Health secretary Brendan Murphy has challenged the findings of a scathing report into his department's handling of the vaccine rollout in disability care, insisting that the vulnerable cohort wasn't secretly "deprioritised" in favour of aged care at the start of the program.
Professor Murphy was grilled on the damning disability royal commission report when he fronted the Senate's COVID-19 committee on Tuesday morning.
The draft report described the rollout as "seriously deficient", and found the department had failed to consult with the disability sector, wasn't transparent about decision making and lacked basic insights into the differences aged care and disability care.
The commission's report was particularly critical of a decision to prioritise vaccinations of aged care residents, without notifying the disability sector and despite the fact the two cohorts were supposed to be treated equally under the rollout's first phase.
The pivot only came to light when then health department associate secretary Caroline Edwards made the shock revelation at a COVID-19 committee hearing in late April.
Under questioning from Labor Senator Kristina Keneally at Tuesday's hearing, Prof Murphy again admitted there had been a "shift in the focus" to aged care on the back of medical advice which showed nursing home residents were a "significantly higher risk".
But he didn't accept the assertion that there had been a "deprioritisation" of disability care residents.
"We did not stop providing in-reach services to residential disability, but we did give a greater priority to residential aged care when the complexity of the aged care rollout was appreciated," he said.
"That has probably saved about 1000 lives because all of our advice was that that was the single highest risk population.
"But we did not deprioritise disability, they remained a priority the whole way through."
After a very slow start to the rollout, about two-thirds of residents in disability care are now fully vaccinated according to the latest figures.
The royal commission's report found the health department's decision to channel resources to aged care was made without consultation with its own expert disability advisory panel.
One panel member, University of Melbourne professor Anne Kavanagh, confirmed to The Canberra Times that the committee had either not been consulted or had their advice overlooked on key decisions.
Prof Murphy accepted that officials could have told the disability advisory committee about its "stronger focus" on vaccinations in aged care homes.
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"I believe our consultation has been genuine," he said.
"As I said there will always be people who feel that it could have been improved and we will always acknowledge that we can do things better."
Prof Murphy noted that the report had yet to be handed to the Governor-General, meaning the government was unable to provide a formal response.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt declined to apologise for the rollout failures when asked on Tuesday. Mr Hunt said people with a disability had been protected throughout the pandemic, with rates of infections and deaths below the national average.
"[There has been] a lower loss of life and a higher vaccination rate," he said.
"And they're the real things that matter, but we'll continue to encourage and to support every family with a member who has some form of disability to continue to come forward to be vaccinated and to give them the confidence to be vaccinated."
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