The Australian Services Union (ASU) is calling on National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) Minister Linda Reynolds to take urgent measures to help disability support workers get their COVID jabs after a union survey revealed only one in five is currently vaccinated.
The union survey of more than 1,000 workers in the NSW and ACT disability sector found less than 20 percent were fully vaccinated, with many workers citing concerns about the potential impact on their income and side effects of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Australian Services Union NSW and ACT Secretary, Natalie Lang, wrote to Minister Reynolds over the weekend, urging her to address these concerns.
“Workers in the disability sector do some of the most important and challenging jobs in this country, so the Federal Government has a responsibility to help them do their jobs safely,” Ms Lang says.
"For the workers who indicated they are hesitating on getting vaccinated, the main driver is concern about the potential side effects of the AstraZeneca vaccine and, frankly, you have to expect that given the mixed messaging we’ve heard from the Government this year.
“The other key driver is concern about the impact on pay, workers are worried about taking time out to be vaccinated and they’re worried about not working if they feel sick afterward.
“These are people who often don’t have any leave entitlements to dip into and constantly need to assess their day-to-day budgets.”
The disability sector is still waiting to see if the vaccines will be made mandatory for disability support workers, similar to how they were made mandatory for aged care workers.
Ms Lang says the union does not support mandatory vaccination measures for workers in the disability sector.
“Just waving a big stick at disability workers would be a lazy approach and it would likely have significant unintended consequences. The last thing we want to do is drive experienced people from this sector,” explains Ms Lang.
“People who receive disability services have the right, under the NDIS, to insist on support workers who have been vaccinated. So there’s already that safeguard built into the system.
“Fortunately, we know that with a few straightforward changes, the Government could dramatically increase vaccination rates very quickly in the disability sector.”
The recommendations from the Australian Services Union come as several large disability service providers raise concerns that many of their clients have not received a coronavirus vaccine, despite being included in the highest priority group of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.
However, speaking with ABC Radio on Thursday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison says the vaccine rollout in disability care was being completed as quickly as possible.
“We're about halfway through those residential groups and will be having in-reach services, particularly once we've been able to get two doses to every aged care facility across the country,” PM Morrison says.
“They're a highly disparate group amongst the community. They're in a lot of different places and are largely in small groups in these facilities.”
The Prime Minister was concerned the virus would sweep through vulnerable disabled and Indigenous communities, but so far, the COVID-19 virus hasn't impacted those communities as the Government had originally feared.
While Covid vaccines are not yet compulsory for workers in disability care, if vaccination rates do not improve by August, a national panel of medical experts will consider making it mandatory in high-risk settings like disability residential care.
Disability service provider takes matters into their own hands
While many service providers in the disability sector are waiting on the Government to fulfil their promise of fixing the gaps in the industry's vaccination rates, one organisation has taken matters into its own hands.
Tired of waiting for vaccines that were originally promised to people with disability and their support workers in the first phase of the national rollout, Achieve Australia has started a new vaccination push, launching its own dedicated internal campaign.
After one week of the campaign, Chief Executive of Achieve Australia, Jo-Anne Hewitt, says the organisation has already seen a rise in vaccinated staff.
“Since we launched our internal campaign [last] week, we have seen a significant increase in the number of staff vaccinated which is encouraging,” says Ms Hewitt.
Achieve Australia, like many other disability service providers, has been strongly promoting staff vaccination for months.
When it became clear the sector wasn’t having vaccine access prioritised, and was actually deprioritised by the Government so they could focus on aged care residents, it decided to launch its own dedicated internal vaccination campaign.
“The Government is not going to come to our worksites to get everybody vaccinated,” says Ms Hewitt.
“We must be our own champions and take responsibility for getting vaccinated ourselves. Our campaign encourages all staff to get vaccinated as soon as possible to protect themselves, our clients, and our colleagues from COVID.”
According to Ms Hewitt, there is widespread frustration amongst staff and the disability sector about the Government’s promise 18 months ago to arrange early mass vaccinations for those working with vulnerable people, including people with disability, has not materialised.
Ms Hewitt says the overall lack of community vaccination nationally means organisations like Achieve are still operating with a high level of precaution that directly impacts the quality of life for clients who are isolating to stay safe from COVID, especially when there are high numbers of community transmission.
Some of Achieve’s clients who can travel outside their home have vaccination dates and appointments with doctors and at vaccination hubs, but some of their most vulnerable clients are unable to travel to a vaccination hub.
Gabrielle Goodenough is particularly concerned for the health and social impact caused by delays in vaccinating people with disability.
Her brother, Luciano, lives in supported independent living and he struggles to understand why his life has been impacted over the past 18 months of the pandemic.
Ms Goodenough says their family put faith in Governments to make decisions about the whole community and were initially pleased to see people with disability categorised as a 'most vulnerable' group, and therefore a priority.
“We trusted the Government to look after our brother but clearly, we were wrong. We do not understand how they could organise medical personnel to go into nursing homes and vaccinate the clients there but have let the disability sector down so badly,” says Ms Goodenough.
“[My] brother and others he lives with are still not vaccinated, despite all the false promises the Government has made. My brother doesn’t understand ‘social distancing’. He and his housemates need the comfort and security of being vaccinated in the comfort of their own homes surrounded by the staff who know and care for them. This is a massive failure of the Government to not have looked after our people.”
Families, like Luciano’s, and organisations, such as Achieve Australia, are committed to ensuring people with disability receive access to vaccinations, but they say the broader community also needs better access.
“We encourage the community to continue to share their concerns relating to the COVID vaccination rollout with their local State and Federal Member, and to make sure they register for vaccination,” says Ms Hewitt.
“To protect our most vulnerable we need the community at large to get vaccinated.”