8 Apr 2020

Covid-19: Health workers PPE advice focused on supply, not wellbeing - Nurses Organisation

8:40 am on 8 April 2020

New guidelines for health workers' access to masks and other protective gear are being criticised as more about rationing than caring for staff.

Hospitals set up in preparation for Covid-19

Photo: Ministry of Health / Supplied

The Ministry of Health has just released new advice, working with the main health unions after complaints from frontline workers that they were being stopped from wearing masks.

  • If you have symptoms of the coronavirus, call the NZ Covid-19 Healthline on 0800 358 5453 (+64 9 358 5453 for international SIMs) or call your GP - don't show up at a medical centre

Health staff should now be able to wear protective gear if a patient's Covid-19 risk is unknown, the guideline document said.

That did not mean, however, all health workers needed to wear a mask at all times and the valuable supply must not be wasted, it said.

Nurses Organisation kaiwhakahaere Kerri Nuku said the advice did not focus enough of the wellbeing of staff.

"It seems to be motivated by a more rationing of PPE gear as opposed to giving reassurance that it is freely accessible to members should they request it and should it be needed," she said.

Kerri Nuku, kaiwhakahaere for the Nurses Organisation

Nurses Organisation kaiwhakahaere Kerri Nuku. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Nurses and health care workers, whether working in the community or in DHBs, were at the coal face of the virus and needed to feel safe and valued, she said.

The organisation asked the government and DHBs 10 days ago to adopt a package of measures to guarantee frontline healthcare workers were looked after.

It included better protective equipment, accommodation for those working in high-risk areas, childcare and counselling if needed.

Nuku said the requests had largely been ignored and she was incredibly disappointed.

Nuku told Morning Report she understood the need to preserve supplies, but it was unacceptable to achieve this at the expense of frontline health workers. She said the policy didn't address the emotional and psychological needs of staff.

"The first thing that the guideline talks about is how wellbeing is important... We're hearing still comments from nurses around the country that we're being restricted on use of the PPE gear and straight away that brings into question the intent of this document," she said.

The safety mechanism of having access to PPE whenever staff felt they needed it wasn't there and that gave nurses little reassurance their safety was being put first, she said.

There seemed to be an issue with distribution, with District Health Boards [DHBs] using discretion on how protective gear was made available, Nuku added.

"It does seem to be a distribution flow. That seems to be up to the discretion of the DHB how they distribute that down. I'm mindful that it isn't just masks, that these nurses require, but gowns on the frontline and we've heard of practice where there's only been one gown for the day, so that restriction has caused anxiety among that workforce."

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