Scott Morrison has offered a qualified apology for failures in managing the risk of Covid-19 in aged care, saying he is “deeply sorry” about the times when the response may have fallen short.
As his government faces mounting pressure over aged care outbreaks, the prime minister went on the defensive, saying he and everyone involved in the frontline response were working their hardest “to ensure that Australians are not let down during this period”.
Speaking on a day when the total number of deaths in residential aged care in Australia passed 200, Morrison said: “The sad truth is, some days, we fall short.”
Morrison said there were “no absolute guarantees in a global pandemic” and that the country as a whole was “moving heaven and earth” to deal with those unprecedented circumstances.
When asked whether he was conceding that the pandemic had gotten the better of the commonwealth’s response in aged care facilities, and whether the affected families were owed an apology, Morrison answered in broader terms.
“On the days that the system falls short, on the days that expectations are not met, I’m deeply sorry about that, of course I am, and I know that everyone who is involved in the process who is trying to meet those expectations is equally sorry.”
Morrison said he was offering the Australian people “simple honesty” that there were good days and bad days. He said the government was “devastated” by those bad days, but it “motivates us to try to ensure that those issues don’t arise again”.
Morrison also used the media event to push back at strong criticisms aired this week at the royal commission into aged care – an inquiry originally established by Morrison himself.
The counsel assisting the royal commission, Peter Rozen QC, accused the federal government of displaying “a degree of self-congratulation and even hubris” in the crucial months between the Newmarch House outbreak in April and the developing situation in Victoria in mid-June. Rozen also criticised the federal government over the lack of an aged care-specific coronavirus plan.
Rejecting those “assertions”, Morrison said preparations had been made since January and it was wrong to claim the government had no plan.
“Where there have been failings, where things are fallen short, I can assure you it wasn’t as a result of complacency,” Morrison said.
“Those who are doing a professional job each and every day are doing the best job they possibly can, and so, no, I don’t accept that reflection that was made against all of those hard-working people.
“That has not been the attitude of our government and will not be.”
Labor called on the government to immediately act on the advice of the royal commissioner, Tony Pagone QC, who said on Thursday that the government should create an aged care-specific national coordinating body.
The opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, said aged care was a federal responsibility and Morrison needed to take responsibility. He said the federal government had been too focused on responding to events, rather than preventing outbreaks in the first place.
“I must say, when I think of what is going on in aged care facilities at the moment, some of the stories that I am hearing and the pictures that we are seeing, my heart is shredded,” Albanese told reporters.
But at the earlier media conference, Morrison sounded like he was not about to take up the national coordinating body proposal. The prime minister pointed to the aged care response centre the government had established in Victoria last month.
The acting chief medical officer, Prof Paul Kelly, said the national cabinet was considering how to replicate that response centre in other states and territories if needed – but he indicated the focus remained on Victoria.
“Rather than looking at a national one well away from the action, we are going to straight where the action is required and dealing with those matters,” Kelly said.
Earlier, the Australian health department’s top bureaucrat, Prof Brendan Murphy, used his appearance before a Senate committee to reject claims of a lack of planning and to insist that the commonwealth was now “actively looking at what else we can do”.
The royal commission heard evidence on Wednesday from Prof Joseph Ibrahim, of Monash University’s forensic medicine department, who said he believed Australia’s rate of death in residential aged care was more than 68% – the second-highest in the world behind Canada at 80%.
Addressing the Senate’s Covid-19 committee on Friday, Murphy said that was an “extraordinary” interpretation of statistics. He said deaths had affected 0.1% of aged care residents in Australia, compared with 5% in the UK.
“Every death is an absolute tragedy ... but to interpret a percentage of an extremely low death rate as an example of poor aged care management is simply not defensible,” said Murphy, the former chief medical officer, who is now secretary of the health department.
“We find that a very misleading conclusion and we reject that it represents a pejorative assessment of our aged care.”
Labor senator Kristina Keneally challenged Murphy over his statement that Covid-19 had claimed the lives of 0.1% of residents in aged care in Australia, suggesting that sounded “like a degree of self-congratulation”.
“That 0.1% was not in any way self-congratulatory,” Murphy replied.
“It was merely to try and point out the context of the somewhat ludicrous conclusion that the percentage of deaths in aged care of all of the deaths was somehow by intentional comparisons bad.
“I don’t for a minute underestimate the horrible tragedy of every single death and we are absolutely devastated by it. Every day we look at death statistics and we are deeply shocked and deeply concerned, so I think it’s a very unfair characterisation to claim that.”
Pressed on the claim that authorities were not prepared for aged care even now, he said: “Respectfully I would disagree with counsel assisting ... I’m saying we’re actively looking at what else we can do.”
The Covid-19 Senate committee chair, Katy Gallagher, said the statements from the counsel assisting were “a pretty damning indictment on the preparation for aged care outbreaks”.
Murphy said he had attended the royal commission earlier this week “aiming to discuss what we could do better, but we ended up discussing an interpretation of statistics and whether or not a plan was a plan”.
Murphy pointed to the investment of $850m in workforce surge, training, personal protective equipment, first responders and testing.
“We are certainly not arrogant or we don’t show hubris. We know that what’s happening in Victoria is absolutely tragic, which is why we have a large team in the Victorian response centre working very closely with the Victorian Department of Health.”
Murphy said he met with the prime minister and ministers every morning to discuss the Victorian aged care outbreaks.
“It is a serious concern for government and it is a tragic situation which we had hoped would not occur,” he said. “We are responding to it but I do take issue, respectfully, with the conclusions of counsel assisting.”