Calls for Disability Royal Commission to hold emergency hearing into Omicron wave

Posted 2 years ago by Anna Christian
The newest pandemic wave caused by the Omicron variant is causing widespread health, safety and accessibility issues for Australians with disability. [Source: Shutterstock]
The newest pandemic wave caused by the Omicron variant is causing widespread health, safety and accessibility issues for Australians with disability. [Source: Shutterstock]

The Board of peak advocacy organisation People with Disability Australia (PWDA) says the “failure” of Australian governments to keep people with disability safe during the latest COVID-19 wave should be investigated by the Royal Commission into the Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability.

In an open letter released yesterday, the Board asked Commissioners of the Disability Royal Commission to hold an emergency public hearing investigating the experiences of people with disability who are trying to keep safe during the new Omicron wave.

“We note that Omicron presented unique challenges which should have been addressed by protective strategies and positive measures undertaken by Government,” says PWDA.

“We further note that people with disability and their families are still living in crisis, continue to be unprotected and have been failed by the responsible bodies charged with our care.

“We recognise the import and the worth of the previous reports published by the Disability Royal Commission following Public Hearings five and 12 and urge you to immediately convene a further hearing.”

The Board says there are growing numbers of people with disability dying from COVID-19 amidst service and market failure, in addition to a lack of access to essential support and services, including medical and health services.

According to the letter, these issues should be considered by the Royal Commission, as well as how effective Government actions have been in the 1a and 1b phases of the vaccination program and the rollout in general, including “marked gaps for First Nations persons and regional and remote Australians with disability”.

Other issues outlined in the letter include the lack of “adequate, accessible and affordable” COVID-19 testing – both Rapid Antigen Testing (RAT) and Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) testing – and the lack of adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) provided for people with disability who are considered at greater risk from the virus.

PWDA adds that the Government has failed to ensure information is accessible to all Australians and there are barriers to accessing income support and essential services, like Telehealth, which people with disability have experienced.

The letter calls for consideration of whether it is appropriate to require people with disability to fulfil mutual obligations and other requirements to receive JobSeeker or Disability Support Pension (DSP) payments during the outbreak, as well as the lack of safety protections and accessibility measures taken to ensure students with disability can continue their education.

The Board is calling for the Royal Commission to consider whether the reduction of funding to National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) participants put them at further risk and whether the decisions of States and Territories to open borders without putting protection measures in place has endangered people with disability and their families.

Another area that the PWDA Board wants to be covered is whether policies that have “actively deprioritised” people with disability in health systems fail to comply with Australia’s international obligations, and if Governments have collected and shared the appropriate data as per the international Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The PWDA Board hopes a Royal Commission hearing will lead to action to improve all of these issues.

“We respectfully ask you, our Royal Commissioners, to turn your attention to this emergency and take action before it is too late,” PWDA says.

“The number of people with disability who have been lost to COVID-19 and preventable death is steadily increasing and we fear that the situation will worsen without urgent measures.”

While the Royal Commission says it has not received direct communication from PWDA, the Commission says it is aware of the open letter.

The Royal Commission’s response stopped short of committing to an emergency hearing, but it confirmed the Commission has been hearing from people with disability about the challenges of COVID-19, through submissions and private sessions.

According to the Commission, the views of people with disability, their support networks and advocates are taken “very seriously”.

“The Royal Commission is also well aware that serious concerns have been expressed by a number of organisations and people with disability themselves about the impact of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 on people with disability,” the Commission says.

“The Royal Commission has been working actively to gather information which will allow it to respond appropriately to the current circumstances…[and] recognises the urgency of the issues that have been raised by PWDA and other organisations.”

Two previous reports, with recommendations for the Government about limiting the impact of COVID-19 for people with disability, were cited by the Royal Commission in its response, to highlight the work already done in its hearings; the Report on the Experiences of people with disability during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the Final Commissioner’s Report of Public hearing 12 on the experiences of people with disability in the context of the Australian Government’s approach to the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.