COVID-19: Health Minister Andrew Little unsure why private hospitals were told to cancel surgeries

Health Minister Andrew Little says it remains "a mystery" why private health providers were told to postpone or cancel planned surgeries.

Auckland's DHBs last week sent a directive to the city's private hospitals asking them to "hold off" on surgeries, Stuff reported - fearing they might be needed to handle overflow from the public system if the COVID-19 outbreak got out of control. 

Neither the Ministry of Health nor the Cancer Control Agency were involved in the directive, which was reversed a day later - after some patients' procedures had already been rescheduled or cancelled.

There are currently 39 people in hospital with COVID-19. The country has 326 ICU beds under normal circumstances, Little told The AM Show on Wednesday, but can "surge" to 550 if required. 

He said while there was "a reason" for the directive, it wasn't really necessary.

"Sometimes surgeries in private hospitals don't go well and the only ICU backup is in the public health system. That said, there are cancer procedures where the risk or threat of having to go to ICU is minimal to negligible and procedures can take place. 

"The reality is too, right throughout this lockdown cancer procedures - certainly treatment, but also procedures - have continued regardless, because for some of those cancer diagnoses, they need that straight away. 

"The DHBs that put out the missive about no more private surgeries, that has been retracted so private hospitals are now getting back to the scheduled surgical procedures. So those who have been delayed should expect to get those rescheduled… It was a mystery to pretty much everybody I spoke to and it was withdrawn last week."

Little also rejected claims by an ICU specialist that just 20 COVID-19 patients requiring intensive care would push the public system to its limits, and that the number of ICU beds available hadn't changed in a year. 

NZ chair of the Australia-New Zealand Intensive Society, Craig Carr, made the comments to Stuff earlier this week. New South Wales currently has COVID-19 patients taking up 189 of its 874 beds. They typically stay longer than most ICU patients, Dr Carr said, putting more pressure on the system.

Andrew Little.
Andrew Little. Photo credit: The AM Show

Auckland has 126 ICU beds, according to a response the Ministry of Health gave to an Official Information Act request in June

The number of beds is constrained largely by staffing. It takes 5.5 nurses to staff a single ICU bed, taking into account shift hours, according to Wellington ICU co-director Alex Psirides. Little told The AM Show another 1200 nurses had been trained to handle ICU duties in the past year, disputing Dr Carr's claims there had been no increase. 

"I'm not quite sure where he gets his information from."