Aged care operators say mandatory vaccine rollout sprung on them

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Aged care providers have backed the government’s decision to make coronavirus vaccinations mandatory for aged care workers but received no information about how the rollout will happen, raising concerns about vaccine hesitancy and workforce shortages.

Industry groups are demanding the government send vaccination teams back through the country’s nursing homes to ensure the two-thirds of aged care workers who have not had a COVID-19 jab get one before the new September deadline.

National cabinet decided on Monday night to mandate vaccines for aged care workers.Credit:iStock

The country’s chief health and medical officers recommended against mandating vaccines in aged care as recently as June 4, warning of unintended consequences for the delivery of care to elderly Australians and workforce shortages.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Monday night that national cabinet had agreed all residential aged care workers will have to have at least their first vaccination by mid-September or be unable to go to work.

“That will be implemented in a partnership between the Commonwealth and the states, preferably using the same system that is used for having mandatory vaccinations for the flu for aged care workers,” Mr Morrison said.

Only a third of the aged care workforce have received any immunisation, according to federal Health Department figures released last week. Chief medical officer Paul Kelly said that figure, along with $11 million the federal government has promised aged care services to cover vaccination costs, had prompted the chief health officers to back the September target.

Industry groups said Monday’s announcement was sprung on them without consultation but they supported the principle of mandatory vaccination.

“The government may well have a plan but it would’ve been nice for us to be involved so we could provide responses to workers wanting details, providers and the general public,” said Sean Rooney, the chief executive of Leading Age Services. He said a meeting was now being scheduled.

Health Minister Greg Hunt said on Tuesday the aged care sector received a full briefing from the Health Department and Aged Care Services Minister Richard Colbeck, with unions to be given the same soon. “We are also providing notice and information to all aged care homes,” Mr Hunt said.

The government’s $11 million support will pay providers $80 if they need to pay a casual worker for their time to receive a shot away from work, $185 to provide sick leave to staff who become unwell after a vaccination and don’t have any other leave, and up to $500 if they organise for groups of staff to be vaccinated.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison revealed an $11 million support package to assist the aged care sector with a vaccine program. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Mr Rooney said other details, like what counted as a valid health exemption, whether regular visitors such as doctors and volunteers needed to be vaccinated and how the vaccines would be delivered remained unclear. If the rollout was handled poorly, Mr Rooney said, workforce shortages would be a potential risk.

“The whole vaccination program far too often has led to confusion or disappointment or frustration for aged care workers, families and residents,” he said.

Aged and Community Services Australia, which represents not-for-profit providers, also said workforce issues should be monitored, in part because there is some hesitancy about the vaccine among aged care workers.

“Aged care workers are like everyone in the community, some people can’t have [the vaccine] for whatever reason, some people are hesitant and need support and education,” said Patricia Sparrow, the group’s chief executive.

However, she said, making vaccines mandatory was right. “Very sadly we know what happens if COVID gets into a facility.”

According to federal figures, 685 people have died from COVID-19 in aged care during the pandemic, the vast majority in Victoria.

Both Ms Sparrow and Mr Rooney said their preferred method of vaccination was for government teams to deliver it at aged care homes because it minimised disruption and could also ensure residents who missed their first doses could catch up.

Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus said she feared the decision had been politicised.

“Mandating it is a way of getting attention off the government and putting it back onto workers,” Ms McManus said. “No jab, no job, is a way of scaring workers into getting vaccinated and we should be encouraging and supporting not adopting a scare model.”

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