An overseas recruitment campaign targeting specialist nurses will go live this week, but critics say two years into the pandemic, and with Omicron on the doorstep – it’s far too late.
Last November Health Minister Andrew Little spoke about offshore recruiting when asked by RNZ about the acute shortage of ICU nurses but it’s only now getting off the ground.
Hold-ups at the border may be contributing to ongoing shortfalls and today Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will detail what a phased reopening will now look like.
However, while hundreds of places in MIQ have already been put aside for critical healthcare workers since November, many have been left empty.
Everyone is preparing for the Omicron wave, and even being a milder infection for many, the sheer numbers expected mean more pressure on the health system.
Tania Mitchell, chair of the College of Critical Care Nurses, says it’s very worrying, especially with the existing shortage of nurses.
And it could be a double whammy, she says, not only with more people in hospital and intensive care, but large numbers of the workforce having to isolate.
“So that will create extra pressure, and perhaps unprecedented levels of pressure through staff sickness and also people needing to isolate for being contacts,” she says.
“We need to really have boosted the number of nurses to account for that so that we still have enough nurses to provide the care that’s required.”
Speaking to colleagues around the country Mitchell says they’re “struggling to deal with business as usual … to have enough nurses to look after our current patients”.
That raises the concern other patients will have their care delayed: “The planned care, the scheduled care like elective surgery for heart surgery, or cancer, or people after having heart attacks needing surgery.”
National’s Shane Reti says it’s gobsmacking a recruitment campaign to entice these highly sought-after nurses to New Zealand, is only just beginning.
“This isn’t anywhere near fast enough … we’re so late now that we’re now competing with other countries in exactly the same situation.”
Mitchell says New Zealand has had two years to see what’s happened overseas, and predict the shortages.
“You can’t just create qualified intensive care nurses that quickly, unfortunately, but it would have been helpful to be able to say, see some efforts being put into recruiting and retaining nurses earlier in the pandemic.”
Health minister points finger at National
Minister Little has laid some of the blame at the feet of the previous National government, saying Labour’s now playing catch up.
Shane Reti concedes he has a point.
“I will put my hand up for every single action we took in the nine years we were in government and I will own that.
“Some of the things we could have done better, and yes, we could have improved the health workforce and why we didn’t eludes me a little bit, actually.”
But Little “needs to own the last five years”, he says.
Last year a decision was made to allocate 300 MIQ places each month for ‘critical’ health and disability workers.
But Health Ministry figures show there are nowhere near enough people either wanting to come to New Zealand, or able to meet the criteria, to get anywhere near meeting that allocation.
In fact, as of 20 January, only a total of 324 vouchers had been issued for the period between 22 November and mid March this year – of those there were 69 doctors and 90 nurses.
Reti says New Zealand has to become more attractive, “a welcoming border, a welcoming environment, we actually need to pay people appropriate to skills and we’re now competing in all these areas with the international environment and doing badly”.
Little says the sector has long been carrying large numbers of vacancies and denies he’s been sitting on his hands.
“When the crisis in nursing became apparent to me, towards the middle of last year, I set up three streams of work: one is getting decent recruitment campaigns going, getting a review of the safe staffing record … and then getting through the collective bargaining negotiations and the pay equity negotiation.
“So significant progress on all of those and recruitment campaigns we’re about to commence.”
And he defends the time taken to get the recruitment campaign underway, saying it was not a straightforward task “just putting it together, co-ordinating 20 DHBs and their particular needs and pulling it together”.
A staged timeline for reopening the border was outlined late last year, but was pushed back due to the risk of Omicron.
Cabinet discussed updated plans on Tuesday and details will be revealed by Jacinda Ardern later today.