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Two-thirds of staff in aged-care facilities have not been vaccinated and the latest COVID-19 outbreak in Sydney has led to four aged-care workers and six residents catching the virus. 

The federal government oversees vaccinating disability and aged-care residents and had planned that the four private companies delivering doses should use excess vaccines on aged-care staff. But there were few vials left over, and the companies were confused over whether they were meant to vaccinate staff in the first place.

Despite the many failures, aged-care facilities have been used as a scapegoat by the government for low vaccination rates; many in the workforce say messaging has been unclear and organising their own doses difficult. 

National cabinet recently mandated that all residential aged-care workers have at least one COVID vaccination by mid-September 2021, meaning aged-care facilities — already facing staff shortages — could face lawsuits for hiring staff who haven’t been inoculated.

Confused and frustrated

Health Services Union general secretary Gerard Hayes says the government’s behaviour has been disgraceful towards aged-care staff. 

“How can you go after a generally female workforce with an average super balance of $18,000 who work two or three different jobs … and come back and say it’s your fault,” he said. 

The aged care royal commission found that 87% of residential care staff are women who earn about $23 an hour. In response to the royal commission’s report the Morrison government announced an extra $17.7 billion for the sector in the budget — none going to higher wages. It began funding homes an extra $10 a day for each resident from July 1.

In 2019-20, governments spent $21.5 billion on aged care, but just $100 million of that went to workforce and service improvement — half what was paid in 2015-16. In 2016, 78% of residential aged care workers were employed part-time, and 10% were casuals, many working across multiple facilities.

Staff have had to cancel their vaccination bookings after being called into work at the last minute because facilities were short-staffed, Hayes says. The union has also heard from members in regional areas who said they had to drive hundreds of kilometres to their nearest vaccination clinic. 

Compounding the issue was confusion around the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine, Hayes says. The median age of residential care workers is 46; Pfizer is the preferred vaccine for those under 60. 

“The government dropped the ball here,” he said. “There’s an absolute state of confusion and frustration to the point where [because of the mandatory vaccines] there’s a percentage of people there that’re gonna say: ‘I’m gonna go work for one of these other employers who are screaming out for people.’ ”

In June Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck said the government had no idea how many aged-care workers had been vaccinated — the government had failed to set up a tracking system. Aged-care providers will now log vaccination numbers through the My Aged Care provider portal.

Hayes says the states and territories should have overseen the rollout and used the same methods they do to get staff and residents vaccinated against influenza every year. 

The low vaccination rates have drawn the attention of former aged care commissioner Lynelle Briggs, who asked whether a mistake had been made or whether there was a deliberate decision not to vaccinate the workforce.

“Either way, something serious must be done about it, and it must be done quickly,” she said.

The aged-care sector is chronically understaffed. Although the aged care royal commission recommended staff ratios be introduced, it’s yet to be enacted — and low wages and the physical demands of the job are unlikely to attract new talent. 

But if an understaffed aged-care home hires an unvaccinated worker from mid-September, it opens itself up to potential lawsuits, Sydney University professor of health, law and ethics Cameron Stewart tells Crikey — especially if a resident catches the virus. 

“There could be liabilities for nursing homes who use staff who aren’t vaccinated, if [vaccination] is the standard,” he said. 

If a worker was vaccinated incorrectly, the fault could fall with the doctor. In court, however, the resident’s representatives would have to prove they caught the virus directly from the worker, which could be a problem. Workers are likely to be protected under the law. 

Because nursing homes are highly regulated, they’re also likely to face a fine or a disciplinary hearing. 

Despite it being the responsibility of federal, state and territory governments to vaccinate the population, it’s unlikely governments will ever face legal action for unvaccinated workforces. 

“The Crown has immunity for most of its functions,” Stewart said. Similar laws apply to states and territories.