House debates

Tuesday, 25 August 2020

Matters of Public Importance

COVID-19: Aged Care

3:18 pm

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

I have received a letter from the honourable member for Franklin proposing that a definite matter of public importance be submitted to the House for discussion, namely:

The Government’s failure to adequately prepare the aged care sector for COVID-19 outbreaks.

I call upon those members who approve of the proposed discussion to rise in their places.

More than the number of members required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

Photo of Julie CollinsJulie Collins (Franklin, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Ageing and Seniors) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to start, on behalf of our side of politics, by acknowledging the very sad deaths and the infections that we've seen and the significant number of deaths in aged-care facilities right around the country, particularly in Victoria. Our thoughts are with every single person who has lost a loved one during the coronavirus pandemic. We are genuinely deeply sorry for the heartbreak that they have endured, particularly those families who have lost loved ones in aged-care facilities, some of them not getting news in a very timely way. And, as we've heard, there are some very tragic stories of people who have been unable to be with their loved one as they have passed away. I want to pay tribute to those aged-care workers who, because of the restrictions that this pandemic and this virus have inflicted, took the place of family members and held the hands of those elderly residents as they passed away. We know it's been a very difficult few weeks and months for those families, particularly those families who've been in some of the bigger facilities and outbreaks in Victoria. We have heard from so many family members about the desperation of hearing that their loved one has a COVID-19 infection and not being able to get straight answers about what is happening, and how it feels to not know, for days sometimes, what has happened to your loved one in a residential aged-care facility that has had a positive COVID outcome. It must be terrifying.

Personally, I wouldn't be able to sleep at night if I were the minister for aged care. I would be desperate to do everything I possibly could to ensure that every single family and every single resident was getting the best possible care and advice that they need to help improve what is an incredibly difficult situation for so many people. Let's be very clear here: it is the federal government, and, ultimately, the Prime Minister, who are responsible for aged care in Australia today. They fund aged care, they regulate aged care and they are responsible for what happens inside aged-care facilities in Australia today. That is their responsibility.

We've heard evidence to the royal commission. I think it's really important that I quote it word for word. This is from Senior Counsel Assisting Peter Rozen QC, about how prepared we were for what has happened in aged-care facilities in Australia:

… the evidence will reveal that neither the Commonwealth Department of Health nor the aged care regulator developed a COVID-19 plan specifically for the aged care sector.

We've heard a whole heap of excuses from the government and a whole heap of examples of guidelines and letters they've sent to providers, and they claim that this is a plan. When the minister for aged care was asked before the COVID select committee to table his surge workforce strategy document, he couldn't produce one. In fact, he said there wasn't one. I think it highlights just how scrambling and behind the eight ball this government has been when it has come to this outbreak. We've heard the Prime Minister say:

… on those days that we fall short, we're sorry …

And he should be. He also said:

On the days that the system falls short, on the days that expectations are not met, I'm deeply sorry about that …

But what are they are responsible for? What are they sorry for? What was it that they did wrong? What was it that they didn't do or they should have done sooner? We've had no acceptance of their responsibility, properly, for this. There have been no admissions about what they could have done or should have done sooner in response to the aged-care outbreak, particularly in Victoria and also in New South Wales. It is one thing to come in here and say, 'Look, we're sorry for the days we fall short,' but to be truly sorry they should be saying, 'This is what we have done wrong and what we are going to do better; this is what we have learnt.' Instead, we get a whole heap of excuses that it's just because of the level of community transmission. Yes, there is community transmission. That's what happens in a pandemic. But we haven't protected the people we already knew were vulnerable soon enough. We haven't done enough soon enough, and that has become very clear from evidence to the royal commission and from the minister and the department before the COVID select committee.

It has been heart-wrenching to hear the stories, to hear how desperate people are. I want to quote, in particular, Merle Mitchell. Merle Mitchell AM is an aged-care resident in Victoria. She gave evidence to the royal commission's COVID-19 hearing. She said:

I know I'm here till I die. And every morning when I wake up I think damn, I've woken up.

That is the sad indictment of aged care in Australia today. Wouldn't it be good to have a leader of our country that came in and said: 'I accept responsibility for what we did wrong. This is what we did wrong, and this is how we're going to fix it'?

That is what a true leader should do in a situation where we have thousands of aged-care residents and workers infected with COVID-19 and we've seen more than 300 older people who were in aged care die.

Ms Virginia Clarke gave evidence at the royal commission also. Her father was a resident at Newmarch House in New South Wales. Sadly, he also passed away from COVID-19. Ms Clarke was asked at the royal commission what her message is, and she said:

… I just think the communication needs to be better and, you know, our elderly need to be protected. It's not fair what happened to my dad and other residents at Newmarch House.

She's right: it's not fair. Some of it could have been prevented if the government had done its job, but, sadly, it did not.

