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Royal commission to hold special hearing into ‘very low’ rates of vaccinations in disability sector

The royal commission will probe the government’s approach to vaccinating disability accommodation residents and staff in a special hearing.

It comes after the federal health department revealed earlier this month that only 93 of Australia’s approximately 6,000 residential disability facilities had been able to access a COVID-19 vaccine, despite residents and staff being included in phase 1A.

The department attributed the low numbers to the need to prioritize residential aged care.

Chair of the royal commission Ronald Sackville QC said the 17 May hearing was called after advocates and people with disabilities expressed concern that they had “not necessarily been given the priority that was indicated in the government’s strategy”.

“We know that the numbers and proportion of people with disability [in disability accommodation] and disability support workers [who have received the vaccine]… are meager,” Mr. Sackville told SBS News.

“So all of that combines indicates that there may be issues that are worth being investigated by us.”

He said he was not in a position to judge the efficacy of the rollout so far, and the purpose of the hearing was to ascertain the facts and make findings if warranted.

Last week an NSW disability support worker told SBS News she was living in “pure anxiety” over the pandemic, fearing she could inadvertently pass the virus on to the vulnerable people she worked with.

“I know that all the people I care for would not survive COVID-19 because it’s difficult enough for them to access medical treatment. And the thought of doing that would absolutely break me,” Joanna said. “I don’t know what I would do.”

Joanna, who didn’t wish to use her surname, said she had actively sought information on how she could access the vaccine as entitled under phase 1A but had so far been unsuccessful.

The disability royal commission earlier welcomed the government’s decision to prioritize people in disability residential care and their staff according to the inquiry’s recommendations.

The special hearing follows an earlier report by the Royal Commission on Violence, Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation of People with Disability that identified fundamental federal government failings in meeting the needs of people with disabilities in the early months of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the government is yet to announce its response to a request from Mr. Sackville for a 17-month extension for the commission to complete its work, first requested in October’s interim report. If granted, the final report would be handed down on 29 September 2023 – almost a year and a half after the original deadline.

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