6 October 2021

Commonwealth failure to mandate disability worker vaccination 'extremely disappointing'

| Genevieve Jacobs
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Rachel Stephen-Smith

Minister for Health Rachel Stephen-Smith has urged the Commonwealth to introduce a vaccination mandate for disability support staff. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith has criticised the Commonwealth Government for failing to adequately protect the disability community by mandating vaccination for workers in the sector, particularly in high-risk settings like residential care homes.

Disability workers are not currently included on the list of mandated occupations for vaccination in the ACT. Senator Linda Reynolds is the minister responsible for the NDIS and the National Disability Insurance Scheme Act and exercises statutory powers, including making NDIS rules and directing the NDIA.

Ms Stephen-Smith used today’s press briefing to express her frustration that the matter wasn’t being dealt with at National Cabinet level where the Commonwealth could agree to legislate on screening workers for vaccination under the NDIS Act.

The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee continues to work on the issue, which had been expected to come before National Cabinet on 1 October but has been delayed.

Ms Stephen-Smith said while the matter was complex for individual jurisdictions, it was open to the Commonwealth to use its powers under the act, but it had “steadfastly completely refused to take this step”.

The Commonwealth’s powers would not capture all disability workers but would capture residential care settings, day programs and other activities managed by registered providers under the NDIA. The ACT was considering options that might be available to protect people living with disabilities from the virus.

READ MORE ACT Budget: $500 million boost to core health services, $90 million to COVID-19 response

Vaccination rates in the disability sector lag behind the community in general, despite being higher on average in the ACT than in many other jurisdictions. People living with disabilities are significantly more likely to suffer severe illness if they contract COVID-19.

The ACT Government has been attempting to reach the disability community through various means, including in-reach vaccination clinics and an access and sensory clinic at the Weston Creek walk-in centre.

“We can see Canberrans with a disability coming forward for vaccination, but these numbers still sit behind the wider community and that is really concerning”, Ms Stephen-Smith said.

Among the Territory’s NDIS clients, 76.9 per cent have had their first dose of vaccine and 59.6 per cent are fully vaccinated, while across the community in general, 95 per cent of Canberrans have had an initial vaccine dose and 66 per cent are fully vaccinated.

“To be quite frank, public health directions are not a long term solution to this problem,” Ms Stephen-Smith said, describing the Commonwealth’s lack of action as “extremely disappointing”.

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The issue of vaccination for both workers and people living with a disability is complex because care often takes place in private residential home and the minister described “real challenges” around an individual’s right to determine who visits their homes.

She said the disability community was entitled to know whether a care worker was vaccinated and people could elect to refuse care from an unvaccinated worker. Vaccination across the sector would significantly reduce risks for everyone, given that even fully vaccinated people could transmit the virus during the close contact required in disability care.

Peak health bodies have requested that vaccinations mandates be considered for a number of other health workers in the future, including allied health providers.

Ms Stephen-Smith said this could also be challenging because many allied health providers worked for smaller privately owned independent operators, often providing services in people’s homes. She said it is open to private employers to require their own staff to be vaccinated.

“We are actively considering what we should do and how we should do it”, Minister Stephen Smith said. “It is disappointing that this is not prioritised as a National Cabinet item by the Prime Minister.

“This reflects the ongoing attitude to supporting people with a disability that continues to be extremely disappointing, not taking up their responsibility to get people vaccinated early in Phase 1a and now putting this issue on the back burner”, she said.

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This article is bizarre, as is Rachel Stephen-Smith’s claim that she is disappointed. She’s guilty of the same thing.

The ACT has not mandated vaccines for ANYONE. Not any medical staff. The CHO has still not issued the mandate that the ACT Govt said was coming. What’s more, the recent “news” about the ACT mandating jabs for medical staff was not for jabs, but for consulting the unions about how they felt about jabs being mandated. And this ‘proposed’ mandate was not for every single person working in a health setting – but the AHPPC policy was explicitly for everyone working in a healthcare setting.

How ridiculous for the ACT to criticise the Feds when they refuse to get their own shop in order, almost as if this was a ploy to distract

Personally, I’m 100% in favour of mandating vaccinations for anyone who cared for vulnerable people. It’s a Duty of Care responsibility to protect those who you care for.
That said, is the Minister just playing politics? We already have 95.1% of over 12s vaccinated (first jab) and the Chief previously suggested that the ACT’s Human Rights Charter could cause difficulties with things like mandating vaccinations and Vaccination Passports.

Why has the Commonwealth declined to order workers to be vaccinated?
The ACT Health Minister is clearly prepared to sacrifice our liberties in exchange for her perception of temporary security. The easy thing for state and territory government officials is to wield coercive powers, lock down places, adopt discriminatory policies and wag their fingers at those who don’t. The right thing, the courageous thing and the harder thing, is to maintain policies that preserve liberties, even if lives are lost. That is showing strength and leadership for a higher purpose.
John F. Kennedy said it was the responsibility of free peoples to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship … to assure the survival and the success of liberty”.
Mandatory vaccinations and “Show me your papers” is a dangerous and difficult to reverse slide into totalitarianism. Vaccine passports, the limiting of rights to only the vaccinated, loss of freedom of movement, removal of the ability to remain employed and to provide for one’s family and all the other restrictive systems now being so shrilly called for are inherently discriminatory. Unless they are criminals, excluding members of our community from participating in society is morally wrong.
We elect politicians to improve society and protect freedoms that our ancestors bequeathed to us. Our generation are now caretakers of liberty and we have a heavy responsibility to those who will inherit the framework of the society we leave behind.
Elected government officials must educate and encourage, while preserving individual liberties. A failure to attain desired outcomes is a failure of leadership, not reason to implement more and more restrictive and mandatory policies.
Out of choice I am vaccinated. Protecting freedom of choice is essential to a democracy.

I agree. In the past governments have forced our citizens to risk their lives to protect our freedom via conscription. Now we have a situation where it is from within our country that we are at the greatest risk of loosing hard won freedoms.

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