Of course, we learnt from the reports at Dorothy Henderson Lodge and Newmarch House that the government was warned that this could happen and that we could be in a situation, in other aged-care facilities elsewhere in the country outside New South Wales, where we would have a whole range of staff immediately stood down and furloughed because they either have an infection or are a close contact. In fact, at Newmarch House, 87 per cent of the staff were lost. At Dorothy Henderson Lodge, 70-odd per cent of staff were lost really quickly in the first days. Of course, we know that this has happened again, sadly. We had some admission from the Prime Minister today that there were some facilities in Victoria where the unacceptable happened, but there was no acceptance of his responsibility for this having happened or that they could and should have done better.

People are dying. You need to do more, quickly. Those on that side of the House need to accept responsibility for what they have done wrong, and they need to do it better and faster. There were three months between the government getting the Dorothy Henderson Lodge report in the middle of April and the first transmissions and community outbreaks in Victoria. In that three months, it appears nothing was learnt, sadly, by the government. We didn't have systems set up with state and territory governments about how to deal with outbreaks in aged-care facilities. You didn't have an aged-care plan in every state and territory. You only announced last Friday that you're going to establish protocols for aged-care response centres to be set up in other states and territories.

We know from the regulator and the evidence at the COVID select committee that facilities were not audited for how much PPE they had, and we've had stories for weeks on end of workers in aged-care facilities not getting access to PPE appropriately to do their jobs. We've all heard the stories of nurses who are deciding which hand to put their glove on because they don't have enough gloves to do their jobs. It is appalling that we have had the Prime Minister come in here in the last few days and say, 'I'm sorry for the days we fall short,' but there's no acceptance of responsibility from him or his government about exactly what they did wrong and what they could and should have done better. Let's all remember: these are people we are talking about. They're not statistics or numbers, and people are dying.

3:28 pm

Photo of Greg HuntGreg Hunt (Flinders, Liberal Party, Minister for Health) Share this | | Hansard source

From the earliest days, the Prime Minister, I and other members of the government have said that each life matters. As we saw the agony and the tragedy not just in Wuhan and across China but in Italy, in France, in Spain, subsequently in the United Kingdom and in New York City, and as we have since seen this tragedy spread across the world to over 23½ million people, with more than 811,000 lives lost, our vow was to fight for each life, and that's what we have done. Every life lost is a source of immense grief and immense tragedy, and every life saved, as thousands upon thousands have been in Australia, is a source of national relief and something for which this nation should be immensely proud of itself. This nation should be immensely proud of the work of our healthcare workers, the work of our public health officials and the work of all of those who have assisted on the front line or in whatever way.

Against those backgrounds, each life does matter. Each life is fundamental. That's why, when we look to aged care, we do look at these international comparisons. As I set out in question time, in Canada—one of the most sophisticated countries in the world—the tragic loss of life is 600 per cent on an aged-care resident per capita basis than of that in Australia. In France, it's 1,300 per cent. In Spain, it's 1,300 per cent. In Ireland, it's 1,600 per cent. In Italy, it's 1,600 per cent. In the UK, it's over 3,000 per cent. These are lives lost. These are tragedies on an immense, incomparable scale. These are the things that have been avoided. We've warned from the outset that the pandemic particularly targets the aged. Although no-one is immune, those most at risk are the aged and the immunocompromised. Therefore, from the start we set out a national aged-care response plan.

We began with the first of the stages. In January, it was the initial response plan. In February, there was the release of the national pandemic response, which set out very specifically the health shared responsibilities and the roles. The work through the national aged-care plan, prepared by the Communicable Diseases Network Australia, was passed through the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee. This is the central national plan for aged care. That's been updated on two further occasions, representing the fifth and the sixth elements. The fourth was the additional workforce support. All of those allowed us to combine together to bring four fundamental protections into play months ago.

First was the public hospitals agreement. That was established in March with every state and every territory to provide workforce and transfers in the case of a significant outbreak in any one state or territory. Second was the private hospitals agreement. What we have seen is that agreement prepared and planned for long ago announced in this building on 31 March, with Dr Nick Coatsworth, myself and the AMA, amongst others, present. That has allowed us to transfer and support in facility and to provide the workforce required, as a consequence of those agreements with every state and every territory. At the same time it brings 54,000 nurses and 100,000 staff to the task of caring for our elderly and others affected by COVID. Furthermore, there was the surge workforce—actually it was announced on 11 March—with $101 million. That allowed us to bring in clinical first responders in different places around the country. Then there was the fourth major element, which was the testing. The testing contractors allowed for all staff and all residents to be tested in every facility once there was a first case identified. Those have all come together to protect and to assist. They have saved thousands of lives between them. Thousands of lives have been saved, but we also know that, where there is community transmission around the world, there cannot be an absolute guarantee of protection.

