The NSW Government “grossly undervalued” the work of nurses and midwives who supported the state’s COVID-19 response, causing many to question their careers, a parliamentary inquiry has been told.
Representatives from unions, the medical community, independent health experts and those involved in the aged care sector are appearing today at the upper house inquiry into the State Government’s handling of the pandemic.
NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association assistant general secretary Shaye Candish told the inquiry the Government had “grossly undervalued” members of the union during COVID-19.
Nurses and midwives were under great pressure in summer when the Omicron variant hit and the Government relaxed social distancing restrictions leading to many nurses doing their jobs outside in the heat, in full personal protective equipment (PPE), for long hours.
“They continue to carry the burden of the entire health and hospital services right across the state,” Candish told the inquiry.
“The little regard paid by the Government to the sacrifices any health care worker has made, and continues to make, to keep our community safe in this pandemic is astounding.”
The inquiry heard nurses in some cases were working 16-hour shifts, spending up to 15 hours in PPE.
During long shifts wearing PPE, nurses were “completely drenched” in sweat, struggling to stay hydrated, had to change clothes many times a day and some wore incontinence underwear because they were unable to get to bathrooms in time, the committee was told.
Nurses near retirement age, the inquiry was told, were considering exiting the profession early, while recent graduates were questioning their career choice due to the pressure of the pandemic.
“Nurses simply can’t tolerate it any more,” Candish said.
She called for higher pay for nurses and an improvement in nurse-to-patient ratios in care settings, which she said had not changed in eight years.
Another witness, Raina Macintyre, a professor of global biosecurity at the University of NSW, was asked about her view that the state had “surrendered” to COVID-19 when restrictions eased in December.
Macintyre said vaccines were not enough to curb the spread of coronavirus, urging the Government to better educate the public about the importance to “safe indoor air”, and opening windows.
She also urged more access to N95 masks, which the inquiry was told were more effective in combating the virus than cloth masks.
The professor also warned about the potential long-term fallout from the pandemic on the state’s health system, cautioning about a possible future “epidemic of dementia and young-onset heart failure”.
“There are substantial chronic disease implications (for) decades to come,” she said.
Earlier, committee chair and Greens MP David Shoebridge said that since the last sitting of the inquiry in September, many things had changed about the pandemic, including rates of vaccination, boosters, the arrival of Omicron and public policy.
Given the changes, he said “fresh perspectives” on how to handle COVID-19 were essential to plan for the state’s recovery.
The inquiry will later today hear from NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard and Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant.