Australian Unions have asked for answers on the Morrison Government’s vaccine rollout for months. We knew from union members’ reports that not enough vaccines were reaching aged care and disability workers. But official numbers coming from the Federal Government were vague or non-existent.
Now we have answers. Well, some answers. It turns out the Federal Government knew more than it was letting on. But it also knew far less than it should have.
At the beginning of the year, in public statements and discussions with unions, Health Minister Greg Hunt said that staff, as well as aged care residents, would be vaccinated by “in reach teams”. But the private providers going into aged care facilities to vaccinate residents were not contracted to vaccinate staff. So aged care staff have relied on left-over vaccines from the residents’ rollout. If none are available, they have been told to go to their GPs or vaccination hubs.
Less than 10 per cent of aged care workers have received both doses of vaccine under this ‘left-overs’ policy. The total number of vaccinations is probably higher, thanks to workers who went out and got their own vaccines. They have shown more care and responsibility for our community than any Morrison Government minister – and, in a highly casualised workforce, likely missed out on pay to do so.
Even with what we now know, the exact numbers of vaccinated workers are still unclear. The Federal Government has no records of workers who received doses at a GP or a vaccination hub, so is now asking aged care providers to report numbers themselves.
The situation is also dire in disability care. Colbeck has said that 15 per cent of disability care staff have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine. As of Wednesday, only 3500 of 22,200 NDIS participants living in disability care in Australia had received one dose. Only 355 had received two doses.
This failure has left workers and vulnerable people at unnecessary and potentially deadly risk. With workers neglected in the Federal Government’s rollout and only 57 per cent of aged care residents in Victoria fully vaccinated as of this week, the danger this time around is clear. Most outbreaks in aged care during Victoria’s second wave in 2020 originated from staff who did not know they were infected.
We’ve been here before, and we know what this could look like. That’s why the Victorian Government has been forced into drastic action, imposing a two-week lockdown in Melbourne. Meanwhile, the Federal Government has not only refused to learn the lessons of 2020 – it has actively undermined them.
Last year, new rules were put in place to prevent aged care workers from working across multiple sites and potentially spreading Covid-19. These rules still cover the small number of facilities managed by the Victorian Government. But late last year, the Morrison Government quietly removed the policy for the private aged care providers under its jurisdiction and now only imposes the rule in response to Covid-19 outbreaks.
Why? Put simply, because guaranteeing workers were only employed at one site cost the Federal Government money.
If the Government isn’t footing the bill, and without stringent regulation, private providers will not pay. Insecure, low-paid work was endemic in the aged care sector, long before Covid-19. It’s what drives workers to take shifts across multiple sites, to scratch together a wage they can live on. This isn’t just a Covid-19 risk—though the Victorian outbreak has dragged the issue back into the news. As the Aged Care Royal Commission showed, the casualisation of the workforce is a risk to residents’ health and care, full stop.
Vaccinating aged care and disability workers should have been a priority for the Federal Government. So, too, should improving working conditions in the sector. But it wasn’t, and it still isn’t. And given the Morrison Government’s growing track record of failure when it comes to workers and vulnerable Australians, there’s no reason to think it ever will be.