PM Jacinda Ardern suggests migrant nurses put off by needing to stay in role for two years 'perhaps don't want to be a nurse in NZ'

The Prime Minister is defending the Government's residency rules for nurses suggesting if the barrier is too high "perhaps they don't want to be a nurse in New Zealand". 

The healthcare sector is overwhelmed as staff shortages, COVID-19 and a particularly bad flu season all hit at once. 

Nursing shortages are of particular concern after they were excluded from the same residency rules as GPs in the Government's immigration reset. 

Earlier in the year, the Government announced a new Green List for skilled immigrants. The fast-tracked residency pathway means those in certain skilled occupations could come to the country on a work visa from July 4 and apply for residency from September. 

A Work to Residency Pathway allows other occupations to apply for residency but only after working in the country for two years first. 

Occupations on the fast-tracked list include GPs, surgeons, engineers and several construction roles. The second pathway includes nurses, midwives and teachers. 

The reset was widely criticised as being sexist with Family Planning, Plunket and the New Zealand Nurses Organisation taking fire at the fact that mostly male-dominated jobs made it into the first list while female-dominated jobs were on the secondary list. 

At the time, Immigration Minister Michael Wood defended the policy saying working for two years before getting residency is still fast-tracked. 

But Wood also suggested he was open to changes if the system didn't work.

When questioned on Monday by AM host Ryan Bridge whether the Government was planning to change their policy to include nurses in the fast-tracked list, Jacinda Ardern said they already have a pathway to residency

"All we're asking is that you not just be qualified but that you be willing to work as a nurse. Because of course, we won't solve our problem unless people come in and are willing to be a nurse while they're here," Ardern told Bridge. 

"So we've simplified it. In the past, there was only one nursing category that had a pathway to residency or a simple one, and that was aged care, we've now opened that up across the board. And relative to other countries we have a very simple in some cases, most cases I would argue, better and easier pathway to residence."

When asked why nurses were expected to work for two years before applying for residency but doctors weren't, Ardern said nurses were more likely to gain residency and leave the sector than GPs. 

"Immigration New Zealand was proposing that they work [for] two years first. What I was advised at the time was that it was a request that had come through because there had been a slightly higher rate of those who would come into New Zealand as nurses exiting the workforce, so that was the reason for that."

When asked what evidence the Prime Minister had to support the theory that nurses were more likely to switch careers, Ardern said she had already answered the question.  

"I actually answered it in the first question - a slightly smaller but slightly higher rate of exit amongst those migrant nurses who were coming into others." 

When questioned what percentage the increase was, Ardern said it was "relatively small, but higher".

She said the request to put nurses on the secondary list came from the District Health Boards.

Ardern also suggested if the two-year requirement was too high for some nurses, perhaps they didn't actually want to come and work as a nurse in Aotearoa. 

"If the issue is that we have a nursing shortage, why would you not want someone who came into the country to come in not just with a qualification but with a commitment to be a nurse?" the Prime Minister questioned. 

"If people think that the barrier is too high that suggests that perhaps they don't want to be a nurse in New Zealand, and that is really what we need them for." 

The Prime Minister didn't clarify exactly how much more likely nurses were to leave the sector than doctors. 

Ardern's comments come after the New Zealand Nurses Organisation warned patients will die unless staffing shortages are fixed.