An inquest into a deadly COVID-19 outbreak at a Melbourne aged care home has heard federal public servants decided to replace staff at the home despite doctors’ warnings it was a dangerous move.
The inquiry into 50 deaths at St Basil’s Home for the Aged in Fawkner, during the state’s second outbreak in 2020, opened today (Monday) with the names of each of those who died read out in court.
Victorian State Coroner John Cain will spend the next five weeks hearing from 65 witnesses about how the virus got into the home and how it spread among residents.
In an opening statement counsel assisting Peter Rozen QC said staff at the home were furloughed on July 22 after potentially being exposed to the virus, but the federal health department was unable to find sufficient staff to replace them.
He said public servants in Canberra who had never been to St Basil’s were making decisions about staffing “in the teeth of very clear warning from doctors who are caring for those same residents”.
One doctor involved in the response, Dr Rabin Sinnappu, warned that replacing all of the regular St Basil’s staff would result in disaster, while another described it as a “shocking” idea.
Rozen said there were too few replacement staff to look after 100 elderly and frail people during the outbreak, and although a number of the new workers went “above and beyond”, the circumstances were impossible.
He also explained the delay between the notification of the first COVID case at the home on July 9, and test results becoming available on July 17, was a root cause of the failure to contain the outbreak.
The first witness to give evidence is Christine Golding whose mother Efraxia, 84, caught the virus at the home.
She has testified that before the outbreak, St Basil’s had provided good, culturally appropriate care for her mother, but described conditions later on as “horrible”.
The inquest will also hear evidence from aged care staff who will describe medications left on the floor, and people who had died being wheeled out of the home without any attempt to shield other residents.
Forty-five residents died from coronavirus, but the inquest is also covering five other deaths at the home during the same period.
The brief of evidence runs for more than 7000 pages and is set to include a report by infectious diseases expert Dr Ian Norton.