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The federal health minister, Greg Hunt, has been forced to correct the record after he wrongly claimed that only six aged care facilities across the country had not been visited as part of the national vaccination rollout.
Hunt told parliament on Tuesday he had misread information provided by the health department which stated 20 sites were yet to receive a first dose of the vaccine.
“I did make an error yesterday. My mistake, my apologies – nobody else’s fault but mine,” Hunt said. “The department’s advice was correct and the misreading was my fault.”
The correction came amid a fierce political row over the pace of the rollout, with Labor blasting the Coalition for its failure to vaccinate the aged care workforce and people living in disability care.
Facing a grilling in a Senate estimates hearing, the aged care minister, Richard Colbeck, was also forced to admit the commonwealth did not know how many aged care workers had received the jab. Data collected from providers will be released on Friday for the first time.
The shadow aged care minister, Clare O’Neil, said failing to know how many staff had been vaccinated in aged care facilities was “nothing short of gross incompetence”.
Health officials confirmed on Tuesday that less than 10% of the 366,000 people employed in aged care had been vaccinated through the federal government’s “in-reach” vaccination program, but stressed the actual figure was likely higher because workers had received jabs through other channels.
The revelation prompted a furious exchange with Labor senators Katy Gallagher and Murray Watt, who accused the government of shirking its responsibilities.
“You fund it, you regulate it, how can it not be your job to ensure that the workers get the vaccine?” Watt said.
Colbeck replied: “Because what you are proposing is not a natural step.”
“We are working cooperatively with the states and territories on this rollout, it is a joint responsibility for us all to do so because there are a number of different channels in the way that people can access the vaccine,” the minister said.
Colbeck said that “every worker in aged care has access through those various channels now” but because the national immunisation register did not record a person’s employment, a new system was needed to report on the take-up rate.
Aged care workers were among the 1A priority group supposed to be fully vaccinated within six weeks of the rollout commencing on 22 February. Asked on Tuesday if the federal government was responsible for vaccinating the workforce, Colbeck said it was “not a yes or no answer”.
The prime minister, Scott Morrison, acknowledged in question time it was the commonwealth’s responsibility.
“The government is indeed responsible for the national vaccination strategy, right across the country,” he said. “We are doing it in partnership with states and territories – of course we are – general practitioners and a whole range of others who are supporting these efforts.”
The federal Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, said there were “real human consequences behind the government’s failure”.
“It had two jobs this year: it had to fix the rollout of the vaccine and it had to have a national quarantine system. And what we’ve seen in both those areas is absolute failure,” Albanese said.
“The commonwealth government is responsible for aged care. The commonwealth government rollout of the vaccine in aged care facilities has been a debacle with human consequences.”
Victoria announced on Tuesday that aged care and disability sector workers would be given priority access at state-run vaccination hubs from Wednesday as part of a five-day blitz aimed at boosting protection for the sector.
The federal government has also asked its health advisory panel to examine making vaccines mandatory for workers – something it has previously advised against.
Despite the delays and confusion surrounding the vaccine program, Colbeck insisted he was “comfortable” with the rollout, which has seen 44,333 aged care residents receive a first dose and 25,319 of them a second dose.
For people living in disability care, just 355 – or about 1.6% – of more than 22,000 residents have received both doses.
Colbeck defended the fact that just three of 13 proposed vaccine hubs had been set up, with all of them in New South Wales.
Morrison was asked on Tuesday if he stood by remarks that Australia’s vaccination program was “not a race”. The PM replied in parliament that he was drawing on similar remarks from the then-chief health officer, Prof Brendan Murphy.
“I do stand behind my words. And my words were based on the expert advice of the chair of the scientific and technical advisory group,” Morrison said.
Murphy said he had used the term in early 2020 to describe the fact that vaccine approval had not been fast-tracked in Australia.
“We did take a deliberate decision not to rush the approval,” he said on Tuesday.
“But once we’d gone through our normal proper TGA approvals, our approach has been to roll it out as quickly as we can. It’s not a race in a sense that we’re not competing against anybody else. We are doing what we want to do now to protect the Australian community as quickly as possible.”
Hunt said on Tuesday there was no evidence the Delta variant rendered vaccines less effective, but the chief medical officer, Prof Paul Kelly, told Senate estimates it was too early to know, with no real-world data or peer-reviewed laboratory evidence available yet.
The federal treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, who has been on the back foot over federal financial assistance during his home state’s fourth lockdown, told MPs the budget assumed there would continue to be outbreaks and lockdowns stemming from the virus, hence the decision to include $41bn in related economic support.
“Victoria came to us to ask for assistance [but] because it was a short lockdown we said it was a scale that could be managed at a local level,” he told the party room.
“They ran a pretty desperate attempt to smear us when in reality the numbers tell a very different story, Victoria has received more on a per capita basis than any other state.”
The Victorian government has called the lack of additional federal assistance “disgraceful”.
Source: The Guardian
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