Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Aged-care failings hurt Morrison

Scott Morrison went into disaster management mode this week as the coronavirus pandemic came awfully close to home, both personally and politically. The “catastrophe”, as his political opponents described it, was the Covid-19 outbreak spreading through some private Victorian aged-care facilities – something that happens to be the direct responsibility of Canberra. No longer does the prime minister have the luxury of being a helpful but innocent bystander in the crisis.

Late on Monday night, a reporter from Channel Ten’s news team contacted the prime minister’s office for clarification about the health status of one of Morrison’s closest advisers, Nico Louw. Stela Todorovic from the network’s Canberra bureau was alerted to the adviser’s brush with coronavirus through a post on Louw’s Instagram account. She was aware that Morrison was travelling across three states and territories, that Louw sometimes accompanied him – and that Louw is part of the inner sanctum at the PMO.

Louw has a penchant for the darker arts of politics, which suits his day job as a media and economics adviser. He came to some prominence when he was pinged for distributing bootleg copies of Malcolm Turnbull’s memoir to “59 of his closest friends”. Among other things, that enabled The Australian to gazump the rival Nine newspapers with details of the tome and led to an out-of-court settlement between Louw and the former prime minister’s publishers.

Louw informed his Instagram followers that New South Wales Health had messaged him to say he was a “close contact” of a confirmed Covid-19 case at Sydney’s Apollo restaurant and that he should self-isolate. Morrison says he was informed on Sunday of the situation and decided Louw would not accompany him to Queensland, adding that Louw should take the advice of the acting chief medical officer.

On Tuesday, the prime minister announced he was cutting short the three-day Queensland trip and returning to Canberra “to engage directly” with the deepening crisis in Victoria. It was a prudent piece of insurance – had the staffer tested positive, which thankfully for everyone he didn’t, Morrison himself would have been required to self-isolate.

The prime minister’s office said the 532 confirmed Covid-19 cases on Monday in Victoria, and the deepening crisis at the St Basil’s aged-care facility and others in the state, was the main reason for Morrison’s return to Canberra. The view was that touring Queensland when Victoria was going to hell in a coronavirus basket would definitely not be a helpful or good look.

On Monday, the politics of virus management turned sour. An exasperated Premier Daniel Andrews pulled no punches as the number of infections in the state’s private aged-care homes began spiralling out of control and the death toll mounted. The premier refers to these facilities as “nursing homes”, a categorisation officially dropped some years back when the Howard government, after heavy lobbying from health entrepreneurs, reorganised the sector. They are no longer “nursing homes” but “homes for the aged”: a case in point is St Basil’s Homes for the Aged in the northern Melbourne suburb of Fawkner. Under the new arrangements, registered nurses are no longer required to be on staff at these facilities, and professional medical care is in the hands of visiting GPs.

Andrews was brutally frank. He said on Tuesday, “I wouldn’t let my mum be in some of these places.” The premier blamed the federally regulated and hugely funded aged-care providers for struggling to maintain standards of care. He said he didn’t “have confidence that staff and management across a number of private sector aged-care facilities are able to provide the care that is appropriate to keep their residents safe”.

On Thursday, the death toll for Victoria hit 105, more than all other states combined, with a new record daily total of 723 infections. One in six of the state’s 5885 active cases is directly linked to aged care: 87 homes have been affected, and overwhelmingly these are from the private sector.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt reacted angrily to the premier’s remarks. Attempting to lay the whole blame at Andrews’ door he repeated a number of times that the source of the crisis was a “massive breach of hotel quarantine” in the state.

An emotional Hunt said his father lived in a private aged-care home in the last stages of his life and he couldn’t “imagine better care that my family and my father could have got, and I speak, I think, for hundreds of thousands of families around the country”.

Hunt called Andrews’ observation a “dangerous statement” and he wouldn’t hear a word against the “wonderful human beings” that are our nurses and carers.

