COVID-19 and Healthcare Workers

COVID-19 and Healthcare Workers

(Private Members Statement, 17 February 2022, Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament)  

Tonight I speak in support of our healthcare workers who are experiencing exhaustion and burnout as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our nurses, paramedics, doctors and hospital workers including cleaners, administration staff and allied health workers have been doing the heavy lifting during the pandemic, particularly during this year's Omicron wave. Over summer, the Omicron wave saw COVID-19 infections skyrocket across Sydney and the State, just as we were opening up after the Delta wave. Over one million people have been infected this year alone. And while Omicron is considered a milder strain than Delta, people can still get very sick and the sheer transmissibility has seen hospital admissions at their highest since the start of the pandemic.

In the first two weeks of January, New South Wales hospitals accommodated over 3,500 COVID patients, 40 per cent of whom were people over 70 and 7 per cent of whom were children and teenagers. Daily death tolls reached higher than at any other time in the pandemic, including during the Delta wave. Intensive care and high dependency units in some hospitals have been overwhelmed. At the same time, healthcare workers were being infected with or exposed to COVID-19. There have been days when over 5,000 hospital workers in the State were in isolation, adding pressure to an already stretched system. Nurse to patient ratios plummeted, with reports of high dependency units [HDUs] having one-fifth of nurses absent at certain times. The HDU ratio is normally one nurse to three patients but that was cut to one nurse per five patients.

Less experienced nurses had to do higher risk activities with less support. Similarly, paramedics came under immense pressure, many working 13-hour shifts after which they continued to be on call. To deal with the problem the Government allowed healthcare workers who are close contacts but do not have symptoms to return to work. But this created new risks, with many workers worried that their workplace became less safe and more stressful. The impact on the health system has been harmful, with emergency wait and ambulance response times longer, leaving critically ill and injured patients at risk. Patients are not being seen in time and healthcare workers are reporting that the care given to patients needing hospitalisation has been compromised.

On 10 January elective surgery was put on a temporary hold, with only a partial reinstatement on 7 February. Delaying elective surgery like hip replacements or kidney stone removal may not be life threatening but it can severely affect quality of life including mobility, pain and discomfort. With healthcare workers working significantly longer hours, many are feeling exhausted and say their capacity to work their best has been affected. The already stressful work environment is made even harder with the need to wear personal protective equipment over long hours, which is especially difficult in the heat. It is frightening to hear that nurses and healthcare workers are starting to resign in large numbers because the pressure is too much. This is understandable given the stress, burnout and what some would describe as unsafe conditions. We must take action to retain and grow this essential workforce.

This week nurses held their first statewide strike in almost 10 years and New South Wales paramedics are currently taking industrial action. These decisions were not made lightly. Nurses are desperately calling for staffing ratios and fairer pay as is the case in Victoria and Queensland, and paramedics, who are the lowest paid paramedics in the country, want better resourcing and pay. The Victorian Government has recognised public sector nurses and midwives through a new hospital surge support allowance. I call for a similar allowance for healthcare workers in this State and I support the NurseKeeper campaign, which calls for an immediate $5,000 bonus and pandemic pay for all nurses and paramedics working in the New South Wales public health system during the pandemic, and any willing to immediately return.

When the healthcare system comes under too much pressure, people feel unsafe, affecting health, mental health and the economy. It is vital that we provide a safe, satisfying and rewarding workplace for all healthcare workers that acknowledges the risks they take and burden they carry for all of us. The Omicron wave has made it clear that the COVID-19 pandemic is far from being over and we cannot predict what will happen next. But we know that we need a strong, safe and reliable healthcare system with happy employees. I call on the Government to support our healthcare workers with pandemic and fairer pay, and safe working conditions.

Let's work together to celebrate and protect our great city!