25% of aged care shifts going unfilled yet the government says there is ‘no crisis’

Exhausted aged care worker

But a leading aged care expert is calling out the government, saying he’d like to see evidence of their optimistic claims, which are based on data, he says, “I just don’t believe.”

The Minister for Aged Care Services, Richard Colbeck, told a Senate Select committee yesterday that he “didn’t accept that the [aged care] system is in complete crisis”.

“My view, and the data supports that, is that the sector is performing and has performed exceptionally well in the work that it’s doing.”

So comfortable is Minister Colbeck about the situation in aged care, he declined to attend earlier sessions of the hearing in order to go to the cricket.

Yet despite the Minister’s confidence, the very same day a report by the Australian Aged Care Collaboration (AACC) – a group of six aged care peak bodies who represent 70% of the nation’s aged care services – painted a vastly different picture.

The situation in aged care is “grim”, the report states.

Providers are reporting that on average a quarter of their shifts are going unfilled, or about 140,000 shifts per week. 

The government’s surge workforce contribution of about 1,200 shifts per week is “clearly insufficient”.

Providers are also having difficulty accessing PPE and RATs.

“Aged care providers … are doing all they can to maintain care and support for their residents and clients while keeping them safe from infection in the face of severe staff shortages and a lack of crucial resources,” the AACC says.

Nearly 600 residents have died in this phase of the pandemic

The Omicron surge has placed enormous strain on the sector, which was already under immense pressure. Though the AACC says a lack of data about the situation is making the situation more difficult, the data that is available tells a worrying story.

There are currently nearly 24,000 COVID-19 cases associated with aged care, including nearly 10,000 residents and 15,000 staff.

More than half of the nation’s aged care homes – over 1,200 – are currently experiencing an outbreak.

Since November last year, when Omicron first hit, 566 aged care residents have died – more than twice the number during the entirety of 2021.

Against this backdrop, the daily need to maintain infection control measures while continuing to provide essential services and manage the effects of isolation on residents is a major challenge, the AACC states.

Clearly the situation is very serious.

Booster disconnect

The government and industry are also adopting different views of the booster rollout.

Minister Hunt said the government expects the booster rollout to be completed in aged care this week and that 99% of aged care homes have received booster visits. He said 99% of aged care staff are vaccinated, one of the highest rates in the world.

The only remaining facilities are those that have had outbreaks or issues with their staff or the vaccination provider staff, who because of outbreaks or being close contacts have not been able to be there, Minister Hunt said.

But the AACC said the level of booster coverage isn’t known because it relies on reporting from providers who are operating under severe workforce shortages. 

‘I just don’t believe it’

Another point of contention is Minister Hunt’s claim made earlier in the week that 60% of aged care residents who have died were receiving palliative care, which seemed to play down the seriousness of deaths in aged care.

This morning on ABC Radio, Professor Joseph Ibrahim, Head of Health Law and Ageing Research at Monash University, said that number “doesn’t make sense” and called on Minister Hunt to substantiate the claim.

“The minister does a really good job of sounding positive when he’s got a lot of things to cover up,” Professor Ibrahim said.

“I just don’t believe the numbers he’s giving us,” he said.

Professor Ibrahim also weighed into the debate about booster levels in aged care.

All Professor Ibrahim’s patients want the booster “because it gives them a greater amount of freedom and safety”.

“The question about 99% of homes being visited is all well and good, but the question is did they visit them prepared? Did they spend enough time there? Did they tell the residents they were coming? Had they briefed them?”

Politicians are using data for the purpose of “obfuscating” the truth, he said.

“Nothing has really improved” in aged care since the royal commission, Professor Ibrahim noted.

“We know that one in three aged care residents get sub-optimal care … the main issue is the lack of staff and the staff that are there don’t have the training they need for the complexity we have.”

The aged care staff bonus payments are “nothing of benefit” for aged care workers who have been “underpaid and overworked for over 20 years”.

“$400 isn’t going to cut it,” he said.

The government should support the Fair Work submission, which the royal commission recommended, but Professor Ibrahim said, “I don’t believe the government is going to support higher wages.”

At HelloCare, we have close ties with those working on the frontline in aged care. We regularly hear of staff beginning to work regular 12-hours shifts due to staff shortage, of isolated residents alone in their rooms, of staff not having enough time to chat to residents, of not having enough time to take residents to the toilet. What will it take for the government to do something about it?

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  1. Staff shortage has always been this bad…not just since COVID. I’ve got a 15 yr career as a frontline worker in aged care and I can say without ego that I am damn good at my job… I love what I do and invest a lot of myself into my work and residents and certainly don’t do it for the money…..but this here..is why I and thousands of others are leaving the industry. There’s no money in aged care so why should the govt care ?? It’s absolute disgrace…everyone just passed the buck and sweeps the issues under the carpet and have been for 20+ years…..we’ve lost hope that anything will change…….god help those govt when they get to the age of needing care.

  2. Great article , unfortunately 20 years of aged care being treated poorly by respective government’s of all persuasions has resulted in a broken system, which has been exacerbated by the latest covid outbreak

  3. This “disconnect” has been obvious for years. The Senior Managers in the Department of Health and Age Care Regulators spend so much time ticking boxes that are designed to make their Political Masters feel good that they have not got any idea of what is happening in Aged Care. Alternatively, they may know, but are too afraid to open their eyes to see the disgraceful shambles they have made of Aged Care.

  4. There is a disconnect between the political diatribe being spruiked and the lived reality of our residents and staff. This is neither a new, or recent phenomena. The public health system has over the last 10 years filled their employment gaps by increasing the use of Enrolled Nurses, nursing students and Assistants in Nursing. This combined with the advent of the NDIS and ramp up of home care has exacerbated the challenges of staffing in aged care. And while this was occurring no one appears to have given one second of thought to the long term impacts upon aged care, until now we have a crisis. It is in fact a crisis across all sectors of employment of the caring industries and it will get worse. We paid our staff an incentive payment to be vaccinated to encourage them before it became mandated, and we achieved 100% before the mandated deadline. We have had two Outbreaks and have also paid our staff incentives payments of $65 to $95 per shift worked during the Outbreaks. It was done to thank them and acknowledge the sacrifices they made to support the residents during the Outbreaks. It also meant we were able to continue to have staff on the ground when the governments 20 contracted surge workforce agencies could not deliver the staff they allege they have access to. I do not know of a single person who works in the aged care industry who is optimistic the future. That is a serious indictment of the lack of strategic planning that is occurring.

    1. I agree wholeheartedly with what you have said!
      Every day it feels like the Government is putting out more and more requirements on Aged Care facilities to report, report, report and saying we must meet this, this, this and this guideline! I feel like they are setting us up to fail! Setting us up so that they have a scapegoat to blame when the “SHTF”. Which is stupid, because if we fail, they must come up with an entirely new system instead of fixing the broken one they have already created! All they have to do is legislate that we need to be paid proper wages in line with the importance of our work – and given that the care industry is a women-dominated industry… is the government saying “old people aren’t worth the money” or “women’s work isn’t valued”? They have to pick one.

  5. Only 25% – that an understatement!! Every 2nd phone call to clients is either saying no services until further notice or sorry unable to assist as our wait list is at capacity.

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