Are there serious repercussions to Government proposing compulsory ‘flu vaccination for aged care workers?

The government is proposing the implementation of compulsory ‘flu vaccination for aged care workers. This follows a statement from the Minister for Health, Greg Hunt. He described as ‘a deadly outbreak’ the occurence of the virus at a number of facilities around the country. In fact, this follows news that 6 people died in a Tasmanian nursing home flu outbreak.

Several residents dead

This investigation follows the deaths of 7 elderly residents at St John’s Retirement Village in Wangaratta, Victoria. Further, there are reports of fatalities from flu at Strathdevon aged care in Tasmania. For now, no other data was released about where other deaths might have occurred. “The Chief medical Officer will work with the aged care bodies and the aged care industry, but we’ve already seen from the sector an overwhelming request and support for the initiative,” Mr Hunt said.

Moreover, the report also states that a deadly outbreak of the virus has occurred at a number of facilities around the country. In fact, Federal Minister for Aged Care, Ken Wyatt, said any loss of life in aged care was a concern. He said this was particularly the case when the cause was influenza. “I would encourage people to get vaccination or a ‘flu injection, especially if you work in places with people who are vulnerable” he said. Further, the Minister said “I implore people to give serious consideration to staying away or wearing a mask”.

Mr Hunt said he wanted the compulsory vaccinations in place “By next year’s ‘flu season”

The report says that Health Minister Greg Hunt has requested Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, Prof Brendan Murphy, to investigate. He has asked for ways to ensure all aged care workers are properly vaccinated against ‘flu. Further, the Minister said “I will work with the medical authorities, healthcare workers and the aged care providers on how we can make it compulsory for those working in aged care facilities“.

Possible serious repercussions for aged care

It is important to ask some questions about the repercussions of compulsory vaccination such as:

  1. What effect will the government’s proposed mandatory ‘flu vaccination have on aged care providers?
  2. Who will meet the costs of compulsory ‘flu vaccination?
  3. What will the knock on effects be on people such as family members and visitors at aged care homes?
  4. Will everyone entering aged care homes be vetted for ‘flu vaccination?

Furthermore, since residents in aged care facilities are not obligated to have the flu vaccine themselves, what will be achieved by a forced vaccination of staff members?

The Minister went on to say “We cannot continue to have a situation where people, whose immunity is already low, are at risk from others who may be infected. Our job is to protect those who need our care.”

Under the law, there is currently no requirement for aged care workers to be vaccinated. However, under the duty of care laws, aged care providers must provide the safest possible environment for both their residents and carers.

Duty of Care vs. obligation to vaccinate

This raises the serious question of the definition & interpretation of the government’s duty of care to all Australians. After all, to our knowledge, no previous government in Australia has undertaken this type of action. Under the law, there is currently no requirement for aged care workers to be vaccinated. However, under the duty of care laws, aged care providers must provide the safest possible environment for both their residents and carers.

‘Flu vaccination provided free

In 2017, more than 4.5 million doses of the influenza vaccine were provided at no cost to Australians who were most at risk from the ‘flu. Plus, under the national immunisation programme, the people eligible for free flu shots include people aged 65 years and over. Further, this includes most aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Additionally, it is free to people suffering from chronic conditions.

Urgent review of aged care facilities ordered

Aged Care Minister, Ken Wyatt, has instructed the Australian Aged Care Quality Agency to conduct an urgent review into the practices of all aged care facilities. Further, he stated “Older people are always vulnerable to the flu, but the many deaths this year are unacceptable”.

Government’s aim to protect our vulnerable elderly is laudable, but…

That in turn raises questions about who will be a part of this review? Also, what is it’s scope and how engaged will aged care providers be? After all, they are at the coalface of these issues. Surely a broad industry consultation must form part of this review?

The Australian Medical Association’s comments appear to contradict the Government’s plans

The Australian Medical Association’s Lorraine Baker said mandatory vaccinations would be a difficult measure to achieve. “Patients in nursing homes have the right to refuse vaccination,” she said. “I’m a GP, I go to nursing homes, I had patients who refused to have the ‘flu vaccine … one of those did in fact get the ‘flu.”

Is this an example of a flaw in the Government’s strategy? Is the long term goal to immunise every Australian compulsorily? Whilst the Government’s aim to protect our vulnerable elderly is laudable, their approach appears to raise many new questions.

It will be interesting to see how the Australian Aged Care Quality Agency review is conducted and what findings it presents, considering the issues raised in this article.

Recommended reading and Links

You can find a copy of Minister Hunt’s influenza press release or download a printable .pdf version of Minister Hunt’s influenza press release.

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