One of the country's leading aged care professionals has blasted the government over its lack of preparation for the pandemic's Delta variant – and for making New Zealand "vulnerable".
Brien Cree, managing director and founder of Radius Care and its 22 facilities around the country, says the government's inaction over the chronic shortage of nurses has "let New Zealand down badly by failing to prepare for Covid-19's return and for making our health system vulnerable.
"We are short of nurses, not just in aged care facilities but all across the country. Yet I saw the Prime Minister saying that we were prepared for Covid-19 – but that Delta had a head start on us.
"Nonsense – we had a head start on Delta but the government didn't prepare for it by bringing in the thousands more nurses needed throughout the health system. We have had only 20 per cent of the population vaccinated and there are only enough vaccines in the country right now for another 375,000 (750,000 vaccines in all, two doses per person).
"That's not 'prepared'; that is the slowest vaccination rate in the whole OECD. It's a joke for Jacinda Ardern to say Delta had a head start."
Cree says the issue is immigration. Nurses, already overworked and asking for more pay, had been "sucked out" of the health system to staff vaccination centres and MIQ facilities – and the government's strategy was to ask those left in the health system to work even harder.
"So now we have overworked nurses working for six and seven days a week. They are asking for more pay and fair enough – but this isn't a pay issue, it's a supply issue. Instead of allowing nurses in from overseas, they have decided to burn out the nurses we have here.
"There are over 2000 nursing vacancies in DHB hospitals and over 1000 in residential care. Then there's natural attrition as people leave for all sorts of reasons – now including exhaustion. So who knows what the real number is?
"Why do we have 11-hour queues for vaccines? Not enough nurses. Why are we the lowest-vaccinated country in the OECD? A shortage of nurses.
"We have been asking and asking for overseas nurses to be let in here – refused at every turn. We should have been building capacity in our health system, planning for when the virus came back. We all knew it was coming and the government kept telling us it would – yet they did nothing.
"The government is making it sound like they have prepared for the crisis – but the real crisis is yet to occur. That will happen when the severely stretched health system can't cope with the lack of specialist services not bringing in overseas nurses has caused.
"They should have realised we were in the eye of the storm and brought in thousands of nurses in the past year, settled them in and got them working so the system could stay robust. They didn't, although sports teams and entertainers got in, and now they have made us vulnerable."
Cree says the aged care industry (aged care hospitals are different from retirement villages) is also short of 20 per cent of its nurses – "so the other 80 per cent have to work even harder".
The lack of preparedness could also be seen in the just-resolved battle by aged care facilities to have new admissions tested – something the Ministry of Health had steadfastly refused to do even though aged care patients were among the most vulnerable in the country.
The ministry had finally agreed to do that testing in a landmark decision this week but, ever since the first lockdown, residential care hospitals had been restricting admissions to keep patients and staff safe.
"That was forcing people to stay in the DHB hospitals and fill critical beds in our emergency departments and wards," Cree says. "The government short-sightedness in keeping essential workers out is mystifying. They had an opportunity and they blew it.
The health system is in crisis now and the real crisis hasn't even arrived yet.
"Let's learn from our mistakes – when this lockdown is over, let's get much needed nurses into the country and build some capacity back into our health system."