Healthcare workers savage Health Minister Andrew Little's claim hospital demand is 'dissipating'

Burnt-out healthcare workers are furious after Andrew Little said hospital demand is already "dissipating".

The Minister of Health made the claim while discussing the huge demand and severe staffing issues emergency departments and GPs are facing around the country.

A combination of significant worker shortages, COVID-19 and a bad season for winter illness are pushing hospitals to their limits.

Staffing issues are so severe hospitals in Auckland and Wellington were recently forced to hand out vouchers for free GP visits because the emergency departments were overwhelmed.

Speaking with AM on Thursday Andrew Little said he is aware hospitals have been under pressure but claimed demand is already dropping.

"The wait times in the EDs are starting to fall away already because what compounded the situation over the last two or three weeks was a combination of there are still elevated levels of COVID-19, there are much higher levels of influenza illnesses that weren't expected at this particular time, and the much higher levels of staff absenteeism. Those things are all starting to change already," Little told AM's Ryan Bridge.

Little made the comment while discussing the health shakeup which will see a new agency, Health NZ, replace all of the District Health Boards.

He said the new agency will help with longer-term issues but in the short term things were already improving.

"At the moment, with the combination of COVID, influenza-like illnesses and the fact that you've got some small age residential care places who can't cope with the people they've got and they've got to send people off to hospital.

"That has put pressure on some of our hospitals over the last sort of two or three, maybe four weeks. That situation is already dissipating.

"But in terms of the long term, what I might describe as chronic problems, the fact that we have a lot of vacancies, particularly for nurses, a lot of vacancies for other medical professional positions… We now have one organisation responsible for recruiting into those roles rather than 20 all in the same market or trying to fix the problems in their patch. We can now get some coordination and coherence to addressing those problems."

But his comments have caused outrage among healthcare workers who say demand is still out of control and there are no signs it will get better.

An Auckland hospital worker called Steph told AM the Minister's suggestion demand is dropping is "an absolute lie".

"To hear him say that these situations are dissipating is an absolute lie. I work in a hospital in Auckland - it is rammed," they said.

"Corridors are full, wait times are crazy, elective operating lists have been cancelled because of bed shortages. Staff shortages are an issue, but so is the simple fact that our health system is way under-resourced and nothing changed in the two years the borders were closed and the Government was preparing for the health system to have increased capacity."

Another hospital worker Donna said they are in desperate need of staff.

A worker at Middlemore, who wanted to remain anonymous, told AM the hospital is at "breaking point".

"Our staff are exhausted and now our patients are dying because we can't get to them all. A woman died in our ED two weeks ago.

"My condolences go to this woman and to her Whānau. She is a casualty of an overwhelmed system," the worker said.

An investigation is underway at Middlemore Hospital after claims a patient left the Emergency Department due to long wait times, only to return three hours later following a life-threatening emergency. The patient later died in intensive care.

Newshub has contacted Andrew Little for a response.