‘Not their fault’: aged care sector says Covid vaccine mandate won’t fix government’s ‘failed’ rollout

The aged care industry and unions say a new staff vaccine mandate will do little to solve the long-standing problems caused by the government’s “completely failed” rollout, labelling Monday’s announcement an exercise in “blame-shifting”.

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, said on Monday vaccinations would be mandatory for aged care workers, who must have their first jab within 10 weeks or be barred from the industry.

The government was critical of the low uptake rate among aged care staff, but made no mention of the litany of problems caused by its own rollout strategy, which has shifted repeatedly this year.

Initially, aged care staff were told they would be vaccinated in their workplaces by dedicated in-reach teams, operated by private contractors.

The teams never showed up and the government’s four contractors have given conflicting accounts on whether they were ever tasked with vaccinating workers.

Staff were instead told to try to secure leftover Pfizer vaccines not used by aged care residents, which led to patchy uptake, poor record keeping, and confusion in obtaining second doses.

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The government later promised to set up a series of 13 pop-up vaccination hubs for aged care staff across the country “during May”. Roughly a month past its self-imposed deadline, just three pop-up hubs have been established, all in Sydney.

Despite being in the highest priority cohort, aged care staff are now being told to join the general population in getting their jab from a mass vaccination centre or their GP. Until Monday night, the government had ignored union calls to fund providers to give workers special leave to get vaccinated.

Aged & Community Services Australia, the industry peak body, welcomed the mandate as “the right decision” but said it would not fix the existing problems making it difficult for workers to get vaccinated.

“This announcement won’t solve the problems with the rollout,” Acsa chief executive Patricia Sparrow said. “To suggest so would just be blame-shifting. The reason there is low rates of vaccination has little to do with our workers.

“The best way to improve vaccination rates is to make it as easy as possible for aged care workers, including through on-site workplace vaccination.

“Our workers were given priority as 1A and 1B at the beginning of the year, yet they are still waiting to be vaccinated. It’s not their fault.”

Carolyn Smith, aged care director with the United Workers Union, expressed similar sentiments to Guardian Australia on Tuesday.

Smith said blame for the flawed rollout lay squarely at the feet of government.

Workers were now inexplicably facing punishment if they cannot find a first dose by mid-September, Smith said.

“The government has completely failed in vaccinating aged care workers and we have this situation now where we’ve got a 10-week gallop, where workers will be punished if they don’t get there,” she said. “I mean, it’s a pretty crazy situation.”

The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation has written to Morrison since last night’s announcement with a series of concerns about the new approach to vaccinating workers.

ANMF federal secretary Annie Butler said her calculations suggested that the $11m announced to fund vaccination leave for aged care would give each unvaccinated worker about $30 per dose. That was nowhere near enough to support them leaving work, she said.

“The critical issues remain: the access to the vaccine and the support for the workers to get the vaccine,” she told the Guardian.

“We know the $11m has been given, but our calculation, based on figures given to us by the department of health yesterday, is that that would provide $30 per worker, per dose.”

Health and aged care staff were initially described by the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation as “the most important group for prioritisation … because they are doing work of critical importance and societal benefit”.


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