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The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (SA Branch) says South Australian Premier Steven Marshall has taken on board its urgent pleas to address the state’s escalating health system crisis, with a “very productive” meeting held earlier this week raising hopes that widespread issues will be acted on.

The union, together with the Ambulance Employees Association (AEA) and South Australian Salaried Medical Officers Association (SASMOA), met the Premier and Health Minister Stephen Wade on Tuesday to outline concerns for patient and staff safety, particularly in the face of the latest Omicron variant outbreak.

The peak groups, which collectively represent more than 25,000 South Australian nurses, midwives, care workers, ambulance workers, and doctors, sent joint letters to the SA Premier last week calling for the urgent meeting.

The letters warned that the number of COVID cases was on the rise in the community and causing members of the unions to experience issues such as up to seven hour delays for an emergency ambulance; short staffing and extended shifts, with some staff working up to 18 hours a day; staff being asked to wash and reuse PPE due to short supplies; and lack of breaks to remove PPE, leading to dehydration and fatigue.

“Health professionals have and continue to work short-staffed, double shifts and under extreme pressure and duress,” the joint letter said.

“Fatigue is at an all-time high, and morale is at an all-time low. Our members are increasingly desperate about their ability to care for our community. They are also worried about the mental and physical impact on themselves and their colleagues.”

Positively, crisis talks held this week to inform the Premier of frontline staff concerns and request actions to improve the system’s capacity to cope with were welcomed by unions.

Some of the issues raised included a need for greater transparency, the need for plans to address underlying workforce shortages and ongoing stresses throughout the system, and meeting the health needs of the community.

Other requests included action to secure the availability of PPE/RATs and greater awareness of issues such as burnout and fatigue.

According to the union, specific outcomes of the meeting were that the Premier:

  1. Recognised the impact of the pandemic and the current outbreak on staff and agreed that this needed to be more effectively communicated and acted on.
  2. Agreed that regular (weekly) meetings should be held between the unions and the Health Minister, with transparent updates with directions and actions for identified problems. The Premier also offered to take part in those meetings personally.
  3. Agreed that there is a need to better articulate the capacity to shift increased bed capacity/transfer of activity to private settings in order to allow public hospital staff to cope with COVID and emergency demand.
  4. Will investigate what can be done to reactivate a regular dashboard report on the supply and availability of PPE/RATs– including disclosure of stock held and duration of availability to meet current use
  5. Agreed to consider how a more effective and transparent vehicle for system-wide response can be achieved, rather than leaving it to individual LHNs
  6. Indicated that support for aged care facilities was on the agenda for National Cabinet this week and that he would ask for consideration of the ANMF’s suggestion to create an effective mechanism for local work with providers, unions and both levels of government that will support residents and staff.
  7. Agreed to further and ongoing discussions that will address shortages in the workforce now and into the future.

ANMF (SA Branch) CEO/Secretary Adj Associate Professor Elisabeth Debars

In a video message to members today, ANMF (SA Branch) CEO/Secretary Adj Associate Professor Elizabeth Dabars AM said the union would continue to demand urgent action.

We know, from you, that the health system is in absolute crisis,” she said.

“We put to him [The Premier] seven outcomes we were seeking on your behalf. They included issues such as transparency, availability of Personal Protective Equipment, and rapid antigen tests, [and] the desperate need to get staffing levels correct because of the issues you’re experiencing with double staffing, working overtime and working short.”

Ms Dabars said the collective unions outlined a number of solutions to the Premier, including in aged care, one of the biggest sectors of concern.

“We were very pleased during the course of that meeting [that] the Premier was very receptive to what we were saying and certainly has agreed, either in full or in part, to all of our seven outcomes that we were seeking during the course of that meeting.”

Ms Dabars said she and Director, Operations & Strategy Rob Bonner also raised the range of issues at today’s COVID-19 Response Select Committee Parliamentary Inquiry and would make sure that the Premier’s pledges turned into real action.

“We know that what we need to see is not just words, we need action and we need outcomes,” she told members.

“We know that the strongest message we can send comes directly from you. So please continue to keep engaged with us. Please continue to send us your stories, your images, your experience, because that’s how we’re going to best advocate for you.

“Please keep strong, keep doing what you’re doing, but we will be there with you and for you in order to fight for a better outcome for both you and your patients and residents.”