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Disability Services – Covid Safety

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Wednesday, 8 June 2022

Tags: COVID-19, Disability

Ms O'CONNOR - Minister, I want to congratulate you on taking up this portfolio and acknowledge you have a great big heart and I am pleased that you are the minister for Disability Services.

Are you able to tell the Committee what advice has been provided to disability service providers that enable them to prevent COVID-19 transmission in disability settings and provides guidance to providers that help them better protect clients?

Ms PALMER - I thank the member very much for that question and I did anticipate that you may be asking it. The Tasmanian Government is working in close collaboration with disability sector, the Australian Government, the National Disability Insurance Agency and the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the Quality and Safeguards Commission to ensure that people with disabilities and their families continue to receive the essential disability supports that they need. For NDIS participants, the NDIS has put in place a suite of measures to help participants to ensure they continue to receive the essential disability supports that they need. Information regarding the public health COVID-19 response for Tasmanians with disability is provided in the disability emergency co-ordination centre that’s situated in Health.

Ms O'CONNOR - Thank you. Certainly, when I was minister I would have taken a very firm interest in how to protect people with disabilities from a novel coronavirus and potential long-term consequences or death. I hope you're not telling the committee that there's no capacity today to provide any information on the advice that’s been given to disability service providers to protect recipients of disability services in Tasmania whether they be through the state system or the NDIS?

Ms PALMER - The Tasmanian Government has undertaken work with disability service providers to ensure that they have a business continuity plan that addresses the potential impact of COVID-19 on service delivery. Some of these plans are looking at loss of staff as a risk, including specialist skill sets, dependencies such as the use of third-party providers and service-level agreements including consumables and increase cleaning requirements.

Ms O'CONNOR - Thank you minister, I just want to get to the bottom of what advice is being provided to the services that you fund and have portfolio responsibility for, in order to protect people with disability from COVID-19?

Ms PALMER - I am going to refer this to the director. The disability emergency operations centre does work directly with disability support providers and the people with disabilities they support through outbreak preparedness response and management. The DEOC provides flexible situation of person-specific support to providers and people with disabilities. I will refer this now to the director who has some more information for you.

Ms O'CONNOR - Thank you minister. Ms Ganley, hello. I am particularly interested in whether or not any advice has been given to providers, participants or clients on how to prevent COVID-19 infection? Or is it all about business plans and continuity and what to do once people have been infected?

Ms GANLEY - No, so there's quite a lot of information available for providers and people living with disability. There is a dedicated disability page on the coronavirus website which provides information. In general, the same suggestions, strategies and rules that apply to the general population apply to people with a disability. And then there's extra precautions in terms of situations and environments that might be considered riskier and that additional advice is provided, particularly for people living in residential settings. A residential setting is identified as two or more people living in a residence together. They have particular guidelines that are available and that have been developed in conjunction with the Australian Government. So, there's been a lot of work nationally and there is a national advisory group with people with lived experience providing that feedback. It is very much about how to stay safe, which is the same information given to the general population, so it is about social distancing. If you can't social distance, it's wearing masks. It's washing your hands, sanitising your hands. Staying away if you are unwell. Then also working with the support providers to ensure that they can support the individual if they are unwell. It all works through.

Ms O'CONNOR - Thank you, Ms Ganley. The Greens would argue that the rules that apply to the general population might not be effective enough for people living with a disability, given particular levels of vulnerability, comorbidities.

Can you confirm that the advice that's been given to disability service providers - and I think that's what I saw on the website - relates to preventing transmission through preventing droplets? And that there's no advice being given to service providers to let them know that this is a confirmed airborne virus?

Ms GANLEY - We will need to check. The commission and the Department of Health issue fact-sheet alerts to providers about every time there is a change in the COVID 19 demographic and what it is, so that information is certainly communicated.

Ms O'CONNOR - I have now had a good look again at the Coronavirus website as it relates to information for people with disability. There is also information there for disability support workers. I can confirm that there is nothing on the page for people with disability that relates to the wearing of masks at all. In fact, this page is largely about what to do once you become infected.

I know of people who receive in-home support, who have been confronted by support workers turning up unmasked and entering their home, because there is no requirement from Public Health for workers to wear a mask. Then, on the advice to disability support workers, there is only advice on vaccination requirements. There is nothing there, no guidance for disability support workers on how to prevent infecting someone else. There is an acknowledgement that people with a disability can have particular vulnerabilities; but there is nothing there for either workers or those who receive supports on how to prevent infection. Do you think that is good enough? I sure don't.

Ms PALMER - I thank the member for the question. I will have to take a close look at the information.

Ms O'CONNOR - I beg of you to do that.

Ms PALMER - My understanding is that directives are taken from Public Health. I will seek some advice and clarification on one point.

Ms O'CONNOR - I ask this question out of a real deep concern for people with disability and people I love with disability.

Ms PALMER - I have sought some advice and my understanding is that in high risk settings, there is a requirement to wear a mask. Certainly, I can make an undertaking to have a look at the website you are looking at.

Ms O'CONNOR - Thank you.

Ms PALMER - The Australian Government's management and operational plan for people with disability was launched in response to COVID-19. This plan provides high level operational guidance on managing and preventing the transmission of COVID-19 for people with disabilities, their families, their carers -

Ms O'CONNOR - Based on droplet transmission.

CHAIR - Ms O'Connor, please let the minister answer the question.

Ms PALMER - workers and the disability and health care sectors. At every stage, we have followed the advice of Public Health, and my understanding is that in high risk settings, there is a requirement to wear a mask.

Ms O'CONNOR - Okay, thank you for that answer, minister. On the Coronavirus website, under the section that says 'workers who provide high intensive supports' it talks about the different types of high intensity supports and then it only tells these workers whether or not they are required to be vaccinated under this direction. There is nothing on the Coronavirus Public Health website that provides guidance to disability support workers in relation to mask wearing. Honestly, I am stunned that our own Public Health officials are not providing the most scientific, up-to-date, and effective information to people who live with a disability, or who work with people who live with a disability, because there is very little, apart from vaccination, that is provided by Public Health to people in these sectors to prevent infection.

You said earlier that you would have a look at this on the website. I encourage you very strongly to ask Public Health for a briefing, including asking them to detail to you what protections are in place to prevent the infection of some of our most vulnerable people, and why there is not advice being provided about mask-wearing, for example, for people with disabilities, and for support workers. Will you do that?

Ms PALMER - I have no issue whatsoever with meeting with Public Health to get a more in-depth briefing from them, but I have to reiterate, and it is important for the record to state, that anyone who is working in a high-risk setting should be wearing a mask. That includes my mother, who is in the situation where she has different carers coming into her home and they wear a mask, she wears a mask, and we ensure that happens. That is already a directive of Public Health, but I would very much appreciate a briefing with Public Health around what is happening in the disability space.

Ms O'CONNOR - Thank you, minister. Do you agree, on the basis of the available scientific evidence, that it is highly desirable - in fact, necessary - for the advice that Public Health provides to people with disability to include that masks are a very effective way to prevent infection and transmission? Do you agree, if a person with a disability goes to the website and says "ok, how do I keep myself safe," they should have the most up-to-date and effective advice, which includes if you want to protect yourself, wear a mask - because that is not on the Public Health website.

Ms PALMER - I have committed to you today that I will meet with Public Health to make sure that I am across this and to get an in-depth briefing from them. I have also committed to you that I will look at that website, and that is something that the director and I will do together. We are a new partnership, but we are very keen to work together. I have made those two commitments to you.

Ms O'CONNOR - I will follow that up with you, minister.