NSW health staff pressured to return from Christmas leave as Covid cripples hospitals

The Guardian, 28 December 2021

Union secretary says the strain on already tired health workers could drive some to leave the industry

Exhausted New South Wales health workers are being pressured to return from Christmas leave as hospitals and testing facilities are crippled by surging Covid numbers and staff furloughs.

About 2,000 health workers have been furloughed across the state after being listed as close contacts, prompting NSW Health to slash the isolation time for health workers from two weeks to seven days provided they return a negative PCR test.

Health Services Union secretary Gerard Hayes welcomed the change but said immense stress was being placed on a hospital system at breaking point and workers were now under pressure to return from leave.

“We’re seeing all these additional pressures … the ambulance service fast tracking students out of university, hospital workers returning from leave, and 200 people on permanent casual shifts for 12 months just trying to get through this period,” he said.

Hayes said the next four weeks would be the ultimate test on the health system.

“When you have 2,000 people off on a daily basis that is ultimately not sustainable,” he said.

“We have some breathing space as vaccines appear to be working, and presentations are nowhere near as big as they were.

“But we’re seeing 6,000 cases a day and probably more. If that presentation rate increases it would be incredibly problematic.”

Covid hospitalisations have more than tripled in the past fortnight, rising to 557 on 28 December including 60 people in ICU.

“Take on the frustration of 18 months work, of chronic fatigue and then the frustration of missing Christmas, and New Year, all these additional pressures are stacking up,” Hayes said.

“We are really pushing hard to allow people to have leave because a lot hasn’t been taken … people are fatigued. If they keep pushing on that could have long-term effects. People might start leaving the industry because it’s all becoming too much.”

NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association general secretary Brett Holmes said the system was under “enormous pressure” with “massive and ongoing shortages” on rosters.

“Even without furloughed staff, everywhere is extremely tight,” he said.

“We know many nurses have been asked to voluntarily cancel leave, and we have an exhausted workforce given the intensity of the past 18 months.”

“There are no easy solutions here, we have a long term problem for the proper staffing of hospitals, and other issues will continue to arise,” he said.

Meanwhile, the NSW health minister Brad Hazzard on Tuesday said staff across the state were “exhausted”, with some laboratories working through the night to process Covid-19 test results.

Hazzard said he was “very concerned” about two St Vincent’s Hospital bungles that led to about 1,400 people falsely receive negative Covid test results when they were positive or meant to be isolating. Of those, 886 people who were told they were negative have turned out to be positive.

In a statement, SydPath, the laboratory responsible for processing the tests, said that to deal with the “major increase” in test volumes it had moved from an automated to a manual system to expedite the release of negative test results.

Hazzard said he had made sure the hospital had reviewed its protocol and procedures but “when people are under pressure, human errors become more frequent”.

“There just isn’t the capacity anymore … particularly when some of those queues [for testing] are three and four kilometres long,” he said.