PM stands by besieged aged care minister

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is standing by his aged care minister after he struggled through questioning at an inquiry probing the coronavirus response.

Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck was on Friday unable to tell a Senate inquiry how many nursing home residents have died from coronavirus.

Senator Colbeck, who has apologised for mistakes made in the aged care response, had to rely on a department official to provide the figure.

Mr Morrison says has confidence in Senator Colbeck.

“I’m sure the minister regrets not being able to recall those figures to mind. On occasion I can’t call every figure to mind,” the prime minister told reporters in Canberra.

“I think it’s important to play the issue, not the man here.”

Mr Morrison has announced a further $171 million to help the sector battle coronavirus, with more funds flagged in the October budget.

Labor says most of the funding already committed to the sector hasn’t been spent.

A total of 285 people living in government-subsidised residential aged care nationally have died from the virus, according to data from the health department website dated August 20.

Aged care homes in Victoria are currently dealing with outbreaks, but coronavirus struck NSW facilities earlier this year.

Senator Colbeck received a report into Sydney’s Dorothy Henderson Lodge in April, which warned about impacts on staffing levels.

The issue arose at St Basil’s Homes for the Aged in Melbourne when all staff had to self-isolate, leaving the federal government to take over management.

Asked why there wasn’t better preparation after Dorothy Henderson, Senate Colbeck insisted the scenarios were different.

“St Basil’s was the entire workforce,” he said.

“Not just the care workforce but the entire workforce – everyone who worked in the facility – and that was something we had not seen previously.”

Senator Colbeck said while there was no document for a workforce surge strategy, it was part of the overall public health response.

The aged care watchdog has conceded it should have done better after not telling the federal government a staff member at the Melbourne nursing home had tested positive.

The Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission was told on July 10 the staff member had tested positive, but did not tell the health department for four days.

St Basil’s has been linked to at least 20 deaths.

Department of Health deputy secretary Michael Lye said one of the biggest lessons from outbreaks at Dorothy Henderson Lodge and Sydney’s Newmarch House was hospitalisation of residents.

Mr Lye said it was important for hospitalisation to occur on a case-by-case basis.

“Sometimes the right way to achieve effective separation of positive and negative residents is to use hospitalisation of the negative residents.”

A report into the Newmarch House outbreak has been considered by national cabinet and is expected to be released publicly.

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