9 Sep 2021

Hospital visitors clustered together during level 4 say cancer patients

7:24 pm on 9 September 2021

Auckland District Health Board has been accused of putting vulnerable patients and a stretched workforce at risk with lenient rules for visitors during lockdown.

Auckland City Hospital

Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

Two cancer patients have recounted their recent daily visits to Auckland Hospital to RNZ - describing the lack of strict rules as distressing.

They said there was an appalling lack of social distancing with visitors clustered together in queues and narrow corridors.

Under alert level 4, hospitals around the country have only been letting visitors in on compassionate grounds, but Auckland hospitals are letting in two visitors per patient.

The Resident Doctors Association national secretary Deborah Powell said up until today the rules were even more relaxed.

"It was basically an unrestricted policy. Today they have limited the number of visitors and how long they can be in the hospital with any patient," she said.

"We're still going to see patients in the hospital and screening is still inadequate. There's no testing people before they come into the hospital, there's no enquiry around vaccination status."

She said the association wanted another rethink of the rules - ideally no visitors at all bar some exceptional circumstances.

The Nurses Organisation agreed - and it had put its concerns in a letter to the Director General of Health.

Nursing and professional services manager Kate Weston explained it was also worried about poor visitor behaviour, including people refusing to wear masks and turning up in groups.

"We are in a level 4 pandemic and we still have Covid spread in our community. So we cannot afford to have people unwittingly bringing Covid into the system," she said.

She said vulnerable patients were at risk as well as hard-working staff.

"Our workforce is already stretched. We don't have the numbers to be able to unnecessarily stand staff down because they've been exposed."

In a statement Auckland District Health Board's director of provider services Dr Mike Shepherd said there'd been a a full risk assessment for the visitor policy and are the health board was comfortable any risks were being well managed.

He noted that each visitor was screened for symptoms of Covid-19, and the two visitors per patient wouldn't be allowed to visit on the same day as each other.

Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield confirmed he'd got the letter from the Nurses Organisation, and said staff members have talked to the health board and confirmed its approach to visitors was constant with the national policy.

However he said work is already underway to update the national guidelines around hospital visitors.

"Our team is working with people across the DHBs to review and revise the visitor policy in light of the Delta," he said.

"That works being concluded today so there will be updated guidance."

Dr Deborah Powell was hoping changes happen quicker than last time.

"To get this improvement, this slight improvement that ADHB has implemented as of today, the unions had to issue a PIN notice which is a health and safety notice enforcing an employer to take due regard of the health and safety impacts this is having on workers," she said.

Auckland District Health Board declined RNZ's requests for an interview.

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