The federal government will pay Aspen Medical – the company contracted to contain Covid-19 outbreaks at Newmarch House and on the Ruby Princess – more than $57m for Covid-19 outbreak response services.
According to government tender listings, the Department of Health has agreed to pay the Canberra-based Aspen Medical $57,794,779 to provide 35 surge staff to help contain the outbreak at the Newmarch House aged-care facility in Sydney, and for about 30 clinicians who helped screen and test Ruby Princess crew members stranded at Port Kembla in April.The two surge healthcare operations are now being examined by a New South Wales parliamentary inquiry.
The contracts also include other services, including paying Aspen Medical to consult with the Australian Border Force over how to manage the Ruby Princess situation prior to its docking at Port Kembla, and to provide other testing and personal protective equipment.
The exact cost of each Aspen service remains unclear.
The government’s contracts with Aspen Medical have prompted concern from the federal opposition. The topic was also raised during Thursday’s session of the NSW parliamentary inquiry into the Covid-19 response following the Guardian’s report that the operator sent two of its clinicians who had boarded the Ruby Princess into Newmarch House just days later.
Aspen has said both of the staff tested negative to Covid-19 before their shift at Newmarch House on 25 April, and were “experienced clinicians with significant experience in infection control and were in full PPE at all times whilst at Newmarch House”.
The provider confirmed the movement of its staff between outbreaks on Wednesday – two days after it complied with a request to stand down a member of its surge staff in response to Newmarch’s operator, Anglicare, accusing the carer of “breaches of the PPE [Personal Protective Equipment] protocol”.
In relation to the carer, Aspen has said it is waiting to receive an incident report from Anglicare about the PPE breaches, after which it will investigate the allegations internally and “provide our staff member with a fair and balanced hearing”.
The Guardian does not suggest that the two Aspen clinicians who worked on both the Ruby Princess and at Newmarch House breached any PPE protocol, nor that they were personally responsible for any further spread of the virus at the aged-care facility.
After a part-time carer at the aged-care home worked six shifts with mild symptoms before being diagnosed with coronavirus on 11 April, more than 60 staff and residents are now Covid-19 positive, with the 16th resident death announced on Tuesday.
Aspen has been providing support to Newmarch House since 20 April.
At the NSW parliamentary inquiry into the state’s Covid-19 response on Thursday, the Labor MP Penny Sharpe raised concern that staff from Aspen Medical’s Ruby Princess response were “allowed to walk into Newmarch”, and a subsequent complaint of PPE breaches by an Aspen carer.
The NSW chief health officer, Kerry Chant, said that Aspen Medical did not tell NSW Health that the two clinicians had worked on the Ruby Princess before being sent to Newmarch House.
“There is no barrier to healthcare staff who worked with Covid-positive patients attending other places providing there is no breach in their PPE.”
She also said she would follow up on whether “they somehow introduced the virus into the facility”.
The NSW health minister, Brad Hazzard, said “NSW Health has no control over those matters” and that the Aspen contract was the responsibility of the federal government.
Defending the federal government’s contracts, the aged care minister, Richard Colbeck, told the Guardian: “Aspen Medical was engaged because it has national and international experience with urgent and complex health system response and retrieval arrangements, and was able to demonstrate an ability to provide suitably experienced staff and response capacity.”
However, the opposition aged care spokeswoman, Julie Collins, told the Guardian that Labor still held concerns “about how the government’s ‘surge workforce’ [Aspen] would work”.
“We will continue to ask questions of the government about how this workforce is operating, how it is being contracted and when it is being deployed,” she said.
On Wednesday, the aged care regulator threatened to revoke the operating licence of Newmarch House over what it views as an “immediate and severe risk to the health, safety and wellbeing” of residents.
Anglicare was given until 5pm on Thursday to agree to a list of requirements, which included demonstrating it has addressed key shortcomings in safety, improving its communication with residents’ families, and allowing the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission, the sector’s regulator, to appoint an independent adviser to the facility for three months.
On Thursday evening, Anglicare announced Andrew Kinkade, an administrator at Catholic Healthcare, had been appointed as the independent adviser.
Hours before ACQSC sent the notice to Anglicare, the aged care royal commissioners Tony Pagone and Lynelle Briggs announced that their inquiry would specifically look at “the lessons from what has happened at Newmarch House”.