COVID-19 Aged Care – Grievance Debate

3 Aug | '2022

When COVID hit in early 2020, it was impossible to know the scale of the damage that it would do to our country. For the last 2½ years, Australians have followed the health advice to the letter; our chief medical officers and chief health officers have provided advice to both federal and state governments around the pandemic. We’ve had our vaccinations. I myself have had—I’ve almost lost count now— three, I think, so far, and I’m probably due for another one soon. We’ve worn our masks, we’ve socially distanced and we stayed at home for months at a time when the virus ran rampant through our cities. Many of us in this place actually isolated for two weeks at a time after each sitting of parliament, so there are many in this place who have been very much impacted by the lockdowns.

But as we learn to live with the virus, we need to remember that the pandemic is not over. We also need to remember that it was under our government that we actually rolled out the plan to learn to live with the virus, to get to the stage we’re at right now, where we are able to move between states and we’re not in a lockdown environment. It was our government that delivered that national plan, for those Australians who might be listening —but especially for those living and working in aged care or with loved ones in aged care, and that’s what I want to talk about tonight.

At the start of the pandemic, Labor played a fairly bipartisan role. Instead of tearing us down and having a go at us, they worked with us. They did, at that time, and they championed the health advice. But, in true Labor style, that quickly turned into political attacks undermining not only the government but also the advice from some of the best health experts in the world. Labor even preselected a candidate who repeatedly made anti-AstraZeneca comments throughout the vaccine rollout. In my own state of Queensland, there was also some anti-AstraZeneca sentiment coming from the now Governor, which at the time was inappropriate and had a dangerous impact on those having AstraZeneca. I myself had AstraZeneca, being in that age group. Then that changed, and I was thankfully fine with the AstraZeneca vaccine. But that’s how much they respected the advice from the top medical experts across our country. With more than 20 million lives saved worldwide with COVID-19 vaccines, it’s the AstraZeneca vaccine that has saved many more lives than any other.

If Labor weren’t attacking us on COVID-19 vaccines, then they were attacking us on aged care. It’s interesting that Labor said one thing when they were in opposition, about the work we did to protect aged-care residents and staff during COVID-19, but now that they’re in government the talking points have changed—speaking out of both sides of the mouth, in true Labor style. When the now Prime Minister was in opposition, he loved to say that the aged-care sector was in crisis. Well, it’s pretty clear that, since Labor came into government, less than three months ago, the crisis has worsened. I’ll just go through some numbers with you. When Labor were sworn in, in May, there were 6,274 active COVID-19 cases in 780 active outbreaks in residential aged-care facilities across the nation. By 29 July, so from May to the end of July, that number had increased drastically, to 9,906 active COVID-19 cases in 1,064 active outbreaks in residential aged-care facilities across the country. There was also an increase in deaths, sadly. Of course, every single death across the country that is related to COVID or that is related to anything across the country is a terrible travesty, but I’m talking particularly about the deaths from COVID and particularly in aged-care homes around the country.

There was an increase in deaths from 2,400 in May to 3,300 at the end of July in aged care alone. These are pretty big numbers on Labor’s watch. That’s just under 100 deaths a week in aged care under the Albanese government and almost more than the number of deaths in aged care in 2020 and 2021 combined. Clearly, there has been a massive increase in cases in aged care and a massive increase in deaths in aged care on Labor’s watch. In my home state of Queensland there were more than 40 deaths in aged care in July alone. I note the aged-care minister has already been out this week saying that aged-care residents are safer this winter than they were in previous winters, which is completely at odds with the rising figures of cases and deaths in aged care. Last year the now Minister for Health and Aged Care attacked our record on COVID-19 deaths in aged care, saying, ‘Tragically, 685 Australians died in aged-care homes from COVID-19 because the Morrison government didn’t have a plan.’ I say to Minister Butler and his government that if that is the benchmark, what is Labor’s plan? Do they even have a plan or are they just putting a bandaid solution on a bandaid solution and hoping that Australians turn the other eye.

With vaccination rates in aged care declining and a worsening workforce shortage, the government’s decision to extend ADF support until September is just another temporary solution. The government is facing rising numbers of cases and of deaths, and it’s clear it has no idea what it is doing when it comes to COVID-19 or to aged care. This also shows that Labor’s promise for 24/7 nurses in aged care is just an empty promise. There are clearly workforce challenges associated with that, which we heard today in the other chamber. There is no quick fix from Labor. Labor still hasn’t explained how it plans to support the workforce or how it will prioritise the needs of senior Australians in care. If it can’t sort out the workforce now, how can it possibly attract the thousands of nurses it needs to fulfil that promise to Australians? I don’t see how they are going to be able to do it. It’s easy to throw stones from the other side when you’ve never actually had to guide a nation through once-in-100-years pandemic. They should have been paying attention when we were in government, rather than just running attack lines through the media.

I’m incredibly proud to have been a member of the Morrison government during the last parliament. Under theleadership of Scott Morrison, Josh Frydenberg and Greg Hunt we invested over $45 million in our COVID-19 health response and $314 billion in economic support. Our vaccination rates were among the highest in the world and our loss of life was one of the lowest in the world. From the outset of the pandemic aged care was a major focus for the Morrison government, and we undertook significant measures to protect aged-care residents, staff and their families. We provided millions of units of PPE from the National Medical Stockpile, millions of rapid antigen tests, ADF support, surge workforce support, and additional payments to aged-care staff to recognise the extra work that they were undertaking, and I’m sure they remember that. It was also our government who called the royal commission into aged care, so as to ensure that Australians can access the respect, dignity and care that they deserve. We had a comprehensive response. Five key pillars were outlined by the minister—home care, residential aged-care services and sustainability, residential aged-care quality and safety, workforce, and governance—and there was an investment of $19.1 billion and, as part of a response, a plan to support the agedcare workforce, which is more than can be said for Labor.

So again I ask the government: what is it doing to reduce the increased number of deaths in aged care and protect our most vulnerable during COVID-19? And while, as I said, every loss of life is a deep tragedy, this government needs to be up-front with aged-care residents, with staff and with their families about what their plan is, because 800 deaths in the aged-care sector since May is simply not good enough. The government needs to do more to protect our vulnerable Australians during this current omicron wave, and clearly they haven’t been doing enough when it comes to those five key pillars set out by Minister Hunt when he was the Minister of Health and Aged Care in terms of moving forward with the sector to protect those most vulnerable Australians who are in aged care. I call this government to do more—to do more for quality, to do more for safety, to do more around the current omicron wave that is going through aged care and to do more to reduce the death rate.

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