An older person in a sweater squeezes a stress ball while a younger person holds their arm.
An aged care royal commissioner says the treatment of residents during the Omicron wave has been “completely unacceptable”.(Photo by Matthias Zomer from Pexels)

One of the government’s aged care royal commissioners says the system is in crisis due to the federal government’s failure to prepare for an ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Key points:

  • Lynelle Briggs says deaths and isolation among residents are failures of the government
  • She says the government should be backing a pay rise for the sector’s workers
  • The relevant minister is resisting calls to resign

Commissioner Lynelle Briggs said it was “completely unacceptable” that elderly people had been isolated in their rooms for months without regular showers and care.

“What we’re looking at in aged care is months on end with no-one visiting them, and sometimes dying alone,” Ms Briggs said.

“It really shouldn’t be allowed to happen and the government should have sorted its strategy out for how to prevent this happening again.”

Ms Briggs said the lack of preparation had taken “a bad situation to a crisis”.

The Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety handed down its final report last year.

Titled simply Neglect, it painted a harrowing picture of nationwide failures to care for elderly people.

Royal Commissioner Lynelle Briggs hearing submissions during the Royal Commission for Aged Care Quality and Safety.
Lynelle Briggs described ongoing practices within the aged care sector as “neglect”.(AAP: Kelly Barnes)

The commissioners recommended significant and urgent work to improve the workforce and governance of aged care.

Minister for Aged Care Richard Colbeck is facing calls to resign after deaths in aged care in just the last month outstripped those for the entirety of 2021.

A total of 777 aged care residents have died with COVID since July last year. Around 500 of those deaths occurred last month.

Senator Colbeck has denied the system is in crisis, saying deaths in Australia have been lower than overseas.

But Ms Briggs said that wasn’t good enough.

“The fact that we’re doing better than overseas on deaths in aged care is not the answer,” she said.

“We were quite clear in the reports we put through that the life of an older person should be valued equally with the life of a younger person.

“We shouldn’t be seeing the disproportionate impact on this group when we’ve known for two years they were particularly vulnerable to the disease.”

Richard Colbeck looks down while answering questions at a hearing inside parliament house
Richard Colbeck told a COVID-19 committee the aged care sector was not in crisis, though ongoing issues were exacerbated by COVID.(ABC News: Adam Kennedy)

When asked about the problems in aged care on Channel Nine, Defence Minister Peter Dutton said it was difficult to find the balance between protecting residents and ensuring they were not left isolated.

“You can’t argue on the one hand that people feel isolated and you want to allow loved ones in — which is the natural reaction — but then say we’re surprised when Omicron is introduced into aged care facilities,” Mr Dutton said. 

“It’s a witches’ brew, it’s difficult to deal with.”

Government ‘shortsighted’ not to back pay rise for workers

Earlier this week the federal government said it would offer two one-off payments of $400 to aged care workers in recognition of the continuing difficulty of work in the sector.

The payments also serve as a retention incentive, as more than a quarter of shifts are reportedly going unfilled in the desperately understaffed sector.

But the government has rejected pressure to back a Fair Work case for a $5 hourly wage increase for aged care workers.

Unions and the opposition have called the $400 payments an insult to workers.

Ms Briggs said the royal commission had warned a year ago the sector had a shortage of workers, and those it had were under-recognised, underpaid and under-skilled.

She said the one-off payment was “simply not enough”, and not backing a pay rise was “short-sighted”.

“I had been expecting that the government would join with employers and employees in this case,” she added.

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