Ministry of Health continuing rest home audits during COVID-19 lockdown prompting 'huge concern'

An aged care leader prompted a heated discussion after speaking out against the Ministry of Health for continuing rest home audits during lockdown and admitting some facilities acted on COVID-19 before officials. 

Simon Wallace, chief executive of the New Zealand Aged Care Association, told the Epidemic Response Committee he is "hugely concerned" about Ministry of Health officials carrying out the audits at a time when the elderly are particularly vulnerable. 

Wallace said while some audits have been done virtually, he mentioned a case in Northland "where auditors turned up without any PPE after they said they would" and a case in Nelson where a facility manager "was in tears because of the confrontational nature". 

Politicians were also told that rest homes often "went ahead of the ministry on some things" to try and prevent the spread of COVID-19 among the elderly. 

"We went ahead of the ministry on lockdown, we went ahead of the ministry on our 14-day isolation policy, but by and large it's been the ministry advice that our membership has followed," Wallace said. 

ACT leader David Seymour said it "sounds as if you feel the need to say you worked closely with [the Ministry of Heath] but in reality you were running a totally different programme and were running ahead of them". 

Labour MP Ruth Dyson shot back at Seymour, saying: "That's a really unfair thing to do when you've got a genuine submitter and then you distort his words to suit your agenda. That's really unfair, David."

Seymour argued he was trying to understand how aged care facilities have made decisions during the lockdown when "it appears that the Ministry of Health advice has not been adequate" and that rest homes have "made very different decisions ahead of the ministry". 

Wallace said the aged care community "will work with the ministry and we will work with the DHBs in reaching those decisions, but we will certainly put our best foot forward if we feel the advice is not right". 

He said the Ministry of Health has taken on some of the advice from aged care nurses, including the adoption of a 14-day isolation policy. But he said aged care facilities "moved ahead on things like lockdown". 

In a statement to Newshub, the Ministry of Health's group manager for quality assurance, Emma Prestidge, said the Government is aware of the "huge burden" COVID-19 has placed on the health system and the pressures affecting the aged care sector.

Prestidge said a number of audits are currently underway to gather information about the sector's response to the virus "that will help providers during this pandemic" and that where possible, these will be virtual visits using Zoom. 

"Similar technology will also be used for the ministry's rapid independent review into [aged care facility] COVID-19 clusters," she said. "This will look at the experiences providers have had preventing and managing COVID-19 and implement any learnings while we are in the pandemic."

The Chief Ombudsman is also undertaking inspections of a limited number of facilities in response to the pandemic. The Ombudsman's office is independent of the Ministry of Health. 

"Surely, now is not the time to be doing all of that," Wallace said. "Let's wait till we get through this crisis and then do it. The timing itself is insensitive." 

New Zealand's COVID-19 death toll rose to 14 on Wednesday after a woman in her 80s from the Rosewood Rest Home clusters in Christchurch died. 

Everyone who has died from the virus in New Zealand was over the age of 70.