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You had one job, Greg Hunt

A third spread of Covid-19 in Victorian aged-care homes was not just a possibility: it was almost a given. Even before a vaccine was available, the federal government ended the support payment intended to stop casual staff working across multiple sites.

A further outbreak of Covid-19 in Victorian aged-care homes was not just a possibility: it was almost a given. Even before a vaccine was available, the federal government ended the support payment intended to stop casual staff working across multiple sites. That is exactly how the virus spread.

 

Guest: Senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton.

Show Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

 

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am.

 

The spread - again - of Covid-19 in Victorian aged-care homes was not just a possibility: it was almost a given. 

 

Even before a vaccine was available, the federal government ended the support payment intended to stop casual aged-care staff working across multiple sites. 

 

Today, Rick Morton on how that decision meant history was bound to repeat.

  

[Theme Music Ends]

 

RUBY:

Rick, as the current outbreak began to hit Victoria we heard that there was an aged care worker who had tested positive. I'm sure I'm not the only person who got a sinking feeling at that news. What about you? 

 

RICK:

It made me feel sick. Like, I remember where I was when I saw it and I was waiting for it, to be quite frank, but I didn't want it to happen. And then you hear this news that this is the first one and you know how this works, right? You know what happened in Aged Care last year? 

 

RUBY:

Rick Morton is a senior reporter for The Saturday Paper.

 

RICK:

So many people died, hundreds of people died. And I just felt physically ill. Because it all felt preventable. It felt like we were hurtling towards this thing that didn't need to happen. And here we were facing it. 

 

RUBY:

So can you tell me about what happened this time around then? What do we know? 

 

RICK:

So the Saturday before last, an aged care worker in Melbourne who had received one dose of the Pfizer vaccine, tested positive for Covid-19. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #1:

“Victorian authorities have extreme concerns after the emergence of a mystery Covid-19 case who is a health care worker at an aged care facility.”

 

RICK:

Then on Monday, a resident of Arcare Maidstone, in Melbourne's north, where the positive employee worked, also tested positive for Coronavirus. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #2: 

“Victoria’s Covid crisis is deepening with 11 new cases today including an aged care resident.”

 

RICK:

The woman in her 90s was transferred to hospital straight away. And then the worker's son also contracted the virus, as did a second worker at Arcare Maidstone. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #3: 

“A woman in her 50s, a worker here tested positive for the virus over the weekend.”

 

RICK:

By Wednesday of last week, a second resident of the Arcare Nursing Home had tested positive. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #4: 

“This 89 year old resident was living in an adjacent room to the first resident to test positive here at Arcare in Maidstone.”

 

RICK:

And as was the case in 84% of aged-care outbreaks of Covid-19 last year, where more than 680 nursing home residents died because of the virus, the pathogen was seeded into Arcare Maidstone by staff members who didn't even know they were sick. This was history repeating itself. 

 

RUBY:

So how did this happen, Rick? How is it possible that we saw multiple people in the aged care sector test positive once again? 

 

RICK:

Well, you know, part of it comes down to the fact that the federal government quietly removed this crucial element of public health control, which was one of the key measures introduced during the pandemic to keep people in aged care homes and staff safe. And that was a scheme that paid compensation to aged care workers, in lieu of them working across multiple jobs at different locations. And so this scheme, knowing that that was a public health problem, rather than punish the people who were just trying to live, actually compensated them for staying in one location. And that was actually, you know, a really important lever that was used last year. 

 

And then the Commonwealth withdrew it on November 30, months before we actually had any vaccine available in Australia. And it kind of seemed like the government policy was being made on, you know, based on sincere hope. You know, hope that we wouldn't get an outbreak. Hope that we won't need this thing, because we don't want to pay for it in the interim. And this was, you know, one crucial error in a catalogue of mistakes in the lead up to the positive cases at Arcare Maidstone. 

 

RUBY:

And so Rick the removal of this scheme, the scheme that was put in place to try and stop workers accidentally spreading Covid-19 across different nursing homes after the outbreak last time. How does the removal of that scheme play into the current situation here in Victoria, exactly?

 

RICK:

So on Tuesday night, we had this Zoom meeting from the managers of Arcare Maidstone. They provided this briefing to family members and staff at the nursing home about what was happening. And on that Zoom call were the Department of Health officials who were actually texting with Health Minister Greg Hunt, who couldn't be on the call but was being apprised of what was happening while it was happening. And they also had the acting chief medical officer, Michael Kidd, and the nursing home managers were actually telling people on the call - and I spoke to some of them - that, you know, they were unable to prevent staff from working across multiple sites until the federal government recognised Melbourne as a Covid-19 hot spot, which happened on May 27. But by then it was too late, they already had a worker who was, unbeknownst to her, positive and had filled in some shifts at Blue Cross facility in Sunshine. 

