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 …”.
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.
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.”