A leading aged care expert’s calls for a national coordinating body to advise on the sector’s response to COVID-19 has been backed by the head of the royal commission.
The Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety held a four-day hearing into the aged care sector’s response to COVID-19 last week in Sydney.
The inquiry heard from practising senior specialist in geriatric medicine and head of Monash University’s Health Law and Ageing Research Unit Professor Joseph Ibrahim, who has been calling for a national COVID-19 coordinating body for aged care to be set up since March.
Following his evidence, aged care royal commissioner Tony Pagone called it a practical measure that should be implemented sooner rather than later.
Professor Ibrahim said the national body would have a network of qualified personnel to have on the ground in every aged care home and access to appropriate logistics teams.
“Case managers could liaise with the on-the-ground presence and provide information and advocacy to the core national unit. Through this network real-time information could be fed up to the core national unit, which would be able to assist directing resources and providing clear clinical advice to [residential aged care facilities] and government,” Professor Ibrahim said in his witness statement to the royal commission.
“A core national unit could develop national policy about what to do when COVID-19 occurs in a [residential aged care facility] and to assist our understanding from experiences in Australia and internationally,” he said.
He told the hearing that the national coordinating body would need to include a network of qualified personnel.
“The problem to be solved here is you have a novel virus so you need infectious diseases experts. You have a pandemic, therefore you need public health experts. You need an emergency response, you need emergency responders. And it’s in an aged care setting where most people die, therefore you need people who know aged care.
“And so you need to put those four elements together and now you have a taskforce and a group that can do something. Having only half of that will fail,” Professor Ibrahim told the hearing on Wednesday.
He said the national body needed to understand aged care entirely.
“The body needs to understand the sector as a whole, the nature of the built environment, the models of care being delivered, the workforce that is present, the capability and the amount of support it is able to generate or garner in times of emergency,” he said.
In closing remarks on Thursday, Senior Counsel Assisting Peter Rozen said the sector was facing hardship without such a coordinating body.
“It seems to us correct that [a] coordinated national expertise for aged care has been missing from the planning process since February of this year, and we continue to suffer from its absence. This could be addressed if a core national unit is established,” Mr Rozen said.
“Such a body could bring together the expertise about the aged care sector, infection control and emergency preparedness and response is readily available in Australia,” he said.
Mr Rozen welcomed the development of Victorian Aged Care Response Centre that was established in July but said “it is an operational response body, not a forward-looking planning body.”
Aged care royal commissioner Tony Pagone backed Professor Ibrahim’s call for a national aged care coordinating body and said it was among “practical things that should perhaps not wait.
“As we often heard, the virus doesn’t wait and nor should the measures that need to be implemented to deal with the virus wait either,” Mr Pagone said.
In response to question about whether the government has considered developing a national coordinating body for aged care, Minister for Aged Care Richard Colbeck told Australian Ageing Agenda on Monday there may be more to say on the matter but that he would not be commenting further at this point.
PM says proposal already in place
During a press conference on Friday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the Federal Government has already been doing what Professor Ibrahim proposed the new national body should do.
“The matters that were raised that needed to be addressed very much mirrored the actions that the Government has indeed been taking,” Mr Morrison said.
“What matters to me is simply the action, and the action that has been taken is very consistent, I believe, with what was set out yesterday as a proposal,” he said.
He said a plan was expected to be in place by this Friday’s National Cabinet meeting where the arrangements in Victoria regarding the aged care response could be applied in other states and territories.
“I think it’s very important that we remain focused on what the outcome that we are seeking here and that is to get the best of quality support and services into a system that is very fragile,” he said.