Overloaded hospitals at 'code red' but Little says health system is 'managing'

Michael Neilson, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Wed, 29 Jun 2022, 5:08pm
Health Minister Andrew Little. (Photo / Mark Mitchell)
Health Minister Andrew Little. (Photo / Mark Mitchell)

Overloaded hospitals at 'code red' but Little says health system is 'managing'

Michael Neilson, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Wed, 29 Jun 2022, 5:08pm

Health Minister Andrew Little says despite some hospitals being under pressure the health system "as a whole is managing".

Little was commenting in response to the revelation of a letter written a year ago by the country's 20 district health boards (DHBs) warning the Government of "critical workforce issues", calling it an "unsustainable situation" with some overloaded hospitals at "code red".

Since then, health worker shortages have only exacerbated, with unions saying the country is 4000 nurses short as the health system groans amid the "twindemic" of Covid-19 and the flu as winter bites.

On July 28 last year, Hawkes Bay DHB chief executive Keriana Brooking, representing the 20 DHBs, wrote they were "experiencing significant challenges to maintain safe levels of services that are being exacerbated by workforce supply challenges".

"Most importantly this includes the risk that existing overseas trained employees will leave due to an inability to secure their futures as residents of New Zealand," said the letter, addressed to Carolyn Tremain chief executive of the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment, and responsible for immigration.

The letter was also addressed to acting deputy director general of health workforce Amy Wilson at the Ministry of Health.

National Party health spokesman Dr Shane Reti revealed the letter in Parliament yesterday, obtained under the Official Information Act.

Little said, however, he only saw the letter "a couple of months ago" when the OIA request came through.

Asked if he should have been provided with the letter, Little said it was about "problems they were having with MIQ" and so was directed to MBIE.

"Shane is very good at going on this sort of John le Carre-style escapades for things that don't exist.

"It wasn't an overarching issue about the workforce, it was about the efforts that DHBs needed to go to, to recruit to fill the vacancies that they had."

Little said despite not seeing the letter, he had regular contact fortnightly on the phone with DHB chairs.

Since those issues were raised, Little said work had been done to ensure there were 300 places a month set aside in MIQ for health workers.

He said current issues were "unrelated" to the issues raised in the letter.

He disputed claims worker shortage had exacerbated, saying there had been a lot of work around recruitment.

"But internationally it is incredibly competitive. We are queuing up with pretty much every other country to get who we can to work in our health system."

Current pressures were exacerbated by staff getting sick, he said.

"They've had levels of staff absenteeism they've never seen before. One hospital told me 15 per cent on a day last week.

"That compounds the problem with the vacancies that we've had.

"But when on top of that, you've got Covid, the spike in flu infections ... that has all compounded to put real pressure in the last few weeks on a hospital system."

Little said overall he was "satisfied" the system was coping.

"There are individual hospitals that are doing it really tough, like Capital and Coast, Middlemore continues to be under pressure, Bay of Plenty has been under pressure.

"So there are hospitals that are really feeling it. But the system as a whole is managing."

In her July 2021 letter, Brooking said hospitals were also experiencing "very high levels of occupancy at present and some sites are even in 'code red' where they are deemed to be at extreme levels".

"This is obviously an unsustainable situation and places even more pressure on our existing workforce."

"This will have long-term impacts on the health and wellbeing of New Zealanders."

DHB heads asked for current overseas-trained staff to be given a "direct and prompt path to residency" and overseas health professionals facilitated to enter New Zealand as required to "avert a crisis in the health sector".

This letter was written ahead of some major changes in immigration settings, including the one-off residency process estimated to assist about 170,000 people.

In May, the Government also announced a fast-track residency process through which some healthcare workers could immediately gain residency, but nurses were left off, having to wait two years.

Reti said if Little didn't know about the letter last year "he should have".

Today Reti also revealed through Written Parliamentary Questions (WPQs) the Ministry of Health had hired nearly 1000 new consultants in 11 months, with 1359 in total.

"Our hospitals are at breaking point," Reti said.

"We are desperately short of 4000 nurses and the Government has hired 1000 consultants to prop up their flailing health restructure."