On the greatest crisis the aged care sector has ever faced, the Government is wildly at odds with the royal commission

Back in August, the Prime Minister bristled at the scathing critique of his government before the Aged Care Royal Commission.

Counsel Assisting the Commission, Peter Rozen, QC, had not held back in summing up where the Government had failed heading into this pandemic.

When the criticism was put to Scott Morrison, he dismissed it.

“This is not a royal commission finding,” he told reporters. “That is a statement that has been made by the counsel assisting. So that is not a finding of the Royal Commission. That is a position that has been asserted.”

Well, now we have the views of the royal commissioners themselves. Tony Pagone, QC, and Lynelle Briggs were chosen by none other than the Prime Minister to investigate the aged care sector before the pandemic struck.

On Wednesday they handed a “special report” on the COVID crisis to the Governor-General. The Government made it public late on Thursday. Scott Morrison is yet to be asked about their findings, but all of this will most likely be swamped by Budget news over the coming week.

Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck did, however, offer a response to the report on Thursday and it’s clear the Government’s attitude hasn’t changed.

Colbeck was just as defensive and dismissive as the Prime Minister back in August. This time the criticism was coming from the royal commissioners, but the Government clearly thinks they have no idea.

They said, he said

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Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck says the Government has accepted all the report’s recommendations.

On the central failing to produce an over-arching pandemic plan for the sector, the commissioners still believe “there is a clear need for a defined, consolidated, national aged care COVID-19 plan”.

In response, the Minister says: “The Government maintains its position that it has a plan in place.”

On the lack of critical guidance to aged care homes at the height of the crisis, the commissioners say the peak medical committee, the AHPPC, “provided no written guidance to the aged care sector in the period between June 20 and August 3.”

In response, the Minister says he’s “very satisfied that the AHPPC was providing appropriate advice at the appropriate time both to the government and to the sector”.

According to the commissioners, “providers, care recipients and their families, and health workers did not have an answer to the critical question: who was in charge?”

Colbeck says: “In my view there was always clear advice.”

The Government is now wildly at odds with the findings of the royal commission over the greatest crisis the aged care sector has faced.

Whether the criticism is from the counsel assisting or the royal commissioners themselves, the Government is refusing to accept criticism. Morrison has repeatedly expressed sorrow at the more than 650 COVID-related deaths in aged care, but he won’t cop the blame.

The Government still argues widespread community transmission in Victoria was the main reason so many died.

An opportunity to fix the problems

Colbeck has, however, accepted all six recommendations for urgent action made in the special report.

Unsurprisingly, most of the recommendations go to the need for more staff. Staff to enable visits by loved ones, staff to provide expert advice on infectious disease control and to staff to address the increased “depression, anxiety, confusion, loneliness and suicide risk among aged care residents”.

In responding to the special report, the Minister announced an immediate $40 million to “enhance the skills of nurses” and fund “serious incident responses”. The Government will need to go much further and it has an opportunity to do so in Tuesday’s Budget.

More than a million people are currently looking for employment, while the caring sector is desperate for workers. With skilled migration grinding to a halt, that demand is only going to grow.

There’s talk of a “caring careers” package being unveiled in the Budget, which will aim to encourage school leavers and job seekers to pursue a career in aged care, disability care or child care. To show these are seriously valued careers will require someone to pay them a decent salary.

This Budget is meant to be all about jobs. It may not involve hard hats and hi-vis vests, but a package to tackle workforce shortages in the caring sector would do more than just help society’s most vulnerable. It would benefit the economy as a whole.

The Government is refusing to be blamed for the coronavirus tragedy in aged care, but it can still make a positive difference to fix the systemic problems in the sector.

David Speers is the host of Insiders, which airs on ABC TV at 9am on Sunday or on iview.

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