With Richard Colbeck as the federal aged care minister, 685 Australians in aged care homes died from Covid. Is he asleep at the wheel? Colbeck’s lack of leadership since Covid emerged is now putting even more lives at risk by allowing staff to work at multiple aged care homes without residents and staff being vaccinated. Meanwhile, Colbeck has indicated he has no intention of resigning.
If the stakes weren’t so dreadfully high, Colbeck’s position would be comical. In a Senate estimates hearing in October, he said: “I don’t feel responsible personally for the deaths that have occurred, as tragic as they are, which were caused by Covid-19.”
How could he not feel responsible? Colbeck had advanced warning of the devastating impact that Covid-19 could wreak. It was clear he needed to prepare the private aged care sector for community transmission. Evidence from around the world showed Covid spread like wildfire in residential aged care settings.
At a Senate inquiry last year, Colbeck was also unable to recall how many residents had died during the pandemic.
During Colbeck’s tenure as aged care minister, deaths in aged care homes account for 74.6% of all deaths from Covid-19 in Australia, according to a Senate inquiry report. This is one of the world’s highest rates of deaths in residential aged care as a proportion of total Covid-19 deaths.
Older people who died of Covid were partners, siblings, parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and friends. Their deaths highlighted the systemic failures in the aged care sector and the federal government’s lack of planning for community transmission during the pandemic.
The federal government also did not have a specific pandemic plan for the aged care sector, a fact confirmed by the royal commission into aged care quality and safety. In response, Colbeck stated: “The government maintains its position that it has a plan in place.”
What the minister may have been referring to was the Department of Health’s 7th edition of the updated national Covid-19 aged care plan. Another great marketing trick from the prime minister’s playbook – give the impression there were six earlier editions of the aged care plan when in fact there were none.
Instead of taking responsibility for their failure to protect residents in aged care homes, federal health minister Greg Hunt, Scott Morrison and Colbeck indulged in semantics and repeatedly attempted to shift the blame.
When asked about the federal responsibility for aged care in August, Morrison responded in a word salad: “Well public health, we regulate aged care, but when there is a public health pandemic, then public health, which, whether it gets into aged care, shopping centres, schools or anywhere else, then they are things that are matters for Victoria. So I don’t think that it is as binary as you suggest.”
Which brings us to the vaccination rollout in private aged care homes. Rather than rely on the structures used to successfully administer the annual flu vaccine to residents, the federal government outsourced the vaccination rollout to private companies. Aspen Medical, Health Care Australia, Sonic Healthcare and International SOS have received $76m for this work, according to Department of Health associate secretary Caroline Edwards.
On 16 February, Hunt announced: “In the coming weeks, the vaccination program will reach more than 2,600 residential aged care facilities, more than 183,000 residents and 339,000 staff.” A few days later, Morrison said: “We’re ready to go … We have been preparing, we have been planning, we have been dotting the Is and crossing the Ts.”
Despite these vacuous announcements, the vaccination rollout has been an unmitigated disaster. More than three months after Hunt’s announcement, about 30% of aged care homes have not received their second dose. Colbeck said some homes had “chosen” to delay their vaccination, a claim challenged by operators of unvaccinated aged care homes in Melbourne.
And who knows how many staff have been vaccinated? Even Colbeck admits he doesn’t know because the government has not been collecting the data.
Aged care staff were supposed to be a priority in the vaccine rollout. Yet the vaccination workforce was contracted to vaccinate residents but not staff. Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation Victorian branch secretary Lisa Fitzpatrick said from the beginning of the rollout staff had only received a jab from visiting medical staff if there were leftovers. So who is responsible for vaccinating staff in private aged care homes?
According to the Department of Health fact sheet for staff, the “priority is to deliver choice and flexibility for aged care staff to receive a Covid-19 vaccination as quickly as possible in the safest way”. “Choice and flexibility” is actually code for staff having to make their own appointments at a GP clinic or a state-run vaccination site.
Let’s be clear: the only way to ensure residents in aged care homes are protected against Covid is to make sure residents and staff are vaccinated. Yet a recent survey shows only 11% of the aged care workforce have been vaccinated.
Colbeck cannot pass the buck. He is responsible for this failure.
Colbeck is also responsible for staff working in multiple aged care homes when neither residents nor staff have been vaccinated. Just putting out guidelines does not stop aged care workers working in multiple aged care homes.
This has now resulted in residents in Victoria once again being in lockdown, with some confined to their room. These lockdowns are profoundly damaging to residents’ mental and physical wellbeing. Some have argued they could also be illegal for reasons of false imprisonment.
Make no mistake: aged care homes are in lockdown in Victoria because Colbeck failed to deliver a successful vaccination rollout. While he says he is “very comfortable” with the vaccination rollout in aged care homes, many families in Victoria are extremely worried their loved one may test positive.
The horror story in aged care homes could have been prevented if Colbeck had tackled the systemic failures in the aged care sector. Instead, he just keeps kicking the can down the road and pouring money into a dysfunctional system.
Sooner or later Colbeck will need to take responsibility for all the heartbreaking tragedies and stuff-ups that have occurred on his watch.
First published in The Guardian 2 June 2021