On the ropes
Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck was left floundering
Prime Minister Scott Morrison had to affirm his confidence in Senator Richard Colbeck, after the aged-care minister’s car-crash performance before the Senate’s COVID-19 committee this morning. Colbeck could not say how many people had died in federally funded and regulated aged-care facilities, or how many people in those facilities were infected with the virus. An official came to Colbeck’s rescue, confirming that there had been 258 deaths in aged-care settings as of yesterday morning, of which 254 were in residential care. The chair of the inquiry, Labor Senator Katy Gallagher, shook her head: “You don’t know how many people have passed away. You’re now telling me you don’t know how many people have the infection … It’s not front of mind for you, as minister for aged care? The numbers? They’re pretty important details as we go through this pandemic and the heartbreaking scenes in Victoria.” A few hours later, the PM was asked whether he still had confidence in Colbeck, and whether he shouldn’t be sacked for incompetence. “I do have confidence,” Morrison said, noting that everyone was working 24/7. “I am sure the minister regrets not being able to bring those figures immediately to mind. On occasion I can’t bring figures to mind.”
But it’s not about Colbeck forgetting a figure. It’s about him failing to do his job of protecting the elderly in federally funded and regulated nursing homes from COVID-19. At this morning’s committee hearing, Colbeck had a testy exchange with Gallagher about whether the Commonwealth was in charge of aged care, and whether the Commonwealth had been “absent” from its responsibilities. “The government wasn’t absent,” Colbeck said. “I think it’s quite an offensive … assertion that you make.” He admitted there had not been a specific surge workforce strategy to prepare for the situation predicted by the health department in June – which advised providers to be aware that 80–100 per cent of their workforce may abruptly disappear due to the need to isolate – saying it was part of the “overall health response”.
Gallagher: “Is there a workforce surge strategy for aged care?”
Colbeck: “There is not a document.”
Colbeck said that the government had announced a $101 million workforce surge plan on March 11, a week after the outbreak commenced at Sydney’s Dorothy Henderson Lodge, Australia’s first COVID-19 cluster, which caused three deaths. A report into that outbreak, which warned that staffing issues would be critical, was given to the government in April and made public in last week’s hearings of the aged-care royal commission.
Labor Senator Murray Watt asked Colbeck: “So the prime minister has also known, since March, that in the event of an outbreak, there would be a serious workforce impact on aged-care facilities, such that they may lose almost their entire care workforce?” Colbeck accused Watt of embellishing, and said the government foresaw that it would need to assist aged-care providers to supplement their workforce. What was not foreseen, the government says, was the kind of situation that occurred at St Basils in Melbourne – now the subject of a class action – where the entire care staff was stood down and replaced by a surge workforce when the federal government intervened. In July, the PM described the situation at St Basils as “unprecedented”, and today he defended that comment, saying: “I think it’s important to quote me in context. What I was referring to there was the immediate and without-notice full removal of a workforce. And that was not a scenario that had been contemplated.”
Under questioning from Greens senator Rachel Siewert as to why infection and death rates were so much higher in federally funded and regulated nursing homes in Victoria than in state-run homes, the health department secretary, Professor Brendan Murphy, explained that while there had been no detailed analysis done, most of the state-run homes were outside the hotspots in Melbourne. It would be good to see that analysis done.
The PM announced $171 million in additional spending on aged care today, taking total pandemic-response spending on aged care to $1 billion, but his proposal for infection control “hit squads” was not supported – he told reporters the meeting saw “no need at this point to move any of those other states and territories to the footing that we have in Victoria”.
Morrison wanted to look on the bright side today, sermonising that this was a “week of hope” with a vaccine on the horizon, Victoria’s case numbers turning the corner and NSW demonstrating how to “stay open” through the pandemic, through testing, tracing and outbreak containment. For at least 254 families and counting, that is going to sound very hollow.
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“‘When did you write that? How did you happen ... to ... uh ...’ The nervous and incredulous male voice stops there on the tape. It’s 1954, and Connie Converse, the singer and songwriter who has elicited this response, has just recorded one of her songs onto the reel-to-reel. Fifty-five years later the quality of the song is undeniable and the questions put to her still have a strange poignancy. How did she write these songs? How did it happen that at the great cultural crossroads of postwar New York there was a lone woman writing songs on guitar with a sophistication of lyric and melody unmatched by any other folk songwriter of the time? It stumped the man who was recording her, and her answers, if she gave any, aren’t on the tape.”
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Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Body Count: How Climate Change Is Killing Us, Inside the Greens and Born To Rule: The Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm Turnbull.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison had to affirm his confidence in Senator Richard Colbeck, after the aged-care minister’s car-crash performance before the Senate’s COVID-19 committee this morning. Colbeck could not say how many people had died in federally funded and regulated aged-care facilities, or how many people in those facilities were infected with the virus. An official came to Colbeck’s rescue, confirming that there had been 258 deaths in aged-care settings as of yesterday morning, of which 254 were in residential care. The chair of the inquiry, Labor Senator Katy Gallagher, shook her head: “You don’t know how many people have passed away. You’re now telling me you don’t know how many people...
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