What I do want to explore is something the opposition is putting forward, which is a deeply dangerous theory. The theory, in essence, is that we can have widespread community transmission and still have an absolute guarantee of safety in any facility. That's a discredited and dangerous theory. Effectively, to let it rip in the community and wall-off our elderly, with asymptomatic transfer there is no science to back them. It is a global pandemic with the most savage and frightening evidence, as we have seen, that, where there is community transmission, nobody is immune, most particularly our elderly. And for them we grieve and for them there is deep sorrow, and for every family member there is sorrow. But that's why we've established this plan in six stages and that's why all of those four agreements were struck months and months ago.

More significantly, though, I want to address something which has been raised this week—the idea that there is no shared responsibility. Two seminal national documents were put out. The Australian Health Sector Emergency Response Plan for Novel Coronavirus was released on 18 February and activated on 27 February in this courtyard by the Prime Minister—and I remember at the time there was scepticism from some in this building about the calling of a pandemic long before the WHO. Under the implementation of public health measures, it sets out the Commonwealth's responsibilities with regard to aged care. But it also sets out that 'state and territory governments are responsible for the operational aspects of public health responses' and implementing infection control guidelines and healthcare safety. 'They will establish systems to promote the safety and security of people in aged care' signed off by every state and territory. And that has been done by every state and territory with the exception of Victoria, where we had to step in and create the Aged Care Response Centre. But we have worked constructively with them. We worked to get the Australian Defence Force in.

Equally, the CDNA national guidelines, the aged care response plan for the nation, which was released on 13 March, sets out the state and territory Department of Health responsibilities. In aged care, that includes:

… detect, characterise and manage COVID-19 outbreaks.

…   …   …

              amongst other things.

              Having said that, what the nation has done is battle a global pandemic, and we have numbers that we know are higher than any of us would ever have hoped but far below anything we had previously imagined at the outset. We've done that through a strategy of containment and capacity. That containment approach, as I say, is built around those four fundamental elements of borders, testing, tracing and distancing.

              In terms of the borders, I set that out in question time today. Seven out of eight states and territories have helped detect over 2,260 cases—positive cases that have been prevented from getting into the community through hotel quarantine. We know the consequences in Victoria of the catastrophic breach. Those are being laid out as we speak. We know that the testing in eight out of eight states and territories has been, I think, exemplary. The tracing has been very strong in seven out of eight, and exemplary in New South Wales.

              In Victoria, we have added over 400 members of the ADF. We worked hard to get those members of the ADF accepted in Victoria into the tracing program. That tracing program is what is protecting people in Melbourne and Victoria. But, as I set out earlier in question time, the consequences of the breaches in tracing and the breaches in hotel quarantine have contributed to an outbreak in Victoria which represents 95 per cent of the cases since 1 June, 99 per cent of the lives lost and 100 per cent of residential aged-care facility cases today. Our task, though, is to seek to save every life, to fight every day, and we will continue to do that.

              3:38 pm

              Photo of Daniel MulinoDaniel Mulino (Fraser, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

              I echo the words of the shadow minister in passing on my condolences and thoughts in respect of all of those who have passed away in this terrible pandemic. Can I also pass on my thoughts to those who continue to fight for their lives—in particular, those individuals and families in Fraser, an electorate so hard hit by this pandemic.

              I also pay tribute to the many workers in the aged-care sector. It's a workforce that is working under very insecure conditions, often for low pay. It is a largely female workforce that often works in very difficult circumstances at the best of times, but in this pandemic they have worked in extremely difficult circumstances and, it's fair to say, have done an amazing job.

              I acknowledge the shadow minister for bringing on this very important motion. In Victoria we are seeing a fall in community transmission, but, day by day, we continue to see deaths announced in the aged-care sector. It is right that we put a microscope on the performance of the government in this sector. In my electorate, there have been a number of facilities which have been a reflection of the tragedy of the aged-care sector in this pandemic. There are 159 cases among residents and workers at Estia aged care in Ardeer, 119 cases in the Cumberland Manor aged-care facility, and, of course, there is the Kalyna Care aged-care facility that I referred to in my question in question time today.

              The main reason why I critique the government's performance is not that we ever asked for 100 per cent guarantees—that would not have been reasonable—but that they had forewarning of what could have been done in this sector, and, having been given that forewarning, they have not met reasonable community standards. What was the forewarning? They had the Dorothy Henderson Lodge case handed to them in April, which laid out not only the threats but also a number of actions that could have been taken. We had Newmarch House, which raised the potential for this to become a major issue were another wave to occur. And of course the royal commission has been providing ongoing commentary in this area. So there was every warning given to this government, but, sadly, there was not enough action.

