“A system in crisis”: Aged Care Minister grilled over Federal Government’s response to Victorian COVID outbreaks – St. Basil’s and DHHS took five days to inform Department of Health of confirmed cases

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Senator Richard Colbeck has faced strong questioning on why over 1,000 COVID cases have been recorded in Victorian aged care services since 7 July – just over a month – in a tense hearing of the Senate Select Committee on the Australian Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic

Giving evidence from his home in Devonport, the Minister gave evidence that management at the site of Melbourne’s worst aged care outbreak – the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia-run St. Basil’s Home for the Aged in Fawkner, which now has 142 confirmed cases – did not inform the Department of Health of its outbreak on 9 July.

Five-day delay in learning of St. Basil’s outbreak

Minister Colbeck said the Department was only told of the outbreak by the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) on 14 July – five days later – with testing then arranged for residents and staff by the Department for the following day.

Newly minted Department of Health Secretary, Professor Brendan Murphy, added that he believed the DHHS may not have been aware of the outbreak until 14 July, citing the hundreds of outbreaks in Victoria.

Department of Health Secretary Professor Brendan Murphy

Professor Murphy said it was clear there had been delays in the Victorian Public Health Unit receiving the St. Basil’s tests back and identifying that there was an outbreak at the home.

Department not prepared for entire staff to be furloughed

The Minister also revealed that the Department had not been prepared for the entire staff of an aged care home – including back office staff – to be furloughed as had happened at St. Basil’s – which shocked the Committee’s Chair Labor Senator Katy Gallagher.

“It’s not seen as part of pandemic planning?” she questioned.

“Based on the evidence we’ve seen through quite a number of outbreaks, we haven’t had a circumstance,” the Minister responded.

Questions on learnings from Earle Haven

Labor Senator Murray Watt questioned why the Government had not learnt from the Earle Haven scandal last year where there wasn’t a workforce available and residents need to be transferred to other homes.

Minister Colbeck maintained these were “very different circumstances” with many residents COVID positive and greater availability of private hospital beds.

Senator Watt wouldn’t accept this however, citing the 2019 report into Earle Haven by Kate Carnell AO which recommended the Department of Health develop a response plan for homes at risk of imminent closure.

Minister says Government waiting for Royal Commission

The Department’s Deputy Secretary for Ageing and Aged Care, Michael Lye intervened, stating that aged care homes do have COVID outbreak management plans.

However, asked how many of Ms Carnell’s recommendations have been implemented, Minister Colbeck maintained they are waiting for the Royal Commission to make any major reforms.

“They don’t want a moving target,” he said, while naming all of the measures that have come in in the past 18 months including the new Quality Standards and the Quality Commission.

No ‘hit list’ of aged care homes with outbreaks

Minister Colbeck also said the Government would not publicly release the names of homes that have outbreaks because 80% of homes only have one confirmed case and they are “worried about reputational issues”.

“I’m reluctant to have a public hit list,” he said.

“One thing we have been stressing to the facilities is that all family members, who have family members in a facility, is advised of that,” he added.

Smaller facilities unequipped to deal with media enquiries

“So, the families engaged with those facilities are aware of that. I am concerned about the stress that’s placed on facilities by some of the public elements of this process. I understand where you’re coming from in one sense, but talking to, particularly, some of the smaller facilities, their capacity to deal with a huge influx of, say, media enquiries, can severely impact on the facility.”

Green Senator Rachel Siewert said this was unacceptable however, because the public had a right to know, particularly if the home was accepting new residents.

Both Minister Colbeck and Professor Murphy pointed out homes with confirmed cases are locked down so this cannot happen.

Formal review of St. Basil’s – Newmarch House report due next week

The Minister did promise the Committee there would be a formal review of the St. Basil’s outbreak.

He added that the Government’s formal review of the Newmarch House outbreak will also be publicly released next week after it is finalised, noting that the review of the Dorothy Henderson Lodge outbreak has already been handed over to the Royal Commission into Aged Care.

Minister blames community transmission for high case numbers

In the end however, it was clear the Committee wanted an answer to one question: why is the number of infections in Victoria’s aged care sector so high?

“What’s gone wrong?” Senator Gallagher flatly asked the Minister.

The Minister blamed high community transmission for infecting aged care workers, noting that over 1,000 healthcare workers have also been infected with two of the infected aged care residents contracting the virus in hospital.

“Some of the best facilities in the country are having outbreaks,” he said.

Some facilities better prepared than others

Senator Gallagher however pointed out all approved providers are required to be prepared for COVID-19 outbreaks.

After a pause, the Minister replied: “Some are better prepared than others,” adding by the time the Government is notified of an infection, it has usually spread in the facility.

“Do you think the Commonwealth did everything they could?” Senator Gallagher pushed. “So, you think your actions were timely? Did you intervene soon enough?”

“I think we have intervened in every single outbreak as soon as we’ve become aware of it,” the Minister replied.

The question is: will the Committee accept that the Department and the Minister were ‘proactive’ rather than ‘reactive’?