Management of a Melbourne nursing home where 45 residents died from COVID-19 has been described as “begrudging” in the help they offered those trying to replace furloughed staff.
St Basil’s Home for the Aged lost all of its staff after they were declared close contacts in July last year during Victoria’s second wave coronavirus outbreak.
An inquest into their deaths by Victorian State Coroner John Cain heard those trying to fill more than 60 shifts on short notice didn’t feel the home’s operators were fully co-operating.
Neil Callagher, who headed up the Commonwealth’s Aged Care COVID-19 Implementation Branch, was charged with finding replacement staff and said the operators were resistant to vacating the service.
“There was never a circumstance in a meeting I was in with St Basils management that I felt they were ever on board with the proposal. They begrudgingly gave assistance,” he told the inquest on Wednesday.
Callagher said he struggled with getting the information he needed to help fill shifts and believed he could have made headway quicker if information was received more quickly.
“We were continually behind the eight ball,” he said.
He didn’t support the Victorian Government’s decision – signed off by Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton – to replace all staff either, but said he got on with and engaged private provider Aspen Medical under a multi-million dollar commonwealth contract.
Callagher told the inquest he needed at least 66 staff to cover shifts on July 22 last year, and believed on the day of July 21 that it was going to be possible.
Late in the day he said Aspen Medical revealed that wouldn’t be the case.
“I appreciate it’s not a pretty picture. We’ll be back on deck early tomorrow to try and pull people to serve St Basil’s,” an Aspen Medical staffer told Callagher in an email at 6.30pm.
Minutes later Callagher sent a terse reply.
“Not just ugly, completely inadequate,” he said.
He wanted Aspen to continue working through the evening to fill shifts due to start at 7am.
“To me, in the circumstances, that was unacceptable given the nature of the contract and the services that we expected them to provide,” Callagher told the inquest.
The Commonwealth struggled to find agency staff to replace furloughed nurses and personal care attendants, with people becoming increasingly reluctant to work at COVID-19 infected sites.
He said a $300 sign-on bonus being offered was inadequate, adding other aged care providers without COVID-19 cases were also offering bonuses.
Aspen Medical ultimately did provide a number of staff, including registered nurses but the inquest heard they were inexperienced graduates.
Callagher said it was highlighted to him that those nurses “weren’t the most experienced they had”.
But he said he couldn’t recall being told that using them was high risk because they were only recent graduates.
The inquest is continuing.