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Matter of Public Importance: Victorian aged care deaths directly linked to State Labor’s COVID-19 failures, 31 August 2020

I rise to speak on the incredibly important issue of aged care. It is with regret that I have to call out these very grubby tactics from Labor senators over the tragic issue of aged care deaths, including those people who have died from or with COVID-19. The Australian government is determined to ensure a safe environment exists in aged care facilities as we work together to contain the spread of COVID-19. We offer or deep condolences to those families who have lost loved ones. But let’s have a debate on facts. Let’s not see Labor senators turn their back on the facts.

Across the country, 97 per cent of aged-care facilities have not had an outbreak of COVID-19. That figure is 92 per cent in Victoria. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government has announced funding of an additional $1.5 billion in new measures to respond to the impacts of COVID-19 on aged care. The fact is that some 60,000 residents in aged-care facilities die every year. It’s a tragic statistic, but that is a fact. But what Labor is attempting to do is attribute the deaths of some 450 aged-care residents and seven home care residents to the minister. This is a disgraceful proposition that demonstrates how desperate the Labor Party has become. As I say, Labor has turned its back on the facts.

First and foremost, here is a very critical fact in this debate: the Australian government’s role is to fund and regulate aged care, not to run aged-care facilities. This is done by the state and territory governments, by private operators and not-for-profit operators such as churches. Where there are regulatory breaches, the Australian government, through the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission, comes down very heavily on the operator to ensure there are appropriate ramifications, remedies and accountability for such breaches. The commission is taking, at the moment, a proportionate risk based approach in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Remember, this is unprecedented.

The commission continues to use the full range of its regulatory powers to ensure aged-care consumers are safe and providers are delivering quality care and services consistent with the Aged Care Quality Standards. This is of particular importance in respect of the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic. If a provider is not meeting its legislative obligations, the commission may take regulatory action, including imposing sanctions or issuing a notice to agree to certain requirements, called an NTA. The commission has taken regulatory action during the pandemic in relation to services where there was a severe and immediate risk to care recipients due to the management of the outbreak. There have been 19 NTAs issued to providers since the beginning of the outbreak for this reason—18 of these notices relate to residential services in Victoria; one notice was issued to Anglicare New South Wales for Newmarch House in New South Wales; and for one NTA that has been issued details have not yet been published. Information about these notices is published on My Aged Care after residents and relatives have been informed by the provider of the action taken by the commission.

We need to have a brutally honest discussion about what is going on in aged care in this country at the moment as a result of the pandemic. Nearly all of the COVID-19 related deaths in aged-care facilities have occurred in Victoria, and yet we have not seen that very important point made by members opposite. I just want to go through the numbers.

These are really tragic numbers. Again, I reiterate my condolences to the family and friends of those who have died in aged care, including during this pandemic. These numbers, of course, relate to people who have died from or with COVID-19. There have been 29 deaths in New South Wales, zero in the ACT, zero in the Northern Territory, one in Queensland, zero in South Australia, one in Tasmania and 419 in Victoria.

I reiterate that our government is a national government. Our policies and our plans are enacted across the nation. Our policies and our management of aged-care facilities are no different in Victoria other than Victoria receiving greater funding because of the pressure it has been under due to the number of deaths it has suffered. The difference between Victoria and what is happening in other states is the alarmingly high rate of community transmission which has been caused, principally, because of the Victorian government’s failure to manage the spread of coronavirus in Victoria. It is a grim fact, but it is not contestable, as we now know, due to the evidence that’s been presented to the Coate commission of inquiry.

The hotel quarantine disaster to which nearly every active case can be linked is one of the principle causes of why there are such high levels of community transmission in Victoria which have invariably meant that there are such a high number of deaths proportionate to every other state and territory in the country. So, if I look at the contributions from Senators Walsh and Siewert, I want to reiterate that our plans and our policies in combatting COVID-19 in aged-care facilities have absolutely worked in states which have worked effectively to suppress the community transmission of coronavirus. I think all senators on the other side of this chamber will understand that, but they are not being honest about the facts.

The other critical issue in Victoria is the mismanagement of contact tracing. Contact tracing in New South Wales, for instance, has been managed extremely well. Every outbreak, there’s an identification of where it’s happened, and there are enormous resourcing being placed into contact tracing in New South Wales. That’s not the case in Victoria. There’s a huge lack of resources, and there are literally thousands of mystery cases. There have been huge issues in identifying the source of the coronavirus and in suppressing the spread of community transmission. As the Treasurer has said today, this represents one of the worst public policy failures we have seen by any government in this nation. But the Morrison government continues to ensure and work very closely with the Victorian government and with all states and territories to suppress the spread of the coronavirus, including in aged-care residential facilities.

We’ve initiated a number of important different initiatives to deal with the issue of the spread of coronavirus in aged-care facilities. I’ve mentioned the $1.5 billion of additional funding, and another $500 million was announced today. The Victorian Aged Care Response Centre is actually a collective effort between the Commonwealth and the state to make sure that, when there is an outbreak, we can act urgently to address it. There has been massive support for the National Medical Stockpile, including the supply of some 14 million masks and three million gowns, and immediate support from the wonderful members of the Australian Defence Force and AUSMAT personnel who are being dispatched, urgently, to facilities which need that help. Of course, as soon as there is an outbreak in an aged-care centre, the workforce and anyone who comes into contact with the coronavirus has to isolate for at least 14 days, and that’s why the response from ADF personnel has been so magnificent.

The other really significant thing that’s happened in Victoria is the Commonwealth has intervened to ensure that anyone in aged care who needs hospitalisation is immediately transferred to hospital. That was not happening and that was deeply, deeply concerning. We have now worked with the Victorian government to ensure that those defects in people who needed hospitalisation not being sent to hospital have now been remedied. We’re also working very hard with infection control and compliance spot checks.

We as a government will continue to work with the Victorian government to manage the spread of COVID-19 in Victoria, but I think it is fair to say that Australians understand why there is such a major pressure in Victoria. I absolutely condemn senators opposite for the very wrong implications they’ve made in relation to the Minister.

31 August 2020

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