Hotel quarantine, protecting the elderly, and supplying the vaccine is Canberra’s responsibility. Instead, they’ve decided to shift the blame and politicise the issue.
There have been three areas of major failures during the Covid-19 pandemic: hotel quarantine, aged care, and the vaccination rollout. These are all areas of Commonwealth responsibility.
Experts warned the federal government that a pandemic with potentially devastating consequences was coming. CSIRO, for example, alerted the government of the likelihood of a pandemic due to the growth in the global population and international travel. They also warned about the dangers inherent in the incursion of human settlements into wildlife habitats, the live animal trade, and modern livestock management practices.
Why then was the federal government so poorly prepared for Covid-19?
Scott Morrison not only failed to coordinate a national approach to quarantine and aged care but he and his colleagues sat on the sidelines providing unhelpful commentary. Rather than show leadership, Federal Ministers chose to politicise the pandemic.
When the National Cabinet met on 27 March, the state premiers were shocked when Scott Morrison arrived at the meeting with no quarantine plan. State and territory leaders were forced to devise their own plans. It was the premiers of NSW and Victoria, not the Prime Minister, who proposed that all arrivals should undertake 14 days quarantine in a hotel. Given the federal government’s obvious lack of planning, it was decided that the states and territories would run the hotel quarantine system.
When the first outbreak of Covid hit BaptistCare’s Dorothy Henderson Lodge in NSW in March, it was clear that the federal Health Minister had no national plan for aged care. Instead, government guidelines outsourced responsibility to each individual aged care home, claiming providers were responsible for their own pandemic plan.
With 909 people dying from Covid in Australia, the federal government congratulates itself on Australia’s low death rate compared to the rest of the world. However, Australia has one of the highest rates in the world of deaths in residential aged care as a proportion of total Covid-19 deaths.
A Senate inquiry noted that deaths in aged care homes “account for 74.6% of all deaths from Covid-19 in Australia”. Many deaths could have been prevented had the federal government prepared the aged sector for the pandemic.
Which brings us to the vaccination rollout in federal aged care homes. It was outsourced to Healthcare Australia and Aspen Medical. Healthcare Australia was contracted to provide the vaccination workforce in NSW and Queensland and Aspen Medical for the other states and territories.
On 16 February 2021, the Health Minister announced: “In the coming weeks, the vaccination program will reach more than 2,600 residential aged care facilities, more than 183,000 residents, and 339,000 staff.” A few days later, the Prime Minister said: “We’re ready to go. … We have been preparing, we have been planning, we have been dotting the Is and crossing the Ts.”
Ensuring a successful rollout to aged care residents should have been a priority for the federal government. However, ten weeks after these announcements, residents in just 53% of federal aged care homes have had their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine and 31% the second.
It is difficult to ascertain the number of aged care staff who have been vaccinated. The vaccination workforce is not responsible for vaccinating staff in aged care homes. According to the Department of Health fact sheet, the “priority is to deliver choice and flexibility for aged care staff to receive a Covid-19 vaccination as quickly as possible in the safest way”.
“Choice and flexibility” is actually code for staff have to make their own appointments at a GP clinic or a state run vaccination site. In a survey taken over the Easter long weekend, Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) found 86 per cent of staff working in private aged care homes had not been vaccinated.
Australians have paid a heavy price for the federal government being asleep at the wheel during the pandemic. However, rather than take responsibility for his government’s failures, the Prime Minister continues to shift the blame to states and territories. As Sean Kelly noted: “Events occur, but Morrison’s involvement is passive, tangential, almost accidental.”
Dr Sarah Russell is a public health researcher who specialises in qualitative research. She has been the Principal Researcher at Research Matters since 1999. She is also the Director, Aged Care Matters and the co-founder of Aged Care Reform Now.