Australia’s disability royal commission will investigate the Covid vaccine rollout amid complaints that disability accommodation residents and care workers are facing long waits for jabs – despite being in the top priority phase 1a group.
The Morrison government has been facing increasing criticism over the low numbers of residents vaccinated so far, with peak bodies, the opposition and a former disability discrimination commissioner claiming it had failed to prioritise disability care.
Ronald Sackville, the commission chair, told Guardian Australia on Thursday the commission was yet to form a view about the progress of the rollout but would now seek to examine the issue.
Sackville said disability groups had raised concerns at a meeting last week about “the process of the rollout” and “the uncertainty associated with [its] progress”.
He noted that these issues had been “reported in the press quite extensively”.
“The concerns in some ways mirror the concerns that were expressed during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic,” he said. “For example, concern about the lack of information that has been available about the precise process for the rollout as it affects people with disability and disability care workers.
“Not surprisingly, there is some degree of confusion, according to the reports that we have received, particularly among people with intellectual disability, because they are finding the varying messages that they may have received to be rather confusing.”
The commission will hold a one-day hearing on 17 May when it is expected that Department of Health officials will be questioned about the rollout.
Disability care residents and workers are among the phase 1a cohort that were the first to be eligible to get the vaccine, but officials have subsequently said they were prioritising aged care homes over those for people with disabilities.
On Wednesday authorities said only 97 first-dose visits had occurred, despite there being more than 6,000 residential disability accommodation facilities.
On 20 April officials told a Senate hearing that 1,448 disability accomodation residents had been vaccinated. This meant more than 25,000 disability residents were still unvaccinated, despite being in the top priority group.
The Department of Health did not provide more up-to-date figures when approached for comment on Thursday.
Labor’s NDIS spokesman Bill Shorten said he welcomed the royal commission’s decision to examine the roll out.
“The royal commission handed down 22 fair and reasonable expectations in November 2020 about what was needed to vaccinate people with a disability as a priority group,” Shorten said.
“It is clear almost six months later people with disability have simply been forgotten.”
Guardian Australia revealed this month that many disability care providers were being forced to circumvent the system and go to general practitioners to obtain vaccines for their residents, because commonwealth teams were simply not showing up.
The government has also faced criticism about its failure to legislate protections to guarantee the permanent anonymity of some witnesses who give evidence to the commission.
Sackville noted that he had first requested the government act on the issue in February 2020.
“Fairly obviously, the sooner that legislation is passed the better,” he said. “And the first request was made for that legislation to be passed by me in February 2020. So it has not been a swift process, but the legislation has been introduced into parliament.
“I understand that we’ll be coming back to parliament in mid-May or thereabouts. And we do hope further that legislation will be passed.
“And the reason is, of course, that it will provide comfort to people who otherwise might have concerns about sharing their stories with the royal commission.”