Critical delays in freeing hospital beds blamed on rift with Canberra

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Victoria’s decision to suspend elective surgery on Tuesday came almost two weeks after it was first raised by federal Health Department chief Brendan Murphy to free up hospital beds for COVID-19 patients.

The delay caused major concern within the federal government as hospitals pushed back against aged-care providers wanting to transfer sick residents, amid issues with staff shortages.

The Herald Sun understands it took forceful phone calls from Scott Morrison to Daniel Andrews on Monday and Tuesday to ensure the elective surgery suspension went ahead, paving the way for aged-care residents to be moved to hospital and nurses redeployed to virus-hit facilities.

But the pair dismissed suggestions of problems in their relationship on Wednesday, as the Premier declared that “short of taking people off operating tables, it could be done no faster”.

Professor Murphy said that on July 15 — 11 days before the Scott Morrison and Dan Andrews phone call — he first spoke to a senior Victorian official about “what they were doing with elective surgery”.

“I have had many informal discussions with people late last week, certainly on the weekend,” he said. “On Sunday, I did say that this has become really crucial that this is stopped now; and I did make a very formal request.”

The Herald Sun understands the state government started planning the surgery suspension on Sunday and locked it in on Monday afternoon, but federal sources suggested Victoria remained reluctant even that night.

Professor Murphy described it as “a bit of a storm in a teacup”.

The Prime Minister, who described Melbourne’s COVID-19 outbreak as the “Victorian wave”, said reports about him having difficulties with Mr Andrews were “greatly exaggerated”.

“The Premier and I enjoy a very good working relationship. We enjoy a high level of respect for each other and the responsibilities we each have,” Mr Morrison said.

Mr Andrews said: “I have a very important, productive, professional and respectful relationship with the PM … Any talk of fights and arguments is simply wrong.”

Meanwhile, Professor Murphy said there were “clearly deficiencies in care” at St Basil’s aged-care home in Fawkner, as well as at Epping Gardens, which he hoped would be “stable” by Thursday.

“We will see deaths every day and that is a tragedy,” he said.

Mr Morrison said there had been “very distressing and concerning” scenes, as the federal government moved to send infection control experts to every Victorian facility, as well as dispatching five medical disaster response teams.

Professor Murphy said the commonwealth had struck a “very strong agreement” with Victoria to prioritise filling aged care staffing needs with public hospital workers.

Services Australia has been brought in to aid communication with families with relatives in affected facilities.

Mr Morrison, who ordered the aged care royal commission, said he was “not naive” to the challenges in the system and promised further support in the October budget.

AGED CARE NURSE-PATIENT RATIOS BACK IN SPOTLIGHT

Aged care homes feeling the brunt of devastating coronavirus outbreaks have no regulations for nurse-to-patient ratios, prompting renewed calls to adopt similar targets to those at state government ­facilities.

Public sector residential homes in Victoria have a requirement that high-care wards have one nurse for every seven to eight patients and one nurse in charge. On night shifts this ratio is widened to one nurse for every 15 patients.

But these limits do not apply for private homes, regulated by the federal government, currently at the centre of deadly outbreaks and accusations of mismanagement.

There are 804 active COVID-19 cases in aged care facilities, with five of those from state government controlled public care homes.

Health Workers Union state secretary Diana Asmar said calls for nursing ratios had been ignored by federal political parties.

“If it’s good enough to have childcare staffing ratios or nursing ratios in Victoria’s public hospitals, then why are our elderly not worthy of the same level of care?” she said.

“It’s not uncommon for a single aged carer to have to care for 30 residents on night shift.”

Health Minister Greg Hunt said there was minimal infection difference in state facilities when compared with private facilities.

“About 1 per cent less of aged care state homes as a proportion of them that have been infected, and so that is similar, but they are largely in regional areas are not in the hot spot areas,” Mr Hunt said.

“That is a historic trend in Victoria to concentrate state homes, largely in regional areas and not in the hot spot areas.

“More generally, the royal commission is going on so I won’t pre-empt that, but we are the ones that called it.”

A state government spokeswoman said: “Victoria became the first state in Australia to have nurse-to-resident ratios in its public sector residential aged care.

“Nurse to staff patient ratios provide an important safeguard for both patients and staff, and ensure residents are receiving the best care ­possible.”

– Kieran Rooney and Alex White

ABATTOIR SLAMMED FOR EARLY RETURN CALL

A meatworks linked to a coronavirus cluster has been allowed to open again despite union warnings staff are still yet to isolate for 14 days.

Turosi’s Golden Farms abattoir, near Geelong, has been linked to 10 confirmed coronavirus cases and closed over the weekend.

But on Wednesday the Department of Health and Human Services altered its advice to allow isolating workers to return to the workplace for cleaning operations.

United Workers Union national director Susie Allison questioned the decision and lashed out the company for not providing leave to workers, leaving them no choice but to return to the job early.

“These workers toiled away for this company only to be completely abandoned,” she said.

“How can workers have faith the company has their best interests at heart when this is how they are treated?

“The message is that workers’ welfare is none of their concern.”

Golden Farms worker Glenn Myhre said the outbreak had left staff feeling insecure.

“Casuals and people with no entitlements are going to be left in a really tight spot,” he said.

“We’ve worked hard for the company throughout the pandemic and now we are being left boxed in at home, and having to use up all our own entitlements.”

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tom.minear@news.com.au

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