‘No jab, no work’ talk as aged-care staff, families fear history repeating

Victoria's second COVID wave killed more than 650 aged-care residents.

Victoria's second COVID wave killed more than 650 aged-care residents. Photo: Getty

Victorian aged-care workers say they are struggling to cope with staff shortages and inadequate COVID plans as the state’s outbreak spreads to four homes.

Families of elderly residents say they are furious staff have been allowed to take shifts at multiple homes since November.

Outcry over the federal government’s decision to allow the movement of workers has prompted talks of a ‘no jab, no work’ policy.

The Victorian government is moving to tighten its rules, with The Age newspaper reporting staff in publicly managed homes will be stood down from frontline duties until they have been vaccinated.

Federal leaders confirmed on Monday that the nation’s peak health advisory group would consider whether to make it mandatory for staff to get vaccinated against COVID-19 before working shifts in private aged-care homes.

Tired, understaffed – and untested

Di Mehmet, an aged-care worker at Holloway Keilor East in north-west Melbourne, said the facility was “so understaffed it’s a joke”.

“Everybody has just had enough. We’re really tired,” she told The New Daily.

Ms Mehmet, who works at the facility and also provides care at private homes, said it was common for nurses to work back-to-back shifts, starting in the afternoon and working all through the night.

  • Click here to check Victoria’s list of exposure sites

Those who did the right thing last year by only taking shifts at one nursing home were financially stung, she said, adding one of her friends had to dip into her long service leave just to survive.

Adding to her stress, Ms Mehmet said, was that staff members were no longer being regularly tested for the coronavirus.

“I’ve been getting my COVID tests done outside of work every two weeks for my own peace of mind,” she said.

‘Playing Russian Roulette’

Amanda, who did not want her real name published, has a parent in a Melbourne nursing home.

She said the Morrison government’s decision to let aged-care workers take shifts across multiple sites during the pandemic was “disgraceful” after the virus killed hundreds of residents last year.

“This is playing Russian Roulette with the elderly’s lives,” Amanda said.

“You’ve got staff members from other facilities and hospitals that can walk in and out – and a lot of them haven’t even got the vaccine yet.

“My mum was in hospital for three months fighting COVID. I don’t want her to go all through that again. It’s not fair.”

The federal government only ruled last week that all residential aged-care staff must only work at one single site again until at least June 10.

By that time, the coronavirus was already inside nursing homes.

Health Minister defends relaxing rules

Speaking to reporters on Monday, federal Health Minister Greg Hunt defended lifting the one-facility-per-worker restrictions.

Mr Hunt said private facilities usually had smaller workforces, as opposed to public aged-care homes, which he said were often linked to a hospital with a “much broader” staff.

This meant, the minister said, it was “critical” that staff could work in multiple areas, to ensure “adequate staff resources for resident safety”.

He also shared data that showed just 4.7 per cent of staff in greater Melbourne were working across different sites – the “absolute minority”.

Mr Hunt said the federal government reinstated the restrictions when Victoria introduced its lockdown and a Commonwealth ‘hotspot’ definition was activated.

Deputy chief medical officer Michael Kidd added the federal government’s expert medical panel had recommended that the single-site rules only be in force during outbreak periods.

“Obviously it’s essential during times when we have community transmission, but the advice at the moment is it’s not a proportionate response to require this when we don’t have community transmission,” Professor Kidd said.

He noted this stance was “under active consideration”.

Mr Hunt said the panel was also considering whether COVID vaccinations should be mandatory for aged-care staff.

‘Groundhog day’

Melbourne woman Angela Lowe said the Hawthorn nursing home where her husband lives was in lockdown after it was discovered an agency worker had taken a shift at Arcare Maidstone just a few days earlier.

Arcare Maidstone is the centre of a growing coronavirus cluster linked to Victoria’s outbreak.

“It’s like groundhog day. We’ve seen this all before and there are no lessons learnt,” Ms Lowe said.

But she isn’t angry at the agency worker. Quite the opposite.

“They need to be paid decently,” Ms Lowe said.

“Decent staff need to be rewarded properly and they need to have a career path. Of course there are lots of agency staff – where else are they going to get their surge workforce?”

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