Michael Wood denies Government slow to act over new health sector roles for Straight to Residence pathway


The immigration minister is defending the pace of the government's immigration changes, under criticism from the opposition the welcome mat for much-needed healthcare workers should have been rolled out a lot earlier.

The government on Tuesday added 32 new health sector roles to the straight-to-residence pathway, to help prepare the health system for the coming winter.

Health Minister Ayesha Verrall on Tuesday said there was global competition for health workers, a workforce that has lost more than 100,000 members to Covid-19.

The changes apply from 29 May - just as the southern hemisphere is heading into winter.

"At the end of 2022, we did make the decision to bring nurses onto the straight-to-residency pathway, and that was where most of the advocacy from the sector had been - so that decision was made at the end of last year," Immigration Minister Michael Wood told RNZ's Morning Report on Wednesday.

"What we said at that time is that we would then do further work with the Ministry of Health and Te Whatu Ora to establish which other roles might be appropriate."

Eight roles were already on the green list, but with a two-year work requirement; the other 32, including dentists, counsellors, social workers and optometrists, are new.

"The work involves looking really closely at what the workforce needs are, what's coming through in New Zealand, where the shortages are, what we're seeing in the international market - which is extremely pressured across virtually every country - and establishing that there was a solid case providing a straight-to-residency pathway," Wood explained.

"You've got to remember that offer of straight-to-residency is a very significant thing. It isn't something that we just apply to any role where someone asks us. You do need to have a good level of evidence that you need a really, really attractive offer."

National Party leader Christopher Luxon, also speaking to Morning Report, said Wood was making "excuses for a government that was too arrogant and stubborn to say they got it wrong".

"We've been talking about it. The sector's been talking about it. Experts have been talking about it. We've had other countries actively accelerating their health workforce into their countries for over a year, and I just think it's common sense and it's sadly, you know, all too little, too late. And you know, these workers aren't going to be here in time for winter, frankly."

He said Prime Minister Chris Hipkins - whose past portfolios include health and the Covid-19 response - had been "gaslighting" the country about the state of the health system.

"You've had places like Australia and Canada with much more competitive settings, much more welcoming and accelerating their health workforce into the country. And you know, we've come to this way, way too late. It's great that we're doing it and we support it, but obviously we've been calling for it for a year."

Christopher Luxon says National has wanted the changes for a year.
Christopher Luxon says National has wanted the changes for a year. Photo credit: Newshub

Wood said global competition for healthcare workers was just one difficulty the health sector was dealing with, on top of increased demand driven by Covid-19, and a lack of long-term planning.

"If you look at some of these roles, some of these are highly specialised medical roles that take years of formal training and the years of additional training actually when you're in the workforce. So you sort of can't turn it around on a dime. You've gotta get that workforce strategy in place, but it all takes some years to pay off."

Increased pay for the healthcare workforce, particularly nurses, was also key to keeping domestically trained staff here, Wood said.

"It's all very well to get people in - you've also got to work really hard on keeping the people that you've got."

Some in the healthcare sector - particularly aged care - expressed concern that the straight-to-residency pathway might encourage some to apply, only to use their residency status to secure work in Australia. Wood said it was not the majority view, however.