Nurses at DHBs around Auckland are concerned Wellington officials’ assurances of a robust health system is far from the reality they face each day on the frontline.
They also warn continued staffing shortages could put patients at risk.
NZ Nurses Organisation’s Sarah Barker told Breakfast the Government had been telling the public the health system was coping and that it could handle a Covid-19 surge, should it come.
Barker said those comments “really annoyed” members of the nurses’ union.
“Who is telling the officials this? It’s not an accurate picture.”
She said there were currently about 1000 vacancies for nursing positions in Auckland. While the health system could have normally met these, the pandemic has meant hospitals couldn’t hire migrant nurses.
“We can’t fill those vacancies.”
Barker said it was also hard to measure the effects of Covid-19-related hospitalisations and deaths on other areas of the health system, like cancer and paediatric care.
NZNO delegate Diane McCulloch said nurses were also being pulled between wards, which was stretching the already thin workforce.
She felt it wasn’t appropriate that some nurses who lack specialised training were being deployed in ICU to care for Covid-19 patients. To prepare for potential surges, DHB nurses have been completing online ICU training.
“[The nursing shortage] is hugely problematic because when the system is overrun and you have a lack of staffing, nurses cannot give patients the care they deserve,” McCulloch said.
“This can also bring about a capacity whereby mistakes can happen, and we are dealing with people’s lives.”
Health Minister Andrew Little, who appeared on Breakfast to respond to the NZNO’s comments, said he wanted to make clear the nurses that had undergone online training were not considered fully-qualified ICU nurses.
Those nurses would only be caring for Covid-19 patients in ICU, and no other patients in the unit, he said.
Little said he’d been speaking with the NZNO and other health organisations throughout the pandemic.
“Everybody’s relayed to me the concerns, and we’ve been dealing with those concerns,” he said.
“But, when it comes to the response to Covid and the ability of our health system to respond … the people who have gone to hospital with Covid have gotten the care they needed.”
He said he “totally accepts” health staff and nurses, in particular, were under “immense pressure”.
That was why the Government had set aside 300 places a month for international health workers in MIQ, he said.
Little said plans were also underway to build up the local health workforce in the long-term, and that this strategy would be formed when Health New Zealand begins to take over DHBs’ functions next year.
He said $100 million in funding had also been allocated for designated ICU capacity, as well as $544 million for operational costs, like training for nurses.
What has the Government been saying about the health system's capacity to deal with Covid-19?
"Were a larger outbreak to occur in the near future, there is a real risk of our systems, infrastructures and workforce being overwhelmed,” his report said.
In response to those criticisms, Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson said improvements had been made since September.
That month, nurses from outside of Auckland were called to the city to help its hospitals deal with the Delta outbreak.
A memo from the Director-General of Health presented to Cabinet on October 28 called Auckland’s health system capacity “adequate”.
The memo also noted hospitalisations were tracking according to forecasts and fewer people than expected were ending up in ICU.
Last week, Dr Ashley Bloomfield said vaccinations and Covid-19 treatments continued to keep more people in Auckland’s Delta outbreak out of ICU than modelling had predicted a month ago.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Tuesday ICUs have had “capacity throughout the pandemic”, and surge capacity of an additional 200 beds.