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Senate Committee critical of Government response to COVID-19 in aged care

A COVID-19 Senate Select Committee was held on 21 August, to receive evidence from aged care officials about the Government response to the coronavirus in aged care, leaving a few committee members concerned that the whole sector has been mismanaged.

Minister for Senior Australians and Aged care, Senator Richard Colbeck, was subject to very tense questioning from Chair of the Committee, Senator Katy Gallagher. [Source: Senate Select Committee]
Minister for Senior Australians and Aged care, Senator Richard Colbeck, was subject to very tense questioning from Chair of the Committee, Senator Katy Gallagher. [Source: Senate Select Committee]

The Select Committee was established in April by the Senate to inquire into how the Government has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. The final report is to be released by 30 June, 2022.

Chair of the Committee, Senator Katy Gallagher, led the charge of the meeting, specifically questioning Minister for Senior Australians and Aged Care, Senator Richard Colbeck, over who holds responsibility for the sector and its "failings".

Throughout the Committee hearing, Senator Gallagher expressed surprise with Senator Colbeck's responses around the performance of the Government in the aged care sector, resulting in a very tense hearing.

Senator Colbeck said that while the sector is Government funded and regulated, it is not the responsibility of the Government to keep people in residential aged care safe from COVID-19 infection.

Further questioning eventually had Senator Colbeck allude that the responsibility did lie with the Government, but not before stating that the States and Territories were also responsible for the safety of aged care residents.

Chair Gallagher appeared shocked to find that Senator Colbeck wasn't able to relate how many residents have died from COVID-19 in Australia or how many residents were infected with the coronavirus.

"Minister, you don't know how many people have passed away? You are now telling many you don't know how many people have the infection. You are the Minister for Aged Care and Senior Australians," says Chair Gallagher.

"...But the numbers are not front of mind for you as Minister for Aged Care? They're pretty important details as we are going through this pandemic and the heartbreaking scenes in Victoria. I am just struggling to believe that you are not aware of these details."

When asked if the Government, or himself, would take responsibility for the "unavoidable" deaths of hundreds of aged care residents, Senator Colbeck said that all people have to accept responsibility for its occurrence in Australia before admitting that the Government must "carry the can" for the policies implemented.

Chair Gallagher asked what the Government could have done better, but only received comment that they are learning everyday from previous events.

Unsatisfied with the answer, Chair Gallagher said, "When you talk about 'could have done better', this is not a paper-pushing exercise. This is, in some cases, the end-of-life care for elderly Australians. 

"What more could have been done to prevent the scenes that we have seen in Victoria playing out on our night-time TV and in the lives of these vulnerable Australians? And why was the Government, which is in charge of it, absent?"

Senator Colbeck shot back, "I reject the assertion of the question, Chair; in fact, I find it offensive. The Government wasn't absent. The Government has been there every single step of the way providing every single resource it could muster in the interests of these people. I think it is quite an offensive question or assertion that you make."

Moving on to actual response, Senator Colbeck was still resistant to any assertion that the Government was not doing enough during the escalation of COVID cases in Victoria.

Senator Colbeck stated that the Government became concerned about the increase of daily contractions in June, but Chair Gallagher found that only a few letters were sent to residential aged care facilities about the importance of infection control.

"I put to you that there is a double failure here: not only did you not prevent the infection from getting into more than 100 facilities—and I know that you will argue the toss there—but you then failed to prevent the infection from spreading throughout those facilities," said Chair Gallagher.

When questioned if he was happy about how the system responded in Victoria, he admitted  that in some circumstances, the Government hadn't gotten it right and was apologetic for that.

Throughout the meeting, it was shown that there has been an issue getting COVID positive residents into hospitals because the hospitals didn't want them in the system; there was no documentation for a workforce strategy plan for aged care; and the extremely stressed system received resources too late.

At the end of the hearing, Senator Colbeck said, "We continue to work with the Victorian Government every day on what is a combined Federal Government and State Government responsibility for public health. 

"As I've said to you a number of times, we apply all resources without limit to assist facilities to manage the outbreaks that they have. So we continue to build the response as the demand is required, and we have acknowledged that, in some circumstances, we haven't got it all right."

Senator Colbeck has since apologised for not knowing off the top of his head how many aged care residents have died from COVID-19 in Parliament on the 24 August.

For more information about the coronavirus, visit the Aged Care Guide COVID-19 update page.

Do you have any questions about the coronavirus that you want answered? Tell us in the comments below or email journalist@dps.com.au.

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