Aged Care Amendments

May 13, 2020

I rise to support the Aged Care Legislation Amendment (Emergency Leave) Bill 2020, which allows a new type of leave that permanent residential aged-care residents and their families can use during situations such as natural disasters, pandemics and other large-scale emergencies. For a region that faces fire and floods as well as disease outbreaks like coronavirus, this flexibility is needed and will reduce the financial burden on people. There are around 500 Australian families currently caring for their loved ones under these so-called social leave arrangements. With the COVID-19 pandemic many family members have made the decision to continue caring for their loved ones in their own home and not to return to a residential facility. The result of this is that many Australians will pass the 52-day cap mark for social leave arrangements and will therefore be required to pay the government subsidy of around $230 a day to save their place in the residential aged-care facility that they're taking leave from. For many families this is just unsustainable. So I welcome the flexibility in the scheme that this legislation provides for and the application of it retrospectively to 1 April so that families are covered as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. I understand it will continue until July at this stage.

Whether to leave your family member in aged care at this time or remove them has been much on the mind of families of aged-care residents. I particularly feel the anguish of the decision because in our family we've had to make the decision for my 90-year-old father to go into aged care in recent weeks. These are really hard decisions for families to make, especially at this time.

The challenge for aged-care providers and the concern for family members who have someone in aged care is even higher in the electorate of Macquarie, with many connections to the Newmarch facility, which is just near us. Newmarch is sadly the Ruby Princess of the western suburbs. It lies just outside my electorate, but some of its residents come from my electorate, including one of those who's died. What's more, a number of my constituents have someone they love, a family member or a friend, living in Newmarch. Sadly, 16 people have been reported by the New South Wales government as dying as a result of COVID-19 while in Newmarch, while another two have died after being cleared of COVID. It's impossible to imagine the sadness of those families, and it's distressing to hear their experiences of not being able to be by the side of the person they loved as they died. This is a terrible toll, and it has created enormous anxiety and distress for the families of the remaining residents, particularly for those with positive tests. We learn today that now 34 staff have tested positive and 37 residents have positive tests. For these people and their families it's a waiting game that you would not wish on anybody.

Liz Lane from Bligh Park has been a frequent visitor in the past to Newmarch, where her mother, Rose, lives. She has described to me the early days of the crisis, with phones ringing out and very little communication coming from the facility to family members. They're very concerned, especially in those early days, about how their loved ones were facing the isolation and the lockdown. That concern continues. We understand that there are staffing issues when people test positive, with so many requiring isolation, but families have found it incredibly stressful. They tell me they absolutely appreciate the work that staff are doing. They know they're facing exceptional circumstances, but at the same time they're worrying about the virus and the care that their family member is receiving. Many of these people are used to being in Newmarch regularly to assist the person that they love. As Liz says, the first visit with her mother with a big wire fence between them, each in a mask, probably didn't provide very much comfort to her mum, who absolutely hated wearing the mask.

I do want to thank the minister for listening to the experiences of people like Liz and for listening to my concerns and providing information to me. But it is impossible not to have questions. How did this situation get so out of control and take so long to bring under control? That's assuming that the worst is over. Labor certainly welcomes action at Newmarch House to improve the standard of care for residents, but we're deeply concerned at how long it has taken for this to happen. The first case of COVID-19 at Newmarch House was reported on 11 April. The government must explain why it took so long to act while so many people at Newmarch have been infected and, as we learned today, continue to be infected and have tragically died.

This is exactly why a full investigation into what's gone wrong is so important. Labor is very pleased to see that the aged care royal commission is looking into what's happened at Newmarch House, which is what we called for. Only the Royal commission has the necessary investigative powers to get to the bottom of what's happened with ongoing reports of infection control failures. The residents of Newmarch House, their families, their loved ones and the staff who work there and continue to work there deserve answers.

All Australians must be assured that in Australia we have the very best infection control practices in aged care. Every aged-care facility right now is hypervigilant, but unless we really understand what's led to the problems at Newmarch, there's always a danger that the same mistakes are made.