Opinion: Health and border workers call for 'work bubbles'

4:33 pm on 16 October 2020

By Glenn Barclay *

Opinion - Thousands of members of the Public Service Association union work in government agencies that keep our border secure and our communities safe, and 2020 may be the hardest year they've ever faced; but their warnings and recommendations should be listened to, writes union representative Glenn Barclay.

Sad female nurse sitting in operation theater at hospital

The Public Service Association represents 75,000 public servants, including health board staff, customs agents, central government staff and workers at state owned enterprises. Photo: 123RF

During a televised election debate, Labour Party leader Jacinda Ardern noted our successful Covid-19 response is thanks to "the strength at our border". She went on to say the border presents our greatest risk.

These risks cannot be eliminated, but they can be mitigated. New Zealand can achieve that by combining expert opinion with strong leadership from agencies and government, and by always respecting and genuinely listening to the voices of workers from the front line.

Back in March, as health workers struggled to find PPE, we called for 'work bubbles' in relevant industries. A work bubble maintains a consistent team of employees, assigned to consistent locations and responsibilities. This helps contain and track possible contagion, and can help improve communication and resource allocation.

Our members want work bubbles at airports, quarantine facilities and other parts of our border system. We have repeatedly discussed this with employers, and some have partially implemented it. The Prime Minister has discussed our proposal in front of the nation.

It's time to put it into action more widely.

Glenn Barclay, General Secretary, PSA

Glenn Barclay is National Secretary of the Public Service Association. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

In workplaces where Covid-19 remains a threat, staff should not move between more locations than absolutely necessary, and their interactions with other people should be limited to what is necessary and safe. This is doable. Employers can work with staff, their unions and their elected health and safety representatives to ensure the right number of people are in the right places, and we will all be safer as a result.

Faced with the unprecedented threat of Covid-19, New Zealand built a managed isolation and quarantine service from the ground up. It's one we can be proud of, described by recent international studies as the best in the world.

Because this managed isolation system is publicly provided and not run by private corporations, inevitable teething problems have been kept to a minimum. Transparency, accountability and a commitment to equal treatment for all New Zealanders are values that form the bedrock of what public service is all about. Profit seeking and queue jumping, by contrast, have no place in our pandemic response.

The workers involved need support, both from employers and the public. Few people can truly appreciate (even imagine) the cumulative stress of being on the front line for months in the fight against Covid-19.

It's not stress you leave at the office. It follows you home, and this takes a toll on workers and their families. They keep going back because they know someone has to, and they accept the responsibility of protecting this country.

Public servants have sometimes been siloed in their particular institutions, but New Zealand is moving away from this. Flexible and practical interagency cooperation is key to success, and Te Kawa Mataaho (the Public Service Commission) is progressively integrating the work our public servants do. The new Public Service Act clearly signals this is the way forward.

Thousands of workers were shifted this year into different government roles due to the disruptive impact of Covid-19. This highlights the need to ensure terms and conditions of employment are consistent throughout the public service, and to ensure strategies are built collaboratively by multiple agencies right from the first step.

We should not, however, confuse practical and effective inter-agency cooperation with the idea of mashing different agencies together into a new supergroup. Few processes are more disruptive than a mega-merger, and it cannot guarantee improved results. Dismantling, restructuring and transforming multiple agencies to form some new combined entity risks taking time and resources away from the more important task of keeping Covid-19 at bay.

As a new government forms, Covid-19 still menaces our shores. Let's keep border and managed isolation staff in our thoughts, and let's put their experience and expertise at the heart of any discussions about what to do next.

* Glenn Barclay is the Public Service Association National Secretary.

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