Andrew Little watching St John 'very closely', but holding off nationalising it for now

The Health Minister says there are no plans to "nationalise" St John, despite its ongoing money problems.

Nor are there plans to plug perhaps the biggest gap in New Zealand's otherwise universal health service - dental. 

But a years-old promise to make GPs visits cheaper is still on the cards, Andrew Little told Newshub Nation on Saturday.

The St John ambulance service, which has a four-year funding deal with the Government that ends in July 2021, has been asking for extra money to cover serious financial shortfalls. The registered charity is also facing a revolt from staff, some of whom are striking for better pay - which St John says it can't afford, despite receiving regular top-ups of taxpayer cash.

Little, three weeks into his job as Health Minister, said St John doesn't want to lose its charitable status.

"We had a four-year agreement with St John, and top of the four-year funding agreement we've topped that up every year... we gave them additional funding for COVID this year. So we have supported them quite extensively, and we now see they're continuing to have financial issues.

"We will continue to work closely with St John. But if we were to fully-fund it, that gets pretty close to nationalising that service. That would be a very big step to take... That's not our plan at the moment."

Unions say morale is low and vacant positions are either being filled with people lacking experience or not at all.

Little said the Government in the past three years has made considerable investment into St John - such as ensuring double-crewing - and admits the time may come where he may have to step in.

"There's no particular programme of work at the moment, but we are watching very closely about how ambulance services operate." 

Andrew Little.
Andrew Little. Photo credit: Newshub Nation

As for dental care, Little admitted the Government has "to do a lot better", but fully funding services is not an option. 

"In terms of a broader expansion, we're simply not in a position to do that at the moment."

The priority is to immediately lift the amount available in emergency grants from $300 to $1000, as promised before the election, and to catch up with treatment that went missing during the lockdowns, in particular children and adolescents. 

As for Labour's promise for cheaper GP visits - one that dates back to before the 2017 election that's unfulfilled as yet - Little said that's still the goal.

"We went part of the way - we made it cheaper for those with Community Services cards - but we didn't go the full way. What we found was the problem with the DHBs was way bigger than we thought, so we ploughed billions of extra dollars in terms of capital funding and operational funding into the DHBs. 

"But we are still committed to rolling that policy out in due course."