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Aged care minister embarrassed at senate inquiry, government preparedness questioned

Senator Richard Colbeck faced intense questioning at the Senate Select Committee hearing on Australia’s response to COVID-19 on Friday, and was criticised for appearing not to know how many people in aged care have died from COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic.

The committee, made up of a senator from each of the major parties and chaired by Labor senator Katy Gallagher, tried to get to the bottom of whether the government was sufficiently prepared for outbreaks of the coronavirus in residential aged care, which resulted in a number of awkward, tense exchanges involving Senator Colbeck.

Gallagher asked the minister for aged care if he could confirm if the government was the primary funder and regulator of aged care in Australia and therefore responsible for the safety of those residents.

In what seemed like a continuation of the tactic Prime Minister Scott Morrison employed throughout the week; the senator tried his best to avoid answering the question.

“Our responsibility is to provide information to the aged care sector,” he replied. “And to ensure that they have the appropriate systems in place to provide high quality care to senior Australians.”

Gallagher rephrased a few times and asked if it wasn’t his government’s job to keep residents safe. To which the minister replied that it was “every bodies responsibility to prevent the spread of the virus”.

A numbers game

The most damming moment came when Colbeck was asked how many aged care residents have thus far died form COVID-19. The minister couldn’t answer and for the next minute fumbled through documents until a deputy secretary in attendance came up with the figure. He then couldn’t tell the committee how many people have the virus in aged care altogether.

As of 8am on the 20 August, 258 residents have died while there are 1811 active cases involving aged care residents.

“It’s not front of mind for you as the minister for aged care?” Gallagher asked.  

“I’m struggling to believe that you are not aware of these details,” she said.

Worst case scenario

Most of the two-and-a-half-hour session was spent disputing the preparedness for workforce shortages in aged care homes in the instance of large-scale outbreaks.

Colbeck and Gallagher argued over her assertion that the government has gone missing on aged care in Victoria, with Colbeck telling the chair he found the idea offensive.

The situation in Victoria remains “fragile” Colbeck said. The workforce is stretched, but considerable effort is going into helping alleviate this issue.

“There is now,” Gallagher retorted.

Gallagher, as well as Greens Senator Rachel Siewert and ALP senator Murray Watt, asked Colbeck repeatedly why there were workforce shortages in St. Basils aged care home when the senator and his department announced surge workforce plans in April.

The government sent letters to providers telling them that they could expect to lose 80 to 100 per cent of staff in the event of an outbreak, but Colbeck told senators that his department never imagined the scenario at St. Basil’s – where all staff were lost to isolation – and that his plan was for losing care direct care staff only.

Colbeck also told the committee that there was no official strategy to address surge workforce needs in aged care, which provoked an incredulous response from the chair.

“It’s just reactionary,” Gallagher said.

We learned that to date, there have been 1,426 aged care staff who have contracted the virus, with Colbeck telling the senators that four or five times that number would be isolating and therefore out of the workforce.

No way to stop the virus

The government was accused of a double failure in aged care, first letting the virus in to homes and then allowing them to spread.

Colbeck said that it was his belief that there was no way to stop the virus entering aged care. The only way to do so would be to isolate the sector completely and as long as there is community transmission he said, there would be COVID-19 in aged care.

When asked if the government had looked into how much it might cost to protect aged care residents form the virus, Colbeck replied that he did not believe that was possible.

Anderson sets record straight

Aged Care Quality and Safety Commissioner Janet Anderson used the hearing to set the record straight about misleading information she provided in a previous session.

She had previously stated that she had no knowledge of the outbreak at St. Basil’s outbreak until 14 July, when in fact her commission had been alerted by staff at the home on July 10 that a positive test had been found.

St. Basil’s had previously been accused of keeping authorities in the dark.

“I am now aware that the Commission had received information on 10 July via our telephone assessment contact about a COVID-19 outbreak at the home,” Anderson said.

“Although the Commission is not the first responder in a COVID-19 outbreak, and our understanding at the time was that the public health unit had been contacted, 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.”

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