The federal government has clashed with the Royal Commission into Aged Care, strongly rejecting the claim by senior counsel assisting the inquiry Peter Rozen that it had no specific COVID-19 plan for the sector.
Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck told a news conference: “We have had a plan to deal with COVID-19 in residential aged care, going right back to the beginnings of our preparations.
"We’ve been engaged with the sector since late January, and continuously working with the sector to ensure they have all the information they require and the support that they need in the circumstance that they might have an outbreak of COVID-19.”
Acting chief medical officer Paul Kelly said: “We have been planning for our aged population as a vulnerable group since the beginning of our planning in relation to COVID-19”. And there had been “very strong communication with the sector throughout,” he said.
Rozen, in a Monday statement at the opening of this week’s hearings on COVID in the aged care sector, said while much was done to prepare the health sector more generally for the pandemic, “neither the Commonwealth Department of Health nor the aged care regulator developed a COVID-19 plan specifically for the aged care sector”.
The sector had been underprepared, he said.
Asked whether the government’s plan had failed, Colbeck admitted there had been “some circumstances where things haven’t gone as we would like”, saying “the circumstance at St Basil’s [in Melbourne] is one, where we didn’t get it all right”.
On Wednesday the commission will take evidence from Janet Anderson, head of the Commonwealth regulator, the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission, which Rozen said “did not have an appropriate aged care sector COVID-19 response plan”.
The government has left Anderson out to dry, after it was belatedly discovered her body was told of an outbreak at St Basil’s two days after a staffer was diagnosed, but it failed to pass on the information.
Quizzed about this, Colbeck said under the protocols, “the Commonwealth should have been advised of the outbreak on 9 July by either the Victorian health department or St Basil’s management or both. Instead it was formally informed on July 14.”
But he was also critical of the Quality and Safety Commission which was informed of the outbreak when it was speaking to the home as part of a survey about preparedness and infection control.
“The disappointing thing, from my perspective, is that the information that was gleaned … about a positive outbreak wasn’t passed on to anyone else,” Colbeck said.
“There was an assumption made … that information had already been passed on. It wasn’t.
"The gap in the supply chain, or the information chain, has now been closed. … There should not have been a hole in our systems. That’s been rectified appropriately, as it should have been.”
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra