Disability service providers were told in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic they could only access PPE if hospitals and aged care centres hadn’t used it first, the royal commission has heard.
The CEO of Aruma Services Andrew Richardson told the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability the provider faced “major challenges” accessing PPE because stockpiles were opened to disability services later than they were to health and aged care services.
Mr Richardson said this was because disability services weren’t initially considered an essential service.
“Therefore disability support workers were well down the pecking order, if I can put it that way, in the potential to access those stockpiles,” he told the commission last Thursday.
Mr Richardson said Aruma had “basic stocks” of PPE at each group home, but there was no centralised supply chain.
He said disability organisations faced a considerable shortage of PPE in the early days of the pandemic and when they tried to find out about accessing national or state stockpile it was difficult to get a straight answer.
‘It was very difficult to get a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. It was typically ‘no’ in the early stages. And if it was ‘yes’, it was ‘Yes, but it will depend if hospitals and aged care haven’t used it all first’.Andrew Richardson
“It was very difficult to get a “yes” or “no” answer,” he said.
“It was typically ‘no’ in the early stages. And if it was ‘yes’, it was ‘Yes, but it will depend if hospitals and aged care haven’t used it all first’.”
The application process and priority criteria also made PPE difficult to access, the commission heard.
“Anecdotally what the staff had told me is you would be asked to fill out a form, then there would be a different form to be submitted electronically. You might never get a response, or you ring up someone they would say, ‘It should be State, not Federal’.
“There was just no clarity of application for disability support organisations to get a guaranteed response,” he said.
Lack of training
CEO of Life Without Barriers Claire Robbs said the provider, which supports more than 5,500 people with a disability, said the government never provided any specific training on PPE use.
“There isn’t one particularly approved or mandated training course across the sector at the moment as far as I’m aware,” she said.
The commission also heard that neither organisation had tested out specific a pandemic plan or had been audited in relation to pandemic outbreak management by the NDIA, NDIS, QSC or any Commonwealth department.
They both said they had made notifications of confirmed COVID cases to the NDIS Quality and Safety Commission, including 35 notifications relating to Life Without Barriers.
However, the commission had never provided specific advice or required any specific action to be taken, they said.
“So can I take it from both of you that that all means that there’s been no specific advice from any Commonwealth department or agency to do anything in relation to any of the confirmed infections of workers or participants or impact on your facilities or your operations?” Senior Counsel assisting Dr Kerri Mellifont asked.
“Yes, that’s correct,” Mr Richardson replied.
Bespoke pandemic response required
Ms Robbs told the commission that a bespoke response to the pandemic was required for the disability sector, and that it wasn’t sufficient to just import aged care guidelines.
“The disability sector is not a subsection of the aged care sector and although there are similarities, there are obvious differences as well,” she said.
We can’t just take aged care guidelines and add the word “disability” and then be fit for purpose.Claire Robbs
“We can’t just take aged care guidelines and add the word “disability” and then be fit for purpose.”
Mr Richardson also said the disability sector was fundamentally different to residential aged care and required a specific approach.
“We’re supporting people over a much longer time horizon, typically, and people of all ages” he said.
“Someone with a disability may need support for 80 years plus, so it’s quite a different context.”
He called for a disability sector-specific, nationally consistently and well-resourced response to the current pandemic and any future outbreaks of infections disease.
“We need clear, consistent direction as part of that for both providers and people with disability,” he said.
“As part of that, disability support work must be recognised as an essential service. That would bring with it things like guaranteed access to appropriate PPE and priority access to testing for staff and clients.”
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