Delayed vaccine rollout threatens lives and deepens distrust within disability sector, writes Fran Connelley.

Fran Connelley

In a welcome move last week, the Minister for Disability and Ageing in Victoria, Luke Donnellan, announced that $5 million would be poured into funding vaccination hubs in key local government areas of concern across the state, finally acknowledging the risks of easing restrictions without higher vaccination rates in the disability community.

We need every other state to follow his lead, otherwise people with disabilities will pay the price for our disgracefully delayed vaccine rollout.

Last week the Disability Royal Commission released its draft report into the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine to people with disability, recommending that the government should not allow any state or territory to ease restrictions at the 70 per cent fully vaccinated threshold unless all people with disabilities in residential accommodation and people with intellectual disability and all active support workers have been fully vaccinated.

‘Seriously deficient’

The report also found that the Department of Health’s response in relation to people living in residential disability settings and disability support workers was ‘seriously deficient’ citing a failure to consult with the sector and a lack of transparency in decision making. The report makes frequent mention of the critical decision in March 2021 to de-prioritise people with disability and reallocate vaccines to the aged care sector.

This is despite the fact that disability residents and staff were supposed to have all been vaccinated within six weeks of the rollout’s commencement in mid-February.  This back-flip was only made public six weeks later when the Department gave evidence to the Senate Select Standing Committee on Covid-19.

The delayed vaccine rollout to people with disabilities and their support workers has only deepened the distrust between the sector and government.

The evidence concerning the vulnerability of people with disabilities to COVID-19 is alarming. This week, Professor Kavanagh from the University of Melbourne cited data from the UK experience showing that 60 per cent of those who died from COVID-19 had a disability and went on to say that “all the models indicated a significant number of deaths in the disability community if Australia opened up at 70% double vaccinated.”

Another UK study reported in The Annals of Internal Medicine showed that people with Down syndrome who get COVID-19 are four times more likely to be hospitalised – and 10 times more likely to die- than the general population.

A long way to go

In response to the commission’s report, the Minister has released a statement citing the recent increase in vaccination efforts and advising that 64.8 per cent of NDIS participants living in shared accommodation were double vaccinated and 59.3 per cent of support workers. 

It is currently unclear what the vaccination rate is for disabled people who are not NDIS participants. Clearly we still have a long way to go before it is safe to open up.

The lack of genuine consultation, the lack of transparency and the lack of clear, easy to understand information have greatly contributed to the vaccine hesitancy and distrust, not just in the rollout, but in the government’s support for the disability sector and Australians with disabilities.

The destructive Independent Assessments fiasco and the precarious levels of financial sustainability arising from the NDIA’s artificial price caps and the ongoing disconnect between the original vision of the NDIS and its bureaucratic reality have all contributed to a sustained breach of trust.

The urgent challenge for disability providers is to rapidly accelerate vaccine rates for clients and employees – and pick up the ball that the government should never have dropped six months ago. 

We urgently need more support to help people access vaccines, we need more vaccination hubs around the country, more jabs available for people in their own homes and greater support for a sector at breaking point – and we need to act fast, because too much time and trust has already been lost.

Fran Connelley is a NDIS culture specialist and author of ‘Workplace Culture & the NDIS’

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