              What options were available? There were so many short-term actions that could have been taken that would have been effective—workforce options like paid pandemic leave; that came far too late, despite the unions, the opposition and so many other stakeholders calling for it. So much more should have been done in relation to PPE. On surge capacity, we have seen instances where AUSMAT and interstate nurses and staff have come into facilities that are in trouble—even ADF nurses and staff. We've seen that that has been able to help where facilities have run out of staff or have not been able to cope with difficult situations. These exceptions should have been the rule, but too often they either didn't arrive on time or didn't arrive at all.

              I want to look at some of the defences the government is putting up to try and deflect attention from its performance. The Prime Minister's answer in question time today, frankly, was surreal at times. He said that this is only an issue in Victoria because there is community transmission, that it's not an issue in other states. But it is ridiculous to suggest that you have an aged-care pandemic plan that only works in states where there is no COVID. That is bizarre. We are not asking for absolute, 100 per cent protection. What we are saying is that, if a COVID protection plan for the aged-care sector doesn't work in situations where there is COVID, it is not worth calling it a plan. Quite clearly what we are seeing in Victoria at the moment is that the COVID plan is not providing timely support to aged-care facilities, and there are far too many preventable deaths.

              We also see the use of bizarre language. Harry Truman said, 'The buck stops here.' But the Prime Minister always caveats his acceptance of responsibility by saying, 'The responsibility stops with me, but, of course, it's not binary responsibility.' He doesn't accept the buck; he accepts 50c. That's not good enough. Quite rightly, residents of Victoria are bemused at this notion that the Prime Minister accepts responsibility on the one hand but tries to deflect it to others on the other.

              Finally is this notion that the Prime Minister and others so often put forward: that some of the difficult situations that arose in Victoria could not have been foreseen—the workforce issues, the PPE need and so on. That goes back to the first point that I made: of course they were foreseeable, because we had Dorothy Henderson Lodge, Newmarch House and the royal commission's findings. This is a situation where the government was faced with a very foreseeable danger and didn't take timely action. It is the preventable deaths and difficulty that arose that mean its response wasn't good enough. (Time expired)

              3:44 pm

              Photo of David GillespieDavid Gillespie (Lyne, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

              I, too, would like to pass on my condolences to all those who have suffered during the pandemic, those who have actually been incredibly sick and, particularly, family and friends of those who, relevant to this discussion, have suffered this illness as their last illness and passed on. In fact there are 25½ thousand people in Australia that have suffered from it. Unfortunately there have been 525 deaths, with 335 of those in the aged-care system—328, the vast majority, in residential aged care and seven in home care. As has been outlined, it has been worst in Victoria, unfortunately, and we have responded quite appropriately. You need to focus on the big picture on how Australia has responded, not just in aged care but in the whole nation's health system, to the pandemic caused by COVID-19.

              The other thing you have to remember is that the aged-care system, and residential aged care in particular, in common parlance often called a nursing home, is by no means meant to be like a hospital or act as a hospital. They are the homes of our nearest and dearest—our parents and grandparents—and they are meant to be homes. It's not meant to be lino floors with the smell of chlorine and disinfectant everywhere. But when the pandemic happened, we saw what rolled out and what the outcomes were in overseas countries with health systems similar to ours. The health minister has outlined the vastly different outcomes. There were 13 high-risk places in Victoria. That's been isolated down to three. The numbers are coming down, fortunately, in Victoria.

              Regarding the aged-care system, the assertion that we have failed as a federal government because we have regulatory and funding responsibility, that we manage every day-to-day incidence—it is a shared responsibility. Obviously, the aged-care facilities themselves have responsibility, as is outlined by the minister in the federal-state agreement in the national pandemic plan announced back in February, and then the aged-care plan in particular, in March, there is state health ministry responsibility and regulatory oversight for a lot of the clinical and public health measures. There have been six evolutions of the plan, both the initial pandemic plan and the aged-care plan. There have been funding payments, which I can go through, totalling over $1.3 billion—the first one, $445 million, back in March. There's been access to personal protective equipment. There have been training courses, webinars and all sorts of updates. No. 5 and No. 6—I could go through the list extensively. There's unlimited assistance for COVID affected places. We have upgraded testing. We have 450 Commonwealth healthcare workers. We have ADF people helping with testing and tracing. We have myriad other supports for both mental health for the elderly and for all Australians. We have upgraded all our hospital intensive care facilities. We have support for remote—for Indigenous elders, for metropolitan elders—you name it. There is a comprehensive plan.

              In comparison, and we don't want to gloat, the outcome in Australia is exceptional compared to what's happened in like countries—in Scandinavia, in Europe, in the UK, in the US and in Canada. I know people want to score a hit somewhere and claim a win, but this is one area in which people on the other side need to be fair. I will call out mistakes on our side if I see them, but I don't see much in this. It is a really good outcome for our parents and grandparents who are residing in aged-care facilities. One death is too many, but we have gotten on top of the problem and the mortality rate of 0.18 per cent is really a low rate, compared to what we have seen elsewhere.

