Tuesday, 1 December 2020
Questions without Notice
COVID-19: Aged Care
My question is to the Minister for Aged Care and Senior Australians, Senator Colbeck. Can the minister outline how the Australian government has responded to the threat of COVID-19 to senior Australians in aged care?
Thank you, Senator Henderson, for your question. From the very beginning, responding to the COVID-19 pandemic has been a top priority for this government. We knew that our most vulnerable senior Australians were most at risk, and we acted at every stage to prepare for a worst-case scenario should this virus enter our aged-care facilities. We closed our borders. We planned for an emergency response with our medical professionals. We negotiated hospital agreements. We increased the capacity of our providers. We resourced a surge workforce for residential aged care. We secured and distributed a substantial national stockpile of PPE at a time of global shortage. We have invested, to date, over $1.7 billion to plan, prepare, act and recover. There are no countries where there has been widespread community transmission that have been able to avoid outbreaks in residential aged care. Here in Australia, we've seen the devastating loss of 693 Australians in aged care. Our condolences will always be with their friends and families.
When community outbreaks occurred and COVID-19 hit Victoria and New South Wales, we came together with a collaborative response between federal government agencies, state government providers, professionals, families and senior Australians, hospital networks and others to do what we could to manage the outbreaks and to keep it out of the homes of our most vulnerable. As I noted yesterday, in our response to the royal commission, we've been able to stop the spread of COVID-19 to senior Australians in 97 per cent of our aged-care facilities.
It's very pleasing to note that there have been no cases of COVID-19 in residents in aged care since 28 October. While the rest of the world continues to battle this terrible virus, we mostly have it under control here in Australia. We now have the capacity to recover in time and to get on the front foot so that we are ready for any future threats.
The government accepted and is acting on all six recommendations from the royal commission's special report on COVID-19, and yesterday I announced an additional $132.2 million of measures to help our senior Australians and to ensure we are even stronger into the future as we recover. We are committed to strengthening infection prevention control in facilities, including working with state jurisdictions to do so.
Opposition senators interjecting—
As I outlined to the Senate yesterday, the response to fighting COVID-19 of one of the leading geriatricians in Australia, Associate Professor Michael Murray, was, 'Australia was as well prepared for a significant aged-care outbreak as any country or jurisdiction in the world, with the probable exception of Hong Kong.' We have learnt the lessons from Hong Kong, including the adoption of their model of infection control leads in each of our facilities. Globally, the impact of COVID-19 has tragically been felt in aged care. Australia has had fewer deaths, both in total and in care homes, than many other countries in the world, including those that we know are going through a second wave of infections.
My question is to the Minister for Aged Care and Senior Australians, Senator Colbeck. Last night the Morrison government tabled its formal response to the royal commission special report on COVID-19. The document failed to state that 685 older Australians died from COVID-19 in the Morrison government's residential aged-care system. Why?
I quite clearly stated in my statement to the Senate yesterday afternoon that 693 Australians have died as a result of COVID-19 and that it is an absolute tragedy in every single circumstances, and I just repeated that a moment ago. The response that we tabled yesterday was on the measures that were requested by the royal commission. It was our response to the royal commission report. That's what we tabled yesterday. In my statement to this chamber yesterday, I acknowledged, as I have done on many occasions—
I have allowed you to restate the question, Senator Urquhart. While the minister is talking about the number you referred to and the content of the report, I can't instruct him to answer a question in that form. I think he is being directly relevant to that, but I have allowed you to restate it and remind him of it.
I have a point of order on direct relevance. Minister, we asked you why your report did not include a reference to 685 Australians who died in your system. I would ask you to have the decency to respond to that.
Mr President, on the point of order, Senator Colbeck has been consistently directly relevant in his response to this question. Senator Colbeck, in responding to this question, has indeed identified this was a government response to the specific recommendations of the royal commission. He has equally identified that, in tabling that response and the statement made, the number that was referenced was cited. I fail to see how a senator could be any clearer or any more directly relevant in responding to an answer than Senator Colbeck is being.
Senator Wong, your point of order was substantively the same as Senator Urquhart's. I allowed you as leader to make the point again and to restate that concluding part of the question. In my view, while Senator Colbeck is talking about the report that was tabled and while he is talking about the number of Australians who have passed away due to this, I don't think I can instruct him as to how to answer a question that specifically. He is being directly relevant to the question at the moment.
As I said, the report that I tabled yesterday responded directly to the recommendations of the royal commission's COVID-19 special report. In the statement I gave in tabling that document I directly referenced all of the 693 who've passed away as a result of COVID-19 in aged care—685 in residential aged care and eight in home care—and acknowledged again, as I have done on many occasions in this chamber, the individual tragedy it is for each of those families and their friends and communities. We continue to work in the interests of all senior Australians in aged care in responding to the virus and managing its effects on the community. This government, as I outlined a moment ago, since the outbreak of COVID-19 has been working closely with the aged-care sector to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. We have continued to develop our plan as that process has continued. (Time expired)
Last week the minister tabled the annual report on the Aged Care Act. Again, the report failed to state that 685 older Australians had died from COVID-19 in the Morrison government's residential aged-care system. Why?
That report directly referenced the impact that COVID-19 had on senior Australians. And putting a date at a point in time, when that number—
Senator Keneally interjecting—
I'll take Senator Keneally's interjection, because the date of the report was 30 June, and at that point in time the number of deaths had changed—
Senator Keneally interjecting—
Unfortunately, the number of deaths continued to escalate through July, August and September and through into October, until on 28 October we got to the fantastic circumstance where there were no cases of COVID-19 in residential aged care in this country, because Victoria, South Australia, New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australia, Tasmania and the territories have managed to control community transmission of the virus. When there is community transmission of COVID-19 there is a risk to residential aged care. (Time expired)
Today in the Senate gallery we have nurses who have been at the front lines of this pandemic and have cared for older Australians in this minister's broken aged-care system. What will it take for the Morrison government to stop denying the 685 deaths on its watch, to take responsibility and to ensure that this never happens again?
I completely reject the premise of the question, because at no point in time have we denied the tragic circumstances of COVID-19 in aged care. And it's quite dishonest, Senator, for you to actually frame your question in that way.
Can I say that I pay tribute and give thanks to every aged-care worker, and not just the nurses—the personal care workers, the therapists and everybody who has worked on the front line in aged care. And thank you for being here today. I pay tribute to everyone. While this opposition—
Senator Keneally interjecting—
at the last election refused to give any additional resources to staff of residential aged care, we have on three occasions provided additional resources and payment to staff of residential aged care, in the form of retention payments. This government is the only one who has actually, in material terms, recognised— (Time expired)