Fewer than 1,000 people with disability in Australia’s residential care facilities have been vaccinated, despite authorities saying the rollout would ramp up in late April.
At a disability royal commission hearing on Monday, the federal health department was forced to defend the rollout for people with a disability who live in residential care and the disability support workforce.
Kate Eastman SC, the counsel assisting, asked a health department official if she accepted the rollout had been an “abject failure”.
Caroline Edwards, an associate secretary of the department, did not agree, but said: “I accept it’s been very slow and we have a lot of work to do.”
Eastman had earlier quoted figures from 6 May that suggested only 834 people with disability in residential care had been vaccinated.
This prompted the federal health minister, Greg Hunt, to offer more up-to-date disability sector-specific data on the rollout at a press conference on Monday afternoon.
From midday on Monday, 999 disability care residents and 1,527 support workers had been vaccinated, Hunt said.
Hunt said there had been 192 vaccine visits to residential care facilities, but noted people with disability could also access the jab through their GP.
Brendan Murphy, the secretary of the health department, had previously said the rollout would ramp up for those in disability care from the week of 26 April. At the same time he said Australia was still aiming to vaccinate its entire vulnerable population by mid-year.
But the commission heard there had been 746 people in disability residential care facilities vaccinated by 21 April, meaning that since then, only a further 253 people have gotten the jab.
Edwards told the commission the department now estimated there were approximately 26,000 people living in disability care.
While the total cohort figures are only estimates, it suggests a vaccination rate of less than 4%.
Eastman said on Monday the commission wanted to know “why people in disability residential care were deprioritised”, citing comments Edwards and Murphy made at a Senate inquiry hearing last month.
Both cohorts are in phase 1a, but Edwards acknowledged there was a “decision to focus the resources of the commonwealth [on] in-reach providers to aged care residents first”.
Yet Edwards denied this meant people with disability had been deprioritised. Eastman replied: “That sounds like if you are focusing on aged care, that sounds very much like prioritising aged care over disability care residents.”
Edwards said the “refocus” happened in early March and it was her decision.
“The evidence in Australia shows that during the entirety of the Australian pandemic, nine people who are NDIS participants have died of Covid – very tragic in every instance,” she said.
“I compare that to 685 Australians who died in aged care. I made a decision to prioritise those groups and I stand by it.”
Asked why the department had not told the disability and community sector about the change, Edwards acknowledged the “communication could have been better”.
Edwards also conceded that earlier in the year the department had underestimated the number of people living in residential disability settings by 20,000 people.
Eastman put it to Edwards that it was a “failure”, a “gross underestimate” and “significant error”.
“Six thousand is a lot less than the approximately 26,000 that we now understand to live in supported accommodation of two or more people,” Edwards said.
She said she believed the 190,000 initially estimated for aged care and disability care combined was also underestimated, meaning the mistake had not been confined to the disability sector.
Hunt did not provide a state-by-state breakdown of the 999 people in residential care who had received one dose, but according to the 6 May figures, only six people with disability in residential care in South Australia have received a jab, while only eight in Tasmania had gotten their first dose.
Eastman noted the government had said the data did not include people with disability or support workers who have made their own arrangements.
Overall, more than 3m Covid-19 vaccines had been administered across Australia and on Monday some adults under the age of 50 became eligible to receive their first dose.
Catherine McAlpine, the chief executive of Inclusion Australia, said she agreed with comments from other advocates that the decision to “deprioritise” disability care residents was “gobsmacking”.
“Our members have been sort of overrun with people calling or contacting them trying to find out when they might get the vaccination, or concerned that they haven’t heard anything,” she said.
McAlpine said vaccine hesitancy and misinformation was now becoming an issue in group homes.
Greg Tucker, a self-advocate who lives with an intellectual disability, said he would get the vaccine, but he noted there was a lack of specific information being provided to people like himself.
Uli Kaplan, who lives in a two-bedroom residential care unit, said he also wanted the vaccine but acknowledged he was “nervous”.
“Because there’s a lot of information coming thick and fast, very quickly, overwhelming, some of it is misinformation,” he said.
“Just get the vaccine to us,” Kaplan added. “Like, that’s it. If you want us to take it, give us the right information.”
Guardian Australia revealed last month that many disability care providers were being forced to circumvent the system and go to general practitioners to obtain vaccines for their residents, because commonwealth in-reach teams were simply not showing up.
David Moody, the chief executive of industry peak body National Disability Services, said a census of the sector conducted last year found there were about 51,000 disability workers.
He said the federal government needed to ramp up education efforts specifically for people with disabilities and support workers.