Greg Hunt accused of being disrespectful and playing down Covid deaths in aged care

Aged care workers have described comments by the federal health minister, Greg Hunt, on Covid deaths in the sector as “astonishing” and “disrespectful”, and say the significance of those deaths is being downplayed by politicians.

On Monday, Hunt addressed a growing number of deaths in aged care, with 473 Covid-related aged-care deaths recorded in January alone.

“The latest advice that I have is that approximately 60% of those that have agonisingly passed have been in palliative care,” Hunt said. He added: “The definition is that they have passed with Covid, and they are absolutely rightly counted as a national loss. But approximately 60% of those that have passed were in palliative care.”

The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation federal secretary, Annie Butler, said the comments were “astonishing”.

“How much more disrespectful to elderly Australians can this government be,” Butler asked. “To turn around and say basically, ‘you were just going to die anyway,’ rather than acknowledging that they died faster and in difficult conditions because the government didn’t look after them well enough.

“The comments are just outrageous because elderly people can be in palliative care for a week, for two weeks, or even years, and the aim is to make sure the person has the best life they can have in that time. Letting Covid rip through homes and these people become infected is hardly delivering people the best quality of life that they can have.”

Some of the homes with high numbers of deaths contacted by Guardian Australia said most who died had serious underlying health conditions, and that Covid-19 was not considered to be the primary cause of death. But Butler said residents with the virus would be put into isolation, potentially unable to be with their family in their final days.

“So the fact that they are palliative or have other conditions is irrelevant, aside from asking, how much did Covid hasten their death.”

A spokesperson for Hunt said “from the outset of the pandemic, aged care has been a major focus of support from the Australian government”. They said Hunt had been responding to a question about details of those who died in aged care.

“However, like the rest of the community and what occurred in previous waves of the pandemic, when there are increased cases in the population, they will be reflected in the cases in aged care,” the spokesperson said.

“Aged care facilities have been required to implement infection control training and it is encouraging that despite the increase in cases, there has not been the same level of increase in illness or loss of life, with most facilities indicating that the cases have been milder at this stage.”

The figure the minister used is from ongoing data provided by the states and territories on lives lost in residential aged care residences.

It shows that of the deaths from Covid, 61% were in palliative care. Of the 73% of people who died who were fully vaccinated, 63% of those were in palliative care. Of all those who died, 73% were fully vaccinated and 8% were partially vaccinated.

Neither the health minister nor the minister for senior Australians, Richard Colbeck, provided data on the percentage of residents in aged care who had received their booster shot.

Butler said it is not the first time politicians have mentioned that many of those dying of Covid in aged care are palliative. In August, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, responding to the aged care crisis exacerbated by Covid, said: “For those of us who have had to make decisions about putting our own family, our own parents, into aged care, we have known that when we’ve done that we are putting them into pre-palliative care. We know it won’t be long in many cases …”.

Sign up to receive the top stories from Guardian Australia every morning

Butler said: “There’s no such thing as pre-palliative care. All I can say is comments like these show the largest level of disrespect you could show to elderly Australians.”

The Aged and Community Services Australia CEO, Paul Sadler, said every resident of an aged care facility is entitled to the best possible care including protection against Covid and other infections.

“The government must prioritise the health and wellbeing of older people, and this can be done by ensuring that the services and care they depend on is run by a safe, fully staffed, and fully supported workforce,” he said.

Email: sign up for our daily morning and afternoon email newsletters

App: download our free app and never miss the biggest stories

Social: follow us on YouTubeTikTokInstagramFacebook or Twitter

Podcast: listen to our daily episodes on Apple PodcastsSpotify or search "Full Story" in your favourite app

The public health researcher and director of Aged Care Matters, Dr Sarah Russell, said no matter the cause of death, people dying in aged care homes infected by Covid-19 were being locked down, deprived of visits from loved ones.

“It’s traumatising families and it’s such an awful way to die,” she said. “These people, they have died under terrible, preventable circumstances.”


Melissa Davey Medical editor

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Scott Morrison defends aged care minister who didn't know number of Covid deaths
Richard Colbeck apologises for federal government’s role in aged care outbreaks but denies it was ‘absent’

Daniel Hurst

21, Aug, 2020 @9:14 AM

Article image
Coroner to conduct inquiry into Covid deaths at St Basil's aged care home – as it happened
Scott Morrison says unemployment is forecast to rise to 13% and Victorian coroner announces inquiry into St Basil’s deaths. This blog is now closed

Naaman Zhou (now) Amy Remeikis (earlier)

06, Aug, 2020 @8:39 AM

Article image
Scott Morrison moves to ramp up Covid vaccine rollout and opens access to 40-year-olds
Prime minister names senior army officer to head vaccination taskforce after national cabinet and likens rollout to turning back asylum seeker boats

Paul Karp

04, Jun, 2021 @6:10 AM

Article image
Calls for extension to Australia’s compulsory aged care vaccinations as Friday deadline approaches
90.8% of staff have received a single dose, but Health Services Union says sector can’t afford to lose even 5% of its workforce

Sarah Martin Chief political correspondent

12, Sep, 2021 @5:30 PM

Article image
Fact check: is aged care coping ‘extremely well’ with Omicron as Morrison government claims?
Experts respond to Coalition frontbenchers’ comments on the Covid death toll and booster rollout in nursing homes

Melissa Davey Medical editor

08, Feb, 2022 @1:31 AM

Article image
Morrison government’s Covid-19 aged care preparation ‘insufficient’, royal commission finds
Report made six recommendations including a call to establish a national aged care plan for Covid-19 through the national cabinet

Daniel Hurst

01, Oct, 2020 @8:36 AM

Article image
Aged care executive condemns Scott Morrison’s strategy of ‘pushing through’ Covid crisis
Omicron has magnified systemic flaws with staff ‘exhausted’ and residents ‘endlessly’ isolated, Baptistcare chief executive says

Christopher Knaus

28, Jan, 2022 @1:56 AM

Article image
Aged care minister won't resign despite Labor's continued attacks on government's Covid response
Richard Colbeck says his recent missteps are not indicative of the work he’s doing ‘more broadly in the portfolio’

Katharine Murphy

31, Aug, 2020 @9:27 AM

Article image
Labor pressures Morrison on Covid aged care response as PM dismisses internal privatisation complaint
The federal government has rejected a Liberal MP’s claim it ‘ignored’ warnings about the vulnerability of Victoria’s aged care sector for years

Katharine Murphy

26, Aug, 2020 @9:25 AM

Article image
Bill Shorten lashes out at profit-driven aged care and Morrison government over Covid failings
Former Labor leader says pandemic has exposed ‘the dirty secret of Australian politics’, adding Coalition has fallen short in disability care

Amy Remeikis

16, Aug, 2020 @2:41 AM