Little addresses nurses on staffing, pay equity and health reforms – but Reti highlights disquieting data on flu shots

Heath Minister Andrew Little’s address to the New Zealand Nurses’ Organisation Conference included a mix of admiration for nurses’ hard work, assurances about the settlement of their employment agreement, and an outline of his aims to restructure the health system.

The speech was one of two new posts on The Beehive website when Point of Order checked this morning.

Latest from the Beehive


Speech to the New Zealand Nurses Organisation Conference 2021

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In his speech, Andrew Little began by telling the nurses what – no doubt – they already knew:  they are carrying more than their share of the Covid-19 load, working in testing stations and vaccination stations, and caring for those who have the virus.

Meanwhile they are continuing with their usual – often highly stressful and demanding – work, including treating the victims of the recent terror attack in Auckland (although only some of them would have been involved in helping those victims).

“It’s not surprising that so many nurses are saying how tiring and exhausting it is right now, yet the appearance of the new Delta variant requires you to be even more vigilant and alert, as you juggle the jobs of looking after us, yourselves and your families.”

The nurses would have welcomed Little’s assurance that…

“Dealing with the nursing shortage is a high priority for the Government.”

But they would have been aware of the slow progress which he acknowledged.

In 2018, the government and nurses agreed a safe-staffing accord that included funding for an extra 3000 nurses.

The accord included a provision to introduce Care Capacity Demand Management. This should have been fully in place by June this year, but in half our district health boards it has been only partially implemented.

And so another promise:

“We are finding out why and we will fix it.”

A review team will report its recommendations to Little by December.

But recruitment campaigns won’t work if the government can’t offer jobs with good wages and decent working conditions, Little acknowledged.

“The latest renewal of the collective employment agreement covering district health board nurses has been a long and arduous process.”

The nurses’ union, it seems, is considering an offer that has been reviewed and recommended by independent expert facilitators.

The independent facilitators recognised and accepted the union’s arguments on a range of workforce issues and have made recommendations on recruitment and on ways to improve DHB practices and to hold DHBs accountable.

The independent facilitators also recognised the significant impact the unions’ pay-equity claim for DHB nurses will have on rates of pay.

Little’s assurance on this issue was

“… to say very clearly that the Government is committed to paying nurses fairly through pay-equity.”

Little proceeded to discuss the government’s investment in new hospitals, funding new drugs, backing new treatments and hiring more people as it rolls out its plan to fix the health system.

“So far we’ve committed $6 billion alone to new buildings and information systems, with more to come.”

But money alone was not enough. The system simply did not work for large numbers of New Zealanders, Little said, citing Māori and Pacific communities (they have worse health results than other communities) and people living in rural areas (who struggle to get services).

The health reforms the government announced earlier this year are designed to fix these problems.

“Health New Zealand, which will replace the 20 district health boards, and the Māori Health Authority will give us a chance to make a real difference on many workforce issues – to get some consistency of standards across all hospitals.

“The reforms also give us the ability to work together more effectively on current workforce issues and, just as importantly, on long-term issues, such as thinking about nursing in the future and how we attract and develop the next generation.

“The system can’t be fixed overnight and of course these are big challenges.

“But we’re fronting up to them because we believe New Zealanders deserve a health system that works well for everyone.”   

Meanwhile National’s Shane Reti was releasing a press statement drawing attention to Little’s answer to questions about flu vaccination for over-65s this year.

The Health Minister advised Reti that flu vaccination coverage currently is 63 per cent.

That’s even worse than last year and well below the target vaccination rate of 75 per cent, Reti observed.

Even more worrying is that the flu vaccination rate among Māori is down by 10% compared to last year.

“Some district health boards have experienced an astounding drop in flu vaccination rates. Hawke’s Bay is down by 25 per cent, Whanganui by 21 per cent and Lakes down by 19 per cent. These are DHBs with large Māori populations.”

With around 400 people dying each year from flu, this failure will certainly cost lives.

 “It is hard to think of a single year since Labour have been in Government when the flu vaccine program went to schedule.

 “Following reporting of failed Year 13 vaccines for schoolchildren this year, this is another preventative vaccine that has gone under the coronavirus radar and that New Zealanders will pay the price for.

 “Failed delivery of preventative vaccines for schoolchildren and over-65s, increasing wait times for 30,000 people on hospital lists and increasing waitlists for people with cancer and mental health are all part of this Labour Government’s dirty little secret – it’s incapable of dealing with other critical health needs during Covid.”

Reti’s advice to Little was succinct:

Instead of making health restructuring the top health funding priority this year, as Cabinet documents show, the Government should have been investing in this year’s flu vaccination programme, reducing waiting lists, and prioritising cancer treatment and mental health assistance.

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