Hospitals will cope under strain of COVID-19 cases, health boss says

Health Department secretary Professor Brendan Murphy. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Health Department secretary Professor Brendan Murphy. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Questions surround a secret report on how hospitals would manage under the strain of higher COVID-19 cases, as the stoush between the Morrison government and the states and territories over health funding intensifies.

The national cabinet has been handed a report which models demand on state and territory hospitals as the country reopens and case numbers rise.

Health Department boss Brendan Murphy said the study showed hospitals would be able to cope with the case numbers predicted in the Doherty Institute modelling.

Professor Murphy indicated he would support the release of the report, but noted that was a decision for the national cabinet.

ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said the territory had contributed to the report with the expectation that it would be made public.

Ms Stephen-Smith said there were concerns with how the document "framed" the capacity of the hospital system to cope with an increase in cases.

She suggested the report might have undersold the implications of a surge in case numbers for other aspects of the health system, including elective surgeries.

"Of course our hospital system will cope and manage surges of COVID-19," Ms Stephen-Smith said on Tuesday.

"What I think there is some concern about is the underestimation of the impact across our hospitals and health systems of having to do that ... [and] what that could potentially mean, if we see a big surge in [COVID-19] cases, for things like elective surgery."

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Australian Medical Association president Omar Khorshid warned that non-urgent care would "go out the window" once the virus appeared in the states which were largely free of it at the moment.

The states and territories have been pushing the Commonwealth for an immediate injection of funds to ease the "unrelenting strain" on their hospital systems as they brace for the country's reopening.

The federal government has so far rebuffed those calls, sparking a fresh war of words with the states - in particular Queensland.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Tuesday accused Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk of trying to "extort" him for more money after she signalled her state's border could remain shut even after it hits the 80 per cent vaccination threshold.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt accused the states of creating a "something of a diversion" in a bid to secure more funding.

Mr Hunt said the Commonwealth had contributed $6.3 billion to the states as part of a 50-50 cost-sharing arrangement through the pandemic, which was ongoing.

Among the states and territories' demands is an extension of that agreement until at least June 30, 2023.

Mr Hunt said the states and territories had had 20 months to prepare their hospitals, and he had been advised they were ready to manage a surge in cases. He said if Queensland's hospitals were under strain even without COVID-19 patients, that was "a fundamental failure of duty and responsibility".

On the secret hospital capacity report, Mr Hunt said there was nothing stopping states and territories from publishing their own figures.

Labor's health spokesman, Mark Butler, said the community deserved to know how hospitals would cope when lockdowns were lifted and borders reopened to COVID-free states.

This story 'Deserve to know': Questions over secret hospital capacity report first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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