The Minister for Aged care was left fumbling for answers during an excruciating exchange at the senate inquiry into the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic today.
Minister Richard Colbeck was unable to answer questions at Friday’s Senate Committee hearing about how many aged care residents had died from COVID-19 in Victoria.
After fumbling for an agonizingly long time, he said, “I will just have to look up my latest report, chair, that might take me a moment.”
Finally, a public servant stepped in and provided the necessary details; 258 aged care residents had died in Victoria as of 8am on Thursday.
Chair of the committee, Labor Senator Katy Gallagher asked, “Minister, you weren’t aware of that number?… It’s not front of mind as the Minister for Aged Care? They are pretty important details.”
Under questioning, the minister agreed the federal government is responsible for funding of aged care and the development and application of quality and safety standards.
However, he said cases of COVID-19 in aged care are the result of COVID-19 transmission in the community.
“While there is community spread of COVID-19 there will be the risk of it being transmitted into residential aged care facilities,” the minister said.
Senator Gallagher asked why the government was “absent” when COVID-19 transmission began to escalate in Victoria.
“The government was not absent. The government has been there every single step of the way,” the minister said.
“In some circumstances we haven’t got it right,” the minister admitted, when asked about Melbourne aged care outbreaks.
“It has cost lives and it’s an absolute tragedy.”
Aged Care Quality and Safety Commissioner, Janet Anderson, also appeared. She said her agency had made changes to its processes and procedures following a communication breakdown during the St Basil’s outbreak.
Ms Anderson said she recognised the commission “erred” in not escalating information about the outbreak to the Commonwealth Department of Health, and it “should have done better”.
The commission had reviewed its procedures “to ensure any evidence about an outbreak is immediately shared with the Commonwealth Department of Health and the relevant public health unit,” Ms Anderson said.
“Our processes for sharing data and intelligence are now significantly enhanced and we are routinely sharing data daily,” she said.
Federal Health Department Secretary Brendan Murphy says a list of all aged care facilities with COVID-19 infections will not be made public, because media coverage of smaller outbreaks is not in the public interest.
“We have seen many examples of facilities that have been bombarded by the media, where staff have been harassed,” Professor Murphy said.
“We accept the need for transparency, but that has to be balanced, ” he said, adding that some aged care facilities have recorded only a single case, and had no further transmission within the facility.