Judith Collins says nurses are right to be outraged that the government is not willing to pay enough to keep them in New Zealand considering the amount spent on benefit increases in the Budget.
Nurses voted yesterday to participate in two 24-hour strikes - on 29 August and 9 September - and another eight-hour strike on 19 August.
They had held an eight-hour strike early last month before returning to negotiations with district health boards over pay and conditions.
Collins said it was a situation of the government's own making because of the cost of reforming the health system, and bureaucratic bloat.
"It's not my job to tell the government what to do on this one, they've got themselves in a hell of a pickle," she said.
"They shouldn't have employed 10,000 extra bureaucrats before Covid-19 came in and they shouldn't have been putting nurses through a whole restructure of the health system and spending close to half a billion dollars on it."
She questioned the government's spending priorities, saying nurses were right to be outraged considering sizeable increases to benefits.
"Nurses have said to me they've looked at the Budget and what they saw was lots of money - around three to four billion dollars - in extra benefits for people who don't work and the nurses are rightly outraged."
It was important to understand there were spots available in managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) to bring in more nurses, she said, and the workforce was being lost to Australia.
"Scott Morrison the Australian Prime Minister's made it very clear to me. If we don't value people here - whether they are coming in from overseas or New Zealand born and bred - then Australia would be happy to have them."
"The government has 2000 MIQ spots where they could be bringing in overseas nurses to work in New Zealand and they haven't been."
With the more infectious Delta strain running rampant overseas, Australia has halved the number of people allowed into the country.
Collins would not say whether it would be acceptable to accept more people into New Zealand, but disputed the idea doing so would automatically mean increased risk.
"They're certainly not cutting them from New Zealand are they.
"Clearly ... we have to choose. Do we want to have the situation where we have 2000 beds left vacant?"
"We've said all along people should be tested before they get on planes to New Zealand, there should be saliva testing every day, there should be all of these steps in place and the government quite simply is now just starting to talk about it.
"Don't cry if we don't have enough nurses when we've got all these MIQ spots. We've got nuses from overseas who are living and working in New Zealand who were promised they could bring their families with them, now they're told, sorry you don't even get a look in.
"Now Australia's saying 'come to us and we'll sort it out'."
The union, the Nurses Organisation (NZNO), told RNZ they were still hopeful nurses would not have to walk off the job, but they believed they had the full backing of the public.
NZNO manager Glenda Alexander said there was a gap of at least 15-20 percent between female nurses and their male counterparts in similar roles with similar qualifications.
Collins was critical of the government over pay equity, but said National also supported pay equity for nurses.
"The government went into this with the pay equity scheme and idea and they campaigned on it and they've got to deliver on their promises.
"We are saying it needs to be fair pay and it also needs to be affordable and what's not affordable is us losing more nurses to Australia with no nurses coming in at the moment and half a billion dollars extra on administration, bureaucracy, and a redo of the entire public health system in a pandemic when we're losing nurses and doctors."
DHBs said their focus remained on finding a way to settle the collective agreement with the nurses organisation.
Spokesperson Dale Oliff said DHBs spent two days with the organisation and an independent mediator last week discussing options for settling the pay talks, and while nurses had endorsed a strike proposal, DHBs believed they can come up with an offer to settle the pay talks.