‘Deeply disturbing’ coronavirus claims
Aged care providers including some in Victoria have cut staff during the pandemic, the nurses union has claimed at the aged care royal commission.
The probe also heard allegations on Wednesday that more than 1000 aged care workers in Victoria had tested positive to COVID-19, that masks were being kept in locked boxes with only one allowed for workers per shift, and that some providers didn't have soap, according to the union.
Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation federal secretary Annie Butler said she was "astonished" that "aged care providers are actually cutting staff right now" in Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and NSW.
"We were told (in late April) that some providers had cut staff from the first of March, and over the last month or two, the feedback from members - and even from employers directly - is that their cutting staff has increased," she said.
Commissioner Lynelle Briggs said she was "shocked and deeply disturbed by the evidence we've heard this morning".
"A great deal of what you've had to say will come as a surprise to many," commissioner Tony Pagone told the union figures who spoke on Wednesday.
Ms Butler said registered nurses working in Victorian hospitals had been transferred from a "well-prepared sector" to aged care during the crisis, where they were shocked at the "abject neglect" and "horrific circumstances" they were seeing.
Health Workers Union Victorian secretary Diana Amsar said the union believed more than 1000 workers in aged care had tested positive to the virus.
She said the union did not have access to hard data on this question, but had arrived at that number "based on calls that we have been receiving, and outbound calling" to their members including personal care workers, nurses, cleaners, laundry and kitchen staff and gardeners.
Ms Asmar said it was no surprise low-paid workers in the aged care sector were feeling "like they were at the bottom of the Titanic".
"Our workers, right now, are traumatised," she said.
"In the aged care sector, our members cannot get masks, gloves, gowns - today, with this huge death toll, our members are struggling to get a mask. They have to go to the nurse manager in charge to request one, if they can get one.
"The only thing they probably did use was gloves, but we came to a situation where there actually was no soap, no sanitiser for them, and the actual masks were locked up in the medication cupboards where they couldn't access, and they were told, 'You are only entitled to one mask per shift.'
"Prior to COVID-19, they were understaffed. Now, today, with the COVID-19 outbreak in Victoria, we are seeing more understaffing because there is a huge shortage of staff in aged care."
United Workers Union secretary Carolyn Smith said during the pandemic a survey of workers in Queensland, the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia revealed 39 per cent felt they "always" didn't have time to complete tasks.
"Every single uncompleted task is an older Australian who is not receiving the care that they deserve," she said.
She said during this stressful time residents "need extra time spent with them - need that moment where you can sit, and hold a hand, sing a song, brush someone's hair, talk to them - and care workers are saying, again and again, people need a bit of extra time, and we haven't got that time for them," she said.
Ms Butler added she had spoken to members who were going to work on their days off to spend time with residents.
"They have an enormous commitment to their residents," she said.
Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck said "all aged care providers have a responsibility to ensure that they have the appropriate staff required to ensure delivery of quality care and services to their residents."
"Since March this year, the Government has additionally provided more than $850 million in measures to support and protect senior Australians in response to the COVID-19 pandemic," he said.
"This also includes $205 million of sector-wide COVID-19 payment to support residential aged care facilities and $78.3 million to boost the aged care workforce supply."
'HUNDREDS WILL DIE PREMATURELY'
The federal government was slammed for its handling of COVID-19 in residential aged care on Wednesday by an expert who said he's been banging the drum of the need for a plan for the sector since February.
Monash University Ageing Research Unit head of health law Joseph Ibrahim ripped into the government for its complacency, which he said caused preventable deaths, during his appearance at the commission.
He tore strips off "people in governance roles", telling them: "I'm not going to call them leaders, because they're not leading.
"In my opinion, hundreds of residents are and will die prematurely because people have failed at act.
"All of this was foreseeable.
"There's a lack of urgency and an attitude of futility, which leads to an absence of action.
"We have the knowledge to do better. We've failed because we've treated (aged care home) residents as second-class citizens."
Dr Ibrahim said there had been a need for a national body with aged care expertise to develop a plan for handling COVID-19 within the aged care sector.
"I'm surprised that (Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck) is relying purely on public health specialists and infectious disease specialists to manage aged care when the department and the minister know full well the circumstances in aged care are quite different," he said.
He said about 70 per cent of deaths from COVID-19 in Australia were from the aged care sector, which was the "second or third" highest rate in the world.
He said he had contacted the federal and state health departments advocating for a national body with expertise in the aged care sector to prepare for the pandemic.
"What I've been trying to do for the past five months is find a way to communicate to people that the risk is substantial, and we can't sit back and relax," he said.
Originally published as 'Deeply disturbing' coronavirus claims