9 Feb 2021

MIQ nurses speak out: 'We're going to get sloppy ... we're tired and stressed'

11:03 am on 9 February 2021

MIQ nurses fear there will be another Covid-19 community outbreak if staffing numbers aren't boosted at isolation facilities across the country.

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Photo: 123RF

Nurses at Managed Isolation and Quarantine facilities told RNZ they feel they are 'drowning' due to on-going staffing and pay issues.

*Samantha has been working in an Auckland MIQ facility since November.

She said the working conditions weren't sustainable, and believed this could result in a breach of Covid-19 at the border.

"The big concern is always that it's going to get out into the community, and that standards of infection control practices are going to slip, because everyone is exhausted. Really exhausted. We're going to get sloppy, because we're tired and stressed and not give a shit."

She said nurses were leaving en masse, resulting in huge gaps in their rosters.

"I've done two 24-hour shifts, where you work a day and there was nobody to cover the night, so I stayed on and worked through until the next morning. There's literally nobody, literally nobody."

*Lynda has worked in a central Auckland MIQ facility since it first opened.

She also experienced severe staff shortages, and said things got 'significantly worse' when the district health boards (DHBs) took over employing staff from healthcare agency, Geneva, towards the end of last year.

"At least twice a week I'm on the phone looking for staff for the next day, because I know that we're going to be short. It's hard, it's stressful."

Lynda's pay was slashed from $50 to $35 an hour when the DHBs took over.

She said staff at MIQ facilities don't receive hazard pay, making it difficult to retain employees.

She's also concerned there will be a Covid-19 outbreak in the community.

"If you have got a tired and exhausted workforce, and don't forget, a lot of these people have been working for months and months and months in this environment. I mean, anything's a possibility."

*Alison started working across a number of Auckland MIQ facilities in April but left the job last month.

"I felt tired. I felt disappointed and discouraged."

On three occasions, she had to work 24-hour shifts to cover rosters, and over 10 months, worked countless overtime.

"That happened so often. No one showed up."

Crowne Plaza Hotel in Central Auckland is a designated isolation facility for people who have entered the country post COVID 19.

Crowne Plaza Hotel in Central Auckland is a designated isolation facility for people who have entered the country post Covid-19. Photo: RNZ / Simon Rogers

New more infectious strains of the disease are putting further pressure on nurses, with many returnees now requiring an extra virus test.

Lynda said that's on top of the hundreds of daily health checks that must also be completed.

"We're doing all the day three and day twelve swabs, as well as all the staff testing, and now they've brought in day zero swabbings as well. That just adds more work onto our already high work load with no additional staff, and no additional pay."

The understaffing, she said, meant they couldn't give extra support to those who needed it within MIQ.

"You know, people are coming back after visiting sick or dying people overseas, so they are going to need extra emotional support because they're now on their own in a room for two weeks.

"And then we also have people coming back to see sick or dying relatives and they don't know whether they're still going to be alive by the time they get out. It's those kind of things that are getting missed because of the short staff."

Alison said MIQ facilities were fragile and unsustainable, and said there was only one solution.

"We need to reduce the number of flights coming into New Zealand. The work force is not capable. There are not enough nurses."

New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO) associate professional services manager Kate Weston said these concerns weren't isolated and needed to be addressed urgently.

"It's distressing but unfortunately it's not surprising. Ours members have been contacting us with their distress around unsafe staffing in these facilities and as NZNO, we have escalated those concerns.

"But we've been saying, 'there are concerns, we are worried about the staffing' but it's getting to a point now where there's a new variant, it's more transmissible. The pressures on this small group of nurses and healthcare workers are extreme."

Northern Region DHB Covid-19 Response head Margie Apa said in a statement she recognised working at the border 'isn't easy'.

She said they took the health and safety of staff and guests at MIQ facilities 'very seriously', adding that their record in this area was 'good'.

Apa also encouraged all staff to talk to their manager if they had concerns.

Meanwhile, all three nurses have said the job has taken a significant toll on their personal lives.

Samantha said the entire situation was exhausting.

"I can never hug anybody, and nobody wants to hug me. People step away from me if they know I'm in managed isolation. They literally go 'oh my god get away from me'. So, it's lonely."

NZNO said urgent action must be taken by the Ministry of Health and the DHBs, and asked all members with concerns to get in touch.

PM involved

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says she wants to look into concerns raised about inadequate staffing of nurses at MIQ facilities.

Ardern said she wants to ensure nurses have a safe working environment.

The government is in close contact with unions, and Ardern wants to look at the reports to see what is happening, she said.

*RNZ has agreed to change the names of the nurses, as they fear they will face retribution for speaking out.

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