Andrews says he’s prepared to help the Commonwealth and announced the postponement of most category-two elective surgeries across public and private hospitals to free up beds and qualified staff to deal with the emergency. He did so after conversations with the prime minister on Sunday. But then Canberra began background briefing against the premier.

Reports in the Murdoch media claimed Andrews had ignored pleas from new federal Health Department chief Brendan Murphy for a week. Murphy on Wednesday admitted to “informal discussions” with Victorian Health officials but dismissed suggestions he had to enlist the prime minister’s help to get action on suspending elective surgeries. Andrews says that as soon as Morrison approached him he took the prime minister’s request to state cabinet and gave hospitals 24 hours’ notice.

The ill-judged leak is a sure sign the federal government is beginning to feel some political heat, and not without reason. The model it is working on is not fit for purpose, at least not the purpose of humane care. Compounding the problem, the biggest private providers are listed on the stock exchange. That means they are obliged to put shareholders’ interests ahead of patients’ interests.

And they do.

According to a 2018 report by the Tax Justice Network Australia, between them the six largest private aged-care companies received more than $2.17 billion in annual government subsidies, which made up 72 per cent of their revenue. Their combined annual profit was $210 million.

The interim report of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety – tabled last October, almost six months before Covid-19 struck here – was a grim harbinger of an unfolding disaster that could only get worse.

It found the aged-care system failed to meet the needs of its older, vulnerable citizens: “It does not deliver uniformly safe and quality care for older people. It is unkind and uncaring towards them. In too many instances, it simply neglects them.”

These findings in 2019 are sad testimony that nothing much – if anything – has changed in 14 years. In 2006, an aunt of mine, despite paying thousands of dollars for her care, died in pain with suppurating bedsores. She was in a Moran Health Care facility in Victoria. The place looked like a six-star hotel; the care was virtually non-existent. A caller to Radio National’s Life Matters midweek recounted a similar experience. She described the “home” in which her mother died as “a chandeliered mausoleum”.

Greg Hunt and Scott Morrison have scrambled to get the Australian Defence Force and federal agencies, as well as an Australian Medical Assistance Team (AUSMAT), to meet the immense risk and massive challenge in Victoria. The virus has exposed the systemic weaknesses and the royal commission is taking note.

So, too, are the voters. The latest Guardian Essential poll found 87 per cent of Australians are either very concerned or quite concerned about the threat of the virus. But translating that concern into behaviour that can contain its spread is by no means universally shared. Two Queensland 19-year-olds flouted that state’s quarantine rules and it looks as if they have introduced the virus into the Brisbane community after visiting Victoria.

Essential also published, for the first time since the election, its findings on federal voting intention. It has a twist by declining to distribute the preferences of undecided voters in its two-party preferred estimate. It is calling this “2PP-plus”. Pollster Peter Lewis believes this will avoid the misleading horse-race polling that saw him and other pollsters go off the rails before the election. He intends now to release a quarterly voting intention poll without forecasting the election result.

So after everyone else’s preferences were distributed, Labor came out ahead of the Coalition, 47 to 45 per cent, with 8 per cent undecided. Like the Newspoll, the Essential poll still found strong support for Morrison’s handling of the pandemic, as 64 per cent of respondents judged the government response as quite good or very good.

So this poll – like all but the latest Newspoll – has not found approval of Morrison translating into similar support for the Coalition parties. It’s a different story on the other side of the Tasman, where New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s “sky high” approval in a Newshub–Reid Research poll is shared by her Labour Party. She does have the luxury of her National Party opposition churning through leaders with only seven weeks to go to the general election. The Nationals have elected a woman leader, Judith Collins, who has a reputation as a political headkicker something like Tony Abbott.

Polling in Australia suggests Morrison’s popularity may be shallower than he would like. The aged-care calamity, with Brendan Murphy forecasting an ever-growing death toll, can only darken the national mood further. The prime minister will stretch credulity if he attempts to shift blame to others for what is essentially the federal government’s responsibility.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 1, 2020 as "Nursing a viral disaster".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.