Not responsible for deaths, says minister

COVID has claimed the lives of 907 people in Australia, with the majority (685) in aged care homes. That gives us the ‘distinction’ of having one of the highest rates worldwide of deaths in residential aged care as a percentage of total deaths.

What does the person in charge of the sector, aged care minister Richard Colbeck, say about that?

“I don’t feel responsible personally for the deaths that have occurred, as tragic as they all are, which have been caused by COVID-19,” he told a Senate committee hearing.

He said the federal government response had saved lives, and that “all of us who have been part of the broader health response, including that around aged care, have played a role in managing that process”.

Responsibility was not part of his response, despite the appalling number of deaths.

Mr Colbeck said that while he acknowledged the Senate had passed a censure motion against him in September, when he was unable to answer critical questions about deaths and protocols in aged care, he said he was determined to continue the work he had been doing since the beginning of the COVID outbreak in “the interests of senior Australians and particularly those in aged care”.

Labor Senator Kristina Keneally asked whether anything could have been done differently to prevent deaths in aged care.

“The thing that would have saved lives … was the prevention of the escape of COVID-19 in Victoria leading to the second wave,” Mr Colbeck said.

“We’ve said that in some circumstances, particularly with respect to what happened when we were required to take over, for example, St Basil’s, where every single member of staff on the site including management were furloughed by the decision of … the Victorian health department, could have been managed better. We acknowledged that at the time, I think, appropriately.”

The former parliamentary secretary for agriculture was asked whether he had requested the aged care portfolio.

“The appointment of the ministry is something that is the gift of the prime minister, and we all serve at his pleasure,” he replied, adding that he would like to remain in aged care in the upcoming cabinet reshuffle.

Mr Colbeck recommitted to providing a response to Parliament by 1 December on the actions taken after the aged care royal commission’s special report, which found the Morrison government’s attempt to prepare the sector for COVID-19 was insufficient in some respects.

Professor Joseph Ibrahim, head of the health law and ageing research unit at Monash University and an expert witness at the royal commission, told The Lancet that “Homer Simpson could have seen the catastrophe in aged care coming with COVID-19 because it was there in your face”.

“All I know is that you can’t accept things as they are, because they’re not right,” he said.

The federal government transformed the sector in 1997 under the Aged Care Act into a free-market model. Prof. Ibrahim described that move as “ill-conceived”.

The Lancet explained that the transformation meant aged care and healthcare were to be treated as separate industries. “As a result, private investment into aged care was able to flourish, which, experts say, turned people from patients into consumers.”

Kathy Eagar, professor of health services research and director of the Australian Health Services Research Institute at the University of Wollongong, said that back then, aged care was criticised as being too institutional, so it was packaged as a social model of care that did not need regulation. “On that basis, they deregulated staff. By packaging residential aged care as social care, it dumbed down the care and created the perfect storm. This has been a disaster waiting to happen.”

By turning aged care into social care, the sector had been able to justify not having good infection prevention and control measures, sufficient staff ratios and adequately trained staff.

“The system is not fit for purpose. When you have a system that doesn’t even require a nurse to be on the premises, then the whole thing is going to be a disaster… The pendulum has swung too far,” she said.

In a special report published last month, the royal commission found that the government’s attempt to prepare the sector for COVID-19 was insufficient. It made six recommendations, that included deploying infection control experts into nursing homes as a condition of accreditation.

The royal commission is due to release its final report in February.

Should the federal government have seen that a ‘perfect storm’ would hit the aged care sector? Has there been a lot of oversight and preparedness to accept responsibility? Do you believe recommendations from the royal commission will be acted on?

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Written by Janelle Ward

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