Asleep at the wheel
The Morrison government and its federal health department failed to prepare the aged care sector after COVID-19’s deadly strike on two Sydney nursing homes.
The Morrison government and its bureaucrats failed to act to defend nursing homes even after COVID-19 tore through facilities in Europe and the USA, and 25 residents died at Newmarch House and Dorothy Henderson Lodge in Sydney.
Federal government inaction was exposed during hearings at the aged care royal commission.
Counsel assisting the com-mission, Peter Rozen QC, said the federal government “was firmly on notice early in 2020” about the challenges the aged care sector would face from COVID-19.
However, the sector had been “hindered in its response by a lack of coordinated planning by all levels of government.”
Rozen said there was “reason to think that in the crucial months between the Newmarch House outbreak in April and mid-June, a degree of self-congratulation and even hubris was displayed by the Commonwealth government.”
He noted that the federal health minister, Greg Hunt, claimed in late July that “aged care around the country has been immensely prepared”.
Rozen said aged care minister, Richard Colbeck, wrote to nursing home operators on 7 July telling them they had “responded incredibly well to the unprecedented challenges of COVID-19”.
“Although the minister urged continued vigilance and warned that the battle was not yet over, there was no real sense of urgency in the letter,” Mr Rozen said.
“There was no suggestion, for example, that providers should consider asking their employees to wear masks.”
Lessons from Newmarch House and Dorothy Henderson Lodge “were not properly conveyed to the sector and as a result the sector was not properly prepared in June 2020 when we witnessed high levels of community transmission of the virus in Melbourne”.
“Based on the evidence you have heard the sector is not properly prepared now.” (14 August)
Rather than accepting responsibility for the sector it is supposed to regulate, the Morrison government tried to distance itself and blame the Victorian government.
COVID-19 had killed 550 Victorian nursing home residents by 10 September.
Federal government failed to learn lessons
As political commentator Niki Savva noted in The Australian newspaper: “No one seriously believes or expects that every one of those deaths could have been avoided. However, the question not properly answered is why it took so long for the Morrison government to act in an area it controls.
“It was the federal government’s duty to develop a rapid-response plan months ago, particularly after (deaths) in Newmarch House and Dorothy Henderson Lodge in NSW in March and April. It still hasn’t been done,” Savva said (20 August).
The federal Department of Health commissioned Professor Lyn Gilbert, chairperson of the department’s Infection Control Expert Group, to do an independent study of the COVID-19 outbreak at Dorothy Henderson Lodge “to understand what occurred and what could be learned from the experience”.
Prof Gilbert’s report warned of problems in keeping staff, recruiting agency nurses and sending residents to hospital during the nation’s first major COVID-19 outbreak in an aged care home.
Her report went to the department on 14 April, but it did not make it public until August, when Victorian nursing homes had already suffered almost 200 deaths.
Federal health depart-ment secretary, Brendan Murphy, argued in July that authorities could not foresee the sudden withdrawal of most workers from the St Basil’s home in Melbourne because it had not happened elsewhere.
However, three months earlier, Prof Gilbert’s report had warned Murphy’s department of lessons from Dorothy Henderson Lodge and Newmarch House, where an estimated 87 per cent of workers had to go into quarantine.
Secretary Murphy and Minister Colbeck also maintained that the public had no right to know which Victorian aged care facilities had COVID-19 cases.
At a hearing of the Senate committee monitoring the government’s response to the pandemic, Greens senator Rachel Siewert sought this information, asking for details of providers, cases and deaths.
Murphy asked if he could provide the information to the committee in secret.
“Some of the facilities don’t want it publicly known that they have outbreaks,” Murphy said. “And they’re obviously worried about reputational issues.”