On Monday, the Disability Royal Commission released a draft report about the evidence from Public hearing 12: The experiences of people with disability, in the context of the Australian Government’s approach to the COVID 19 vaccine rollout.
The report has a lot to say about how this rollout has failed those of us who needed help the most. It also emphasises how important it is to catch up now and finish vaccinating people with disability (and our support workers) before easing the lockdown restrictions that are keeping the virus partially contained at the moment. Find out how you can join our campaign to raise awareness about the need to #SpeedUpVaxForPWD at the main PWDA website.
Meanwhile, here are some highlights (or possibly lowlights) from the Royal Commission draft report.
The Australian Government, both during the hearing and in their submissions afterward, swing between two somewhat contradictory excuses. On the one hand, they say that they never planned to vaccinate everyone who lives and works in disability group homes before moving on to the rest of the population and they certainly didn’t knowingly give us all the impression they would do so. And on the other hand they imply that it just mysteriously turned out to be too hard and there was nothing they could have done.
The Royal Commission dismisses both of these claims. They go through the information and resources the government had available in 2020 and show that the Department of Health (DOH) did not even try to seriously listen to people with disability or our organisations about disability-specific parts of the rollout.
They had a Disability Advisory Committee and a Disability Support Services Committee ready and willing to give expert advice on the risks we face in this pandemic and the challenges of getting vaccines to disability group homes, as well as all the evidence from August 2020’s Public hearing 5: Experiences of people with disability during the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic. But it turns out all this was lip-service, and when it came to planning the vaccine rollout they preferred to work with assumptions and approximations.
The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) Preliminary Advice featured the most glaring omission:
The Royal Commission asked their government witness, Ms Edwards, what changed after that to put some people with disability into Phase 1a of the rollout strategy. She said ATAGI provided some extra advice about it, but after the hearing the government refused to show the Royal Commission that document on the basis of “public interest immunity,” an interesting phrase we have now added to our Jargon Buster.
Could this document be politically inconvenient? Such as by conclusively proving what the Royal Commission’s evidence can only “suggest” so far:
Operating on an outdated imagining of disability residential services as giant institutions, they tacked us on to aged care as an afterthought. (This is not the place to get into aspects of the group home system that are still very much institutional in a bad way.)
Then they realised, weeks into the rollout, that “in-reach” teams would have to visit about 6,000 different homes to vaccinate 26,000 people with disability (compared to the aged care strategy’s plan to visit 240 aged care facilities housing 184,000 people, although these numbers also turned out to be significantly lower than reality). That was when they decided to “pivot” and put all their resources into the aged care population. The Royal Commission acknowledges that people in aged care were at very high risk, and that the rollout to them and their support workers needed more resources than they were getting, but refutes the government’s implication that this justifies totally abandoning the disability in-reach efforts. They point out that we don’t know if a smaller-scale or differently-resourced disability program could have at least vaccinated the disabled people who needed it the most, because the government didn’t even try.
The Commission also dismissed the government’s nonsensical claim that prioritising or focusing on aged care residents was somehow different from deprioritising people with disability. They also emphasised the lack of transparency involved in that decision.
Prioritising means putting one task ahead of another task. Generally, this means the second task is now behind the first one. If two things were meant to be equal priorities and then you decide to prioritise one of them, this necessarily deprioritises the other. The Government tries to claim that they never said everyone in Phase 1a would be equally prioritised. The Royal Commission very firmly points out that no reasonable person would interpret the actual words used in the Strategy in that way.
The report is very clear that, whatever word you use for it, in-reach teams that were working to vaccinate people with disability in group homes got reassigned to aged care, leaving disability residents and staff hanging with no information about their place in the queue. By the end of April, “a total of 1,936 doses had been delivered via in-reach to the disability residential sector. This amounted to 0.85 per cent of the total 226,934 doses administered to 29 April 2021 via the in-reach program.” And nobody knew.
We were entitled to know. We were also entitled to a greater-than-token effort to solve the logistical problems and, to whatever degree it was possible, keep us safe. But at the very least, we were entitled to know.