Michael Wood 'open' to immigration changes for nurses if new system fails

By Russell Palmer and Craig McCulloch of RNZ

As new visa rules take effect, Minister of Immigration Michael Wood says he will monitor settings for nurses and will remain open to changes.

The minister was grilled at select committee by opposition MPs this afternoon about government's long-promised immigration "reset".

It marked a shift away from a low-cost labour model that had predominated over the last 15 years, to be more focused on needed skills, sustainable workforces and fair treatment of migrant workers, he said.

The changes mean those on a fast-tracked Green List will be able to apply for residence within six months of attaining a work visa, while others - including nurses - will be on a 'work to residence pathway' which allows residence applications but only after two years of work.

Nurses have warned since the policy was announced in May the changes would do little to help a system already under severe strain.

With visa applications under that new system opening yesterday, Wood - taking on the role last month after the departure of Kris Faafoi, who championed the so-called reset - stood by the settings decisions.

"We don't think it is unreasonable for there to be a requirement for two years of work before a residency is attained, and that gives us maximum confidence that visas that are issued will result in people working in that area," he said.

"I do reject the characterisation that a person being able to come into New Zealand, work for two years, and achieve residency is anything like a slow track. It is a significantly advanced pathway."

He did, however, leave his options open in case the reset did not have the hoped-for effect.

"We think it's landed in a good place, but as I've said consistently along the way: the outcome is what matters. I'll be keeping a close eye on how the settings go, bearing in mind the whole system only really kicked in from yesterday.

"If we need to make adjustments as we move forward to get to the outcomes, then I'll certainly be open to doing that."

Nurses Organisation chief executive Paul Goulter said they welcomed the minister's openness on the matter, but expected he would see the need for change soon.

"He will become quickly aware of the crisis that exists with the lack of nurses at the front line and he will make those changes," he said

"Unfortunately the government is saying there's not a crisis in the health sector. There's a lot of voices and most New Zealanders know there's a crisis in health, and this is just part of the solution to it but this is something we could move on pretty quickly, so let's just do it."

They were disappointed to hear the policy would not be changing sooner, and Goulter said the government's concern nurses would flee the country was yet to be proved.

"And secondly that's not a reason not to have more nurses come into the country - and a large number of them will and do want to stay, and that's what's reported to us. This policy sort of puts in our view a number of artificial barriers in place of that."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, in Melbourne as part of her trade mission to Australia, said a balance needed to be struck for handling skills shortages in particular areas.

She said the government's view was that having nurses able to gain residence without working in New Zealand's health system would not help with the shortage.

"We know that what we have to do is make sure that in New Zealand - and we've had work to do on this, we're increasing the wages so since 2017 a 20 percent increase, also making sure that we're trying to staff to safe standards - that requires us to hire more nurses too.

"We're trying to maintain the wages and standards we have in New Zealand because otherwise we unfortunately do see wages decrease potentially as a result."

But National Party immigration spokesperson Erica Stanford noted Health NZ Te Whatu Ora chief executive Margie Apa had, on day one of the new national health entity's establishment last week, called for nurses to be prioritised on the fast track.

Rob Campbell, the body's chair, also listed staffing concerns as a top priority.

"There is no justification for making nurses wait two years for residence," Stanford said in a statement this afternoon.

"The only common sense and logic that the minister should be applying is that nurses will continue to choose Australia which is rolling out the red carpet in comparison. It's that simple."

Stanford challenged Wood on the discrepancy between doctors being included on the Green List, but not nurses.

He argued the difference was the degree of specialisation.

"On the whole it seems to be less likely that someone who works in a highly specialised role as a doctor is likely to find employment in a different role. There are likely to be a wider range of roles that someone in a nursing profession might be able to apply themselves to," he said.

Stanford said that did not add up, with civil and electrical engineering technicians requiring a level-6 diploma also fast-tracked while nurses with specialised skills in areas like critical, paediatric, surgical or perioperative care requiring a three-year degree needed to wait.

Wood said 2300 nurses were able to enter New Zealand via border exemptions, between 2000 to 3000 were likely to attain permanent residency through the 2021 residency visa, and the two-year pathway was in place now as well.

He said the current demand for nurses was a result of "years and years of failing to put the investment in to train up a sufficient domestic workforce" and he was looking forward to tackling the problem "from both ends" with Health NZ.