The aged care minister Richard Colbeck has admitted he doesn’t know how many workers in the aged care sector have been vaccinated, but says he’s comfortable with the pace of the rollout despite the fresh Covid outbreak in Melbourne.
The Morrison government is under intensifying pressure after two aged care workers and a resident tested positive to Covid-19, laying bare the persistent vulnerabilities in a sector Canberra funds and regulates.
During the first wave of the pandemic last year, more than 600 people died in Australia in residential aged care. The government has said previously aged care residents would be vaccinated by March.
Officials for the Department of Health told a Senate estimates hearing on Tuesday that 44,333 aged care residents had received a vaccination, and of that cohort, 25,319 had received their second dose.
Colbeck told the ABC on Tuesday he didn’t know how many workers had been vaccinated because the government did not have consolidated data. “I’m not going to give you a number I am not certain of,” the aged care minister said.
The minister said staff in some facilities had been vaccinated if there were doses left over after inoculating residents. The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee is now considering whether to make coronavirus vaccinations compulsory for workers in the sector.
Colbeck acknowledged that “everybody” would have liked the vaccination program to be delivered more quickly, but he said he was comfortable with where things were at and “we’ve done it as quickly as we possibly could”.
“Everybody’s working assiduously to provide as much support as they possibly can to ensure the safety of residents in residential aged care,” he said.
The minister was also asked why the government lifted the ban on employees working at multiple facilities which was imposed during the last outbreak.
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 ban was not reimposed until last week, when the latest outbreak led to Melbourne being designated a hotspot. Aged care workers are not well paid, and often work across multiple facilities to supplement their incomes.
Outside of outbreaks the guidelines are not mandatory. Colbeck said on Tuesday morning it was not legal “to limit somebody’s capacity to work”.
The minister said the Health Services Union took an aged care provider to the Fair Work Commission in March last year to uphold the rights of workers to do shifts in multiple facilities.
The shadow aged care minister, Clare O’Neil, declared that failing to know how many staff had been vaccinated in aged care facilities in the middle of a pandemic was “nothing short of gross incompetence”.
“How does Richard Colbeck still have a job?” O’Neil said.