However, bureaucrats had foreseen the Victorian outbreak’s catastrophic impact on the aged care workforce nearly eight weeks ago. An official document sent to providers on June 29 appeared to contradict Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s later claim the disaster that unfolded at St Basil’s in Melbourne was “a new situation, something that had not been anticipated or foreshadowed at a state level or considered at a federal level”.
“The residential aged care facility will need more staff and a higher proportion of RN [registered nursing] staff than usual,” the June letter said.
“Keep in mind up to 80 to 100 per cent of the workforce may need to isolate in a major outbreak. There may be difficulty recruiting agency staff during an outbreak … Where the provider is unable to sufficiently staff the facility, the Commonwealth case manager can assist. They can facilitate access to a temporary surge workforce.”
Instead, aged care residents in Melbourne were left without food or medical attention in facilities ravaged by COVID-19 after large numbers of staff were sent home to isolate – including the entire workforce at St Basil’s.
Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck said what the government had not anticipated was, in the case of St Basil’s Home for the Aged in Melbourne, “the removal of the entire workforce all at once, including clinical and non-clinical staff, including management and office staff”.
“This was a [Victorian Department of Health and Human Services] directive issued with 24 hours notice, which did not occur in NSW,” he said.
The minister said this was different from the health department advice, which related to frontline aged care workers only.
“The Australian government understood the implications the spread of COVID-19 could have on the aged care workforce,” Senator Colbeck said, adding the federal government “committed $101.2 million in April to help aged care providers boost their workforce capacity”.
Labor senators will grill Minister Colbeck on the issue when he appears before the COVID-19 committee on Friday, when National Cabinet is due to meet and formalise a new aged care preparedness plan.
Opposition aged care spokeswoman Julie Collins said the federal government “knew about the potential for a disastrous withdrawal of staff at an aged care home because of COVID-19 , but they did not do enough to prepare for this”.
She said the surge workforce provided by the federal government, which regulates the aged care sector, had been “inadequate to deal with outbreaks of COVID-19” in Victoria and the Prime Minister should have had “a proper plan”.
Earlier this month, then-Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy told a COVID-19 Senate inquiry it was not part of the government’s pandemic plan that aged care centres might lose their entire workforces as it was “very unusual for every single member of the staff to be classed as a close contact”.
Under the new aged care preparedness plan to be signed off on Friday, response centres like the one established in Victoria in late July would be set up in every state and territory, with Australian Defence Force and state health teams to provide face-to-face training on infection control.
Arrangements to transfer elderly residents to hospital if they test positive for COVID-19 would also be locked in, with private hospitals to play a key role under their agreement with the federal government.
Dana is health and industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.