              It is a community outbreak in Victoria. That's where the disease came into aged care. It walked through the door in people— (Time expired)

              3:49 pm

              Photo of Andrew GilesAndrew Giles (Scullin, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Cities and Urban Infrastructure) Share this | | Hansard source

              It's often said, and rightly so, that the measure of any society is how it treats its most vulnerable members. Some of the most vulnerable members of our society are older Australians, older Australians who have made a great contribution to this nation, who find themselves in their later days in aged-care facilities. They are people to whom all of us owe a debt and an obligation—all of us, but particularly, of course, those of us who are empowered to make a difference, and we have failed on this count. The attitude of some in this government, including this Prime Minister, to aged-care residents does not paint us in a very favourable light. Indeed, the contribution of the previous speaker, who talked about really good outcomes, I find very challenging. That's not a contribution that comes, of itself, in a vacuum. From this government, in recent weeks we have seen, when it comes to the crisis in aged-care facilities, a litany of failures followed immediately by a litany of excuses.

              This matter of public importance has been brought before the parliament by my friend the shadow minister, who's done an extraordinary job in holding the government to account. He's been constructive, identifying solutions and not simply pointing out problems. In making my contribution to this matter of public importance, I want to address my remarks in this context: how we treat people who are particularly vulnerable at a particularly challenging time. As the member for Franklin said, it is to not regard these people as statistics or justify our actions or inactions by reference to numerical arguments, but to give them the humanity they deserve and to embrace the responsibility we have, particularly those who serve in Australia's government—those who have an obligation that is clear.

              There's dissembling by the Prime Minister. There's dissembling by the Minister for Health, who wants to invent theories and arguments to respond to when he's got a big enough job to be getting on with. He could have played a role, and the Prime Minister should have played a role, in putting in place a plan. There were warning signs everywhere. It's extraordinary that the Minister for Health talks about some overseas example, as if seeking congratulations. What happened in Canada? What happened in the UK? What happened in Sweden? What happened in France? It's not a compare-and-contrast contest. These were warnings we should have heeded, which demonstrated the particular vulnerabilities of institutional aged-care settings.

              We had the interim report of the aged-care royal commission, a document entitled Neglect. That's a pretty powerful symbol, you'd think, to members of this government. We had the experience of two facilities in Sydney and still no action. It's a litany of failures followed by a litany of excuses. We have a regulator nowhere to be seen. We have a Prime Minister who, on Friday, engaged in the most extraordinary acts of dissembling about the fundamental role of the Commonwealth when it comes to aged care. It's dissembling that continues today.

              In question time today I asked about Epping Gardens, one of several affected facilities in my electorate but the one which has been most affected. It's a facility in which 28 residents have died. The Prime Minister could have started with a simple 'sorry' on behalf of the Australian government and expressed his condolences to the families of those affected, as I do now. He could have recognised the confusion and distress that was at stake for them and for so many others. Down the road, in the electorate of Jagajaga—whose member can't be present today—with the experiences of Estia in Heidelberg and Aurrum in Plenty, we saw, again, this confusion: issues about information, issues about access to PPE and issues about testing. These are issues that could and should have been dealt with. In the other place today, in question time, we heard the minister say, 'Aged care is in a very good position.' I ask members opposite: what would a bad position look like now?

              There are so many things that could and should have been done, and it's right, in this place, that we draw Australians' attention to them. It's our job as the opposition to highlight the failings of the government. But my fundamental plea to members opposite is to focus on what can be done now. That has to start with something that's been sorely absent. It has to start with the Prime Minister taking responsibility.

              3:54 pm

              Photo of Katie AllenKatie Allen (Higgins, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

              I rise to contest the opposition's statement that the government has failed to adequately prepare the aged-care sector for the COVID-19 outbreaks. There really could be nothing further from the truth. I'm not sure whether those opposite have been to visit the aged-care facilities in their own electorates. I certainly have in mine. I've worked tirelessly, in the last few weeks and months, with my aged-care facilities to ensure that they are prepared. So it is almost an insult to hear what is happening from the other side. It is a cheap shot. That is because it is a very fragile system. We know that. We know that there are difficulties in the aged-care sector, and that is why there is a royal commission.

              With regard to COVID, it is a very special pandemic that is happening, a very special virus that has done something extraordinary. Unlike every other respiratory pandemic that we have ever seen, it has a predilection for the elderly. There is no other respiratory pandemic that has ever done this anywhere in the world. Every other pandemic, whether it is the Spanish flu or any other, has affected the extremes of age—both the very young and the very old. So this pandemic is unprecedented for many reasons. But one of the most unfortunate aspects of this pandemic is its predilection for the old.

