The federal government did not have a plan to specifically deal with the elderly in aged care homes during the COVID-19 crisis last year, the head of Anglicare says.
Anglicare CEO Grant Millard appeared before a NSW parliamentary inquiry into registered nurses in aged care homes on Monday.
Anglicare runs 23 aged care homes in NSW, including Newmarch House in western Sydney, where 19 elderly residents died last year during an an outbreak at the facility that ran rampant in March and April.
A total of 34 staff and 37 residents from Newmarch House were diagnosed with COVID-19 during the outbreak. Of the 37 positive residents, 19 died during the outbreak.
Mr Millard told the inquiry how the organisation struggled to contain the virus, saying there was no adequate plan in place to deal with the crisis.
"The Commonwealth did not have an operation plan for aged care, it was relying on a health care plan - they did not have an aged care specific plan," he said.
With the benefit of hindsight Anglicare's plan also "was not adequate", he said.
"It was based on the understanding that COVID-19 was something like influenza, but it's clearly not," he said.
When the first case was diagnosed last March, there was a desperate shortage of personal protective equipment and "substantial confusion over where to get it" as NSW Health "pushed back" against repeated requests for the vital supplies from the national stockpile.
"There was a huge concern about community transmission at the time, but our experience was it was frustrating and difficult to get access," he said.
Mr Millard said the NSW government was not proactive in providing PPE and "we had to request it ... it was a constant struggle ... frustrating and difficult."
He was suspicious that aged care was not considered the top priority as the government struggled to balance the "tremendous responsibility to cover the interests of the entire community", he said.
However, he did not think there was any "evidence of ageism ... but I believe at the time there was great concern to keep COVID positive cases in Newmarch House and not risk contamination beyond that place", he said.
He detailed a dire shortage of staff during the crisis as 90 per cent of the workforce had to go on leave within a week of the outbreak as they either became infected with COVID-19 or were in contact with someone who had.
However, he revealed Anglicare was currently in the process of restructuring to reduce staff numbers.
Although the facilities were not over-staffed, Anglicare needed to reduce staff numbers because the organisation was operating at a $20 million loss per annum.
"It is an issue of financial sustainability and viability," Mr Millard said.
Anglicare hoped to make the cuts in servery staff and administration as well as catering staff costs.
Mr Millard acknowledged the final report of the aged care royal commission identified unacceptably low levels of staffing as the key contributor to substandard care across the system.
"It's not what it should be, clearly," he said.
"I think the government is on notice and they need to respond with significant funding," he said.
"Am I comfortable with reducing the number of hours? No I am not. That is not the way we want to go," he said.