News Politics Australian Politics Michael Pascoe: The aged will spend Christmas in solitary, thanks to Morrison and Perrottet
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Michael Pascoe: The aged will spend Christmas in solitary, thanks to Morrison and Perrottet

Scott Morrison we chat
Prime Minister Scott Morrison's account on the Chinese-owned social media app WeChat has been hacked. Photo: Getty
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The ‘let it rip for Christmas’ COVID policies urged by Scott Morrison and Dominic Perrottet have come home to roost where they were always going to – on the elderly.

More than 100 aged care homes are now in Tier 0 severe lockdown, the number suffering COVID outbreaks nearly doubling in a week.

Rather than “opening up” for family Christmas, thousands of elderly Australians are confined to their rooms today, having a solitary Christmas lunch, denied all visitors, not even allowed to share the meal with their peers.

On behalf of the distressed residents, their worried families and the shockingly stretched aged care workers, I invite the Prime Minister and NSW Premier to “stare down” the virus and take “personal responsibility” for a few weeks in solitary confinement, without a personal photographer for company.

The tragedy of Christmas 2021 for the residents and staff in aged care facilities has been (almost) unreported.

On Friday December 17, 54 homes were locked down with 125 residents and 88 staff having tested positive. On Thursday December 23, those numbers had jumped to 105 homes, with 196 residents and 189 staff testing positive. It’s spreading that quickly.

I’m also aware of more homes being locked down hard with outbreaks since the official figures were compiled.

As the virus circulates freely in the community, it is inevitable staff and visitors contract it and take into homes.

Some homes were not using rapid antigen tests (RAT) for staff last week before they started shifts, but outbreaks are occurring in homes that routinely use RATs anyway.

Sentenced to solitary confinement

Worryingly, another Health Department publication was showing 917 residents were active cases on Thursday, up from 821 on Friday. The discrepancy between that publication and the weekly outbreak report could not be explained by the close of business on Friday.

Once an outbreak occurs, the Public Health Unit (PHU) effectively takes control of what residents are allowed to do – and that means solitary confinement.

It seems the PHU was initially panicking about the threat of outbreaks in aged care facilities putting extra burdens on hospitals. Residents were placed on Tier 0 solitary for 14 days even if they all tested negative seven days after the outbreak and had been fully vaxed and boosted.

That was relaxed on Christmas Eve. If all have tested negative and remain asymptomatic on Day 7, homes could de-isolate to Tier 2, allowing residents out of their rooms and one adult visitor a day with appropriate precautions.

If any resident or staff member tests positive, the clock resets to zero.

That’s a major improvement, but the reality of the “national plan” remains: COVID-19 will circulate in the community and, when the politicians think the health system can handle it, the elderly will be exposed to it.

That leaves massive strain on aged care homes and their poorly-paid and overly-stretched workforce, with the likelihood of rolling lockdowns.

And when elderly people get COVID, more resources are required to manage it than the limited number of aged care registered nurses can hope to muster.

The rush led by Messrs Morrison and Perrottet to “stand tall” and “live with COVID” has blown up in their Christmas faces. As the medical professionals kept telling the politicians, restraint was needed in relaxing restraints.

The Australian Guardian’s Anne Davies neatly summarised the NSW Premier’s blunder before he was forced to backdown on “letting it rip”, leaving it to Health Minister Brad Hazzard to do the mask announcing.

The British Guardian’s Martin Kettle earlier this week fingered Boris Johnson’s prime ministership as being close to the point of no return, being unable to govern:

“The Prime Minister emerged from an emergency cabinet meeting on the Omicron surge to announce – nothing. While other governments across Europe scrambled to save their health systems from being overwhelmed, Johnson’s decided it was undecided whether to do anything about it at all.”

Not for the first time, there’s a similarity to be spotted about the British and Australian prime ministers.

Streams of meaningless words

Mr Morrison emerged from the emergency National Cabinet meeting he called on Wednesday to announce – not much. Oh, lots of words and numbers, as usual, but no substance. The Chief Medical Officer’s request to mandate masks was not granted – it’s just, you know, recommended.

Test, trace, isolate and quarantine remained all over the place, differing state requirements putting further strains on the system. How capable we are of more quickly boosting remained opaque.

The only nod towards the looming disaster for aged care residents was an intention to provide more rapid antigen tests.

After 22 months of COVID, the country remains an ungoverned hodgepodge, politicians still making it up as they go along, sometimes taking the health advice, sometimes not, sometimes fibbing about it, often outsourcing responsibility when they can.

And there’s more to come.