              We know this because we have seen it unfold overseas. We have seen the carnage overseas—the carnage of those dying in aged-care homes at a significantly higher rate than in Australia. Our mortality rate in the aged-care sector is 0.17 per cent. That is 15 times lower than Canada, 30 times lower than Italy and Ireland, and 53 times lower than the UK. So if you want evidence of what would happen if we didn't have a plan just go overseas. I have spoken to many of my colleagues on a regular basis about how distressing it has been because governments like the UK government and the US government haven't had a plan. They haven't had a plan to deal with the health crisis that has approached the country. They haven't had an adequate plan to deal with those in aged care.

              We on this side are a federal government that has been on the front foot from the very start. I'm enormously proud of what we have done, what we've achieved and what we continue to achieve. As someone who has been in public health for most of my research career, I understand how hard it is to prove that prevention works. But right here in Australia you can see that a plan prevents death. I'm very proud of what the Minister for Health and the minister for aged care have achieved. It started back in January. We could all see what was happening in Italy, with deaths happening. I had colleagues calling me from Italy saying, 'Please, don't let happen in Australia what's happening in Italy!' Medical researchers and medical researchers in Australia also contacted me and told me people were dropping like flies in Italy.

              That has not happened in Australia, and that's because we put a plan in place. So to say that there was no plan is an absolute insult. To start with, in January we pre-emptively acted with the first of six stages of a national plan for aged-care prevention of COVID—it even has 'plan' in the title—and committed $100 million to aged-care sector preparedness. In February we then developed the aged-care COVID response guidelines by the Communicable Diseases Network Australia. That was ratified by the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, which is made up of all the chief health officers of the states and territories. These guidelines used world's best practice, including recommendations from the WHO and US CDC. And then in March we committed $440 million in funding to support aged-care workforce continuity, which included a retention bonus, because we understood that these aged-care facilities needed to be ready.

              We as a government understood that this COVID pandemic, if it gets out of control and there is community transmission, ravages the community and ravages the aged-care sector. So we were prepared. But unfortunately what happened was that the Victorian government let the team down. We had widespread community transmission—and it was actually the workers who took it into the aged-care sector. I'd like to give a shout-out to the aged-care sector because they have been doing it tough. It has not been easy. We should be proud of how they have prevented thousands of deaths here in Australia. I'd like to thank them from the bottom of my heart. Thank you.

              3:59 pm

              Photo of Susan TemplemanSusan Templeman (Macquarie, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

              One of my constituents, Denise Newton, has summed up where we find ourselves right now. Quoting an academic she'd been listening to on the radio as she drove to meet me and the Leader of the Opposition last week, Denise said, 'COVID has been like an X-ray, showing where all the broken bits are.' Denise was speaking at a roundtable discussion I held with a small group of women who have loved ones in aged care. I wanted to give the opposition leader a glimpse of the sorts of problems I hear about from families of aged-care residents in my electorate. I know they'll be similar to those being heard right around the country. Some of these women have known that the system has been broken for a really long time—years—and they've actively tried to improve it and have not been taken seriously by any of those who have the power to fix it—that is, those on the other side. In fact, in presenting a list of issues to the regulator during a visit to a facility, they were told, 'We're not the complaints department.' If a regulator won't hear of the problems being raised by residents' families, who will?

              Denise, Lisa, Sandra and Sue spoke passionately but calmly about the fears they have for the health for their loved ones residing in the Uniting Hawkesbury Richmond facility. This facility was recently among 104 aged-care facilities issued with noncompliance notices about infection control. I acknowledge that Uniting say that they've worked hard since then to implement a plan to improve infection control and that they're confident they'll demonstrate full compliance with all the standards and requirements. I don't doubt their efforts or the intentions to protect their residents and their team members, knowing that the staff themselves have so much pressure on them at the moment and that they are at a higher risk than any of us here, yet they earn a minimum wage. They are to be absolutely congratulated for the work that they're doing, but they can't do it alone.

              I've visited the facility on a number of occasions. The staff have been a delight, from those slogging away in the laundry to those who care for residents like Ken, Lisa's dad, who's just turned 90. But that doesn't change the fact that these families have had long-running issues that I think go to the broken bits of the system, which COVID is really exposing. There are not enough staff, which means there isn't the time or the people to provide the quality of care that I'd expect for my family.

              I think the other two participants at my roundtable, Liz and Jo, who have family members in other facilities, were shocked at what they were hearing. But we have to talk about this. That's why the royal commission is so important and so overdue. That's why it's not good enough for the Prime Minister to give a belated apology to families of those who have died, for whom all of us here have the deepest of sympathies. That's why it's not enough for the Prime Minister to try and pretend he doesn't have full and total responsibility for aged care and the tragic deaths of people in aged care with COVID. We're at over 330 so far, and no-one thinks that that number won't rise. It strikes fear into the heart of anyone with a family member in care, and that includes me.

