The mandate follows a recommendation from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) and was accepted by Cabinet. This is the third time the prospect of mandatory vaccinations for aged care workers has been discussed.
The mandates will be enforced through a partnership between the Commonwealth and the States and will be administered similar to how the Influenza vaccines are provided to all aged care workers, which are also mandatory for the workforce.
Along with the mandatory vaccinations, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the implementation of an $11 million grant program to encourage aged care facilities to provide staff with leave to get vaccinated or to cover for any adverse side effects to the vaccine.
To make sure there are no unintended consequences or negative impacts on the workforce, there will be risk and benefit assessments conducted and reported back to Cabinet by early August.
PM Morrison says that the aim is to have at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine in all residential aged care workers by mid-September 2021.
"This has been a difficult cohort and difficult group to get vaccinated and this is why I have been fairly constant and determined to get where we have got [last night]," says PM Morrison.
"...Imposing on a person the requirement to have a vaccine or not be able to work in a particular sector is something that no Government would do lightly and as a result we have been considering this matter for some time now based on the best possible medical advice."
The rollout to aged care workers has been marred with controversy over the last few months, after the Government admitted they had poor data collection on how many aged care workers were actually vaccinated against COVID-19.
Workforce unions pushback
This COVID-19 vaccine mandate has raised concerns around the compliance and potential turnover of aged care workers, as a survey of members of the Australian Nursing Federation in Western Australia reported that a third of aged care workers would leave the sector if the vaccines were made mandatory.
While the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) strongly supports aged care workers to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, they are concerned the mandates are a "political decision, not a health decision".
The ANMF are also concerned about the confusion and little detail around how the mandatory vaccinations will be implemented, plus they are worried about the "no guarantee" special paid leave for aged care staff, that amounts to $30 per unvaccinated worker.
Annie Butler, ANMF Federal Secretary, says, "The [Federal] Government’s promises for aged care just keep coming, but at this stage, there are more questions than answers.
"Whilst the ANMF strongly encourages our members working in aged care to get vaccinated, we need to ensure that the Government’s mandate is based on clear-cut health advice not political advice.
"...For three months, we’re been pleading with the Government to fund special leave to support aged care staff to receive their vaccinations, but there’s been total inaction.
"Last night’s announcement from the Prime Minister has no surety and no guarantees that aged care staff, especially those in insecure work, will have access to vaccinations and be supported so that they don’t lose hours and pay when they get the vaccine."
Aged Care Director at the United Workers Union (UWU), Carolyn Smith, says the call to make the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory for aged care workers is due to the "complete failure" of the Federal Government to fulfil its commitment to vaccinate the sector.
"Aged care workers were supposed to have been 1a in the rollout and vaccinated at their aged care facilities. Instead they were only given leftovers and vast numbers of them missed out," says Ms Smith.
"Now aged care workers are being given a two-month deadline to be vaccinated in what has become, sadly, a familiar theme of aged care workers being blamed for the Federal Government’s failings.
"The rollout of this vaccine program has been an exercise in ineptitude and aged care workers have borne the brunt of that."
UWU welcomed the funding for leave to get the vaccine or for post-inoculation recovery, which was a barrier for aged care workers to get vaccinated. But they are calling for a program to address aged care workers' issues with receiving the vaccine.
Additionally, UWU is concerned that the mandatory vaccinations will lead to a shortfall in aged care workforce.
"In terms of the impact on the sector more broadly, the mandatory vaccination program simply has to work or we will face a new and deeper crisis in aged care," says Ms Smith.
"If workers find themselves banned wholesale because of failures in the mandatory vaccination program, that will lead to even further shortages in aged care staffing and even poorer outcomes for older Australians."
The Health Services Union (HSU) agrees that if there isn't a "ironclad" right to paid leave for getting the vaccine or recovery, then the workforce will "crumble".
HSU National President, Gerard Hayes, says that the industry is already suffering issues attracting and retaining staff thanks to poor wages and mandatory vaccinations may worsen the crisis.
"Rather than barking orders, the Commonwealth needs to understand the reality of aged care. This is a workforce of insecure, underemployed women who often stitch together several casual jobs to make a living. They are leaving in droves,” says Mr Hayes.
"Providing money to employers to possibly encourage workers to get vaccinated is not good enough. This policy has more holes than a piece of Swiss cheese. Workers, including casuals, need an ironclad right to paid leave to get vaccinated and recover.
"The Federal Government has bungled the rollout, dragged its heels and allowed misinformation to fester. Now it wants to blame aged care workers for not being vaccinated. That takes quite a hide."
Peak bodies mostly supportive
While the unions are concerned over what this may bring, aged care peak bodies have welcomed the mandatory vaccine decision as the "right decision".
Aged & Community Services Australia (ACSA) says they are pleased the COVID-19 vaccine is now mandatory in aged care, but the vaccine needs to be made easily available to these workers.
Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of ACSA, Patricia Sparrow, says, "Vaccinating aged care residents and the workforce is an essential protection for older Australians, particularly as COVID circulation and outbreaks continue in the community.
"Mandatory COVID jabs for both residential and home care workers, with appropriate exemptions on medical and other significant grounds, is no different to the situation with the flu jab. It’s the right decision.
"However this announcement won’t solve the problems with the rollout. To suggest so would just be blame-shifting. The reason there is low rates of vaccination has little to do with our workers.
"The best way to improve vaccination rates is to make it as easy as possible for aged care workers, including through on-site workplace vaccination.
Ms Sparrow adds that the level of urgency, planning or communication needed from the Government has not been seen for aged care workers, which needs to be corrected urgently.
While ACSA believes the $11 million boost for leave to get the vaccine is good, they will still examine whether that will be enough to cover the cost of leave for aged care workers.
Industry peak body, Leading Age Services Australia (LASA), says that mandatory vaccinations for the aged care workforce reinforced the need to ensure doses are available for staff.
CEO of LASA, Sean Rooney, says that everyone must do all they can to keep older Australians in care safe and mandatory vaccination of aged care staff will enhance protections for them and the people they care for, but staff need to feel supported to get a vaccine, not forced.
"Compulsory jabs are not new to aged care. With mandatory flu vaccination in aged care introduced previously in the wake of the first wave of COVID-19, there were hundreds of flu deaths in preceding years," says Mr Rooney.
"The implementation of this vaccination program for aged care workers will see reporting by early August about any of the consequences of this mandatory immunisation decision.
"The mandatory vaccination announcement does raise a number of questions that need to be addressed. Notably, what exceptions will be in place for staff unable to be vaccinated?"
Due to the new mandatory vaccine reporting requirements for aged care providers, an estimated 33.6 percent (263,000) of aged care staff have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.