The Royal Commission into Aged Care put the Secretary of the Federal Health Department, Brendan Murphy, firmly in his place when he tried to make an opening statement to attack claims by the senior counsel assisting the commission, Peter Rozen, QC.
Murphy, who became a nationally known figure when as Chief Medical Officer he appeared regularly at Scott Morrison’s news conferences, had not been due to give evidence at the commission’s sittings on COVID this week.
But after Rozen’s Monday statement the federal government, which is increasingly concerned at the criticism it is receiving over inadequate preparation for the pandemic in aged care facilities, asked to have him added to the panel of Commonwealth witnesses who appeared on Wednesday.
As questioning of the panel was about to start Murphy broke in, saying he wanted to make a statement in response to Rozen inaccurately claiming the Commonwealth had not planned for the outbreak in aged care and as a result there had been a high death rate.
But after a brief adjournment for consultations the commission denied his request, although he was allowed to make the statement at the session’s end. As commissioner Tony Pagone put it with the utmost politeness but equal firmness, “We are really in control of the procedure that we have and we just need to continue with that.”
On Wednesday Victoria announced a record 21 deaths from the previous 24 hours, 16 of them linked to aged care.
In a Facebook message Scott Morrison, expressing condolences, referred particularly to the need to protect the vulnerable elderly.
He also said pointedly: “I want to assure that where there are shortcomings in these areas they’ll be acknowledged. And the lessons will be learned.”
He warned there would be more “difficult news” in the days and weeks ahead.
Earlier on Wednesday professor Joseph Ibrahim, a specialist in geriatric medicine from Monash University, told the commission: “This is the worst disaster that is still unfolding before my eyes and it’s the worst in my entire career”.
He said hundreds of aged care residents would die prematurely because people had failed to act.
“There’s a level of apathy, a lack of urgency. There’s an attitude of futility which leads to an absence of action.
"The reliance or promotion of advance care plans as a way to manage the pandemic and the focus on leaving residents in their setting I think is wrong and inappropriate. When I voiced my concerns, I have had comments saying that everything is under control, that I’m simply overreacting and causing panic,” Ibrahim said.
Early in the crisis Ibrahim made representations to state and federal bodies, and to Morrison, health minister Greg Hunt and aged care minister Richard Colbeck.
The tension was evident when the panel of Commonwealth officials gave evidence.
Michael Lye, the health department’s deputy secretary for ageing and aged care, unsuccessfully tried to divert to Murphy a question about Australia faring badly on aged care deaths compared to other countries. Rozen insisted Lye answer, saying sharply, “No, I don’t want professor Murphy to answer the question, Mr Lye. I’m asking you. You told us you were the senior most official with aged care responsibility within the Commonwealth department of health”.
In one embarrassing moment for the federal officials, Rozen drew attention to Murphy prompting Lye when the latter was struggling under the questioning.
Rozen told both Lye and Murphy, as they periodically veered into wider comments, to just answer his questions.
Quizzed about the apparent lateness of a July 13 decision to make masks compulsory for care providers in Victorian homes, Murphy admitted “in hindsight, you could have implemented that earlier”, agreeing it was “possible” it might have reduced the number of infections entering homes.
In his forcefully-delivered statement at the end of the session, Murphy declared: “We reject categorically that the Australian government failed to adequately plan and prepare” for COVID in aged care.
He also strongly rejected that there was anything pejorative in the fact people from aged care formed a high proportion of “an extraordinary low death rate in Australia”. “I would say the contrary is true.” He said across Australia’s aged care facilities 0.1% of residents had succumbed to COVID compared to 5% in the UK with many more not detected.
The fact that two thirds of Australia’s about 350 deaths were from aged care “is really a reflection of the extraordinarily low community death rate,” Murphy said.
Diana Asmar, Victorian secretary of the Health Workers Union, told the commission: “Our members right now feel like they’re on the bottom of the Titanic ship”. They did not have proper access to personal protective equipment, they were suffering from huge staffing pressures, and they were feeling neglected.
“The lack of communication, the lack of training, the lack of staffing and the lack of protection unfortunately has caused a huge concern in the aged care sector,” she said.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra