Richard Colbeck had to face the music this week over attending the fifth test in his home state of Tasmania when he’d told the Senate COVID committee he was too busy working on the Omicron wave spreading through aged care to appear.
Explaining himself to the committee on Wednesday, Colbeck spelled out what he had been doing on aged care but also said: “I’m very careful to balance and acknowledge the different elements of my portfolio”.
The senator is minister for sport as well as minister for senior Australians and aged care services. His reference to balancing his duties raises the question: how is it that Colbeck has the sports job in the first place?
In a reshuffle in late 2020, Scott Morrison elevated aged care to cabinet under Heath Minister Greg Hunt, leaving Colbeck with the day-to-day duties in the portfolio.
But it seems inexplicable that Colbeck retained the sports post. He had struggled with his aged care work, especially when grilled at the Senate committee, and the sector had been a disaster area during 2020 with many hundreds of deaths in Victoria.
Even though health and aged care is the senior portfolio, aged care services should be a full time ministerial job, not one that has to be “balanced” with any other responsibilities.
We’ve seen in the COVID waves how the virus seeks out the weak points and most vulnerable individuals in the community, and residential aged care and those who live there are once again the most obvious examples.
With Australia having around 2000 deaths so far this year, as of Thursday there had been 512 deaths in residential aged care. This compares to 685 in 2020 and 282 last year.
Despite our overall death numbers being so high in recent weeks, the public in January did not seem particularly galvanised by them. The attention was on shortages of tests and supply chain problems. But as the crisis in aged care has worsened, attitudes are changing.
It’s not just deaths. It’s that Omicron hits this sector in multiple ways.
Staff shortages – because staff have the virus or are close contacts – dramatically affect patient care.
Understaffed facilities are being caught in a bind – between effectively locking down patients, away from families and other outsiders, to give them maximum protection from Omicron, or allowing them the company they desperately need, with the infection danger that brings.
The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, which advises the national cabinet, has considered national guidance providing for residents to have an “essential visitor” even when there is an outbreak. The advice will be finalised within days.
The AHPPC accepts this increases the risk of transmission but says the impact of social isolation must also be taken into account.
Aged care is a federal government responsibility, and there is much questioning as to whether the time since the deadly 2020 wave has been used to reinforce the sector.
One of the aged care royal commissioners, Lynelle Briggs, this week criticised the lack of preparation.
“We shouldn’t be seeing the disproportionate impact on this group when we’ve known for two years they were particularly vulnerable to the disease,” Briggs told the ABC.
A core part of the problem goes to workforce issues, especially retention and pay. The government this week announced $800, paid in two instalments, for workers, in a bid to retain numbers.
But it will not come out and support a pay rise.
A wage care is in the Fair Work Commission and Labor leader Anthony Albanese has said the government should put a submission advocating a rise (although he won’t nominate what the increase should be).
Asked at the National Press Club why the government wouldn’t argue for an increase, Morrison defaulted to the extra cost that would bring. “We will let that process follow its course and we’ll of course have to absorb any decision that is taken there,” he said.
Obviously the cost would be substantial. But given the importance of aged care and the fact that a well staffed and paid workforce is critical to a well functioning sector, surely the government should be advocating a pay boost.
This is especially the case given how much government money has been splashed around generally in the pandemic.
The government has indicated it is open to using some defence personnel to help meet the aged care staff crisis but it is very reluctant to do so.
Defence Minister Peter Dutton said on Friday, “If that is what is required to fix this problem and to provide dignity to these people that is what we will do” . He pointed out, however, that the Defence Force had its own problem of staff in isolation.
Morrison sounded less than keen, saying “the Defence Forces is not a shadow workforce for the aged care sector”.
But Labor’s Mark Butler says: “A quarter of shifts not getting filled is simply not good enough. It is high time the Australian Defence Force was called in to help with this crisis.”
Butler said the ADF had “the broadest range of skills. They can really turn their hand to anything, whether it’s providing quite sophisticated nursing care and personal care or helping out with some of those daily tasks of providing meals and just providing residents with a bit of personal interaction.”
When parliament resumes next week, aged care will be at the centre of the 0pposition’s attack. The government arcs up about Labor “politicising” the issue, but political pressure is not just legitimate but a way to force action.
Albanese this week called for Colbeck’s resignation. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Colbeck is there until the election. But it’s a safe bet that if the Coalition is re-elected he will be moved on from the aged care area. Maybe he’d retain sport.