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 did not adequately consider gaps in the sector, counsel assisting the commission Peter Rozen QC said on Thursday during closing submissions.
He said the two health plan documents did not address problems including workforce shortfalls, personal protective equipment access, or a lack of infection control skills.
Mr Rozen said lessons from deadly outbreaks at Sydney’s Dorothy Henderson Lodge and Newmarch House in March and April 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.
Some 160 aged residents in Victoria have died amid the ongoing outbreak.
Mr Rozen said the roles of the Commonwealth, NSW government and aged care providers in the state were formalised in June but 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 in Europe and North America should have been a warning sign, he added.
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 shortages 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.
In a Facebook video, Prime Minister Scott Morrison promised to address shortcomings in the sector.
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 was told 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 described staff shortages and struggles obtaining personal protective equipment.