The federal government must establish a national aged care advisory body as part of a broader COVID-19 plan for the sector, according to the aged care royal commission.
The call for such a plan was one of five recommendations made by the royal commission in a report published on Thursday.
Under the plan — which should be established through the national cabinet and in consultation with the aged care sector — significant outbreaks in facilities must be investigated by an independent expert “to identify lessons that can be learnt”.
“The results of any such investigations should be promptly disseminated to the sector,” the report said.
The proposed plan would also address a range of other issues, from ensuring aged care residents stay connected to their community, to establishing COVID-19 protocols between the federal, state and territory governments.
The commission has rejected the federal government’s claims that it had a plan in place to deal with the impact of COVID-19 on aged care.
“There was not a COVID-19 plan devoted solely to aged care,” it concluded.
“But there was a national COVID-19 plan that the Australian government sought to adapt and apply to the aged care sector.”
The measures implemented by the government on advice from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee were “in some respects insufficient to ensure preparedness of the aged care sector”, the commission noted.
“Confused and inconsistent messaging from providers, the Australian government, and state and territory governments emerged as themes in the submissions we have received on COVID-19,” it said.
The commission has previously found that the aged-care workforce is under-resourced and overworked. The new report has noted the workforce is “now also traumatised”. However, the commission has argued that “now is not the time for blame”.
“There is too much at stake. We are left in no doubt that people, governments and government departments have worked tirelessly to avert, contain and respond to this human tragedy,” it said.
“However, the nation needs to know what lessons have been and can still be learnt. The nation needs to know what is being done, and what will be done, to protect those people receiving aged care services — those who this virus has affected disproportionately and whose entitlement to high quality care in safe environments that protect their wellbeing and dignity falls within the scope of our commission.”
The report called on the federal government to:
- Immediately fund providers that apply for funding to ensure there are adequate staff available to allow continued visits to people living in residential aged care by their families and friends,
- Create Medicare Benefits Schedule items to increase the provision of allied health services (including mental health) to people in aged care during the pandemic, with the removal of barriers to allied health professionals being able to enter residential aged care facilities,
- Arrange with the states and territories to deploy accredited infection prevention and control experts into residential aged care homes to provide training, assist with the preparation of outbreak management plans and assist with outbreaks,
- Ensure all residential aged care homes have one or more trained infection control officers as a condition of accreditation, with the training requirements for these officers to be set by the proposed aged care advisory body.
According to the report, the proposed advisory body must have members with expertise in aged care, health care, infection control, the operational requirements of different aged care settings, and the characteristics of the aged care workforce.
The body would consider the needs and rights of aged care residents and their loved ones, and their advice would allow the government to “play the vital leadership role it must play as the government with responsibility for the sector”, the report said.
“The body we have in mind will have a role beyond the current pandemic. For example, it will assist the sector to prepare for future influenza outbreaks which lead to many deaths in homes each winter,” it added.
The government has until December 1 to report to Parliament on the implementation of these recommendations, and has already indicated that it plans to do so. The commission is scheduled to deliver its final report in early 2021, containing recommendations for longer-term reform of the aged care sector.
Department of Health figures have shown at least 665 people have died from COVID-19 in Australian aged care facilities since the pandemic hit Australia.