Perhaps the lowest blow in the COVID aged care blame game came when Minister Richard Colbeck suggested those nursing homes which hadn’t received a single dose of the vaccine had opted out.
“It’s a little disappointing, but it’s been their choice,” he said. That infuriated some of the owners of the 74 aged care homes around the country which have been waiting for months for a visit.
Greg Hunt seemed to follow it up last Sunday by saying that 15 per cent of residents or their families had not consented to having the vaccination.
These aged care residents are the same ones who were found by a royal commission to be neglected, malnourished and isolated. Half of them have dementia, a lot of them are in palliative care with a thousand dying every week. Others don’t have family to advocate for them.
But it seems they are fair game as a scapegoat for the shambles which is the vaccination rollout in aged care.
They weren’t the only ones blamed. There was Victoria, which got us into this mess again; the AHPCC, which didn’t make vaccinations mandatory for staff; the medical experts who don’t know if vaccinations stop transmission; the unions who would likely challenge any restrictions on workers. And let’s not forget those anti-vaxxer old folk.
If it weren’t so serious, the level of spin would not be out of place in an episode of The Thick of It.
But it is deadly serious, because 655 people died from coronavirus in aged care last year and tens of thousands of residents spent months locked down and separated from family.
The figures that don’t get attention
We were told that aged care residents and workers were top priority for vaccination.
Yet here’s the reality of what happened: the federal government gave multi-million-dollar contracts (exact figures are secret) to private contractors to roll out the vaccine.
Full vaccination was supposed to have been done by Easter but that hasn’t happened.
The plan to vaccinate staff on-site only happened where the contractors had spare ones going but otherwise weren’t available — and no one really is really sure how many staff have actually had one, two or no jabs at all.
Australia believed Scott Morrison when he said aged care workers were given top priority for vaccinations. We just didn’t know that the Federal Government wouldn’t be offering it to all staff at their workplaces.
Despite this, the government keeps on message with press briefings full of stats and showing just how well they say the program is running.
Yet there are some figures which the government won’t reveal which deserve real attention. For the past two days, I’ve asked the Department of Health to confirm my calculations but I haven’t received a response.
But based on the data available, it appears that more than a third of the country’s nursing home residents are not fully vaccinated.
Just as frightening, it looks like fewer than 12 per cent of the 300,000 strong workforce have been fully vaccinated
These are staggering statistics buried in the many thrown around these past few days.
As Richard Colbeck admitted at Senate Estimates on Tuesday, more than 30,000 aged care workers took up the offer of the leftover doses to be vaccinated, making it clear that staff do want the protection.
Only 1,887 aged care workers around the country went and queued up with the general public to receive their shots.
You don’t need to be a strategist to see the problem
Adding to the confusion, as late as March, the Department of Health’s own implementation plan for vaccinations told aged care workers they would be vaccinated on-site.
When and why did it change and why weren’t there alternatives set up?
A third of workers in aged care are not native English speakers, many use public transport to get around and some are hesitant about vaccinations — yet they were left entirely to their own devices.
You don’t need to be a master strategist to see that vaccinating the workers who live in the community and go in and out of aged care facilities should have been top priority, instead of the mainly immobile aged care residents.
But on Tuesday, Colbeck was still undecided whether the vaccine should be mandatory for aged care workers, his reason being that the jury was still out on whether the vaccination prevents transmission.
It’s a puzzling argument when we’ve ensured our top health, emergency and hotel quarantine workers are absolutely fully vaccinated.
Why staff still work at multiple sites
Then there’s the issue of why aged care staff in Victoria were still being allowed to work at multiple facilities.
There’s a simple reason why the government allows that to happen around the country: some providers would collapse without them. They rely on casual staff working minimum hours for a minimum wage with few benefits.
The whole episode has laid bare, one more time, just how hands-off the government is when it comes to aged care, despite the catastrophic consequences the sector may now face.
Last year, it denied it was to blame, insisting it had a comprehensive national plan which was thwarted by the disastrous nature of the disease.
This time, it had a plan which simply wasn’t implemented.
It raises real questions about whether the record $18 billion committed to the sector after the aged care royal commission will make any real difference.