              The reports on Newmarch House, where 19 people died—17 of those deaths being directly linked to COVID—and Dorothy Henderson Lodge, where six lives were lost, were kept hidden by the government even though they had them in April. Back in May, I called on the Morrison government to learn what went wrong in those facilities, particularly because Newmarch House is just outside my electorate and my constituents include residents of the Hawkesbury and the Blue Mountains who had family members there. The government didn't learn those lessons, and Victoria's heartbreaking experience shows us that. They knew from Newmarch that as many as 90 per cent of a workforce could be out of action if COVID got into a facility, but in late July the Prime Minister said it couldn't have been anticipated or foreshadowed. That is just not true. The report into Newmarch shows it could and should have been anticipated and planned for. The need for more PPE should have been anticipated. It was clear to me in conversations with the minister and others during the Newmarch disaster that PPE was being reserved for outbreaks, not being used to prevent them. Why was there no obvious plan to ensure that every resident had a way of communicating directly with their families if they were able to? The silence during the Newmarch debacle was agony for families, and that's why Sandra, Sue, Denise, Lisa, Jo and Liz, and everybody else who has a parent, a wife or a husband in aged care, deserves— (Time expired)

              4:04 pm

              Photo of Tony PasinTony Pasin (Barker, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

              I'd like to begin, as others have, by acknowledging the very sad loss of Australian lives to this one-in-100-year global pandemic. Given the nature of this matter of public importance, I want to particularly acknowledge and express my sadness for those older Australians who have succumbed to the disease. There is so much to be sad for. As we negotiate and deal with the new normal, I'm also sad that we're dealing with the same old Labor Party. It was the Labor Party that gave us 'Mediscare'. They're now working through a new plan. It's 'aged-care scare'. I'm really pleased that the member for Franklin has brought this matter forward, because she gave the Minister for Health 10 minutes in this place to very elegantly and graciously set out his efforts in relation to this. I've got to say that, in speaking to members of my community and other Australian citizens back in South Australia, all I hear is praise for the Prime Minister, praise for the Minister for Health.

              Do you know what else I'm sad about? I'm sad that this right now represents our parliament's best opportunity in the 75 years since the end of World War II to be at our best, and, sadly, we're not. Those opposite have decided that what they need to do now is look for the pressure points and agitate. That's another thing I'm sad about. I'm incredibly sad that we're having this discussion, when every single one of our efforts needs to be focused on saving lives and livelihoods. As a social conservative, I'm incredibly proud that, from my first breath in this place till my last, I'll be someone who will advocate for every life. Life in any form is sacrosanct. Our focus right now needs to be on defeating this disease, not defeating each other. Sadly, this matter of public importance is an attempt to win some cheap political capital, and I'm so sad about it. I'm so incredibly sad about it.

              Those opposite say, 'What plan?' I don't know how many times we need to set this out, but there was a six-step plan that is organic and developing as this pandemic which affects Australia—and, in particular at this stage, with the second wave, Victoria—develops. There was an initial response plan back in January. We then released, as part of stage 2, the national response plan. That was in February. There was then stage 3, the national plan which proceeded through March. It was a national plan and guidelines for COVID-19 outbreaks in residential aged-care facilities. Stage 4 dealt with workforce issues and PPE support. Stage 5 was a revised national plan and guidelines for COVID-19 in aged care, and that proceeded through March. More recently, through June and through till now, there has been a revised national plan and guidelines for the aged-care sector.

              Why do I know that these efforts were real and hitting the ground? I know that because I was in constant contact with my aged-care providers, whom I want to acknowledge, as others in this place have done. They are doing an incredible job, a very difficult job. And, yes, colleagues, there is important work we have to do as part of the aged-care royal commission, a process which preceded the pandemic and its arrival on our shores, but let's not conflate the two things. Let's not deal with cheap political capital. Let's be the best of ourselves. And let's not ignore the international comparisons. I've got relatives in northern Italy, and I've got to tell you, during that very difficult period for them, they could only have hoped for an aged-care system like ours in Australia. It's not perfect. As my five-year-old is wont to remind me, 'Nothing's perfect, Daddy.' We've got to keep working for every life and every livelihood. Those opposite need to think seriously about the damage they're doing to class politic.

              4:09 pm

              Photo of Peta MurphyPeta Murphy (Dunkley, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

              I would like to start my contribution to this very important discussion on the government’s failure to adequately prepare the aged-care sector for COVID-19 outbreaks with the words of my constituent Cecilia from Langwarren. She wrote to me: 'This scenario was entirely predictable, but it has taken this pandemic disaster in aged care to reveal the saddest, most horrific and shameful we-told-you-so moment in this nation's history. The measure of this nation and its people is how we treat our most vulnerable and how we rectify these wrongs.' The first step in rectifying the wrongs is acknowledging that they happened, followed by actually putting in place measures to make sure that they don't happen again. Every death is a tragedy. The deaths from COVID we have seen in the aged-care sector, particularly in Victoria, over recent weeks are a tragedy for the husbands and wives of those who are in aged-care, for their children, for their friends and for our community. I don't think it's too much to say that we are a community in mourning.

