Living with the consequences of decisions made by others


10 January  2022

Urgent message from ANMF (SA Branch) CEO/Secretary Adj Associate Professor Elizabeth Dabars AM

For most of the last two years, nurses, midwives and aged care workers have lived with the impacts of COVID19.

When politicians talk about us ‘learning to live with COVID’ they are really talking about permitting the outbreak of the virus and accepting the results of the illness that will follow.

South Australia, like many other parts of the country, has been successful until very recently in putting restrictions and control measures in place which limited – if not eliminated – community transmission of the virus.
That did not mean that nurses, midwives and aged care workers were not living with the effects of COVID.

For the last two years members have been working under strain: maintaining hospitals and health care systems under demand pressures, working in understaffed and under-resourced aged care facilities and, at the same time standing up testing and immunization services. Creating and working in quarantine services. Responding to outbreaks in other states – notably the Victorian private aged care outbreaks.

So when the Premier, Mr Marshall, announced that South Australia would lifts its border restrictions late November last year there were very mixed responses from members.

Happiness that families would be able to meet again face to face. Pleasure that interstate (and even some overseas) holidays would become a possibility. Hope that an end was in sight.

Trepidation, and even some fear, about the inevitable spread of the Delta strain of the virus which was impacting other states.

Even before the border restrictions were lifted there were calls for the decision to be reversed following the arrival of Omicron in eastern states and early evidence of its increased transmissibility and impact.

Our State Government decided to ignore the health advice and re-open the borders. After two years of following, and applauding, the advice of our Chief Public Health Officer, the Marshall Government decided to overrule the advice of Professor Spurrier who, on two occasions, asked for the borders to be shut. Even after Omicron was spreading in our state, the Marshall Government persisted with plans to remove public health measures that had worked to prevent the spread of COVID: including density measures, mask wearing and the like. 

Instead of relaxing with family and friends during the festive season, nurses, midwives and care workers were dealing with record numbers of people needing testing in searing heat, trying to care for older people in residential care in the absence of staff themselves furloughed after exposure and managing COVID patients in growing numbers in our hospitals.

We are already hearing member stories about shortages of staff, PPE that is not readily available when needed, tea rooms and rest areas closed to staff at times of the day when other larger facilities are closed, staff being asked to return from annual or sick leave to care for people in need and ambulances ramped in front of EDs with patients needing care and COVID positive in hot, cramped and air limited environments.

Whilst it was likely an inevitability that we would experience an outbreak of COVID in South Australia, it was not inevitable that we would tackle the pandemic without adequate resources and planning. Despite the significant lead-in time and planned re-opening, the State commenced behind the ball.

Successive State Governments, including most recently the Marshall Government know because we have been telling them for nearly four years of the shortages of nurses and midwives in our public hospitals and until very recently had failed to act to address the issues. They knew about the shortages in specialist skills in critical care, mental health, perioperative nursing and in ED – again because we have been warning them about these issues for years.

The Marshall Government knew, again because we have been telling them, about the shortage of capacity in our public hospitals, the need for more beds and better services and the need to manage flow and discharge. 

Despite the public messaging by the Marshall Government that they are investing $7.4 billion into health and making more than 392 more beds available, the experiences we hear from you, our members, suggests that either the spending has not occurred yet or has otherwise not been a success.  At the time of writing many of the beds claimed are yet to be opened or staffed to assist meet public demand.

Successive Federal Governments, including most recently the Morrison Government knew because we and numerous reports and inquiries including the Royal Commission told them that aged care services had insufficient staff and resources to provide the care needed in normal times – never mind about provision of care during a pandemic outbreak.

There was also clear evidence about the need to boost the initial vaccinations and indeed this program had started but is still nowhere near completion, weeks after restrictions were removed. The vaccination roll out for children between 5-12 years is only just about to commence. We have already seen evidence of the devastating impact that Omicron can have for all age groups, particularly those with underlying health conditions.

Two things flow from this experience:

1. The State and Federal Governments need to act now to address the issues that flow from the national and state disasters that have resulted from their actions. They need to fix the testing systems that are seeing members denied access to RAT tests when they are meant to be available, and they need to ensure that PCR testing provides speedy results to health care workers to ensure that they can safely continue at work and also be safe at home.

They need to bolster the workforce NOW. We need systems and supports to ensure that nurses, midwives and care workers can do their job safely and provide the best possible care to the patients and their families.

They need to reintroduce public health measures that will minimize the spread of the virus, mask wearing, social distancing and capacity limits, and other practices which have served us in the last 2 years should be reintroduced where they can still help. 

2. The State and Federal Government need to be held accountable for the decisions that they have made. Both the Premier and the Prime Minister have failed to follow the advice provided by public health experts. The Premier was urged by the State’s own Chief Public Health Officer to reimpose border restrictions as the risk of Omicron was apparent. He refused to follow that advice.
The Prime Minister has been urged to provide free and ready access to RAT tests. 

The ANMF (SA Branch) is continuing to hear from members confronted by the systems failures and lack of support in their hospitals, aged care and other health services.

We are raising these issues with local managers, the state health department and through public advocacy. We will also continue to raise these issues directly, wherever possible, with the Minister for Health and the Marshall Government and to work collaboratively with our Federal Office. 

Please let your worksite representative or an ANMF (SA Branch) officer know where there are problems in your workplace, particularly where they are endangering patient or staff safety, so we can escalate them expeditiously. Visit our COVID website page to keep informed about our advice, actions and responses to FAQ’s.

We will continue to work for and with you in their resolution.

Stay safe and stay strong in the challenging days and weeks ahead.