‘Pushed to the edge’: Australian aged care providers facing dire staff shortages, unions say

·4-min read

Aged care workers are being “pushed to the edge” amid a worsening Omicron crisis, a lack of rapid tests, dire staffing shortages and effective bans on essential visitors, unions and advocates say.

Data suggests Omicron had spread to more than 700 aged care homes across Australia last week, compounding existing frailties in the aged care system.

Providers have pleaded with the government for a surge workforce, including using the Australian Defence Force, and complained of dire shortages of rapid antigen tests which the commonwealth had promised to provide for residents, staff and essential visitors.

Related: Backlash grows over aged care minister attending Ashes cricket instead of Covid inquiry

Despite the pledge, more than half of aged care workers surveyed by the United Workers Union said they had not been given a rapid test by their workplace, instead having to source it themselves or use temperature checks as a substitute.

Rapid tests are not being distributed proactively to prevent outbreaks but instead are being prioritised for sites with existing Omicron cases due to supply problems. Even then, the Guardian revealed this week that some providers in the grips of an outbreak were still waiting for weeks for shipments of rapid tests to arrive.

Carolyn Smith, the aged care director of the UWU, said the lack of tests was placing huge amounts of stress on staff who feared taking Omicron into their workplaces.

“It’s just an incredible emotional load on workers who are already pushed to the edge,” she said. “They are already really tired, overworked, struggling to get proper personal protective equipment – lots of them don’t have proper N95 masks.”

The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation is also surveying its members and the preliminary results suggest a huge amount of stress on the sector. About 58% had experienced a Covid-19 outbreak, 20% were planning to leave their position within 12 months, and 40% had recently worked double shifts.

“They’re going to work already completely anxious and overwhelmed because they know they’re going to have to hit the ground running, they’re so understaffed,” the ANMF acting federal director, Lori-Anne Sharp, said. “It was bad before. It’s been bad staffing-wise for a decade, and now with Omicron … the federal government was warned; their plans were inadequate.”

The staffing capacity problems are being compounded by the restrictions on visitors, which are often due to a lack of rapid tests to screen them prior to entering facilities.

The Guardian reported this week that essential visitors – partners in care, for example – were being blocked by some facilities that had mandated rapid tests but were unable to supply them due to commonwealth undersupply.

One of those facilities, St Basil’s Homes in South Australia, said its hand was forced by unreliable supply from the federal government.

Craig Gear, the chief executive of the Older Persons Advocacy Network, said the barrier to visitation was compounding the staffing crisis. Essential visitors were a crucial support to staff, helping to meet basic care needs for their family members, he said.

Related: ‘Covid has spread like wildfire’: 703 aged care homes across Australia battle fresh outbreaks

“We can’t have that, particularly when we’re calling for partners-in-care and every resident to have a named visitor who can come and access and provide support, even if there is an outbreak,” Gear said.

“We can’t have the supply of rapid antigen tests being the barrier to those sorts of programs which are also a boost to the workforce, because they will help take some of the pressure off of the workforce.”

The aged care minister, Richard Colbeck, said the government had provided more than 6m tests to the aged care sector. It was prioritising test supply to outbreak sites, he said.

But the ANMF says pleas for the defence force to be deployed as a surge workforce have so far been ignored.

“The ANMF is engaging with the federal government and our industry stakeholders to address the various issues impacting health and aged care during the pandemic, but from what our members are telling us, it’s crucial that chronic understaffing, particularly in nursing homes, is resolved – before lives are lost unnecessarily,” Sharp said.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting