Labor says ‘too little too late’ as government pledges $132m to aged care health

Infection control, mental health and allied health in aged care will get a $132m boost from the Morrison government.

a man and a woman sitting on a table: Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

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Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

On Monday the health minister Greg Hunt and aged care minister Richard Colbeck announced the funding as part of the government response to the aged care royal commission’s special report on Covid-19.

But Labor has said the funding boost is too little too late, and accused the government of failing to conduct checks to ensure private providers have hired infection specialists and are allowing visitation of residents.

Despite Australia’s success suppressing the coronavirus, aged care has been a weak spot in the response, with 685 deaths in residential centres.

Outbreaks in Victorian aged care centres prompted blame-shifting between the federal government, which is responsible for aged care, and Victoria, which the commonwealth blamed due to the level of community transmission.

a person sitting on a table: The Morrison government has announced a $132.2m package in response to the aged care royal commission report on Covid-19 that includes $63.3m to access mental and allied health through Medicare.

© Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP
The Morrison government has announced a $132.2m package in response to the aged care royal commission report on Covid-19 that includes $63.3m to access mental and allied health through Medicare.

The federal Labor opposition has censured Colbeck in the Senate after evidence to the royal commission that Australia was underprepared for outbreaks in aged care.

Related: Aged care residents found to be at greater risk in for-profit homes than government-run ones

The $132.2m package includes $63.3m to access mental and allied health through Medicare, $57.8m to help engage infection prevention experts in facilities and an extra $11.1m toward a serious incident response scheme.

The measures come on top of $450m of emergency payments to providers to respond to Covid-19.

The aged care royal commission had called for the federal government to require aged care centres to have one or more trained infection control officers as a condition of accreditation and to deploy more specialists for training and outbreak management.

It also warned that depression, anxiety, confusion, loneliness and suicide risk among aged care residents have increased since the pandemic, due to increased fear and isolation. The commission recommended “immediately” providing funding to facilitate visits.

The government response conceded that although it has imposed a requirement on centres to employ infectious disease experts, its implementation of the recommendation is still “in progress”.

Despite accepting all six recommendations of the royal commission in October, the government pushed back against the call for a “national aged care plan for Covid-19” by arguing that the Communicable Diseases Network Australia guidelines on outbreaks already constituted such a plan.

On Monday, the government added that Australia’s chief health and medical officers had adopted a new national plan on 13 November.

Labor’s shadow aged care minister, Julie Collins, accused the government of doing “too little, too late”.

“Nothing will bring back the 685 older Australians who have tragically died in aged care homes from Covid-19 and today’s response isn’t enough to stop this happening again,” she said.

“The royal commission’s special report confirmed the Morrison government had no plan for Covid-19 in aged care and called for immediate action.”

Collins accused the government of failing to “fully implement” all recommendations.

Hunt said the new investment directly addresses issues raised by the aged care royal commission and will improve and support the health and wellbeing of aged care residents most significantly impacted by Covid-19”.

Colbeck said we “hope there won’t be further Covid-19 outbreaks in aged care facilities” but that – if there were – at least lessons have been learned.

“Wherever there are high rates of community transmission, the risk to older people and particularly those in residential aged care increases as demonstrated in Victoria and South Australia,” he said. “It is a reminder of the need to be vigilant.”

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