As the elderly, frail and vulnerable succumb to COVID-19 in horrific circumstances in Commonwealth funded and regulated nursing homes across Melbourne, Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck was busy bright-siding the disaster this morning, telling Nine’s Today Show that “there’s much more that is good about this sector than bad”. That’s a disdainful comment given what The Herald Sun [$] has revealed about conditions inside the “horror homes” where outbreaks have occurred: faeces were found in beds and patients were left unfed for days at St Basil’s in Fawkner; staff at Epping Gardens Aged Care were forced to call triple-0 because there were only four of them on duty; and Australian Defence Force personnel have raised serious concerns for their safety after being deployed to help at Epping Gardens. Prime Minister Scott Morrison is not helping by saying it is “inevitable” that aged-care facilities will see COVID-19 infections due to the high amount of community transmission in Victoria. He appeared to be making light of it all by quipping: “When it rains, everyone gets wet.” Morrison, who has been engaged in a blame game with Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, today promised there will be more funding for aged care in the October federal budget. But funding is only part of the problem, and increasing it will achieve nothing if it goes straight into the pockets of providers. It’s the neoliberal model of private service provision under light-touch regulation that needs addressing.
Journalist Samantha Maiden has revealed the blame game between the Commonwealth and Victorian governments over the aged-care crisis, including a series of robust text messages between Morrison and Andrews. The PM blamed the premier for failing to relieve staffing pressure on the sector by cancelling elective surgery earlier. Victorian officials responded by accusing the Morrison government of bungling the crisis and describing a “sh*tshow” at the affected nursing homes. Andrews has insisted that short of “taking people off operating tables” the state could not have responded faster to the Morrison government’s request.
Along with blaming the Andrews government for allowing the virus into the community by mishandling hotel quarantine, the Coalition is trying to use the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety as a cover to escape blame for the COVID crisis in Victorian nursing homes. “We understand that there are some issues with aged care in this country,” Colbeck said this morning. “That’s why we’re having a royal commission. I mean, we called a royal commission so we could get a forensic look at the entire sector, and then design a policy off the back of that.” But the problems in aged care are longstanding and the Coalition, in power for seven years, cannot absolve itself of responsibility. The PM has refused to acknowledge his own share of the blame: his first budget as treasurer allowed for $1.2 billion in aged care “efficiencies”. Although, a fact check by the ABC and RMIT found that Labor’s claim that this was a cut was misleading, because it was offset by increased aged-care funding elsewhere. The fact check deemed that “an adjustment to future spending does not represent a ‘cut’ when the overall level of spending continues to rise”.
Acknowledging that “some” aged-care facilities were a problem, Colbeck’s response beggared belief when he claimed that the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission “watch those [facilities] very closely, and we work with them with respect to their standards”. If that’s the case, why is the commission only now, suddenly, threatening to withdraw the licence of St Basil’s?
“It’s not us versus them, Victoria versus the Commonwealth, in this sense. It’s all of us versus the virus,” Colbeck pleaded. But the blame game over the unfolding crisis in Victoria under the pressure of the second wave – combined with the sparring over border closes in WA and Queensland – could mark the moment when the solidarity of the national cabinet begins to crack. Rambling press conferences and fast-and-loose national cabinet meetings can only take the running of Australia so far. As Labor leader Anthony Albanese said today, enough is enough: “Parliament has to meet.”