The head of the Health Department has accused the aged care royal commission’s lawyer of using misleading statistics to criticise the government’s response to COVID-19.
Department of Health secretary Brendan Murphy and other members of the federal health bureaucracy have bristled against evidence presented in the commission this week that many of the deaths in aged-care homes were preventable.
Several times during this week’s hearings, counsel assisting Peter Rozen QC said aged care was over-represented in Australia’s death toll.
“Presently, 68 per cent of all COVID-19 deaths in Australia relate to people in residential aged care,” he said in his opening remarks on Monday.
“The evidence that you will hear is that this makes Australia the country with one of the highest rates in the world of residential aged care deaths as a proportion of deaths from COVID-19.”
By his closing statement yesterday, he said that proportion had increased to 70 per cent.
But Professor Murphy, who served as Australia’s chief medical officer until June, today told a Senate committee that using those figures to suggest Australia was performing poorly was an “extraordinary interpretation of statistics”, labelling the conclusion “ludicrous”.
“When you have a very, very low death rate generally, then the aged-care death rate as a proportion is high,” he said.
“Every death is an absolute tragedy and it’s been an awful situation, but to interpret a percentage of an extremely low death rate as an example of poor aged-care management is simply not defensible.
“I don’t believe any expert … would agree with that as a conclusion, we find that a very misleading conclusion.
“We’ve had tragic deaths in aged care, but it is only 0.1 per cent of aged-care residents, compared to 5 per cent in the UK. Other countries have had 20,000 deaths.”
The committee’s chair, Labor senator Katy Gallagher, said: “Do you think for the families of those that have lost loved ones that that statistic would be particularly difficult to accept?”
Professor Murphy responded that the government viewed every death as a tragedy.
In his closing submission yesterday, Mr Rozen told the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety that: “Based on the evidence that you’ve heard, the sector is not properly prepared now.”
“Tragically, not all that could be done was done.”
But Professor Murphy told the committee he disagreed with that assessment.
“Respectfully, I would disagree with counsel assisting,” he said.
“I reject the assumption that we haven’t done a huge amount of work in preparing the sector in a range of areas.”
Asked by Labor senator Kristina Kenneally whether he accepted any of the criticisms levelled against the government in the royal commission, Professor Murphy conceded the workforce could have been better prepared.
“I don’t think anyone expected that several thousand health workers — our health and aged-care workforce is the same workforce — would be in quarantine and isolation, and we would have such a critical issue in health workforce,” he said.
“We’ve never seen that anywhere else in the country.”
He said he would reflect upon statements made in the commission, and its findings, before providing a more detailed answer.