The federal government has been sharply criticised by the disability royal commission for its “serious failure” in not adequately consulting people with disability or creating a specific plan to protect them at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Those failings “produced serious adverse consequences for many people with disability”, the commission said in a report tabled in parliament on Monday.
At the start of the crisis no government agency “made any significant effort to consult with people with disability or their representative organisations”, the report said.
“Even allowing for the novel challenges presented by the coronavirus, this was a serious failure.”
It said people with disabilities faced the “sudden loss of essential support services” and “impaired health and wellbeing” due to an “inability for prolonged periods to access essential supplies such as food and medications”.
People with disabilities experienced “extreme stress and anxiety” stemming from the fear of contracting the virus because of support staffing issues and a lack of PPE.
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Others, especially people with cognitive disability, felt “significant distress”, because of a “lack of clear and consistent information”, the report said.
The commission noted there were “threats” to mental health for some in disability accommodation who felt “forgotten and ignored” while they dealt with “enforced isolation from family, friends and social networks and the absence of strategies to ameliorate the consequences of isolation”.
“The report exposes the neglect experienced by many people with disability, especially those with high support needs, during the early (crucial) stages of the Covid-19 pandemic,” it said.
“It is true that the pandemic, an event unprecedented in modern times, was bound to have a significant effect on all Australians regardless of the responses by the Australian government.
“But the impact of the pandemic on many people with disability, especially those with high support needs, would have been significantly ameliorated if the Australian government had complied fully with the letter and spirit of its obligations under the [UN convention] from the very outset of the pandemic.”
The commission noted that the government established an advisory committee on the health emergency response to coronavirus for people with disability on 2 April.
This was a “positive development” but should have happened sooner, the report said. It said the committee, or a similar body, should remain in place after the pandemic.
It also recommended the government establish and implement formal mechanisms for consulting and involving people with disability, including providing funding.
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The commission held hearings in August focused on the pandemic, just as Victoria was experiencing its second wave.
On the second day of those hearings, the government began releasing statistics on the number of NDIS participants who had contracted the virus. The statistics cover only a fraction of the disability population in Australia.
But the royal commission said the government’s broader failure to collect or publish statistics on how many people with disability had contracted or died from the virus was “inconsistent with Australia’s obligations under article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities”.
In August, the commission was told eight people who accessed NDIS services had died of Covid-19.
Yet the overall “deficiencies” in data collection meant there was no “accurate picture of the infection and mortality rates from Covid-19 for people with disability throughout Australia”.
The report also said the government did not provide disability support workers priority access to PPE at the start of the pandemic, “thereby exposing both the workers and the people with disability whom they supported to an increased risk of infection”.
It also failed to “introduce measures to make Covid-19 testing accessible to all people with disability”.
Further, it “failed to give clear guidance to service providers” about the differences between aged care and disability accommodation settings in infection control and outbreak management.
The federal government welcomed the report, but defended its record, arguing it had kept Australians with disability “overwhelmingly safe” in what was one of the “strongest outcomes in the world”.
The health minister, Greg Hunt, said the government “acted early on disability consultation” through February, March and April. It created the Management and Operational Plan for Covid-19 for People with Disability in April.
“The development of this plan involved significant collaboration between governments at all levels, disability and health sectors, academics and people with disability,” Hunt said.
“We also continue our work with jurisdictions to ensure flexible testing arrangements for people with disability and continued access to personal protective equipment (PPE).”
The NDIS minister, Stuart Robert, said: “The NDIA rapidly implemented a range of temporary measures to support NDIS participants, such as providing low-cost assistive technology, including smart devices, so participants could access telehealth services; the ability to claim for the cost of PPE; and greater plan flexibility.”
The NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission, which has faced recent criticism for being “toothless”, also came under fire from the royal commission.
The report said despite the pandemic the watchdog did not “intensify active oversight of National Disability Insurance Scheme participants living in closed residential settings”.
However, it noted it could not conclude that a more active approach would have prevented infections or saved lives among NDIS participants.
The government said it would respond to the commission’s recommendations as a “matter of priority”.