The federal government has announced a $2.4 billion support package to help health services, including aged care facilities, navigate Australia’s response to the coronavirus.
“It’s a health crisis,” prime minister Scott Morrison said. “Australia isn’t immune, but with this $2.4 billion boost we’re as well prepared as any country in the world.”
Chief medical officer Brendan Murphy told the press conference, “We are worried about the elderly… but there is no reason for immediate panic.”
The government will provide Medicare funding for pathology testing for coronavirus, which is expected to cost $170 billion uncapped. The measure will allow pathology companies to visit aged care facilities to test residents and staff.
The government will also inject $101.2 million into supporting the aged care workforce for training and education in coronavirus infection control, and to support the hiring of extra nurses and aged care residential and home case staff in the case of temporary shortages.
The Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission will also receive additional funding to work with providers on improving infection control, the government said.
The government will invest in stockpiling of medication and will provide aged care operators with personal protective equipment resources for staff where needed. Primary Health Networks will coordinate distribution.
A Medicare item will also be added for telehealth services so that vulnerable people can consult with their GPs or specialists over the phone and claim the expense on Medicare. The services will apply to the elderly, indigenous Australians, people with chronic conditions, pregnant women, and parents with young children.
Primary health services will receive $615 million – uncapped – to expand their capacity for treatment, diagnosis and testing.
The government will also spend $200 million to develop 100 popup respiratory clinics across the country.
Research into vaccines and antivirals or respiratory treatment will receive $30 million in support.
The Minister for Aged Care Richard Colbeck said older Australians are at the front of the government’s mind.
“Our objective is to ensure Australia’s aged care sector is ready and able to protect our most vulnerable. It remains our highest priority.”
“While those aged over 70 are at greater risk from the virus, it’s important to understand Australia has a robust health system.”
He said the latest measures will help to contain the disease.
“We are already ahead of the curve with practical guidelines and protocols to assist with containing outbreaks, while ensuring those who contract the disease have access to the best treatment,” the minister said.
“While the spread of COVID-19 presents significant problems… we will get through this together,” he said.
Aged and Community Services Australia CEO, Pat Sparrow, welcomed the government’s measures.
“While aged care providers are experienced in disease control and are already doing everything they can to be prepared, the additional support announced by the government today provides welcome reassurance,” she said.
She said “vulnerable” aged care providers will need the extra support from government.
“We’re pleased to see support for more staffing and additional staffing costs will be made available along with education and training.
“Many aged care providers are already in a vulnerable position and need that commitment,” she said.
Ms Sparrow said uncapped access to pathology will be “critical” if it is required.
“The announcement the government is making pathology testing available within a facility, and is aiming to have same-day turnaround on results is welcome,” she said.
Leading Age Services Australia CEO, Sean Rooney, also welcomed the announcement but said his organisation “will work closely with authorities for more support as needed.”
It’s a “strong start”, he said.
“The funding will help boost confidence among residents, staff and families”, “make response times quicker”, and make “prevention and care easier”.
Dr Murphy reminded Australians that testing is only needed for those with respiratory symptoms who are returned travellers or have had known contact.
Ms Sparrow echoed this advice.
“The current advice is that tests are not necessary for people not showing symptoms or people who have not travelled overseas or been in contact with a confirmed case,” she said.
“It’s always important for families and friends to be careful when visiting aged care homes and to stay away if unwell, even if it’s just a common cold,” she added.
Fact sheets are available at the Department of Health’s website and will be updated as new information becomes available.
If you are concerned you can call the 24-hour Coronavirus Health Information Line on 1800 020 080.