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Nurses on strike on July 12, 2018 in Auckland. (Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images)
Nurses on strike on July 12, 2018 in Auckland. (Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

The BulletinApril 17, 2023

Can immigration alone fix the nursing crisis?

Nurses on strike on July 12, 2018 in Auckland. (Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images)
Nurses on strike on July 12, 2018 in Auckland. (Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

As nurses protest over staff shortages, questions are being raised about the government’s ability to attract new overseas recruits, writes Catherine McGregor in this excerpt from The Bulletin, The Spinoff’s morning news round-up. To receive The Bulletin in full each weekday, sign up here.

Nurses make national plea for more staff

Sometimes it takes being confronted with specifics to really grasp the size and scale of a crisis like the ongoing one in nursing. So here’s a few data points from recent weeks. In Christchurch, the city hospital was short more than 100 nurses during a single day in late February. In Whangārei, it’s been revealed that during flu season last year the nursing shortage was so acute that hospital bosses appealed to the army for help. And a new Weekend Herald investigation found that hospital employees filed more than 23,000 formal reports of unsafe staffing levels in the past three years. One service in Porirua for people with severe intellectual disabilities recorded more than 1,000 incidents in a single year. For nurses who protested around the country on Saturday, numbers like those are just the tip of the iceberg. “Decades of poor planning, inadequate funding and outright neglect across successive governments have led us to a time of absolute crisis in terms of pay, staffing resources and morale across the nursing sector,” said Paul Goulter of the NZ Nurses Organisation (NZNO), the union behind the protests.

Is the ‘Green List’ making a dent in shortages?

While nurses have a number of demands, including better working conditions and higher pay, shortages loom over every aspect of the crisis in nursing, and in the healthcare sector as a whole. The NZNO says there’s a current need for between 4000 and 5000 more nurses, but thousands more workers are urgently required throughout the health system. Last week the government addressed that gap with the announcement of another 32 healthcare roles on the straight-to-residence “Green List” immigration pathway. Registered nurses were added to the list back in December, but it’s so far failed to lure many of them to New Zealand. Of the 162 nurses who had received resident visas by the end of February, only 19 of them applied from overseas – the rest were already working here under different visas. The tide may be turning, however. Last week health minister Ayesha Verrall said that in March alone almost 900 overseas nurses applied to register to work in New Zealand.

Bigger pay packets continue to lure nurses across the Tasman

One of the main challenges for recruiters is our larger, richer neighbour next door. Australia is suffering from a nursing shortage of its own, but higher wages mean it’s winning the staffing battle – not just among overseas immigrants, but also NZ-born nurses who’ve grown tired of waiting for our own system to improve. Nearly 5000 New Zealand nurses registered to work in Australia in the eight months to April 1, many of them drawn by short-term contracts in the outback that can pay two to three times what they earn in NZ. A Melbourne recruiter told RNZ short-term contracts on offer there “ranged from about $3500 to about $8000 Australian dollars a week, depending on factors including seniority, expertise and the length of the contract”. But outside of rural areas the pay gap is less stark. Since the pay equity boost, base rates for more experienced nurses are equal or higher than in some states of Australia, according to a NZ nursing recruiter.

The migrant tap gets turned back on

Elsewhere in the immigration system, numbers are on the rise. New Stats NZ data shows migration is now around pre-Covid levels, with a net gain of 52,000 migrants in the year ending February 2023. While inward migration has unsurprisingly skyrocketed since the opening of our borders in August, there’s also been a big jump in New Zealand citizens heading overseas. There was a net loss of 17,300 citizens in the year to March 1 – more than three times the average loss between 2015 and 2019.

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