced from private agencies to work an additional 60,000 shifts to cover for furloughed staff.
The Health Minister also said at a Sunday press conference that about 1500 facilities had already been visited by vaccination teams to give COVID booster shots.
“The program is ahead of schedule and expectations … all facilities, on the advice that I have from Operation COVID Shield, are expected to complete that program during the course of January,” Mr Hunt said.
But Mr Albanese accused the government of a “failure to plan” for “major issues in our health system” as a result of the fast-rising COVID cases.
On Sunday, Victoria recorded another 44,150 cases, while NSW reported 30,062 and Queensland 18,000.
“The ‘let it rip’ approach is tearing communities apart,” the Labor leader said at a press conference at Ingham, near Townsville, on day four of a week-long campaign tour in Queensland.
“There is a crisis in the aged-care system whereby hundreds of aged-care facilities have still not yet received their booster shots, even though they are eligible for them.”
Aged-care residents and staff were classed in the highest-priority Phase 1A of the vaccine rollout, and were meant to have received their vaccinations by Easter last year, which would have made them all eligible for boosters by now.
But long delays to the initial aged-care rollout mean some residents are not yet eligible for boosters, owing to the interval required between second and third doses.
Morrison ‘gone missing again’
Citing graphs from ourworldindata.org, Labor’s shadow health minister Mark Butler claimed Australia had among the “lowest booster rates among comparable countries” and accused Mr Morrison of having “gone missing again as this 4th wave explodes”.
Mr Albanese also took aim at reports that parents are having vaccinations for their under-12 children – due to begin from Monday – delayed or rescheduled because of a lack of supply.
“Parents around the country are concerned about this. It was a national date that was set for children to be vaccinated. And there are real issues with regard to supply of boosters and the incapacity of parents to be able to make appointments,” he said.
Queensland Labor Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk announced on Sunday that her state would push back the start of the school year by two weeks, from January 24 to February 7.
She said the change was “to avoid the predicted Omicron wave peak and allow more time for children to get vaccinated”.
NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet said his state would not follow suit, saying it was “crucial that kids are back into school on day one”.
The issue of school reopening is expected to be discussed at national cabinet this week.
Calls for free RATs not going away
Mr Albanese also reiterated his calls for rapid tests to be free for all Australians, continuing to cast the government’s refusal to do so as an attack on the ideals of Medicare.
“Scott Morrison has said that rapid tests can’t be free, but what he’s saying is he doesn’t value universal health care,” he tweeted on Sunday.
“And I think Australians are asking themselves, are these the values I want in a leader?”
It came a day after Finance Minister Simon Birmingham tweeted that giving out free tests for all would create “wasteful hoarding” and criticised Labor for not outlining how much it would cost.
Senator Birmingham appeared on Channel Nine’s Today program on Sunday, on a panel alongside NSW state Labor leader Chris Minns.
Mr Minns, who came out earlier than Mr Albanese in calling for free rapid tests for all, slammed testing delays seen in his state and nationwide, where some people are waiting more than a week for PCR results.
“Living with COVID doesn’t mean that you are in a situation where you don’t know whether you’ve got COVID or not,” he said.
“At the end of the day, the minimum responsibility of the NSW and the Commonwealth government is allowing people to understand whether they’ve been infected with the disease or not.”