Government commits to provide access to Pfizer and workplace vaccinations for aged care workers

Annie Butler, ANMF Federal Secretary

Unions representing aged care workers and leading aged care providers have secured key commitments from the Federal government to remove major barriers holding up the COVID-19 vaccination of the workforce, including ensuring staff get priority access to Pfizer and on-site workplace vaccinations, following a productive meeting last week. 

The Australian Aged Care Collaboration – a coalition of peak bodies for aged for aged care employer groups – and unions, including the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF), United Workers Union (UWU) and ACTU, met with Health and Aged Care Minister Greg Hunt, Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck, and COVID-19 Vaccine Taskforce commander Lieutenant General John Frewen to discuss the government’s bungled vaccine rollout.

A week earlier, the collective called on the government to immediately address five key principles it argues will support aged care workers to be vaccinated quickly and safely and get the rollout back on track.

On 28 June, the government announced that COVID-19 vaccinations would become mandatory for all residential aged care workers, with staff required to have at least their first dose of the vaccine by 17 September.

At the beginning of 2021, aged care workers were told they were a priority and promised they would receive the vaccine at their workplaces. But it didn’t happen.

The group’s five key principles to reset the rollout include:

  1. Resident and worker safety
  2. Government funded in-reach workplace vaccination programs and prioritised access to Pfizer vaccination
  3. Paid vaccination leave
  4. Targeted vaccine education and communication
  5. Transparency and accountability on vaccine data and supply

At the meeting, unions and aged care providers were able to secure key commitments from the government that would help remove barriers to vaccination. They include:

  1. Ensuring access to priority and supply of Pfizer as outlines in the initial rollout plan – all aged care workers regardless of age will have access to Pfizer (though can choose AstraZeneca if preferred or indicated). Unions and providers also requested transparency over and quarantining of supply of Pfizer for aged care workers.
  2. On-site workplace vaccination – currently being negotiated through several channels, which include:
  • ‘Self-vaccination’ by aged care facilities with capacity
  • Continued in-reach by companies previously contracted for aged care in-reach
  • Engagement of states to assist in delivery of in-reach vaccination
  • ‘Hub and spoke’ arrangement with PHN’s and RACF’s (this model is still being explored)
  1. Genuine priority access to vaccination via other channels, e.g. state vaccination hubs and GP clinics – although priority access was already meant to be happening, this has not been occurring in practice. The government committed to ensuring this occurs.
  2. Support to access vaccination, and recover from effects if needed, through paid vaccination leave. Unions and providers acknowledged that the initial commitment of $11 million is a good start to support aged care workers but as it only applies to casual employees, is still not good enough. The Minister was clear that he would explore what funding could be organised to extend paid vaccination leave to all workers.

Representatives from the joint union/aged care provider group will now meet with the Department of Health and the Vaccination Taskforce three times a week over the next two weeks to help facilitate the implementation of the actions.

Speaking on the ABC’s RN Breakfast program yesterday morning, ANMF Federal Secretary Annie Butler described the meeting as productive and a welcome step in the right direction.

“We do have a big challenge ahead of us but what we know, both providers and unions, we know that the problem is that demand continues to outstrip supply,” Ms Butler said.

She said feedback from the union’s aged care members suggested that only 40% of the workforce had received their first vaccine dose.

Responding to a survey of 4,000 Western Australian aged care workers conducted by the ANMF (WA Branch) earlier this year, which found 31% would leave the sector if forced to get the jab, Ms Butler said follow-up dialogue indicated most would change their mind if on-site vaccinations and the choice of vaccine could be guaranteed.

“We find that 95% come back and say ‘Ok, if you made it that easy for us, then we’d be ok and alright to go ahead with the program’.”

Minister Hunt said he clearly understood that on-site vaccination was “the key mechanism” of delivery needed to reset and get the rollout back on track, Ms Butler revealed. The range of options currently being canvassed includes ‘self-vaccination’ by aged care facilities with capacity, continued in-reach by companies such as Aspen Medical previously contracted to administer the vaccines, and employing states and territories to assist in delivering workplace vaccinations.

Addressing vaccine hesitancy among the aged care workforce, Ms Butler said feedback showed that it mirrored the concerns of the general community. With a high migrant population among aged care workers, she said it was crucial that the right information is made available.

“When the information is not clear, when they’re not well supported, there is a high level of mistrust that happens amongst that population, so how we communicate with them and how we run this program is absolutely critical,” Ms Butler stressed.

“If we tap in and ask them the right questions and find out what they need, we’re sure we can get 95% of our workforce vaccinated.”

Ms Butler predicted forthcoming meetings with the government would ultimately prove if the aged care vaccination rollout was indeed fully back on track.

“Unions and providers, we want to do everything we can to make this work,” she declared.

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