Auckland District Health Board is changing its visitor policy after nurses accused them of playing "Russian roulette" with patient and staff safety.
The Herald can reveal visitors will only be able to enter Auckland City Hospital under compassionate grounds. The DHB had been allowing each patient two visitors, one at a time.
The allegations came as WorkSafe issued an improvement notice, forcing the Auckland DHB to engage with its health and safety representatives.
This afternoon, the DHB's Covid response lead Dr Mike Shepherd told the Herald visitors would only be able to enter its hospitals under compassionate grounds.
"We think that ongoing community cases of Covid which are causing concern, as well we have listened to feedback from staff and patients," Shepherd said.
The examples of visitors who could apply for "compassionate" entry, Shepherd said, was those with loved ones who were critical or dying, children and women giving birth.
"We will be making it clear on our website," he said.
Shepherd said the "approach" previously taken hadn't worked as well as the DHB would have liked.
"We do regret that we ended up in some challenging conversations with the nurses' union," Shepherd said.
During the last lockdown the DHB received a number of complaints from patients due to the "very restrictive" visitor rules - and there were some adverse events of concern, he said.
"We have worked to evolve our visitor policy which has a mixture of safety and making sure we provide the best healthcare in the circumstances," he said.
When questioned about the sex claims, Shepherd said: "people will be people" but the DHB discouraged that sort of activity within its hospitals.
Nurses union takes legal action
The nurses' industrial adviser David Wait said the policy was putting staff, patients and communities at risk of Covid-19.
"It makes no sense at all that one of our busiest hospitals in a region that is in level 4 lockdown continues to allow members of the community to come and go," he said.
"Especially considering the impact Covid transmission would have on the DHB's ability to safely provide services in this short-staffed environment."
Mediation between the union and DHB management was underway this afternoon, and it's understood lawyers would be present for both parties.
Concerns to Ministry of Health dismissed
Director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield was sent an email, nearly three weeks ago, from a NZNO delegate, flagging a number of alarming visitor policy breaches at the DHB, including people turning up in groups and refusing to wear masks.
In an email seen by the Herald, the Ministry of Health's clinical adviser of performance Stuart Powell responded on behalf of Bloomfield, saying it had checked with the DHB and was satisfied it was working "within the national guidance".
At the start of this month, the Herald also reported inconsistencies between hospitals' visiting rules under alert level 4.
While other hospitals were only letting visitors in on compassionate grounds, Auckland DHB's policy allowed each patient two visitors, one at a time.
Unions last week said not only was Auckland DHB's policy "unsafe and unacceptable" but it was being breached every day and was not being enforced.
Health and safety staffer speaks out
Auckland District Health Board safe staffing co-ordinator and lead NZNO health and safety rep Ben Basevi said the problem had become so bad he'd been forced to put his job on the line to get management to listen.
"A lot of staff, including charge nurses, have raised these issues with management over the past three weeks and they have all been shut down."
After a complaint from the NZNO, WorkSafe issued the DHB an improvement notice, forcing it to engage with its health and safety representatives.
The DHB's own health and safety representatives also issued a separate provisional improvement notice giving management until next Monday to comply, otherwise WorkSafe could intervene and potentially investigate.
Basevi last week said a DHB director met with a number of staff who reported visitors not wearing masks, wandering around different wards, intimidating staff, mingling with other staff and patients and one visitor having sex with a patient.
"One Covid patient even threatened to discharge themself unless their visitor could stay."
Basevi said there wasn't enough monitoring of visitors and security guards were allowing groups of visitors through.
"It's totally unsafe and unacceptable."
The DHB director said the concerns were valid and he would raise it with higher management and look at tweaking the policy, Basevi said.
"I've told them there's no time for a review, they need to act urgently. They need to lock the hospital down, close its doors to all visitors and have security only get visitors in under compassionate grounds."