ADF called in to save aged care sector 'in crisis'

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has admitted that the nation’s aged care system is “in crisis” and has agreed to let the Australian Defence Force (ADF) step in to ease the burden.

Up to 1700 defence staff may be called in to help ease the pressure on Australia’s already struggling aged care system.

Staff shortages due to COVID isolation requirements and burnout, combined with repeated deadly outbreaks and a lack of access to rapid antigen tests (RATs), have brought the sector to its knees.

After the idea was first floated by defence minister Peter Dutton, unions and aged care providers backed using ADF members to cover critical shortages.

“Defence personnel could provide support in kitchens, laundries, and [with] cleaning duties in aged care homes to enable the maximum number of front-facing care staff who know residents to provide care. Nurses employed by the ADF would be valuable at the frontline,” said former NSW premier Mike Baird, who is chief executive of aged care provider HammondCare.

Read: Government announces new in-home aged care program

Now, it seems the PM has heeded the call. Appearing at a press conference alongside Peter Dutton, Mr Morrison announced that he would be sending in the ADF but warned that it should not be viewed as a “surrogate workforce for the aged care sector”.

“There are around 285,000 people who work in the aged care sector,” the prime minister said.

“So the idea that the defence forces can come in and just replace all of the shifts that are lost because people have COVID … is just not realistic,” he said.

“In each state and territory, it will begin with around 50 personnel going to support each state and [then] up to 200. So we’ll have up to around 1700 defence force personnel assisting.”

ADF members will not replace lost shifts but will instead perform a range of specific clinical, logistical and general support roles.

Read: Aged care expert tells why aged care is ‘so expensive’

“This is a significant intervention by the Australian Defence Force. Up to 1700 of our personnel will provide assistance at our aged care facilities and, in particular, at those that are most in need,” Mr Dutton said.

“Hundreds of thousands involved in the [aged care] workforce need support and we’ll provide them with that support, but we can’t replace that workforce, nor would we want to try and do that.”

While the assistance will be surely welcome, aged care in Australia still faces many challenges that are only being exacerbated by the pandemic.

The royal commission into aged care, which concluded in March last year, revealed that the sector was in dire need of reform, with chronic staff shortages and high staff turnover, substandard care and a lack of funding.

The report’s authors recommended a complete overhaul of the system, and the implementation of a new rights-based aged care act.

Read: Most aged care homes would fail minimum staffing standards

But the government has been accused of watering down any legally binding entitlements to aged care.

“This is not what older people tell us they want, nor what the two commissioners said in their final report. They were in lock step for a rights-based approach to be taken in the new act,” says Craig Gear, chief executive of the Older Persons Advocacy Network (OPAN).

“This was the very first recommendation in their report, because it will be the bedrock of a new aged care system built around human rights for older people. It is the foundation stone of every other reform.”

If the recommendations of the royal commission had been taken seriously, would there be a need to send in the military to support aged care now?

Do you think the government is committed to quality aged care? Is sending in the military the only option we have? Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?

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Written by Brad Lockyer

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