As Victorian health authorities rush to stem the outbreak of coronavirus in residential facilities for people with disabilities, the royal commission into violence, neglect and exploitation of disabled people is set to hear distressing evidence about the impact of the pandemic on disabled Australians.
Speaking ahead of the hearings, the royal commission's chairman Ronald Sackville AO QC said the commission had been overwhelmed with calls to its hotline since the pandemic hit Australia.
As of Monday there were 81 active cases of coronavirus linked to residential disability accommodation, which is emerging as a source of vulnerability for transmission in a similar way to that of aged care facilities.
At one facility in Melbourne, Hambleton House, residents were being moved to hospitals after more than a dozen cases of the virus were recorded there.
People with a disability are more vulnerable to be infected with the disease, due to comorbidities and existing health issues, but Commissioner Sackville said some of the issues of vulnerability that had been experienced in the aged care sector were also coming to the fore in the disability sector.
"People with disabilities are often very dependent on service providers, carers, who come into the place where they're living," he said.
"Quite often that involves a succession of people, because of the casualisation of staff, so the people with disability thus feel they are exposed to greater risk because they don't know where the carers or service providers have been in the period before they come into the home."
A lack of personal protective equipment for carers or those receiving care was one of the earliest issues brought to the commission.
Labor's spokesman on the National Disability Insurance Scheme Bill Shorten has called for the number of people who have died from coronavirus who also have a disability to be reported in a similar way that cases connected to aged care facilities are also reported, but Commissioner Sackville said the impact of the virus was much more than death statistics.
"There are other ways in which people can suffer severely from COVID-19 and all the constraints that can go along with it, that may not lead to an outcome of death, but nonetheless are very severe indeed," he said.
The commission is expected to hear evidence this week of people who were left on their own without help for days at a time during the pandemic, who faced significant struggles with isolation and struggled to keep up with rapidly changing directions from governments. It will hear of the sever mental health impacts, as well as some positive stories.
In March the commission released a statement of concern, calling for governments to put in place specific plans for assisting people with disabilities in relation to the pandemic, an issue that is set to be explored in hearings.
On Sunday Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews called for the federal government to set up a similar response centre to that which is dealing with outbreaks in the aged care sector, but federal Government Services Minister Stuart Robert said federal representatives were already part of the state's response.
On Monday Mr Robert also hosed down calls for similar bans to aged care workers working across facilities to be placed on disability support workers as impossible to put in place.
"Right now everything we're putting in place is working exceptionally well," he said on ABC radio.
"The only infections, with 39 [NDIS] participants out of 400,000 across the country, is in Victoria."
The royal commission is set to deliver an interim report and recommendations in October, but Commissioner Sackville has left the door open for a report specifically about how governments have responded to coronavirus to be released even earlier.
"Without prejudicing any of the issues we need to look at, if we do find there have been significant failures and that those need to be corrected it would be quite wrong to wait until the final report, which may be two years or more down the track, to put forward recommendations," he said.
"This pandemic is going to continue for quite a time, we don't know how long, and we owe it to people with a disability, if there are things that need to be done then they should be done quickly."
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