Health sector concerned not enough boots on the ground to tackle COVID-19 in New Zealand

Half-a-billion-dollars will be injected into the health system to help tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, with an emergency boost to be spent on GPs, equipment, medicines and remote consultations.

But while the sector is welcoming the money, they are concerned there simply are not enough boots on the ground.

Health Minister David Clark has been told by the Prime Minister he's got an open cheque book to maintain New Zealanders' wellbeing in the fight against the coronavirus.

"As a Health Minister, it's not often you get that mandate - that actually resource should not be your constraint," Dr Clark said on Tuesday. 

The $500 million health relief package is still just one-twentieth of the total spend announced.

When asked if health is getting enough in the package, Dr Clark suggested the Government has already put significant funding into the sector in the previous two Budgets.

Vince Barry from Pegasus Health told Newshub any investment in primary care is "critical at a time when there was pre-existing significant pressure in that environment".

The Government's urgent health spending plan allocates:

  • $40 million for contact tracing
  • $50 million for GPs
  • $20 million for virtual consultations
  • $20 million for Healthline
  • $32 million for emergency room equipment

But while funding from Finance Minister Grant Robertson may be no constraint for health, a trained-up workforce certainly is.

"It's good to see some of the funding going toward PPE - personal protective equipment - and increasing ICU beds and equipment," Sarah Dalton, executive director at the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists told Newshub.

"But we still need the staff to run those beds, and you can't just magic-up senior doctors overnight."

On Tuesday morning, New Zealand had completed fewer than 600 tests in total.

After the criteria was broadened the same day, the number almost doubled, with 500 now underway. Capacity for testing for COVID-19 is 770, with room to scale up to 1500 tests a day.

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield is warning against laboratory staff being overworked.

"To go from 750 to 1000 that just means doing an extra shift of laboratory staff. We don't want to run laboratory staff into the ground."

There may be an open cheque book for those absolute necessities in the health sector like ventilators and protective gear, but the ultimate limit is people: the medical staff to actually wear the face masks, operate those ventilators, and run those diagnostic tests.