Australia’s aged care sector is still not properly prepared for coronavirus, and earlier federal government plans failed to address crucial shortcomings, a royal commission has heard.
Initial federal plans in February didn’t consider gaps in the sector, counsel assisting the commission Paul Rozen QC said on Thursday during closing submissions.
He said two health plan documents did not address problems including workforce shortfalls, personal protective equipment access, and a lack of infection control skills.
Mr Rozen said lessons from deadly outbreaks at Sydney’s Newmarch House and Dorothy Henderson Lodge were not properly conveyed to the sector.
“As a result the sector was not properly prepared in June when we witnessed high levels of community transmission in Melbourne,” he said.
The roles of the Commonwealth, NSW government and aged care providers in the state were formalised in June, but Mr Rozen said this protocol did not appear to exist in other jurisdictions.
“This is what we mean when we say the aged care sector is still not properly prepared for COVID-19,” he added.
“It is unacceptable that such arrangements were not in place in February. It’s unforgivable that they are not in place in August.
“The virus is not a fair fighter. It doesn’t wait until the bell rings.”
Mr Rozen said none of the problems caused by coronavirus were unforeseen.
Large numbers of aged care deaths had been widely reported in Europe and North America, he said.
He also said the royal commission’s interim report, provided to the federal government in October, had revealed a host of aged care problems, including workforce challenges and issues around the interface between the sector and state healthcare systems.
Mr Rozen lashed Canberra for a “degree of self-congratulation and even hubris” in crucial months between the Newmarch House outbreak and mid-June.
“Perhaps they were reflecting the general mood in the country that we were through it,” he added.
Officials, including former Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy, have defended the federal government’s aged care plan, pointing to the February documents.
“It is a plan, it’s just not an aged care plan,” Mr Rozen said.
Commissioner Tony Pagone urged the government to listen carefully to what had been raised during the three-day hearing.
“As we often heard, the virus doesn’t wait and nor should the measures that need to be implemented,” he said.
The commission heard of “dysfunctional” discussions between Newmarch House and governments, particularly around whether residents should be hospitalised, and a lack of clarity about who was in charge of decision making.
Unions told of staff shortages and struggles obtaining personal protective equipment.