Federal Health Department Secretary Brendan Murphy has admitted some COVID deaths in aged care might have been prevented if there had been a quicker public health response.
Murphy, Chief Medical Officer until mid year, told the COVID Senate committee “if the public health response had been more prompt, then we might have avoided some of the scale of the outbreaks in Victoria”.
He said some of the spread among facilities might have been avoided if the federal-state Victorian Aged Care Response Centre (initiated by the Commonwealth) had been stood up earlier – “if we’d been aware, had prior warning, that the public health response may have been compromised”.
It was not possible to say what proportion of aged care deaths could have been prevented, he said.
“As we have said on many occasions, once you had widespread community outbreaks, wide aged care outbreaks and unfortunately, deaths, particularly of people who are very frail and close to end of life, are inevitable.
“But quite likely that with the benefit of hindsight and responding with a response centre … a little bit earlier, we may well have been able to prevent some of the spread.”
Murphy was treading on sensitive ground for the federal government. Aged care is a federal responsibility. The states have responsibility for public health (although the Commonwealth, under the constitution has a quarantine power).
Murphy, who was still giving evidence, later reacted following the chair of the senate committee, Labor’s Katy Gallagher, tweeting:
He disputed Gallagher’s interpretation, stressing to the committee that the federal government acted as soon as it was aware the public health response was failing, and that it was not in a position to act earlier.
He described the public health response as “a partnership”.
Murphy also said the minutes of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee were confidential because it is a committee of the national cabinet.
On Wednesday the inquiry into COVID in aged care, done by the aged care royal commission, will be presented to the governor-general. It will be publicly released this week