NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard has defended the decision to ease COVID-19 restrictions in December, denying at a parliamentary inquiry that aged care representatives warned him against making the move.
Delegates from unions, the medical community, health experts and those central to the aged care sector appeared on Friday at the upper house probe into the government's handling of the pandemic.
Mr Hazzard and Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant, along with senior health bureaucrats, were the final witnesses to face the inquiry over the official response to COVID-19 in the state.
In his evidence, Mr Hazzard brushed off queries from the committee, chaired by Greens MP David Shoebridge, that he was warned the December 15 scale back of restrictions would led to "death and despair" in aged care.
The changes in December included ending mandatory mask wearing and eased density limits in venues, the inquiry was told.
Mr Hazzard said while there were "constant" discussions with aged care providers, "there was nothing on that specific decision", and he rejected claims of a "massive breakdown in communication" with the sector.
"That's not right," he said.
"We have managed this issue to the very best of our ability ... NSW and Victoria have done an extraordinary job."
The minister also denied suggestions that, regarding Omicron, the government had "let it rip" over summer against health advice, insisting at the inquiry that the community knew it was trying its best.
"Nothing has been done lightly, it's been done with great gravity," he said, labelling the state's death rate, currently about 1600, as "infinitesimally small" compared with the UK, Latin America and Europe.
Earlier, Aged Care and Community Services chief executive Paul Sadler told the inquiry of "death and despair" in the aged care sector since Omicron hit.
Mr Sadler said there were several health authority decisions "delayed or never taken" that had contributed to the crisis, such as refusal to take COVID-19 positive residents to hospital, delays in mandating vaccines for staff, and reluctance to switch from PCR to RAT tests.
He sheeted home blame to the government, claiming that it knew that the aged sector was unprepared for the Omicron outbreak, but went head with relaxing COVID-19 restrictions in December anyway.
"I believe that to be the case," he said.
Earlier, NSW Nurses and Midwives' Association assistant general secretary Shaye Candish told the inquiry the government had "grossly undervalued" members of the union during COVID-19.
Nurses and midwives were under great pressure in summer when the Omicron variant hit and the government relaxed social distancing restrictions leading to many nurses doing their jobs outside in the heat, in full personal protective equipment (PPE), for long hours.
"They continue to carry the burden of the entire health and hospital services right across the state," she told the inquiry.
The inquiry heard nurses in some cases were working 16-hour shifts, spending up to 15 hours in PPE.
During long shifts wearing PPE, nurses were "completely drenched" in sweat, struggling to stay hydrated, had to change clothes many times a day and some wore incontinence underwear because they were unable to get to bathrooms in time, the committee was told.
Another witness, Raina Macintyre, a professor of global biosecurity at the University of NSW, was asked about her view that the state had "surrendered" to COVID-19 when restrictions eased in December.
Ms Macintyre said vaccines were not enough to curb the spread of coronavirus, urging the government to better educate the public about the importance to "safe indoor air" and opening windows.
She also urged more access to N95 masks, which the inquiry was told were more effective in combating the virus than cloth masks.
NSW on Friday reported 19 deaths and 8950 new cases, with 1716 people in hospital - 79 fewer than the previous day.
Australian Associated Press
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