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New report showcases sector's fight to keep older Australians safe during COVID-19

The Australian Aged Care Collaboration (AACC), a group of six aged care peak bodies, has released an Aged Care Situation Report highlighting the issues aged care providers and staff are facing to protect older Australians during the current COVID-19 Omicron situation.

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A newly released Situation Report from the AACC is bolstering repeated calls from the sector for more assistance to combat COVID-19 in aged care. [Source: Shutterstock]

In home, community and residential aged care are struggling to keep older people safe with mass staff shortages, a lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs), and ongoing community and nursing home outbreaks.

This report has bolstered current workforce and supply concerns that the sector has been demanding assistance for, with the Government response so far including an $800 bonus for aged care staff to promote workforce retention and to encourage others to join the aged care workforce.

The providers which are part of the AACC include Aged & Community Services Australia (ACSA), Leading Age Services Australia (LASA), Anglicare Australia, Baptist Care Australia, Catholic Health Australia and Uniting Care Australia.

The AACC says Government support - both Federal and State/Territory - is critical to ensuring aged care providers are able to protect Australia's most vulnerable and provide quality aged care.

Sean Rooney, AACC representative and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of LASA, says the lack of key resources needed to ensure the safety of older Australians has been ongoing since early December and is still putting enormous strain on the sector.

"There is only so much aged care providers can do as they balance daily the need to maintain infection control measures while continuing to provide essential services, and manage the effects that isolation has on the wellbeing of people in care," says Mr Rooney.

"The AACC’s Aged Care Situation Report sets out the challenges facing the sector as it stands now and what it needs from Government in order to meet those challenges, maintain services and protect vulnerable older Australians.

"The bottom line is that people working on the frontline of caring for older Australians need to be properly resourced and enabled to provide the best and safest care."

So far, 499 aged care residents have died due to COVID-19 in January of this year, which is more deaths than the total number of aged care residents who died from COVID-19 in 2021.

There were 13,589 new staff COVID-19 infection cases between 23 December, 2021 and 28 January, 2022, and around 47 percent (1,261) of aged care homes are dealing with active COVID-19 outbreaks, as of 28 January, 2022. On average, a quarter of all aged care shifts are not filled due to COVID-19 exposures or staff leaving the sector.

The AACC is disappointed that the newly released $800 retention payment for aged care staff will likely not be seen by many workers. Staff in the Commonwealth Home Support Programme (CHSP) will not be able to receive the payment, nor will home care and residential aged care staff who work in maintenance, lifestyle or administration roles.

People who work in home care will also not receive the full $800 benefit even if they are considered full-time. The maximum amount a home care staff member could receive, if eligible, is $600 - compared to a residential aged care worker who could receive $800.

The AACC says it will be hard for many staff to see their colleagues receive this retention payment, even though they are experiencing the same risks and challenges in the workplace but are not eligible to receive the payment.

Paul Sadler, AACC representative and CEO of ACSA, says that they have been highlighting the dire situation in aged care since the very onset of the pandemic, but now the sector is hitting a breaking point and there is only so much providers can do to give essential care while maintaining safety measures and protecting residents and staff.

"The system was already straining long before. Now almost half of all aged care homes have an active outbreak as of the end of January. And three quarters have experienced an outbreak since the beginning of the pandemic – most in the last two months," says Mr Sadler.

"We had previously emphasised the need for the Federal Government to act, and act fast. The one-off payments to aged care workers are one thing, but we need the government to step forward and actually support an increase in aged care workers’ wages.

"The workforce issues and a need for a COVID-19 wage payment remain relevant now, and the Situation Report has shown us that we cannot continue to let it run rampant without serious consequences.

"It's important to remember these are just part of the bigger picture. Long-term, meaningful steps to support the sector are needed to make sure that aged care thrives going forward."

Additionally, the AACC also has questions around whether this measure will actually address the current exodus of staff from the sector's workforce.

The Report outlines key areas that the sector needs urgently fixed to address the current issues in aged care, including:

  • Aged care workers receive appropriate payments that reflect the efforts and risk they take to provide quality and COVID-safe care to residents and clients
  • Implementation of a surge workforce to ensure services and quality are maintained during the current and any future COVID-19 waves
  • Funding to cover the increased costs on providers for COVID-19 safety measures to protect residents, clients and staff
  • More reliable supplies and distribution lines of RATs and PPEs
  • Improved data collection and distribution on infections and vaccinations for better risk management

Opposition calls for Richard Colbeck to resign

The release of this report today was followed by a demand by Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese for Minister for Aged Care Services and Senior Australians, Richard Colbeck, to resign from this position for his failures in the role.

Minister Colbeck has been copping heat from the Opposition, the aged care sector, and the public for declining to attend a Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 because he was dealing with the Omicron outbreak, but was later found to have attended the Ashes Test in Hobart.

In a press conference today, Mr Albanese was visibly angry while demanding for Minister Colbeck to either step down or that Prime Minister Scott Morrison fire him.

Mr Albanese says, "He is simply incapable of fulfilling the task of looking after the interests of old, vulnerable Australians.

"What we have is a circumstance whereby these Australians have helped to build this country - they deserve dignity and they deserve respect.

"Not the contempt that we get from a Minister who has avoided appearing for a committee inquiry all year up until yesterday, went before that inquiry and said that it was working exceptionally well. Went before the inquiry and said there wasn't a crisis in aged care.

"Aged care residents who are missing out on showering, who are missing out on food and water, who aren't having their wounds attended to - this is a crisis! And it's a crisis on this Government's watch in the wake of a Royal Commission that described the aged care sector in one word - neglect."

On Wednesday, Minister Colbeck - also the Minister for Sport - fronted the Senate Select Committee to explain why he refused to attend the meeting.

"I did make a specific decision about the balance of my portfolios. The Test Match in Hobart was a significant event for Tasmania. Obviously, as Minister of Sport as well as Minister of Aged Care Services and Senior Australians, I had to be conscious of that as an issue and I was very cognisant of the circumstances that the sector was in," says Minister Colbeck at the Committee hearing.

"In fact, all through that weekend, I continued to work on matters relating to both of my portfolios but particularly aged care, even though it was a weekend and also I was attending the Test Match.

"It was a decision that I made, I have to stand by it and live with it, Senator. Other people will make judgements about it, I am sure - plenty already have."

Minister Colbeck went on to state that he didn't believe that the aged care sector was in a "complete crisis" and that the Government was doing a good job at handling the situation.

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