Prime Minister Scott Morrison issued the “strong reminder” against shutting off elderly residents from their families or keeping them in their rooms, following a meeting of the National Cabinet on Tuesday.
Under the current Department of Health guidelines, residents can only have two visitors per day in their room for a short time.
But many providers have restricted ‘non-essential visitors’, only permitting end-of-life and palliative care visits.
“We are very concerned about the impact of restrictions that had been put in place in aged care facilities over and above what was recommended by the National Cabinet,” he said.
“There is great concern that the isolation of elderly people in residential care facilities where they have been prevented from having any visitors.”
“[It] is not good for their wellbeing, [it]is not good for their health.”
Mr Morrison said while there was a need for extra awareness and safety around aged care home during the COVID-19 pandemic, some homes needed to relax their rules.
“National Cabinet agreed there needs to be a strong reminder that [the]decision was to not shut people off or to lock them away in their rooms,” he said.
“That was never the recommendation nor the advice of the National Cabinet.”
The Prime Minister then suggested that the restrictions were being done more for the benefit of the operators than the residents.
“We think it is a good thing for people to have those visits in accordance with those screening procedures and other things that are necessary to protect elderly residents in those situations. It shouldn’t be done out of the convenience of isolation in terms of how these facilities are run, it should always be done always only in the interests of the care of those who are living in those facilities.”
The aged care peaks rejected this argument however. LASA CEO Sean Rooney said providers had not implanted visitor restrictions lightly and that they were in place to save lives.
“The reality is that, if providers in COVID-19 hotspots like Sydney and elsewhere had not gone beyond the official guidance when it was first issued there would likely have been many more outbreaks with dire consequences for the safety of residents and staff,” he stated.
Envigor CEO Nick Loudon – who argued that the Government “doesn’t listen” to providers in yesterday’s issue – said this is another example of the Commonwealth failing to consult with providers.
“Without any warning whatsoever, announcements to the effect that ‘there is no reason for Aged Care Homes to be in lockdown and families should be able to visit their elderly loved ones’ – that’s the only bit of yesterdays and today’s announcement people will hear,” he said.
“Nonetheless, Aged Care Providers WILL be expected by governments and health departments (Federal and State) to maintain all sorts of additional restrictions, surveillance and interventions (resource intensive) over and above those required in the normal (pre COVID 19) circumstance; all in order to ensure the ongoing safety and wellbeing of the many elderly, vulnerable people in their care.”
There is certainly no acknowledgement of the low rates of infection in Australia’s aged care homes compared to overseas – or the fact that providers are incurring higher costs to meet these infection control measures and keep residents connected with their communities in the Prime Minister’s announcement.
Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy used the argument that there were extra precautions in place for homes including priority testing for aged care staff and more Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) being provided to operators.
“We are all concerned about the terrible tragedies that happen when you have a big aged care outbreak and of course we understand the need to protect the residents,” he said.
“And that protection is best achieved by ensuring that nobody, nobody, enters an aged care facility if they are in any way unwell. No staff member, no visitor, no-one coming in for any other reason. You do not go into to an aged care facility if you have the slightest respiratory symptom, a sore throat or a tickle, you stay away.”
But as the aged care outbreaks that have already occurred in Australia have shown, many cases of COVID-19 are asymptomatic.
Even with temperature testing and monitoring of symptoms, how can operators be certain that visitors are not infected?
As shown, outbreaks can still happen when staff are infected.
We have not heard of any providers denying entry to a family member who insisted on seeing their loved one or visits to residents receiving palliative and end-of-life care – most providers say the majority of families welcomed visitor restrictions as a way to safeguard their relative.
We have also not heard of providers restricting residents to their room unless there is a case of COVID-19 in the home – in many cases, homes have been encouraging residents to move freely because of the lack of visitors.
Finally, it is critical to remember that residents can make their own choices.
During the recent Ansell Strategic video conference with UK aged care operator Black Swan, Managing Director Tom Lyons said their residents had been told that the Government guidance was for residents to stay in their rooms and socially distance from their fellow residents.
Around 90% of residents opted to leave their rooms and come to the common areas.
Should we not be asking the residents themselves whether or not they want visitor restrictions eased?