Australia’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout has been labelled “seriously deficient” by the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability.
The Commission has released a draft report, called Report of Public hearing 12: The experiences of people with disability, in the context of the Australian Government’s approach to the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, based on its hearings held in May.
The Commissioners say there have been three core problems with the rollout - the first being that the Department of Health failed to consult with people with disability, support workers, representative organisations and service providers.
The second problem was that the Department of Health also had a lack of transparency in its decision making which denied people with disability with the information they should have received and the third that it failed to provide information in an accessible format, according to the Commission.
The report made 17 findings, which include:
The Government did not consult or seek advice from people with disability or disability representative organisations, which it could have done as early as December 2020
The vaccine rollout strategy was framed without appreciating or addressing the challenges of administering the vaccine in residential disability settings
The Government had insufficient information about the challenges of vaccinating those in the disability priority group and has not adequately explained its failure
The Government lost an opportunity to make progress at the four week mark despite acquiring ‘core learning’ about the challenges at that point
If the Government had consulted adequately the strategy could have better protected people with disability
The Government’s decision in March 2021 to vaccinate aged care residents over disability care residents can accurately be described as deprioritising people with disability
The deprioritisation decision was made without consultation and only made public at a Senate Select Standing Committee hearing on 20 April
The Government should have considered the position of people in residential disability care facing similar risks to those in aged care
Disability organisations and people with disability were misled by the Government not making the decision public
The failure to communicate did not meet the standards of transparency which the Government should adhere to
Many people were shocked by the decision and it caused a loss of trust and confidence in the Government
Information was not provided in an accessible format and caused confusion
Uncertainty and confusion may have contributed to vaccine hesitancy among people with disability and support workers
The lack of access to information damaged the credibility of the Government
Until 6 September 2021 the Government did not publish data on the number of vaccine doses administered to people in disability residential care or NDIS participants
The vaccine rollout has not been conducted in accordance with the original strategy
The framing and conduct of the vaccine rollout strategy were seriously deficient
The draft report also made seven recommendations.
The first recommendation is to continue to prioritise people with disability in residential settings through a vaccine strategy informed by consultation and to ensure all people with disability have the opportunity to be vaccinated before restrictions are eased.
The Government is also recommended to continue to prioritise disability support workers for vaccination, ensure all people with intellectual disability are supported to be urgently vaccinated, and ensure that no State or Territory eases restrictions until all people with disability have had the opportunity to be vaccinated and all support workers are vaccinated.
Further consultation with people with disability is recommended to ensure the current vaccination pathways and information are appropriate and the Government should review language used to refer to people with disability to ensure it is appropriate.
Finally, the report recommends that the Government should prioritise clear and accessible communication for people with disability and the industry about the vaccine rollout, including targeted public education campaigns.
To view the rest of the findings and recommendations in the report, visit the Disability Royal Commission website.
SA Government admits investigation wasn't satisfactory
It has been a busy time for the Commission, which held an extra day of hearings today to get a response from the South Australian Department of Human Services (DHS) after shocking case studies were heard at public hearing 14 in June.
The case studies in the hearing included that of Mitchell, whose family received a letter threatening abuse to him; Daniel Rogers, who was neglected while living in supported accommodation, and Ann-Marie Smith, who died after being severely neglected by her carer.
Senior Counsel Assisting Kate Eastman says the Commission's findings, disputed by the Government, included that DHS failed to create an environment where Mitchell and Daniel Rogers were safe and well supported and had not accepted accountability.
The Commission believes there was not an appropriate investigation into who wrote the threatening letter about Michael and that the response to an injury sustained by Daniel was inadequate.
A legal representative for the South Australian Government, Tom Simpson, told the Commission the State accepted the investigation into the letter threatening Mitchell was not satisfactory and it had an obligation to investigate who the author was because they may have been employed by DHS.
“The State accepts that there is a reasonable prospect that the author may have been an employee of the Department, the only point we make is we don’t know that we can’t be sure of that, but the prospect of that means the State had an obligation to investigate,” says Mr Simpson.
But he said the State disputed that the letter wasn’t taken seriously and that the response wasn’t a person-centred approach.
“The issue that the State takes is really the assertion that the State or DHS did not take the letter seriously enough,” he says.
“There is more to taking that letter seriously than just the investigation.”
In relation to Daniel Rogers, Mr Simpson says the finding about inadequately investigating his injury was not the subject of evidence at the hearing and that the evidence actually was in regard to the inadequacy of reporting of the injury, which the State would have accepted.
First Nations children with disability need support to prevent them ending up in care
Last week, public hearing 16 explored the experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children with disability in out of home care..
The hearing recounted statistics that First Nations children are 10 times more likely to be in care than other children and more than a third of all children in care are First Nations, despite First Nations children only representing six percent of all children in Australia.
Witnesses in the hearing included carers who had fostered children with disability, grandmothers of children placed in care, First Nations organisations, and a 17-year-old currently in the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre who had also experienced abuse, felt institutionalised after spending years in and out of prison and attributed his disability to his experiences.
Carer Grace says a child she had cared for had been sexually abused and bullied in a group home, and had learned substance abuse in the home.
She says the child’s family members were “shut out” of decision making and not given ongoing contact with the child.
"It just seemed like once they removed the child, they removed them from their previous relationships as well," she says.
"...Money is thrown at child protection to remove kids, instead of coming alongside the families and helping to keep these families together.
"Let's support the families to keep their kids, let's put the money there."
Of the $6.9 billion spent on child protections systems across Australia, only 16 percent is used to support families.
Grace also recommended that a child coming into care should go through a health check to help identify any health conditions and have supports implemented from the beginning.
According to Hannah Blaine of the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress, children with undiagnosed disabilities are often not given the appropriate level of support.
"If a family is not offered the same level of support for their childhood disabilities, it is much more likely that that family will have a notification for something like neglect, because they can't meet the care needs of that child because the care needs are higher," Ms Blaine told the Commission.
"We absolutely see parents who are ... I would say doing their best with a child with a disability, where that child does require full-time supervision 24 hours a day ... where the child will exhibit some maladaptive behaviour related to their disabilities, where it then becomes a case where there's a notification made to child protection.
"That is more than what we would expect any family to be providing without disability-specific support. Certainly we need to have equitable access, so that the ability to provide the appropriate level of care is not a consideration for children being removed."
Commission Chair Ronald Sackville summarised that First Nations children should be supported to stay with their families and engage in their culture.
"As many witnesses have said, the principal objective should be to prevent First Nations children being removed from their families and communities in the first place," he says.
"Much of the evidence [from this hearing] shows taking First Nations children into care may mean not only a severing of ties with family and community but also ties to culture, heritage and knowledge."
The next public hearing for the Commission will be held online on October 13 and 14 and cover the health and safety of women and girls with disability.