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COVID-19, aged care accommodation the focus of Sydney Hearings

The Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety will hold two hearings in Sydney from 10 to 14 August 2020, first, to inquire into the response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in aged care and, secondly, to inquire into aged care accommodation.

Due to the pandemic, there will be no public access to the hearings, and the public and media are encouraged to follow proceedings on the live webcast on the Royal Commission website. Witness lists for both hearings will be available on Sunday, 9 August 2020.

The COVID-19 hearing commencing at 10:00am local time on Monday, 10 August, will inquire into the response to the COVID-19 pandemic in aged care, and the lessons that can be learnt for responding to the ongoing and any future pandemics, infectious disease outbreaks or other emergencies.

Witnesses will be called to give evidence about the preparedness of the aged care sector for such an outbreak of disease, restrictions on visitation, and the impact of those restrictions on the health and wellbeing of residents and their families. While important, these restrictions have had unintended, serious, and often tragic, consequences.

Commissioners will hear from two witnesses whose fathers died during the COVID-19 pandemic. Virginia Clarke, whose father died after contracting COVID-19 at Newmarch House, will give evidence about her experience. Another witness, who will appear under the pseudonym UY, will speak about her father's confusion and sadness when restrictions on family visitation were introduced, and how she believes he gave up wanting to live because his family support and connection was lost. Merle Mitchell AM will tell Commissioners about her experience living in an aged care facility in Melbourne during the pandemic. The hearing will also explore the impact of the pandemic on the provision of services to those living in residential aged care, and the impact this has had on their quality of life.

Management of outbreaks at Newmarch House and Dorothy Henderson Lodge will be considered. It is important to reiterate that the purpose of the inquiry is not to find fault or apportion blame.

Witnesses will also give evidence about the impact of COVID-19 on the aged care workforce. Commissioners will hear that both Dorothy Henderson Lodge and Newmarch House lost almost their entire workforce within days of the first positive case of COVID-19. This was not contemplated in the crisis or emergency plans of either provider. Grant Millard, CEO of Anglican Community Services, is expected to give evidence about how distressing this was for residents, families and friends, and for the staff themselves. This hearing will also examine the response to aged care workers who work in multiple facilities.

This hearing will conclude with a panel of witnesses from the Australian Department of Health and the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission. A central issue that will be explored is whether there was a lack of clarity of the roles of the authorities in responding to COVID-19 outbreaks in aged care.

As stated publicly by the Chair of the Royal Commission, the impact of COVID-19 on Australia's aged care sector is a national human tragedy, and one that at the moment, is unfolding daily. It is important for the public to understand that this Royal Commission is not able, and is not intending, to conduct a full inquiry into this impact. "We simply do not have the resources or time to conduct an inquiry that would do justice to the issues which have arisen so far and continue to change and develop," Commissioner, the Honourable Tony Pagone said.

This hearing will include an examination of systemic issues, however it will not specifically examine the response to the recent outbreaks in Victoria. Such a focus would unnecessarily distract those working hard in Victoria to respond to the crisis, and would cause additional stress and distress for those grieving the loss of loved ones or concerned for the wellbeing of family members and friends.

Aged Care Accommodation Hearing

The hearing on accommodation will commence at 3:10pm on Thursday, 13 August 2020 and continue on Friday, 14 August 2020. The topic of accommodation for aged care will be explored at this hearing. The physical setting in which aged care is received is an inextricable element of a person's experience of aged care. The Royal Commissioners will hear evidence about innovative accommodation models that promote ageing in place and access to aged care services, as well as about design principles and building standards for residential aged care, including ‘small home' models and dementia-friendly design.