              I accept one thing that was said by the speaker before me, the member for Barker, about nothing being perfect. Nothing is perfect, but that doesn't mean that, here in this place, the people who have the responsibility for making a system as good as it can be can use 'nothing is perfect' as a defence for the flaws. We know that aged care is the responsibility of the federal government. We know that the Morrison government regulates aged care. We know that it funds aged care, and many, many constituents have raised with me that it is not adequate funding. We know that the Morrison government has legislation that determines the quality of the aged care that older Australians get. If these things aren't working, the first step is to acknowledge they're not working, apologise sincerely and without equivocation and without blame shifting for the consequences of the fact that they're not working, and then get on and fix them.

              Standing here today and talking about the failures in the aged-care system is not political pointscoring. It's not opportunism. It's the role of federal members of parliament to hold to account a federal government that is responsible for a system which is not working as it should be for some of the most vulnerable in our community, all of whom have lived a life that involved people who they love and people who love them. They have contributed in so many ways to the community that we have now and that those of us in this place are privileged enough to live in. This is not political pointscoring; it is the role of this place. If we don't do this now, in six months time are we going to be having another interim report from a royal commission about the failures in the aged-care system? Are we going to have another hearing where we hear about reports that were never actioned, where we hear about plans that didn't exist and we hear about hundreds and hundreds of Australians who have died sooner than they should have without being able to say that last proper goodbye to their families? No-one in this place, on either side, wants this, which is why we have to do what we are doing today, tomorrow, the next day and every day until the Prime Minister stands up and acknowledges that it's not good enough and it needs to be better.

              I've been contacted by constituents who work in the aged-care sector who say they have been working at residences where there have been two carers for 60 residents, many of whom were ill enough to be patients. Cecilia is a registered nurse and is mightily concerned about the way in which the role of nurses in aged care has been undermined and dismantled. Constituents have been contacting me about not being able to see their relatives and being deathly scared of their future. Better needs to be done.

              4:14 pm

              Photo of Andrew WallaceAndrew Wallace (Fisher, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

              Like so many who have spoken before me in this debate, I'd like to express my condolences for those who have passed away as a result of COVID, across the board, but, in particular, in relation to those who were living in aged-care facilities. There are so many things that one could say, such as one death is too many, and of course all of those things are correct.

              One of the things that strike me perhaps the most as a still relatively young person is that I think we have a vision of what our own deaths might look like, and hopefully we'll be surrounded by our loved ones when we go. We might be at home, we might be in a hospital bed, but we like to think—universally, I think—that we'll be surrounded by those we love and we can tell them we love them. Perhaps one of the saddest parts about those who have suffered from and those who have passed away from COVID is that, by and large, that's happened without their family being there, and that's a great source of sadness and sorrow. Likewise, as a result of the restrictions, we often haven't had the opportunity to say our goodbyes at their funeral. My parents are elderly. They live in Melbourne. I live in Queensland. I worry about them down there. I know that members here who live in Victoria are living in a totally different world from me in Queensland—and I hope that Queensland never goes the same way as Victoria.

              Those opposite talk about us having no plan, and that is fundamentally false. As the member for Barker, who spoke previously, and so many of those on the government side have indicated, there is a six-point plan which goes back to January and has been implemented. There are eight separate jurisdictions in the Commonwealth of Australia. If there were no plan, we would see the same sorts of problems replicated across those eight jurisdictions. That is not what we are seeing. We are seeing a problem specifically in Victoria. Across the whole country, the number of cases of people who have contracted COVID while living in a residential aged-care facility is 1,761. That's across the country. The number of deaths is 328 or, if you add home care to that, 335. The Victorian component of that is 1,698 cases, or 96 per cent of Australian cases; and deaths, 297, or 91 per cent. If those opposite were correct—their philosophy, their principle, their policy, their suggestion—that we have no plan, why is this predominantly happening in Victoria but essentially nowhere else? It's because their hypothesis is incorrect.

              Now, no system is perfect, and I don't say that as some sort of justification; I go back to my earlier comment that one death is too many. And one death should give cause us to pause and look at how we can improve the system, and that is exactly what we are doing. This is not 'set and forget'. The health minister and the aged-care minister are working very diligently and very hard to ensure that what we are experiencing in Victoria is not replicated across the country.

              But it is sad—I want to join the member for Barker in his comment—because this is a time for us to come together as a parliament. In this whole COVID crisis in particular, we need to come together and support Australians— (Time expired)

              Photo of Llew O'BrienLlew O'Brien (Wide Bay, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

              The discussion has concluded.