Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

SocietyAugust 20, 2021

‘Here we go again’: Auckland nurses on returning to high alert

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

The latest Covid-19 community outbreak has plunged us back into lockdown – and for some the challenge is steeper than others. Two Auckland nurses speak to the Spinoff about the reality of confronting another lockdown.

Geraldine and Di were both at work on Tuesday when they heard about the community case. They weren’t surprised. As nurses, they’ve both been keeping tabs on the news – on the number of cases in MIQ, on the variants as they evolved and spread, and on the number of Covid-19 tracer app scans. We were meant to be assiduous, but it seemed complacency had crept back in. “Whenever you went to the stores you’d see all these people passing you when you’re the only one going to the QR code,” says Di.

But now that the delta variant – a highly-contagious variant of Covid-19 – is in the community, New Zealanders are back in lockdown and feeling cautious. “Things have changed with this variant, especially when we hear about what’s happened around the rest of the world,” says Di. “The news has spread that this variant is quite deadly.”

But despite the delta variant’s reputation, and the fact both of them work in Auckland – where the cluster is growing and includes an Auckland Hospital nurse  – they’re no more concerned for their safety than a week ago. The trenches of Covid-19 are part and parcel of their career. “We’ve chosen to be in this job, and we’re here to serve our people,” says Di. “It’s a calling for us.”

“We take the risks that come with our job,” says Geraldine. “It’s a known risk, and I think we go into this profession consciously.”

However, moving up to alert level four is still a huge shift for essential workers like these two,  even though they’re both fully vaccinated. “Things have dramatically changed,” says Geraldine. “We’re dealing with patient anxiety, our colleagues’ anxiety, and our own anxiety. My workload’s completely changed.” 

Most DHBs have switched appointments to video instead of in-person where possible, but compared to last year’s lockdown the clinics Geraldine and Di work at are seeing a higher number of patients. Geraldine says because some GPs will only see patients in real need, hospitals are getting more visits.

“I’ve had maybe 20 calls this morning from patients asking, ‘am I still coming for my treatment?’ and what we’re saying is ‘absolutely’. We’ve donned our level four coats and gone ‘here we go again’!”

The coats come with plenty of PPE, which, they say, is in ample supply.

Yesterday was meant to be a strike day for nurses nationwide. Geraldine and Di are both members of the New Zealand Nurses Organisation, and the change in alert level doesn’t mean their issues around pay and working conditions have changed. “Those concerns are absolutely at the front of my mind but how could we strike, morally, when we’re in the middle of a level four nationwide – we just couldn’t do it.”

Both nurses feel calling off the strike was the right move. “We didn’t go into that lightly,” says Geraldine. “If the negotiations had gone well and all the claims had been answered we wouldn’t be in this position.”

This would have been the third strike under a Labour-led government. The first was in 2018, and the second in June. Neither has resulted in an alleviation of the staffing shortage the NZNO is concerned about. “That was the issue that actually tipped most members over,” says Geraldine. “They could not vote ‘yes’ because the staffing claim was not met.”

“Nurses are the backbone of the healthcare system,” she says. “Nurses, midwives, and healthcare assistants.”

Di stresses that understaffing of the healthcare system is dangerous. “We want to be able to care for our patients – we want to care for them in a safe environment, and it’s so unsafe because of a lack of staffing.”

Desperate times have called for desperate measures – radical changes in PPE use and education, cordoning off areas of hospitals, creating Covid-19 and non-Covid-19 patient pipelines. “Nurses are the ones who move forward and say, ‘I’m happy to do this’,” says Geraldine. “We’re here to help, and we’re doing it differently. We’re working outside our normal areas, and normal hours – we’re doing it again.”

Interviews were conducted on the condition only first names used

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