 

And this is the issue. Because this is how we know, from experience, this thing spreads. It comes in as we thought through the worker, unwittingly. But then because people have a need to work, and to live, and to feed their families, it gets into other facilities. Because this is a highly casualised workforce. There is a lot of movement between facilities, often between different providers and different companies, but the same staff, agency staff, labour hire staff. 

 

So this is what we were dealing with and that's what this scheme was meant to do. And that was the thing that ended on November 30, because the federal government just sincerely hoped that we wouldn't be in this position again. 

 

RUBY:

We'll be back after this. 

 

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RUBY:

Rick, we're talking about the Covid-19 cases that we saw in aged care in Victoria recently and the fear, I suppose, that the situation could begin in a worst case scenario to resemble what we saw last year. But things are supposed to be different now, principally because the vaccine is now available. So how many residents and workers in aged care are vaccinated right now? 

 

RICK:

So the numbers will be a little bit higher now. But as of the middle of last week, Senate estimates were told that there were 64% of nursing home residents across the country who had received both doses of a vaccine, typically Pfizer. In Victoria in the middle of this outbreak, it was just 57 percent of nursing home residents who had received both doses. But there was a lot of confusion when it comes to workers. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Commentator #1: 

“How many aged-care workers in Victoria have been vaccinated with either their first or second dose?”

 

RICK:

And this is magnified last week because there was just no idea from the government, from the Department of Health bureaucrats, they couldn't tell you precisely how many staff members in aged care had been vaccinated. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Commentator #2: 

“So about 32,000 aged-care workers nationally have received two doses?”

 

Archival Tape --  Unidentified Commentator #3: 

“Through the Commonwealth inreach process. It necessarily underestimates, because there would be large numbers of staff who, for whatever reason, have gone to their GP or gone through some other mechanism.”

 

RICK:

So what they did was they said, well, we can tell you that it's at least 33,000 employees who have been vaccinated with one or two doses

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Commentator #4:  

“That's less than 10% of the aged-care workforce nationally has had two doses.It’s nearly six months since the vaccine rollout began...”

 

RICK:

And if you think that's bad in aged care, wait till you hear about the numbers in the disability sector. So remembering that these are both the two biggest priorities. You've got aged care residents, and then you’ve got disabled people living in group homes and congregate care settings, so similar to nursing homes, but at a smaller scale. There are 26,000 disabled people living in similar homes like that. And on, you know, May 29, the number of people who had been vaccinated is almost unbelievable. It was only 355 people who had received two doses. So we're talking about 1% of disabled people in these institutions who had been fully vaccinated by May 29. This is four months after the rollout began. 

 

Sometime in March, the government dropped the commitment to disabled people so they could “refocus” resources on getting the aged care job done. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Commentator #4:

“What happened to the Prime Minister's commitment made publicly in January about aged-care workers being the priority? You just said that residents were prioritised over staff. When was that decision taken? Why wasn't it explained to the public?

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Commentator #6: 

Both residents and staff were categorised in 1A.”

 

RICK:

Now, when that mission also looked doomed, despite the fact that they had kind of thrown disabled people under the bus, the Commonwealth all but abandoned aged care workers to yet again refocus on residents. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Commentator #6: 

“And we learnt in the Covid hearing that aged care was prioritised over disability care. But nothing is ever said about that.”

 

RICK:

So we've got two sets here of occasions where they've had to abandon priority groups so they can refocus the program. And at the end, all of their attention, at least in theory, was on aged care residents and they still have not completed the job. And it is now June. 

 

RUBY:

So what you're saying is that the original plan was to vaccinate everyone in aged care residents and workers, as well as people who live in disability care facilities all at the same time. But things went so badly with the rollout that the government had to scale that back and restrict their vaccination plans down to essentially only aged care residents. And, even then, we're in a situation where only just over half of those residents had been vaccinated at the time of the outbreak. 

 

RICK:

That's correct. And given the nature of the way the vaccines are done, they won't be finished until at least the end of June because there's a three week gap with Pfizer between the first and second dose when you can administer it. 

