The federal government failed to stop staff at aged care facilities from working across multiple sites despite a mobile workforce being a driver of Victoria’s second wave of Covid-19 last year, prompting a furious response from the main staff union and health experts.
It was revealed on Monday that staff from two of the aged care facilities affected by Melbourne’s latest Covid outbreak, Arcare Maidstone and Bluecross Western Gardens, were working across multiple sites, prompting lockdowns at the facilities, with residents now confined to their rooms.
The commonwealth has responsibility for both of the privately-run facilities. Staff in casual or insecure work who needed to work across multiple facilities to make ends meet was a key factor in Victoria’s second wave which began to escalate in July and resulted in almost 700 people dying in aged care.
As a result, the federal government changed its guidelines for the aged care homes it manages, so that workers with more than one aged care employer would have to choose a primary employer. But Guardian Australia confirmed the guidelines are not mandatory and they can do nothing to stop staff from working across sites to supplement their income.
The only time the federal government can make the policy mandatory is during an outbreak, as is now occurring in Victoria. As a result of the most recent cases in aged care, the federal government triggered a grant program, designed to provide extra funding to support single-site working. The funding was triggered on Thursday 27 May, well after the first cases began emerging in Melbourne.
Guardian Australia asked the office of the aged care minister, Richard Colbeck, why the grant program was the only mechanism by which the guidelines could be enforced, but did not receive a response.
Dr Sarah Russell, an aged care public health researcher and co-founder of lobby group Aged Care Reform Now, said during the course of the pandemic, the federal government had released numerous guidelines to private providers.
“These guidelines have not been worth the paper they are written on because private providers can choose to ignore them,” she said.
“This fits with federal government’s support for aged care homes operating within a free market. The government will not mandate staffing ratios, staff wages or even whether staff work in multiple homes during a pandemic. They leave all these decisions up to individual providers.”
Last year, the federal government was heavily criticised for not having a pandemic plan for aged care homes.
“Guidelines are not a plan,” Russell said.
The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation federal secretary, Annie Butler, told the Guardian that the union had repeatedly warned the government about staff working across multiple sites.
Butler said the problem had been exposed last year during the Covid-19 outbreak across aged care, but the government had done little, other than “Band-aid solutions”.
“I’m almost speechless. It’s incredible that they could let it happen again,” she said.
She said the need for proper staffing levels in aged care facilities has been clear for years.
“I can bang on for forever and a day. Had we been listened to five years ago we would not be here now, that is absolutely for certain, without even knowing there was going to be a pandemic … because if we had the right staff in the right numbers we would not have this problem.”
The Victorian government manages public aged care facilities – about 5% of aged care homes in the state – and also implemented guidelines following the aged care disaster that unfolded during the second wave. The policy states:“Where practicable, care facility workers should be limited to working at one facility”.
But on Monday the acting premier, James Merlino, said the state had made sure the guidelines were followed. “We have clear policies in place that has made sure workers don’t work across sites,” he said. “[Staff working across facilities] is not happening in the public system, and as for private aged care, you should raise those questions with the federal government.”
The opposition health spokesman, Mark Butler, said it was “very difficult” to make a living wage working in private residential aged care.
“The shifts are usually short,” Butler said.
“It’s very hard, very rare to pull together a full-time job. The hourly wages are quite low. So there is, I guess, a financial incentive for people to work across aged care facilities.
“That’s why when the results of that became apparent, particularly during the Victorian wave, but also to a degree in New South Wales last year, it was clear the federal government had to step in and provide some support if aged care workers were going to be prevented from working two different jobs in the aged care sector.”