Disability care COVID vaccine rollout 'failure' slammed by expert

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt has previously defended the vaccine rollout in disability care. Picture: Elesa Kurtz
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt has previously defended the vaccine rollout in disability care. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

A member of the federal government's disability advisory committee has blasted the vaccine rollout in disability care as an "enormous failure", after a new report exposed serious flaws, missteps and oversights in the program.

University of Melbourne professor Anne Kavanagh says the expert committee either wasn't consulted on key decisions or had its advice overlooked, backing up one of the major findings from a scathing report from the disability royal commission.

The royal commission's draft report, published on Monday, described the rollout of the vaccine to people in disability care as "seriously deficient".

The federal health department was found to have failed to properly consult with the disability sector, wasn't transparent about decision making and lacked basic insight into the differences between aged care and disability care homes.

The commission is now urging the federal government to do what it can to ensure no state or territory significantly eases restrictions at 70 per cent vaccine coverage until all support workers are inoculated, and all people with a disability have had the opportunity to receive both doses.

It would be "grossly unfair, indeed unconscionable" if people with a disability hadn't had the opportunity to be fully vaccinated by the time the 70 per cent target was hit, and lockdowns started to ease, the report found.

About two-thirds of NDIS participants in care homes and 57 per cent of support workers were fully vaccinated according to the latest daily update.

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Health department officials revealed at Parliament's COVID-19 committee in late April that just 6.5 per cent of residents at disability care homes had received a dose, eight weeks into the rollout.

In a revelation which shocked and infuriated the disability sector, then health department associate secretary Caroline Edwards conceded that a decision had been made to prioritise vaccination in aged care over disability care, even though both were supposed to be treated equally in the first phase of the rollout.

The report acknowledged the challenges the health department faced in designing and delivering the rollout, but said it "failed to meet those challenges in important respects".

It said the government's failure to make public its decision to focus on aged care meant disability care residents, workers and advocacy organisations were for six weeks "misled" into believing they were still being prioritised.

The failure to communicate the pivot was a "serious departure" from the standards of transparency that the government should adhere to when make critical health and safety decisions, the report found.

The report found the department had made the decision without consulting or even notifying its expert disability advisory committee.

Prof Kavanagh said the original decision to place disability care residents at the front of the vaccine queue was a "big win". But Prof Kavanagh, who is the chair in disability and health at the Melbourne Disability Institute, said the rollout quick unravelled.

"What happened after that was really an enormous failure of the implementation of that aspiration," she told The Canberra Times.

"Despite us working really hard to get a plan up to try and implement it, it just didn't happen."

Prof Kavanagh said there were members of the health department who were "genuinely concerned" about the rollout.

However, she said critical decisions were made without consultation with the committee. In other cases, the expert panel's input didn't influence recommendations or was overlooked entirely.

The Canberra Times put a series of questions to federal Health Minister Greg Hunt and NDIS Minister Linda Reynolds about the report, including whether it accepted the characterisation of the rollout as "seriously deficient" and how it justified the lack of consultation with the expert committee.

A spokeswoman for Mr Hunt responded on their behalf, although she did not directly address the questions.

The spokeswoman said people with a disability continued to be prioritised for vaccinations, noting the government had visited more than 4000 sites as part of its in-reach service.

The spokesman said Australia's death rate during the COVID-19 pandemic was the second lowest among OECD countries.

The rate of cases and deaths among people with a disability was much lower than the national average, she said.

Senator Reynolds released a statement late on Monday, which said the government had made "significant progress" in vaccinating people with a disability since the royal commission's hearing in May.

ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said she had been "extremely disappointed" with the vaccine rollout to disability care homes, which was the federal government's responsibility.

The vaccination rates in Canberra's disability care homes is higher than the national average, with 73.6 per cent of residents having received both doses.

Labor's NDIS spokesman Bill Shorten said the royal commission's findings had shown the Morrison government had "failed to protect people with disabilities at every stage of the vaccine rollout".

This story Disability vaccine rollout 'failure' slammed by expert panel member first appeared on The Canberra Times.