People with disability 'at risk' due to acute staff shortages across Australia

Staff shortages in the disability sector in Australia have gone from bad to worse due to a dearth of rapid antigen test kits and long queues at COVID-19 PCR testing sites.

William Grier (centre), who lives with Down Syndrome, with mother Sue.

William Grier (centre), who lives with Down Syndrome, with mother Sue and father William. Source: Supplied

Thousands of disability support workers are calling in sick or isolating, leading to acute staff shortages in the disability sector.

“Support workers are under severe pressure,” disability advocate Michael Metcalfe told SBS News.

“People can’t access rapid antigen tests. There are issues with queuing for PCR tests and delays in achieving results. So people [with disability] are being left isolated. They’re not able to access their normal support services,” he said.

Mr Metcalfe is the founder and CEO of Kynd, an online platform which matches disability support workers with National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) participants.

He said the entire healthcare and disability system was under strain well before COVID-19, but the onset of Omicron has exacerbated the situation.

“In recent days, with the surge of cases across Australia, our website and phone service have received a 110 per cent increase in people just desperate to find a support worker … We’ve never seen this level of sudden demand.”

As a result, Mr Metcalfe said, “A lot of support work will shift to those requiring critical and complex care. It may mean other people, whose needs are less complex, [may experience] a disruption to their services.”

One person experiencing a disruption in services is William Grier.

About 10 disability support workers tend to the 36-year-old, who lives with Down Syndrome and suffers from chest infections, in Scarborough, Queensland. But half of them are currently unavailable.

“Because they’re close contacts. They’re waiting for [PCR] tests. There are no rapid [antigen] tests available,” Mr Grier’s mother Sue, who lives in Ipswich, Queensland, told SBS News.

The federal government recently changed the definition of “close contact” – the term now applies to people who’ve been in contact for four or more hours with a confirmed COVID-19 positive case in a household setting.

Kynd founder and CEO Michael Metcalfe.

But Ms Grier doesn’t agree with that definition.

“This new ‘close contact’ definition that’s come out is ridiculous, honestly. Does it mean that if you’re working in an accommodation service for three hours and 59 minutes, COVID is not going to happen? How ridiculous is that?” Ms Grier said.

In spite of the new definition, Ms Grier said, many disability sector workers are erring on the side of caution to protect the people with disability they care for, by isolating until they have had a negative test result.

But in the absence of rapid antigen tests and with long waiting times for PCR tests, many disability support workers are not available for days.

“It’s like the government forgot to put rapid [antigen] tests and the PCR tests on the roadmap for when we open the borders, which is a shame because now there are thousands of people at risk, especially people with disability,” she said.

It is, however, not just the new definition, but constantly changing guidelines and different advice for different jurisdictions that are causing chaos in the sector, Mr Metcalfe said.

“There’s severe confusion across the different state regulations with different health directives. Things are changing every few days and people just can’t keep up.

“There’s now information about certain close contacts that are needed back out there in the workforce to keep the nation turning as well. There are confusions around 'what if I cross a state border?'” Mr Metcalfe said, adding the government needed to implement one set of guidelines across all jurisdictions to alleviate the problem.

He also said there's an immediate need for prioritisation of the available supply of rapid antigen tests.

"And ultimately there needs to be a program for PCR testing at home for people with disability who aren't able to queue for eight hours," he said.

Speaking to reporters on Monday morning from Canberra, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said necessary arrangements were already in place for the healthcare sector.

“As the case numbers continue to rise, the volume of cases will, of course, have an inevitable impact on the workforce. And so we’re looking to maximise those who can remain in the workforce,” he said.

“And that is why these arrangements are being put in place. But anyone who is symptomatic or has COVID, they are not going into work.

“And I should note that these arrangements are already in place in the aged-care sector, they’re already operating there, as they are in the health care sector,” he said.

A spokesperson for the National Disability Insurance Agency, which oversees the administration of the NDIS, said: "The NDIA recognises challenges of the coronavirus pandemic for participants and providers and the NDIA’s priority is ensuring NDIS participants continue to receive the essential disability supports they need.

"The NDIA has ... put in place a range of measures for providers to ensure the continuity of their workforce, where their normal workforce supply options may be disrupted due to COVID-19."

Published 10 January 2022 at 4:04pm, updated 10 January 2022 at 4:16pm
By Akash Arora
Source: SBS News