Rachel Smalley: Why are we not supporting our health system?


One would think in a global health pandemic, nurses are among the most critically needed workers.

One would think.

In fact, one would know.

We do know. And so does the government. Because the health minister recently said we were critically short of around 4000 nurses in this country.

Yet, as we approach winter, nurses are not part of our immigration system's 'priority list'.

Why not? It doesn't make sense. 

Nurses can come here, but as to whether they can apply for residency….well, they'll wait a long time and it's riddled with uncertainty.

I don't know how you reverse the damage we have done to our international brand. Once a welcoming country. Once a country that smashed through the bureaucracy. New Zealand was where 'life' worked for immigrants, working holidaymakers, and skilled people like nurses, midwives and teachers. We were top of the list. 

Now Australia offers nurses and midwives immediate residency. They are on the priority list. The Aussies get it, as they always do when it comes to the health of society, but we don't. 

Not even close. 

What I can tell you is in February a major independent report found that nurses were exhausted because of consistent understaffing, and over 80% of nurses said patients were not always getting full care as a result. 

It was called 'the safe staffing review' and -- after coming under pressure from nursing unions -- the review was commissioned by health minister Andrew Little.

It found hospitals were regularly short of nurses and the issue was compounded by our closed border. 

The well-being of nurses was shot, the report said. It said nurses were overworked and exhausted.

Mental health issues had impacted half of all nurses. Over 40% said every week they were asked to do extra shifts. 

Back then, the health minister Andrew Little said the district health boards hadn't put safe staffing programmes in place, and it blamed the previous national government for a chunk of it too. 

And - and this is a worry - the minister said the health reforms will fix all of this. They won't, and even if they did, those reforms where they are doing away with DHBs and centralising our health care through a new government entity....well that is years away. Absolutely years away. That will happen at a glacial speed. 

We worry about interest rates, the petrol price and the cost of food -- and all for good reason, but this, 'this' is the true cost of living in New Zealand. It's an exhausted, understaffed health system that this government has relied on to pull it through the pandemic, but continues to under-resource. 

Nurses and midwives should be on the pathway that takes them straight to residency. You have to incentivise people, you have to offer them at least the same as what our key competitors do - Canada and Australia - otherwise, why would you come to New Zealand when it offers you nothing in return?

Maybe there is something in next week's budget for our health system? Maybe, there's a solution in the government's grand plan for the big overhaul and reforms it's planning for health? But that will take a long time. It's years away. 

In the meantime, we are 4000 nurses short, and our immigration ministry refuses to put nurses and midwives on the priority list. 

I'm lost for words. I can't make sense of it. But all I know is that no one wins from this. Patients don't. The health system doesn't. And our nurses carry the brunt of it all. This is not the New Zealand way, people.