Recent Government data has shown an average of just 30 Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel were deployed to aged care facilities across Australia each week, despite ongoing staff shortages in the sector due to COVID-19.
In the last two weeks of July – as COVID placed a huge strain on the sector and exacerbated existing staff shortages – Defence Minister Richard Marles announced an extension of the ADF to support the sector.
Minister Marles said up to 250 ADF general duties personnel would be available to help aged care facilities on top of defence medical teams, however, the Government’s weekly surge workforce figures showed the most to be deployed since the Minister’s announcement was 47.
The average number of ADF personnel deployed each week since the announcement was 30.
Since 22 July, just 52 new facilities have been aided by ADF personnel, even though 1,013 facilities had active COVID-19 outbreaks.
Ian Yates, Chief Executive of Council on the Ageing (COTA) Australia, said there had been some hesitancy on the part of providers to take up the offer of ADF personnel.
“I do know that earlier in the year, when the media generally was jumping up and down about, ‘Let’s bring in the ADF,’ a hell of a lot of providers didn’t want them, because they’re not trained,” Mr Yates said.
“There are things they can do automatically, but they’re not trained to work with very, very frail older people.”
Industry peak group, Aged & Community Care Providers Association (ACCPA), said it had welcomed ADF involvement and found benefit in the extra assistance.
Interim Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of ACCPA, Paul Sadler, added that generalist teams had improved morale and helped residents stay connected with loved ones, while clinical teams had provided specialist assistance where required.
“ADF involvement has complemented surge workforce arrangements put in place by the Government during the pandemic,” MrSadler said.
“With the decrease in the number of COVID-19 cases in the community and in residential aged care, there has been less demand for workforce support in recent weeks.”
The Health Department said the ADF support was an “additional emergency measure” to fill immediate gaps, not a long-term solution, and was only intended to be used where providers were experiencing outbreaks but had exhausted their usual internal and external staffing options.
Data showed 3,918 COVID-related deaths have occurred in residential aged care since the pandemic began, with about 3,000 of them having occurred this year.
The proportion of those who contracted COVID-19 and died is far lower, dropping from 33% in 2020 to 3.5% in 2022.
Mr Yates did not advocate a return to lockdowns in aged care facilities to protect older residents as it can have a huge impact on their mental health, but said he did think as a community, people have become “somewhat complacent”.
Private health contractors also assisted alongside the ADF to fill an average of 2,287 shifts a week since July 22. The total number of shifts filled by the private workforce during the pandemic is 135,981.