 

And so they're not done. They won't be done for weeks yet. And, and this was, as someone put it to me last week when I was you know, they were involved in negotiations with Greg Hunt: this was essentially the only job the Commonwealth had. You know, they secured the vaccine doses. And the argument is they didn't get enough of them. And I suspect that's right. But then they gave those doses to the GP clinics, to state health systems, which traditionally do vaccinations in this country, quarantine officials, frontline health workers and the states did most of those. So really, the only thing the Commonwealth had to worry about was vaccinating aged care residents and staff and disability care residents and staff. And they failed. 

 

RUBY:

And so who is responsible here, Rick? Is it the Federal Health Minister? Do the aged-care centres themselves have a role in this? 

 

RICK:

Look, they all do. But Greg Hunt is the cabinet minister responsible for Health and Education. And by his own admission, he's had a bit of a shocker. 

 

Archival Tape -- 

“In terms of workforce, around the country what we have is just over 70,000 with a proportionate amount of Victorians that have been identified as…”

 

RICK:

You know, last week, he mistakenly claimed that 70,000 workers had been fully vaccinated, but what he meant to say, which apparently the Department of Health ill advised him, was that the figure was referring to the number of doses administered. So it's half that, which is the 33,000 figure, essentially. 

 

And then on Monday, he told the media that only six nursing homes in Australia were yet to be visited by a vaccination team. The real number was twenty one.

 

Archival Tape -- Greg Hunt: 

“So we have, as noted already, completed, prior to yesterday, all but 20—not 21, on the latest advice that I had, coming into question time.”

 

RICK:

And he had to correct that in Question Time in the House of Representatives. 

 

There are two separate arguments here about how you deal with this thing. There has to be a kind of realpolitik. You have to look at what you've got. And yes, providers should do better. And yes, they should be more accountable and culpable. But in the thick of a disaster, you can't just say: fix it. Because you know they're not capable. So you need to actually come in and do what you promised to do. And it's the same with the vaccinations. Do what you promised to do. They were waiting and it didn't happen.

 

RUBY:

And, Rick, what about the people in aged care? You’ve outlined the government's failings, but what about the psychological toll, the feelings of disempowerment and of being disregarded that I am sure must be there for the people who are in aged care?

 

RICK:

Yes. And I think that's something that is often overlooked not just by the federal government, but by people. We think, oh good, there's no more cases. But, you know, Blue Cross had to go into lockdown because the worker had been there while positive. There are residents and workers in aged care homes across Victoria and in disability accommodation, which has fared even worse, who are wondering, ‘Are we safe?’ 

 

You know, this thing got out again. We knew it was always a risk. We knew it was a very high likelihood that we would have another outbreak in Australia, particularly as these different variants emerged around the world. And we didn't know what our experience was going to be. And, you know, the Royal Commission did a report. The Aged Care Royal Commission did a separate report on the Covid-19 response, which was released on October 1 last year. And they said: we had to do this because there is a real threat that more people will die, and that we need to know the government has learnt something; and I'm not entirely convinced that they did. 

 

All of this stuff is contributing to the psychological toll which was felt throughout nursing homes in Australia last year. Even when they didn't have Covid-19 they were locked down, they couldn't see friends and family. You know it looks like Arcare Maidstone, whatever happens, will be in lockdown at least for a month. That's what they were told on the Zoom meeting last Tuesday night, because they just need to be sure. And the loneliness that creeps in of being not just abandoned or that feeling rejected by your own kind of people in your own government, but also not being able to see your loved ones, not being able to touch them or hold them. And that's the toll of this whole thing. And that's what people suffer when you can't get your vaccination programme right. And then to act like nothing went wrong: what hope is there that things will be better in the future if you can't concede this? 

 

RUBY:

Rick, thank you so much for your time. 

 

RICK:

Thanks Ruby, I appreciate it. 

 

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[Theme Music Starts]

 

RUBY:

Also in the news today: 

 

The minister for home affairs has given the first indication that the Tamil family from Biloela, currently being held on Christmas Island, might be offered ‘resettlement options’. 

 

The statement comes after the family’s three-year-old daughter was medically evacuated to Perth following 10 days of fever, vomiting, diarrhoea and dizziness.

 

And in Victoria, acting premier James Merlino said the state was, quote, ‘on track’ for an easing of restrictions this Friday. Only two new cases were recorded in the state yesterday.

 

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. From tomorrow, I’m taking a short break from the show to work on a special series we will be releasing later this year. 

 

Osman Faruqi will be in the chair. And I’ll be back later next week. See you then.

 

[Theme Music Ends]

 

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