The aged care minister does not feel responsible for the nearly 700 COVID-related deaths in the sector, according to a Senate committee hearing.
The Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee held a public hearing on 27 October looking into the health portfolio.
Unlike a previous hearing in August Minister for Aged Care Richard Colbeck was able to answer questions about the number of COVID-19 positive aged care recipients who have died, which he reported was 683 residents and eight home aged care clients at that time.
Senator Kristina Keneally asked Mr Colbeck whether he felt a sense of ministerial responsibility or offered his resignation following the increasing number of deaths in aged care from COVID-19 including at BaptistCare’s Dorothy Henderson Lodge, Anglicare’s Newmarch House and St Basil’s Home for the Aged in Fawkner.
Mr Colbeck said he had not offered his resignation.
“I don’t feel responsible personally for the deaths that have occurred, as tragic as they all are, which have been caused by COVID-19,” Mr Colbeck told the hearing.
“The approach taken by the Australian government more broadly has saved lives. All of us that have been part of the broader health response, including that around aged care, have played a role in managing that process,” he said.
Ms Keneally asked whether anything could have been done differently to prevent deaths in aged care.
“The thing that would have saved lives… was the prevention of the escape of COVID-19 in Victoria leading to the second wave,” Mr Colbeck said.
“We’ve said that in some circumstances, particularly with respect to what happened when we were required to take over, for example, St Basil’s, where every single member of staff on the site, including management, were furloughed by the decision of… the Victorian health department could have been managed better. We acknowledged that at the time, I think appropriately. Both I and the Prime Minister acknowledged it,” Mr Colbeck said.
Ms Keneally reiterated her question to Mr Colbeck about whether anything could have been done differently.
“We acted, as a government, on the health advice that we were receiving our from health officials at the time. And, as we learnt more about the virus – the way it interacted in the community, the way that it spread and the way that it impacted in residential aged care – we continued to update that advice, based on the advice of the [Australian Health Protection Principal Committee] and the health professionals that advise it, including the [Communicable Diseases Network Australia] and other health bodies that provide advice to government,” Mr Colbeck said.
“We’ve continuously done that, and, as we’ve learnt more, we’ve continued to update that advice, and we have done that right up to today,” he said.
Committed as aged care’s minister
The committee also heard Mr Colbeck acknowledge his censure and defend his record as aged care minister.
“I acknowledge the motion passed by the Senate. As I’ve said during question time many times, I’m determined to continue the work that I have been doing since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in the interests of senior Australians and particularly those in aged care,” Mr Colbeck said.
In response to Ms Keneally’s question on whether he denied the censure happened, Mr Colbeck said “it would be pointless for me to do that.”
Ms Keneally asked what point Mr Colbeck takes from the censure.
“It’s a view passed by the Senate. It’s not the view of my coalition colleagues. I continue to work in the portfolio as I’ve been appointed,” he said.
Elsewhere, Ms Keneally asked Mr Colbeck if he requested to be appointed to the aged care portfolio, having previously served as parliamentary secretary for agriculture.
“The appointment of the ministry is something that is the gift of the Prime Minister, and we all serve at his pleasure,” he said.
Mr Colbeck said he would like to remain in aged care in the upcoming cabinet reshuffle.