Head of New Zealand Nurses Organisation disagrees with PM Hipkins' claim health system is in better shape

The head of the nurses union has hit back at Prime Minister Chris Hipkins' claim the health sector is in better shape than it was three years ago. 

It comes as 57,000 nurses, midwives, health care assistants and kaimahi hauora will hold rallies on Saturday between 11am and 1pm at 20 locations around the country. 

The rallies, organised by the New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO), are the first time all 57,000 NZNO members are being called on to rally for united action, regardless of the area of nursing they work in.

NZNO says the issues boil down to the same things for every nurse, "unsafe staffing levels and a fundamental undervaluing of the work they do". 

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said he believes New Zealand's healthcare system is better prepared to cope with COVID-19 cases.

"It's an ongoing process. The health system's better prepared now than it was three years ago and it will continue to improve," he told reporters.

But NZNO CEO Paul Goulter disagreed with the Prime Minister.

"It clearly hasn't improved and has been bad for a number of years, it's not just three years ago," Goulter told AM co-host Amanda Gillies on Thursday.

"COVID obviously accentuated that but the lived experience of our nurses and other health care workers at the front line is it's bad." 

Goulter said nurses are telling him that the conditions they work in are "unsafe" for them and their patients. 

"Everyone in this country is obviously going to be very, very concerned about entering into the health system," Goulter said. 

"We've got workers, doctors, nurses, allied health professionals right across the board from GP practices, right into hospital, actually being flogged to death, trying to maintain a system that's failing and what do we get in response? We get extensive restructuring of Te Whatu Ora, but nothing coming to the front line that we can identify."

A big issue facing the health sector is the massive number of nurses crossing the ditch for better-paid jobs and work conditions. 

Almost 5000 Kiwi nurses have registered to practise in Australia since August, according to the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (Ahpra) and the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Australia.

So far Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall has not said the sector is in a crisis but Goulter believes it is. 

"I know the Minister won't call it a crisis, but this is a crisis and for the ones that are left behind, of course, it just becomes worse and worse for them," he said. 

"They get under more pressure. Everyone knows the disaster stories around emergency departments, the waits, they're being packed up in corridors, etc. as nurses and doctors and other health professionals work really hard to clear those, but they're just not being resourced."

New Zealand Nurses Organisation CEO Paul Goulter.
New Zealand Nurses Organisation CEO Paul Goulter. Photo credit: AM

Goulter said the reason for the rally on Saturday is that nurses have "had enough" and will not put up with the conditions they work in anymore. 

"Health professionals start leaving our health system, and we know that that's happening right now so that will get worse," Goulter told AM.

"People will not enter into training to work in health because they keep hearing the disaster stories and ultimately things like industrial action inevitably take place due to the heightened frustrations of people working in health. I don't think this adds up to a very good picture."

Watch the full interview with Paul Goulter in the video above.