Essential healthcare workers who are close contacts of COVID-19 cases could be ordered back to work under changes confirmed on Friday night after a snap phone hook-up between NSW Health and unions.
Staff would be returned to work before completing their seven days of isolation if they are deemed essential to service delivery and it is approved by a senior manager based on a risk assessment.
Rising hospitalisations due to COVID-19 and the furloughing of about 2000 healthcare workers as confirmed cases or close contacts have led to staff shortages and put pressure on the system, with NSW recording more than 21,000 new cases on Friday.
Health Services Union NSW secretary Gerard Hayes said he understood the need to get more health workers off the bench at this critical time, but said the process was rushed.
“You’ve got exhausted people, potentially close contacts with their own concerns and anxieties, who are now being told to come to work,” he said. “Even the army rotates people off the front line.”
NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard’s office on Friday evening said it was an operational matter for NSW Health. Earlier in the day he foreshadowed changes to frontline staff arrangements to better “balance the risk”, given that “we’ve got more than 2000 staff currently out of action” and the system was under “massive pressure”.
In a statement on Friday night, NSW Health confirmed asymptomatic healthcare workers who are close contacts would be permitted to leave isolation in “exceptional circumstances”.
“With increasing case numbers and large numbers of close contacts in self-isolation, NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard today signed an exemption to the public health order to minimise potential impacts on health services across the state,” it said.
Under the exemption, healthcare workers must travel directly to and from their home to their workplace. They are required to wear a mask at all times in their workplace, unless eating or drinking or providing services where it needs to be removed.
Nurses and Midwives Association secretary Brett Holmes and Tony Sara, president of the Australian Salaried Medical Officers’ Federation, also confirmed the outcome of Friday’s teleconference.
Mr Holmes and Mr Sara said they did not endorse the change in policy but understood there was a critical staffing shortage at present.
“In the best possible world this change should not have been needed but we have a situation where COVID-19 is compromising our health staff such that the system cannot continue to operate,” Mr Holmes said.
It is the second major change to protocols for healthcare staff in NSW this week after rules were relaxed on Monday to allow close contacts to isolate for seven days instead of 14.
A few days later the national cabinet agreed to make a seven-day isolation period the standard for all close contacts in NSW, Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania and the ACT.
NSW Health’s risk assessment protocols require daily COVID-19 rapid antigen testing, COVID-safe workplace protocols and appropriate use of personal protective equipment, including masks.
Announcing the previous protocol changes, Deputy Secretary Nigel Lyons said: “These changes are possible because healthcare workers are required to be vaccinated, many have recently received booster doses, they are trained in infection control practices, they wear PPE in the workplace, and they have access to rapid testing.”
The number of people admitted to hospital with COVID-19 in NSW rose to 832 on Friday – an increase of 450 from a week ago, although still below the peak of 1268 during the Delta wave in September. The number of people in intensive care is 69, well below the Delta peak of 242. The hospitalisation rate as a percentage of all active cases is also much lower than during the Delta outbreak.
Earlier on Friday Mr Hazzard also implored people not to make “silly” and unnecessary calls to triple zero, to follow the COVID-19 rules and be patient and fair with frontline workers.