SARAH FERGUSON: Anika Wells, welcome to the program.
ANIKA WELLS: Good to be with you.
SARAH FERGUSON: Why are people in nursing homes dying of COVID in record numbers even though we have vaccines and antivirals? What's going on?
ANIKA WELLS: Because we have record numbers of COVID cases across the country and so when those COVID numbers are up in every single cohort, that includes aged care.
There's a lot going on in aged care and I really sincerely hope that Australians feel that we are better prepared this winter than we have been for the previous two.
SARAH FERGUSON: Let's just talk about those numbers though. For all of those people who have died, were they fully vaccinated and double boosted or has their immunity been allowed to wane?
ANIKA WELLS: There would be a mix, I think, of people who are by choice unvaccinated right through to fourth dose vaccinated and the difficulty has been, I think, for our vax teams going in, getting in because as soon as there's an outbreak in a centre they can't go in. So they have to go back and back and back again.
And to that effect I have, as part of the winter plan, mandated that we are publishing vax rates from 1 August which in previous winters helped get vaccination rates up to just do everything we can.
SARAH FERGUSON: So you have the time critical information? One of the reasons we're here talking about potential reforms in aged care is because of the heart-rending stories that drove the royal commission.
Are you satisfied with the level of inspection and audit that is going on right now in aged care homes?
ANIKA WELLS: That's the feedback I've got from people who come to my mobile offices. I have done six of them since becoming a minister to make sure that I'm still hearing from people in suburban Brisbane whilst also being briefed now by department and stakeholders.
We are bringing forward the capability review of the regulator. It was something that the royal commission asked us to do and we're bringing it forward so that we can get the answers as quickly as possible for people.
SARAH FERGUSON: Do you know how many visits have been made this year so far.
ANIKA WELLS: From the regulator? I don't, I'm sorry. That's a watching brief for us. They work to best practice and I do know they're under resourced. So, I guess my answer to you would be not enough.
SARAH FERGUSON: How can you have a proper audit of what's going on right now given that appalling history if you don't know the number of visits but also you don't know what those visits are reporting?
ANIKA WELLS: Because we do bring forward the capability review. So we are going to know that sooner. That will start this year. It was projected to start next year.
So we've brought that forward because we want to know those numbers sooner. Certainly, people talk to me about the regulator all of the time.
SARAH FERGUSON: You need something, do you need something more formal than that? I understand the number of visits this year is very low compared to previous years.
ANIKA WELLS: Well, if that's the case, it's probably because what I said around the outbreaks and once there's an outbreak it's difficult to get people in safely.
But, like I said, if people have concerns about the regulator, it certainly was reviewed as part of the commission, we want to be responsive to that, you know, we want to listen and that's why based on the feedback from stakeholders in my nine weeks on the job, we have taken the decision to bring the review forward.
SARAH FERGUSON: It's true that obviously there are limitations to inspections during an outbreak but surely you would want people inspecting very quickly after an outbreak to get a good sense of what the infection control was like and where the failures are because clearly there are failures?
ANIKA WELLS: Absolutely, and that's why one of the elements of my winter plan for aged care is to boost infection control training for the states. That is something that the Federal Government can fund and so we've offered that. I've written to state counterparts to try and drive it up because we recognise more needs to be done.
SARAH FERGUSON: Let's talk about some of the things that you're going to try and bring into this sector to improve again on those awful stories that we saw that drove the royal commission.
You want to increase the minutes of care that residents get. We've spoken to aged care providers who are already so stretched that they're sending head office staff to clean toilets, cook food, change beds. What happens in those facilities if they can't find the workers?
ANIKA WELLS: That's the difficulty. We have some real great nursing homes in Australia. We have some really great people doing innovative stuff and we have things that appear on Four Corners as being the very worst possible thing you'd want to happen to your parents.
So my job is to try and lift up the people that aren't doing that by mandating those things and that's why the very first bill that went through the House this morning was the beginning of that aged care reform.
SARAH FERGUSON: Talk about that, you want to have a registered nurse in every aged care home, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We know that hospitals can't get hold of nurses so where are these nurses going to come from?
ANIKA WELLS: The number one question I'm asked, Sarah, and for good reason. Workforce shortages are endemic in aged care and in the broader care economy and I think there's no silver bullet. You would hope that someone in my job would have pulled it by now if there was.
So all I can do is pull every single policy lever available to me and that starts with a pay rise. A pay rise for aged care workers, which hopefully the commission will hand down a decision this summer, we're hoping, and then we can work through the sequencing of that next year.
But as to where they're going to come from, they're going to have to come from all over the place. They're going to have to come from pathways through our fee-free TAFE places, that was another election commitment, from the additional university places that was an election commitment.
They are going to have come back from Woolies and Coles where they went because they get paid more and are fatigued less stacking shelves, as well as places like overseas. We are looking into all of it.
SARAH FERGUSON: I suppose the issue is time, though isn't it because a number of aged care providers say they're essentially on the edge of a cliff right now. They need a pay rise now to retain staff and as you say the Fair Work decision is months away. What can you do to stop the continued exodus of people from aged care homes right now?
ANIKA WELLS: So it's all short-term desperate measures which I have been saying as this ADF situation has played out over the past week. These are extreme measures. The ADF is in aged care. No Australian would want the ADF to be in aged care. It was a desperate last-gasp measure by the Morrison government.
Since they did that in February, the Department of Health and Ageing has put together a surge workforce and that workforce is now up and running. They filled about 2,000 shifts last week, 1,900 the week before. It doesn't go to fixing all of the shifts.
There are shifts going empty, but it is the short-term measures we are doing to try and get through winter before some of the more systemic and important reform starts to kick in from October.
SARAH FERGUSON: Let me just ask you briefly about the money because we've obviously heard the Treasurer today talking about the confronting situation Australia is in and your budget is in.
Unions want a 25 per cent increase for workers, that could cost the Government more than $4 billion a year. Will you recommit to funding that full wage rise?
ANIKA WELLS: Absolutely we will. It's that important.
SARAH FERGUSON: Anika Wells, thank you very much indeed for joining us.
ANIKA WELLS: Good to be with you.