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Emergency staffing levels ‘scary’


NZNO Wairarapa delegate Lucy McLaren outside the hospital emergency department.  PHOTO/HELEN HOLT


Wairarapa’s emergency department had only one nurse on for part of the Sunday night shift, and the union is worried it will happen again.

Lack of nurses and staff sickness led to the department working at 50 per cent of the minimum staff needed for life-preserving services during a strike

Nurses were forced to come in on days off to cover the shift, some had already worked 10 days in a row.

NZNO [NZ nurses organisation] Wairarapa delegate Lucy McLaren said the staff shortage was scary but they saw the situation coming.

“We’re understaffed, and then people call in sick.

“It’s very scary. We only had one nurse between 2 and 7am. It was lucky that shift wasn’t particularly busy.”

Wairarapa Hospital had up to 10 hospital staff away with covid at one time during the first wave of omicron.

McLaren said the nurses were increasingly asked to work shifts when entitled to a day off.

She said the nurses were worried that the situation would happen again, and exhaustion would lead to mistakes.

“Patients will be harmed.”

Other hospitals in New Zealand paid nurses double-time for extra shifts, but McLaren said that wasn’t the case for Wairarapa.

“Other hospitals, including Hutt Valley paid nurses double-time. In Wairarapa, the rostered nurses get paid for normal hours. ”

She said the lack of overtime pay was disrespectful.

McLaren acknowledged the nursing shortage and recruitment efforts from the hospital.

“There’s a shortage nurses, nationally and worldwide. We’re competing for labour on an international market.

“The rules around immigration need to change. When doctors come here, they get automatic residency, but nurses have to work here for two years.

NZNO president Anne Daniels said it was time the union, government and Health NZ sat in a room to sort out the nurse profession.

“The staffing in Wairarapa last night [Sunday] was abysmal.

“I was still awake at 4am, worried about them. I was an emergency nurse, I understand what they are experiencing. Our members are suffering.”

She said the national nurse shortage was preventable.

“They predicted in 2006 that there would be a major shortage of nurses, and nothing was done.

“Before covid we were the highest recruiter of internationally qualified nurses [IQN] in the OECD. Then, when the borders closed, that supply stopped.

“We also have one of the lowest rates of nurse training.

“The IQNs are not a long-term solution. We need to make nursing a profession people want to get into.”

She said the shortage forced nurses to work in unsafe conditions, and provide care that did not reach their professional standards.

“Our members have been working double and triple shifts to cover the gaps.

“We can no longer plug the gaps.

Daniels wanted conversations at a national level about how to support and incentivise nurses to stay on the job.

She encouraged the public to wear masks and wash hands to keep people well and out of hospital.

“If you don’t get sick, you’re not going to need health care and then that’s going to take the pressure off all our health care workers and our system.”

Wairarapa interim district manager Dale Oliff said they recognised the pressure on its staff and services.

“There are a number of reasons for this including the current winter and covid illness surges. We continue to support safe staffing and are working hard to find solutions during these challenging times.”

The hospital was in the staff surge response framework including centralised redeployment requests and direction of staff to support the response, to manage staff shortages and patient care.

Measures included reducing or deferring planned care, and redirecting resources from the back office to help frontline services.

“These are in place to enable us to maintain patient and staff safety,” Oliff said.

“As always, anyone requiring urgent or emergency care receives it.

“Like all districts we are considering all options to recruit staff.

“We also acknowledge the consecutive days some of our staff are working and issues around staff safety. If staff feel unsafe at any time they are able to let their manager know and appropriate responses will be put in place.”

Oliff said the hospital predicted winter illness in Wairarapa would continue for six to eight more weeks.

She advised people to follow public health measures to reduce stress on the health system, including masks, wash and dry hands, vaccinations and testing if unwell.

She said they were waiting for a national agreement on incentive payments.

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