(Image: Tom Red/Private Media)

The federal government has revealed rules requiring aged care workers to work at a single site during COVID-19 outbreaks do not apply to agency staff, including labour hire contractors and emergency workers — a large portion of the aged care workforce.

The single site guidelines have been heavily criticised for not going far enough to mandate privately owned facilities ensure staff work only at one site to limit the spread of the virus. After introducing the rules at the height of Melbourne’s lockdown last year the government later withdrew them. The measures were reintroduced last week — after greater Melbourne was declared a hotspot.

The Health Department said the single site workforce arrangements excluded agency staff so as to ensure no facility was left without sufficient or appropriate staff.

“Contractors such as those doing COVID testing, emergency workforce and agency staff should ensure they are adhering to all other requirements, including PPE use, screening on entry, and notifying facilities of other sites they have worked at,” it said.

But Annie Butler, the federal secretary for the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation, says it is ridiculous to exclude agency staff given their prevalence in the industry.

“We’re putting a bandaid on this terrible gaping hole, and the government, instead of putting on a full bandaid, is putting on a tiny bandaid instead at the last minute,” she said.

“You can’t have an agency worker in the middle of a COVID outbreak going to 16 different places … We need a nationally consistent approach to how to manage this issue while urgently fixing aged care generally.”

Exemption for contractors means that thousands of aged care workers are able to move between centres at a time when many residents are still unvaccinated. But it’s just the latest failure in the government’s botched vaccine rollout to aged care.

On Wednesday the company leading the aged care vaccination rollout in Victoria revealed it was never contracted to immunise aged care workers, despite the Morrison government in February pledging to vaccinate residents and staff by Easter.

Professor Lyn Gilbert at the University of Sydney, who conducted the review into COVID-19 outbreaks at St Basil’s and Epping Gardens in Victoria last year, says the use of labour hire staff including for surge workforce posed a big risk during outbreaks.

“The whole point about agencies is that they’re able to go from one place to the next,” she said.

“The best option is to bring in people from their own organisations to fill that gap rather than agency staff that might have been working wherever.”

The government has renewed a multimillion-dollar contract with Brisbane labor hire company HealthX to supply surge workforce staff for aged care centres during outbreaks. It has one staff member based in a COVID-affected centre in Victoria.

Last year surge workforce providers were criticised for sending in staff to aged care centres that had little experience or training in aged care, and in many cases were recent graduates.

HealthX, which is controlled by former rich lister Thomas Strachan, says its nurses did not work at multiple facilities at the same time, and that staff in its COVID deployment pool had an average of eight years’ clinical experience in either aged care, emergency, ICU or general medicine.

“Staff are assigned to positions based on a detailed job brief obtained from a host facility to ensure skills and experience reflect the requirement of the job,” it said.

“Approximately two-thirds have previous experience working in an environment with active COVID cases.”

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