A dereliction of duty
At every stage of the pandemic, the Morrison government has failed to learn from its many mistakes and has never produced an effective plan for aged care that would protect our vulnerable elderly.
In October 2020 the aged care royal commission produced a special report on COVID-19 and aged care.
It was scathing of the government’s lack of a dedicated plan or clear leadership in the handling of the emergency, despite aged care residents being identified as a high-risk group.
Before COVID-19 hit Australia, evidence was mounting overseas that the coronavirus was taking a disproportionate toll on aged care residents. More than half of the deaths in many European countries and in many American states were residents of nursing homes.
Despite these warnings, when COVID-19 arrived in Australia the aged care sector was woefully unprepared – with tragic and devastating consequences.
On 4 March 2020, Dorothy Henderson Lodge became Australia’s first COVID-19 cluster, after one of its employees contracted the virus. Three of its residents were among the first four people in Australia to die from the coronavirus.
In April 2020, 37 residents tested positive and 19 of them died in a COVID outbreak at Newmarch House – an aged care facility in Sydney – after a staff member worked a shift while infectious.
By the end of 2020 there were 685 deaths from COVID in aged care facilities.
No-one in charge
In its COVID report, the aged care commissioners said the government’s actions had been insufficient to ensure the sector was fully prepared for the pandemic.
It also said it was surprising that the circumstances of the Dorothy Henderson Lodge and Newmarch House outbreaks had not been investigated.
All too often, the commissioners said, families, providers and aged care workers “did not have an answer to the critical question: Who is in charge?”
The report made clear the government’s response to the pandemic in nursing homes was developed largely without input from aged care experts. That included the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF).
Counsel assisting the royal commission pointed to the lack of consultation with aged care workers’ representatives in April and May, during the development of a visitors’ code for COVID-19.
They also cited the federal Aged Care Workforce Strategy Taskforce, which had 13 members but none of whom represented aged care workers.
Bungled vaccine rollout
When effective vaccines were developed at the end of the pandemic’s first year, hopes were high that they would afford protection for aged care residents and staff.
In February 2021, Health and Aged Care Minister Greg Hunt and Aged Care Services Minister Richard Colbeck gave a joint media conference and promised that aged care workers would be the highest priority and would receive easy access to vaccines in their workplace.
They promised that they would all be vaccinated within six weeks of the rollout’s commencement on 22 February.
But federal Department of Health data showed that by the end of June, two-thirds of aged care staff nationally had not received a single dose of vaccine.
Promised in-reach teams failed to materialise and workers were forced to use leftover Pfizer vaccinations not used on residents.
The government also promised to set up pop-up vaccination centres for workers, which did not eventuate for months and then only in a handful of locations.
The government then told aged care staff to secure their own vaccinations, either from their GP or from a public vaccination hub.
Another 282 aged care residents died from COVID in 2021.
Always too little, too late
In the first six weeks of 2022, 742 people died in aged care homes across Australia. The outbreak of Omicron peaked in late January, when the virus was reported in more than 1200 aged care homes around the country.
Experts highlighted two government failures that left aged care residents and staff vulnerable: the “stroll out” of vaccine boosters and the scarcity of rapid antigen tests.
Dr Kerryn Phelps was one of the authors of the OzSAGE report that was scathing of the federal and NSW governments’ “Let it rip” strategy implemented immediately prior to the outbreak of Omicron.
She told The Guardian that “the only example Australia is providing to the world now is a warning about what not to do with the COVID-19 pandemic”.