Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced that teams of Australian Defence Force personnel will be placed on 24 hours’ notice to assist aged care homes experiencing “acute situations”.
However, the PM was keen to clarify that the Australian Defence Force is not “a surrogate workforce for the aged care sector”.
“The idea the defence forces could simply come in and fill that gap is just not realistic,” said Mr Morrison. “[It] was never a scenario or an option that was under consideration because it’s simply not feasible.” What the ADF can do, he said, is provide “targeted support into the aged care sector in extreme situations”.
According to the Department of Health, up to 50 personnel will be made available in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia from Wednesday 9 February. The ADF is ready to expand this commitment to up to 200 personnel in each state and territory, or up to 1,700 personnel if required. Fifteen military planners will liaise with the department to help administer the roll out.
The ADF support teams will include a registered nurse, medical technicians and general support personnel. Duties may include screening visitors entering facilities, serving meals, providing companionship and helping with other “non-direct care functions”.
Speaking to Australia Ageing Agenda, Health Services Union national president Gerard Hayes said what the sector ideally needs is an influx of experienced carers. “We need people who are more au fait with the care of the vulnerable, the fragility of the vulnerable and the time it takes to support people who are living in an aged care facility.” He added: “When we’re looking at an aged care facility you need more than people who are effectively trained to do operational military work.”
The Government’s deployment of the ADF follows a plea for help from the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation. “The Government’s current workforce surge plans are inadequate and too low in their roll out,” said assistant ANMF federal secretary Lori-Anne Sharp in a statement last month. “It’s why the ANMF, other unions and aged care providers have issued a SOS to the Prime Minister to deploy the Australian Defence Force to provide emergency support and assistance at nursing homes across the country.”
The Australian Aged Care Collaboration has also been calling on the Commonwealth to provide military support following reports from providers that up to a quarter of shifts have been left vacant due to workforce furloughs. It welcomed the Prime Minister’s announcement. “While the decision won’t alleviate all of the challenges currently faced by the aged care providers, it will make a practical difference on the ground,” it said in a statement.
Meanwhile, sector representatives have written to aged care minister Greg Hunt and aged care services minister Richard Colbeck proposing the establishment of a National Aged Care COVID Coordination Centre to provide oversight of the control of the sector’s COVID response moving forward.
“The pandemic is magnifying the structural deficiencies in the aged care system,” Leading Aged Services Australia CEO Sean Rooney told AAA. “Namely, that we need more staff, we need them better skilled and qualified, and we need them appropriately paid.” Secondly, added Mr Rooney, “we need to ensure that the aged care providers are resourced with all necessary means to prevent outbreaks, but also so they can respond effectively in the event of an outbreak”.