Prime Minister Scott Morrison has backed his Aged-Care Minister, despite the senator’s bumbling appearance at a Senate inquiry.
Grilled by the inquiry into Australia’s response to the pandemic on Friday, Richard Colbeck was unable to recall how many aged-care residents had fallen ill or died of COVID-19.
After Senator Colbeck struggled for nearly a minute to come up with the answer, an official was forced to intervene.
Labor senator Katy Gallagher, who is chairing the inquiry, was aghast.
“You don’t know how many people have passed away and you’re now telling me you don’t know how many people have the infection?” she said.
“You’re the Minister for Aged Care.”
Asked later if he would sack Senator Colbeck as minister, Mr Morrison urged people to focus on the issues.
“This is a very demanding environment in which to be working,” he said.
“I know those issues are not far from his mind on a minute-by-minute basis. I am sure the Minister regrets not being able to bring those figures immediately to mind. On occasion I can’t bring figures to mind.
“I think it’s important to play the issue, not the man here.”
It came as Mr Morrison announced a further $171 million to help the aged-care sector battle the coronavirus, while saying more money will be announced in the October budget.
A total of 285 people living in government-subsidised residential aged care nationally have died from the virus, according to data from the health department website dated August 20.
Senator Colbeck told the inquiry governments had responsibility for policy and its implementation.
Pressed on whether he accepted responsibility, he replied: “Yes”.
Aged-care homes in Victoria are still dealing with devastating virus outbreaks. Victoria had nine more COVID fatalities on Friday – five women and four men, aged from their 60s to older than 100.
Seven were linked to the state’s aged-care homes.
Victoria also had 179 new virus infections on Friday – its lowest figure since July 13.
The virus also struck NSW homes earlier in the year, to deadly effect.
Senator Colbeck received a report into Sydney’s Dorothy Henderson Lodge in April, which warned about impacts on staffing levels.
The issue arose again at St Basil’s Homes for the Aged in Melbourne when all staff had to self-isolate after the virus hit. The federal government had to take over management.
Asked why there wasn’t better preparation after Dorothy Henderson, Senate Colbeck insisted the scenarios were different.
“The situation at St Basil’s was the entire workforce,” he said on Friday.
“Not just the care workforce, but the entire workforce – everyone who worked in the facility – and that was something we had not seen previously.”
The aged-care watchdog has conceded it should have done better after not telling the federal government a worker at the Melbourne home had tested positive.
The Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission was told on July 10 the staff member had tested positive, but did not tell the health department for four days.
“Our understanding at the time was that the public health unit had been contacted,” commissioner Janet Anderson told the inquiry.
“I recognise that we erred in not escalating this information to the Commonwealth Department of Health at the time and we should have done better.”
St Basil’s has been linked to at least 20 deaths.
“It is now kind of accepted that to try to achieve a safe level of care in a facility under stress that hospitalisation option is a really important one,” he said.
A report into the Newmarch House outbreak has been considered by national cabinet and is expected to be released publicly.
In other developments
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews urged residents to dig in as the state’s COVID cases continued to trend down.
“We are all pleased to see a ‘one’ in front of these additional case numbers,” he said on Friday.
“It is an ultra-marathon and we are not halfway through yet.”
Victoria’s chief health officer Brett Sutton said the level of new cases was about where he expected for the current stage of the shutdown. But he wants it in double digits and, ideally, lower.
“I’d love us to be below 50,” he said.
“I would be really gratified if it we’re in single figures but I’m not convinced that it will be.”
As general community transmission trends lower in Victoria, the state’s next big challenge is to drive down outbreaks in specific settings, such as aged care and disability.
Meanwhile, there was more good news from NSW on Friday, with only one new virus infection to report.
Queensland had only a historic case to confirm on Friday. So far, there are no more infections linked to the supervisor at the Brisbane Youth Detention Centre.