Aged care advocates are highly critical of what they see as unacceptable delay on the part of the Federal government and in particular Federal Minister for Health, Greg Hunt MP, in relation to the vaccination of the aged care workforce. Minister Hunt announced in February this year that all staff and residents would be vaccinated within six weeks – this did not happen.
Instead, it was not until June that National Cabinet agreed to mandate vaccines for aged care staff with a first dose now due by mid September. A support package of $11m was part of the announcement enabling residential aged care facilities to provide their staff with paid leave to be vaccinated.
Aged care residents and the staff who care for them should have been the target of early vaccination strategies. We know that the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on the frail aged with three quarters of the total covid deaths occurring in residential aged care amongst residents. Transmission has come about as a result of staff having to work at multiple aged care facilities in order to make ends meet. Guidelines detailing single site workforce arrangements were introduced by the Federal government but mere guidelines were never going to stop aged care workers working in more than one aged care home. Also, the guidelines specifically exempted agency staff where a lot of the aged care workforce comes from. The reasoning for this was to ensure that no aged care home was left without sufficient or appropriate staff.
As aged care lawyers, we know that systemic workforce issues are major contributors of poor clinical outcomes. This was a prominent feature of the work of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety which in its final report made numerous recommendations to enhance the capability and work conditions of the aged care workforce including calling for better wages and a new national registration scheme with minimum training. However, we should not wait 3 years for changes to be made as the Royal Commission recommended – it is not fair for our frail aged to have to wait this time to have proper care provided to them. Aged care workforce reform is urgent.
Just recently the Committee for Economic Development of Australia – ‘CEDA’– an independent, membership based think tank has released its economic analysis of the aged care workforce shortage. We already have a shortage of aged care workers and the CEDA report says that Australia needs at least 17,000 more direct aged care workers each year over the course of the next decade to meet basic standards of care.
To have any hope of attracting care workers and appropriately skilled nurses to aged care, we have to ensure that terms and conditions including safe workplaces during these extraordinary times are addressed.