‘PM will expect private hospitals’: the offer never made to St Basil’s residents

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It took 10 days to evacuate St Basil’s after the first resident died with coronavirus – despite a warning that day from a top bureaucrat that Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Health Minister Greg Hunt would expect residents to be offered access to private hospitals.

Forty-five people died with COVID-19 at the Fawkner aged care home, and 24 of those deaths occurred in the week-and-a-half it took to get around to finally evacuating the centre.

So severe was the outbreak that, of 237 living and working at the nursing home, only 49 did not get coronavirus.

A resident is evacuated from St Basil’s on July 31, 2020.Credit:Justin McManus

State Coroner John Cain is holding a six-week inquest into the deaths.

On Thursday, the inquest was shown an email sent on July 21 by the deputy secretary of the federal health department’s aged care group, Nicholas Hartland.

The email was to his health department colleagues telling them both the Prime Minister and Mr Hunt may raise St Basil’s at an upcoming COVID-19 briefing. By July 21, Victorian health department media releases show 51 residents and staff had coronavirus at the home and media attention on the outbreak was growing.

“I may be asked about this at the morning briefing of the PM,” Mr Hartland wrote on July 21 – the day the first resident at the home died with COVID-19. “Is there anything that I can say about the access of residents to private hospitals? I think PM and Minister Hunt will be expecting that this be offered.”

This option was never offered to residents or their families, and relatives were completely locked out of communications about what was happening to their loved ones inside St Basil’s, the inquest has heard.

Judge Cain is attempting to understand why St Basil’s failed to have a better COVID-19 plan, why the Victorian government ordered out all the home’s staff on July 21 because they were a COVID-risk despite warnings this would end in disaster, and why the Commonwealth – which has ultimate responsibility for aged care – failed to then properly manage the unfolding situation.

Over the last two days, the inquest has heard from Danny McAteer, who was a senior officer within the federal health department in charge of elements of the St Basil’s situation.

On Thursday, Judge Cain was shown emails from officers within the federal health bureaucracy including Mr McAteer that detailed repeated warnings sounded on July 21 that serious intervention was needed at St Basil’s.

Used PPE and other waste piles up outside St Basil’s in Fawkner at the height of last year’s deadly outbreak.Credit:Penny Stephens

All that was offered to the home, though, after Victorian Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton ordered out all of St Basil’s staff that same day, was a skeleton “surge” nursing workforce by private provider Aspen Medical.

The unfolding crisis within St Basil’s was so severe that the nation’s Chief Nursing Officer Alison McMillan was also asked on July 21 to visit the home the following day to assess conditions. She declared the home “fit for purpose” and said that there was “no need for a significant evacuation of positive residents to hospital”.

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