The Morrison government’s blatant pandemic failures in nursing homes
The third glaring failure is that a very serious cause of last year’s mass deaths, which we believed to have been brought under control, has been found to be triggered again. Deliberately.
One of the biggest propagators of the mass deaths last year was the elderly caregivers moving between two or three different facilities. They worked shifts in different homes to make a living in the notoriously underpaid industry. They were inadvertently emitters of COVID, so the Morrison government banned the practice.
So we thought. We learned this week that the government quietly lifted the ban in November of last year.
Overall, “it’s a terrible situation,” in the words of one of the two royal commissioners for the elderly care sector, Lynelle Briggs, in her first public response to the debacle this week. “The health ministry needs to oversee the immunization program much more actively,” she tells me. “It became evident last year that the virus was killing the elderly at a much higher rate than the younger ones. The lesson the government learned at the time was that it had to do more to protect the vulnerable. So they know the lesson. But, for some reason, mistakes keep being made.
A low point has been a painful exchange within the Estimates Committee where Morrison’s Minister for Senior Australians and Elderly Care Services Richard Colbeck declined to say he was responsible for vaccinations for the elderly.
Katy Gallagher from Labor: Tell me: are you responsible? Yes or no?
Minister Colbeck: Well, that’s not a yes or no answer.
Murray Watt of Labor: So no one is really responsible.
The minister said the Commonwealth was working with states to provide vaccines to nursing homes, so it was a “collective responsibility”.
Watt tried again: the federal government primarily funds senior care. Correct?
Watt: The federal government regulates the care of the elderly. Correct?
Colbeck: That’s right.
Watt: Isn’t the federal government responsible for making sure elderly care workers get the vaccine, then? It’s your job. You fund it. You set it. How not to be your job to make sure workers get vaccinated?
Colbeck finally told Watt that he found his approach “offensive”.
But Colbeck can be excused for thinking he’s not responsible. After all, 685 people died in the elderly care system last year. Colbeck was the responsible minister at the time. The Australian Medical Association said at the time: “Hundreds of elderly Australians have died needlessly and without families by their side. It was in many ways the perfect storm – a system already in crisis was hit by a global pandemic. “
Morrison still kept Colbeck at the post. No wonder he developed the impression that he was not responsible. It was a startling denial of ministerial responsibility. Under Westminster doctrine, the Minister accepts full responsibility for the failures of his portfolio, whether or not he has made a personal error. An office of the Crown confers great power. High standards of public accountability go with it.
But not in Morrison’s government. Colbeck did not have the decency to resign and Morrison did not have the political courage to remove him.
Ministers are expected to resign in the event of a serious failure not only to accept responsibility to the public, but also to allow a new person to take the job in the hope that the new minister will do better.
So now there is a new debacle in the elderly care system. And no one is responsible. Again. And Colbeck can continue with the same high level of performance.
Lynelle Briggs, former Medicare chief executive and former Australian civil service commissioner, says she has heard no credible explanation for the slow vaccination program in care of the elderly. “I heard that they wanted people to [in aged care] to get the flu shot first, but that’s no excuse for inattention.
Some outbreaks imposed a two-week wait between the flu vaccine and the COVID vaccine. But it’s a two-week heist. The program is eight weeks late.
Briggs: “It is becoming pretty clear to me that there is no clear strategy to vaccinate workers in the industry, and it is appalling. There is a litany of examples of poor performance.
“First, they are not actively prioritizing older social workers despite what they have said publicly. Second, because they haven’t had a recent workforce census, they don’t know how many workers they have, and that’s a bare minimum for how you’re doing with the vaccine rollout. The safety of those in care for the elderly largely depends on these people – this is how they have been infected in the past.
“They just didn’t do a good enough job with it, and they neglected the workers once again.”
Again? “The workers are not paid enough. Support for training in the workers’ budget is insufficient, “even after the Morrison government increased funding for the sector as a whole in last month’s budget, Briggs said. “In addition, there is a need to professionally register for this group of people engaged in personal care services. “
Morrison says the government has given its full response to the Briggs Royal Commission recommendations; Briggs says “my point is that the government has the opportunity to do more, and should do more”.
But there is a greater transformation required. One of the biggest lessons the world has learned from the pandemic is that there are priorities higher than the motive for profit. The absolute imperative to protect human life has asserted itself. So too is the priority of reliable supply lines and sovereign capacity.
In the case of Australia’s elderly care system, the transformation required is “massive,” says Briggs. “Governments and bureaucracies have to move from ‘hands free, let the market run it’ to being in control – it takes a while. “
The most common complaint about Anthony Albanese of Labor is that he “lacks transparency”. The tragedy of government elder care failures presents many opportunities. If he cannot decide, where can he?
On Friday, Morrison abruptly announced that the federal and state governments had agreed to move to mandatory COVID vaccination for all older healthcare workers. Lynelle Briggs approves of this. But would it have taken more than a year to arrive at this epiphany?
Annual flu shots have been mandatory for older people in some states for years, as Aged and Community Services Australia President Sara Blunt pointed out.
“The main issue right now is not whether the vaccine is mandatory, it’s whether workers can access it easily,” she says. “The government must stop blaming suppliers or workers when deployment is its responsibility. “
There is still that word. Responsibility. Vaccines may be insufficient for the sector, but the blame is nowhere to be found.