What are the implications for the healthcare and social assistance sector of Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews' timeline for metropolitan Melbourne to achieve 'COVID Normal'?

For now, nothing has changed in respect of permitted workplaces in this sector that are already open with a COVIDSafe Plan. However, the timeline to return to normal operations remains unclear, with no relaxation of the industry’s current restrictions until 26 October 2020 at the earliest.

The current restrictions

The Stage 4 restrictions currently in place for the healthcare and assistance social sector in metropolitan Melbourne came into effect on 11 August 2020. Under the restrictions, this sector is categorised as being a ‘heavily restricted’ and only ‘permitted workplaces in the healthcare and social assistance sector[1] can open, so long as they have implemented a restriction levels COVIDSafe Plan.

In order to create additional capacity within hospitals, all Category 3 and non-urgent Category 2 elective surgery across Victoria has been paused. These restrictions apply to public and private hospitals and day procedure centres. IVF activity is exempt from these restrictions.

Although the Department of Health and Human Services has not specifically identified allied health services (such as physiotherapy, chiropractic therapy and osteopathy) as ‘permitted workplaces’, most of these services have remained open for essential services only on the basis that they fall within ‘other health workers providing services… to a patient…. in order to avoid the requirement for hospital admission, specialist review, or an increase in care needs[2].

The restrictions on visitors to care facilities where vulnerable Victorians live and receive care current remain in place. These restrictions apply to the following care facilities, whether operated by government, the private sector or not-for-profit organisations:

  • residential aged care facilities
  • alcohol and drug residential services
  • homelessness residential services
  • disability residential services
  • specialist disability accommodation
  • secure welfare services
  • short-term accommodation and assistance dwellings
  • Supported Residential Services (SRS)
  • Disability Forensic Assessment and Treatment Services (DFATS)
  • Thomas Embling Hospital.

The roadmap

The new roadmap provides that the relaxation of these restrictions will turn on case numbers. Only when there is an average of less than five new daily cases state-wide (measured over a 14-day period) will the healthcare and social sector move from being categorised as a ‘heavily restricted’ sector to ‘restricted’ one. However, it is not entirely clear what additional services are included at this ‘restricted’ level.

It is only when there have been no new cases in the state for 28 days, there are no active cases in the state, and no outbreaks of concern in other states or territories, that the COVID Normal stage of the plan can be implemented. At the COVID Normal stage, all healthcare and social assistance services can fully reopen with a COVIDSafe Plan.

The Victorian Government is yet to announce which category elective surgery falls under or when it will recommence.

Takeaways

Premier Andrews told the media on Sunday 6 September 2020 that his government would outline its plan for elective surgery when it is ‘safe for these procedures to restart’, leaving both healthcare professionals and Victorians awaiting Category 2 or 3 surgery with a great deal of uncertainty as to when these types of surgery can recommence. We understand the DHHS has been in communication with hospitals.

The Premier has also provided no guidance on what the different restriction levels mean for the wider healthcare services industry. With Victoria being an international leader in the health sector, not only for its hospitals but also for its small scale organisations delivering health services, the sector is keen to further understand what the COVID19 roadmap means for them. All the while, they are keeping hopeful that smaller healthcare services will be equipped to navigate their business through these trying times.

We will continue to monitor the healthcare restriction announcements and changes in Victoria and keep the sector updated.