Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck has dismissed “emotive” criticism of the sluggish vaccine rollout as Health Department officials were slammed for lacking key data on Victoria.
Appearing before a senate committee on Tuesday, Mr Colbeck also revealed one resident at Melbourne’s Arcare facility, who returned an indeterminate test, had subsequently tested negative.
The aged care minister said 153,641 of the roughly 183,000 aged care residents across Australia had received their first dose.
But Health Department officials did not know how many aged care workers had been vaccinated, and were unable to immediately reveal how many residents in Victoria had received their first dose.
“I would have assumed most people would have prepared for (questions on the) aged care vaccine rollout today,” Labor senator Katy Gallagher said.
“Surely your officials brief you; isn’t that the way it works? People who are working on the vaccine rollout prepare you to attend here to inform us?”
Health Department associate secretary Carolina Woods said all but one of 596 Victorian aged care facilities had received their first dose, while 392 had received their second.
Ms Gallagher said the government had pledged to complete its aged care vaccine rollout within six weeks, a criticism Mr Colbeck dismissed as “convenient”.
“You conveniently also forget to consider that other circumstances have occurred during the period of the rollout,” he said.
But Ms Gallagher retorted the aged care rollout was in Phase 1A, the government’s top priority.
“You promised; it was your timetable,” Ms Gallagher said.
“Senator, you can make your emotive statements, that’s fine. But we have had a systematic program to roll out the vaccine,” Mr Colbeck said.
“You do recall how many people died in aged care, if you’re going to accuse me of emotive statements,” Ms Gallagher responded.
The pair also clashed over aged care workers, after officials conceded they could not be certain of vaccination rates among the group.
Ms Gallagher demanded to know when the figure would be available, saying last year’s Victorian outbreak was driven by transmission from staff.
“How does the Commonwealth attend estimates, and are not able to tell us how many residents in aged care have had their first dose of vaccine or their second dose?” she said,
Mr Colbeck pointed to uncertainty over the vaccine’s effectiveness against transmission of COVID-19, which Ms Gallagher dismissed as a “red herring”.
“He’s trying to shift the focus away from the fact that you have been unable to roll out this vaccination program for residents or staff in aged care,” she said.
“Senator, you can you can get your Facebook moment. That’s fine,” Mr Colbeck retorted.
Ms Gallagher repeatedly demanded to know whether the federal government or states were responsible for vaccinating aged care staff.
Mr Colbeck said the federal government was “running a combined vaccination program” in co-operation with the states.
“Are you responsible: yes or no?” Ms Gallagher asked.
“It’s not a yes or no answer, Senator. You know that, which is why you try to push it,” Mr Colbeck replied.
The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) was also considering mandating vaccines for aged care workers, having decided against the measure earlier this year.
Health Department secretary Brendan Murphy said the shift was due to “better” evidence suggesting the vaccine reduced transmission, but conceded the data was “not complete”.
“Fully vaccinated people have transmitted the virus in a number of situations around the world. (But) there is now better data on that. That was the data that was missing,” he said.
Mr Colbeck said the government’s priority of residents over staff might have shifted to aged care workers had the data been previously available.
“Had we understood at the outset that the vaccine would protect against transmission, it would have been a very different equation,” he said.
“Putting a ring around the residents by compulsorily vaccinating the staff would have made a big difference, but we actually didn’t know that.”
Dr Murphy the issue was on the AHPPC’s agenda this week and a decision would likely been made then.