(Image: Private Media)

Hundreds of Australian aged care residents died miserable deaths in January as a consequence of the Morrison government’s staggering failures on aged care regulation, the rollout of booster shots and its refusal to address the aged care workforce crisis.

The numbers are horrific, and a national disgrace: according to the government’s own figures, 389 aged care residents have perished as a result of COVID in January alone — far more than the total for 2021 — 282 — and already more than half the 2020 total which was dominated by another outbreak in aged care facilities in Victoria.

Many of the dead spent their last days alone and unable to see family because of widespread lockdowns: 1261 facilities now have outbreaks, up from just under 1200 a week earlier, but outbreaks in aged care case residential numbers have surged to more than 9600, compared with 7800 a week earlier, indicating many more deaths to come.

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The lockdowns have been exacerbated by widespread critical staff shortages due to community infection, with facilities unable to have staff come to work if they are close contacts without rapid antigen tests, which have been slow to reach the sector. Both unions and providers have said residents are going without basic help like showering.

They joined forces a fortnight ago to issue a plea for defence force assistance from the federal government, but no help has been forthcoming — the federal government has merely “discussed” the plea for assistance with the sector.

Worse, the Morrison government has admitted to the sector that its booster rollout to aged care facilities is running behind schedule by at least a week; several hundreds facilities have yet to receive even one.

The delay will cost scores — perhaps hundreds — of lives. Evidence from New South Wales is that the overwhelming majority of deceased aged care COVID victims had not received booster shots.

Literally every Commonwealth response to the pandemic within its aged care responsibility has been bungled and delayed, and the same disastrous errors have been repeated: the original vaccination rollout; the booster rollout; RAT supplies; PPE supplies; interventions by the Commonwealth aged care quality regulator, the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission.

Remarkably, the commission’s quality assessment and monitoring activities — primarily infection control spot checks — fell dramatically in late 2021. Just 76 were carried out in November, and so far in January just 119 site visits have been conducted, or just over a third of the number of visits this time last year.

The government also failed to respond to the aged care royal commission COVID report recommendation to provide additional funding so that aged care residents could continue to receive visitors. And it has failed to adopt the main royal commission recommendation to support the current Fair Work Commission case for a substantial pay increase to retain aged care workers in an increasingly tight labour market — something Labor’s Anthony Albanese committed to do at the weekend.

Throughout the entire crisis, a curious lack of urgency and focus has characterised the government’s aged care policy, led by its ineffectual and at times confused and ill-informed minister Richard Colbeck, and a quality regulator marked by passivity.

This has now been exposed as lethal negligence as COVID rages through hundreds of facilities and leaves a battered sector begging for soldiers to be sent in to help.

Whatever ministerial flaws, ineffective bureaucracy or supply chain problems have occurred previously, that hundreds of seniors are dying two years into a pandemic due to persistent government failure is a national tragedy that lies at the feet of Colbeck, his portfolio minister Greg Hunt and Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

There is no excuse for, no explaining away, no dodging, this disaster. The blood of the dead is on their hands. And the grisly toll of their incompetence grows more horrific each day.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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