Editorial
Nurses not hearses

One placard says what all the others are saying. It does so in polite, weary letters, in the voice of a nurse after a long shift, who doesn’t have a pun or a drawing of a skeleton, just a simple observation: “We are not coping.”

This is the underlying truth of the strike in New South Wales, the first of its kind in a decade. People have died because of staff shortages, because nurses cannot reach them in time. One nurse says that as she drives home she hears the echo of a patient’s skull hitting the floor. “There’s nothing like that sound when you know they’ve fallen because you couldn’t get there.”

The strike is not just about pay, although nurses deserve that too. It is about the absence of staff-to-patient ratios. In Victoria and Queensland, these ratios have saved lives and ultimately money. In NSW, they continue with the sly chicanery of “nursing hours per patient day”.

Health is one place where money spent is money saved. It comes back almost immediately. In Queensland, staff-to-patient ratios saved $70 million in the five years after they were introduced. At least 145 lives were also saved by the model.

Yet in NSW, two years into a pandemic, as the system buckles, as midwives describe caring for a dozen people at once, a third of them with coronavirus, Health Minister Brad Hazzard refuses to answer nurses’ demands.

“It’s time to let the government know that we’ve had no hope,” O’Bray Smith said at the rally outside state parliament. “They put us in an untenable and unfair situation. Enough is enough. We need the resources and we need the staff and from the beginning this pandemic has been ill managed from the top down.”

Smith is president of the NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association. Her anger comes through the face mask she is wearing. “Now you may have heard that yesterday we had crisis talks,” she told the striking nurses in front of her. “I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard that they were considered crisis talks. What did they offer us? Nothing. No, sorry, a pat on the back: ‘Thanks very much. You’re doing great. Well done.’ But nothing.

“I would hate to see them try to talk down a suicidal patient or get a woman to push out a baby with that game. Make no mistake: those crisis talks were merely a tick box so they could go to the [Industrial Relations Commission] and the media and say, ‘Oh, we tried.’ ”

She said Hazzard still believed in the swindle of nursing hours per patient day. The department praises this system as flexible. “You’ll love this one,” Smith said. “Hazzard believes that if we just tweak the nursing hours per patient day everything will be okay. Oh, it gets better. It gets better. He also suggested that we sit down with hospital executive to sort out the problems with nursing hours per patient day. The minister was very quick to tell us that one-third of the budget goes towards health and he couldn’t possibly afford more.”

It is hard to understand the government’s stubbornness, except that this is what they always do: bleed the public sector, cut away at health and education, ensure that the people whose work is most vital are paid the least to do it.

There is another placard, this one at the strike in Lismore, in northern NSW. It is bigger and it takes two nurses to hold it: “At least the blood on our hands washes off.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 19, 2022 as "Nurses not hearses".

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