Over the weekend, Sydney recorded its third fatality from the coronavirus, after an 82-year-old former resident of an aged care facility passed away.

One resident of the same facility, Baptist Care’s Dorothy Henderson Lodge, died last week from the virus and another two residents remain in hospital but are said to be in a stable condition.

A number of staff at the facility have also tested positive for the coronavirus.

“We can not force team members to work”

A statement from Baptist Care said it’s understandable the outbreak at Dorothy Henderson Lodge has led some staff to question going to work, and a number have decided not to work.

“A number of team members have advised us they will not be coming to work at Dorothy Henderson Lodge,” the statement said.

“In the current circumstances we cannot force our team members to come to work.”

Staff were pulled in from other Baptist Care operations and other health providers and agencies, and it’s also understood additional staff were supplied by NSW Health. 

But the staff walkout raises an important question: what happens if aged care staff refuse to go to work?

“There is no reason to avoid going to work”

At a COVID-19 summit for the aged care industry in Canberra on Friday, the Minister for Aged Care, Richard Colbeck, said there was no reason for staff to stay at home unless they were themselves infected with the coronavirus.

“There is no reason for staff at aged care centres to avoid going to work unless they are showing symptoms, have been in contact with somebody showing symptoms or have been specifically ordered to isolate,” he said.

Part-time staff, overseas workers and students could fill gaps

Leading Age Services Australia CEO, Sean Rooney, who was at the summit, said they addressed how levels of “surge staffing” might be provided in the case of an outbreak and staff are either sick and can’t work or decide to remain at home to avoid infection.

“Protecting older Australians, and the staff who care for them, from COVID-19 is our priority,” he told HelloCare.

“It was acknowledged at Friday’s meeting that ‘surge’ staffing resources may be required in the event of infection in some locations,” Mr Rooney said.

To boost staff numbers, part-time staff may be asked to increase their working hours. Overseas workers, who are only allowed to work up to 20 hours a week in residential aged care, might be able to have this restriction extended. Recent graduates or students may also be able to fill in if needed.

“If we have people who are currently being trained in the sector but are not fully qualified, they could have the capacity to undertake particular tasks, either in the aged care sector or in primary care,” Mr Rooney said. 

“The issue of the financial impact on workers in the event that they are not able to attend work was discussed and taken on notice by the Government,” Ms Rooney said.

Government powers could help find substitute staff

Last Thursday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison revealed the National Security Committee of Cabinet has activated the ‘National Coordination Mechanism’.

In a press conference, he said the mechanism will allow a “whole-of-government response” to health issues that may arise but fall outside direct health management. 

“So issues around hospitals, primary care, and… the aged care sector will continue to be a direct responsibility… of the Department of Health,” the prime minister explained.

“But broader issues… of continuity of services, working with state governments, the execution of powers…, ensuring we’re supporting workforce needs and how those issues can be managed on the ground, and working with state and territory police forces, there are a broad range of other issues that have to be managed which are not directly health-related, and this coordination mechanism will mean that we’ll have the best possible interface with states and territories.

“Many of these issues which are not present at the moment, but if they become an issue…, we will have mechanisms in place to be able to address those issues,” he said.

According to a report by the ABC, the declaration means the government will be able to use its powers to coordinate with state and local jurisdictions to find substitute staff to keep facilities operating.

The Attorney General Christian Porter will meet with unions and employer representatives in Sydney on Tuesday to enlist their support, and to discuss the employee arrangements needed to help businesses keep their doors open during the coronavirus outbreak.

Situation is “unprecedented”

“The current situation is unprecedented and requires a collaborative, cross-industry and government response,” Baptist Care noted. 

Last week, the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation urged the government to ensure more qualified nurses and carers are employed in the industry. Assistant Federal Secretary, Lori-Anne Sharp, said, “The aged care sector is already dangerously understaffed.” 

The ANMF is also calling on the government to support aged care staff who take time off work if they are infected with coronavirus, but do not have paid sick leave. More than ten per cent of workers in nursing homes are casual employees and do not have access to paid leave.

“Go about life as you normally would”: Minister

Minister Colbeck said, “The advice for the aged care sector is the same advice to the general community.”

“Australians should practice good hygiene and go about their lives as they normally would.”

Washing hands with soap and water before and after eating, after coughing, sneezing or using the toilet was an important practice, he said.

The federal government has agreed to pay 50 per cent of coronavirus costs, which fall outside usual health budgets.

Today Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has confirmed the government will inject around $10 billion into a coronavirus stimulus package to prop up businesses struggling to cope with the fallout from coronavirus, but he did not say if the package would support casual workers who might be afraid to take time off work because they do not have access to paid sick leave.

Anyone with symptoms should be tested

Health Minister Greg Hunt is now urging anyone with flu-like symptoms to be tested for coronavirus. They should visit their GP or if they are severely unwell, go to a hospital emergency department.

  • Anyone returning from mainland China or Iran should isolate for 14 days.
  • Anybody arriving from the Republic of Korea, on or after 5 March, should also isolate for
  • 14 days.
  • Travellers arriving in Australia from Italy must present for health screening at the border as directed.
  • People returning from Italy do not need to isolate but cannot attend work for 14 days if they work in healthcare or in residential aged care.

A vaccine for coronavirus is said to be more than a year away.

For daily updates and information you can visit the government’s official coronavirus website.

You can also call the 24-hour National Coronavirus Health Information Line on 1800 020 080.

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