Thousands of NSW nurses and midwives walked off the job today for the first time in a decade to protest for legislated nurse-to-patient ratios and a pay rise, saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed an already stretched health system to breaking point.
In Sydney’s CBD, nurses and midwives, wearing scrubs and holding placards, marched from Queen’s Square to NSW Parliament House, chanting: “We want a raise, not just praise” and “Enough is enough. Safe staffing now”.
Despite the Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) yesterday afternoon ordering the New South Wales Nurses and Midwives’ Association (NSWNMA) to call off the strike, almost 30 rallies took place today across the state.
Outside NSW Parliament, NSW President O’Bray Smith opened the rally by asking members to pause for a moment’s silence to reflect on the tragic impact of the pandemic.
“The government policy of let it rip has meant not only senseless loss of life directly due to COVID, but we’ve seen loss of life as a result of us not having enough staff and getting to patients on time,” Ms Smith said.
“It’s time to let the government know that we’ve had no hope. 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.”
Ms Smith revealed that the union’s crisis talks with NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard yesterday failed to reach a resolution, with the government offering little confidence that it understands the need for ratios and, astoundingly, the current crisis crippling the health system.
“Let me be clear Premier, we are not coping, we were struggling before this pandemic even hit and the situation is so much worse now,” she said.
“We’re asking our politicians today to invest in the public health system, invest in nurses and midwives, invest in ratios, [and] stop the attacks on workers’ compensation and then we’ll gladly return to the hospital and do our job. But until then we’re here for the long fight.”
Scanning the sea of faces at the rally, NSWNMA General Secretary Brett Holmes described the sight as a fantastic expression of “raw anger” from the frontline.
Tellingly, staff at around 150 public hospitals took part in staggered strikes across the state today.
“I know each and every one of you has been doing it really tough, whereas so many in our community, including many inside there [Parliament], had the opportunity to hide away and try and stay safe. None of you had that choice.”
Mr Holmes criticised Premier Dominic Perrottet for not listening to the union’s warnings that it was unsafe to open up the state last year in the face of the new Omicron variant.
He said it was time the Premier and Health Minister came back to the table with real answers and urgently implemented ratios, already legislated in Victoria and Queensland, which research shows save lives and money.
NSW nurses and midwives are seeking a pay rise above 2.5%, to compensate for the wage freeze back in 2020, legislated nurse-to-patient ratios and protection of workers’ compensation legislation.
Mr Holmes said nurses turning out in droves across the state to take part in industrial action signalled to him that they were “ready to fight” and in it for the long haul.
“This battle has been going on for 10 years,” he declared.
“We know that the crisis that you’re in won’t be over tomorrow. When you get back to work, the crisis is still with us and that means we’ve got to keep fighting. And we’ll do this as often as we need to do until the government actually listens to you.”
Addressing protestors, NSWNMA Assistant General Secretary Shaye Candish encouraged nurses and midwives to keep sharing stories highlighting the physical and emotional toll of the pandemic and escalating staff shortages.
“We know for a fact the system is not coping and the only reason we’ve gotten through these last two years is because of your hard work and steadfast commitment to your patients,” she said.
Ms Candish relayed several stories from nurses and midwives on the frontline. One RN revealed how she felt haunted after being forced to break a promise to not let any of her patients die alone due to lack of staffing. Meanwhile, an assistant in nursing working at a rural hospital voiced that many staff were choosing to quit and instead stack shelves at supermarkets because it’s less strain and stress, and better paid.
“The elderly are being made to wait in their own faeces and urine and as an AIN in a small rural town, I’m told to attend to the ones that need it more”, the AIN said.
Ms Candish vowed nurses and midwives would not go away until their demands are met.
“We will come back time and time again and continue to expose the lies and misinformation that this government insists on telling. We will come back bigger and angrier each time we’re ignored
“Now is the time to do the right thing, implement ratios, give us a pay rise that recognises what we have sacrificed, and repeal the damaging workers’ compensation amendments.”
Several frontline workers also shared their on-the-ground stories with nurses and midwives who attended the rally.
A couple of weeks ago, staff at Westmead Hospital took action to protest against dangerous and chaotic conditions due to COVID-19. Theatre nurse Tim Blofield said it had now become a dire situation.
Giving a recent example, he said just one registered nurse, two ENs and an AIN were charged with caring for 28 COVID patients on a ward.
“[Westmead] a place where people can wait well over 24 hours in the waiting room. Where there is so much access block that there are beds in the corridors, where the patients are sleeping on the floors, where babies have to die for them to increase night shift staffing to safe levels. The best part is that was back in 2019. Now it’s absolute chaos.”
Kelly Falconer, a clinical nurse specialist from Wyong, describing herself as the “face of Emergency”, told protestors the system was at breaking point.
“We do not have the staff, they’re all leaving. What are we going to do with a health system with no staff?”
Sarah Morton, a nurse and midwife from Wollongong, said the COVID-19 pandemic had equally affected midwives, mothers and babies.
“We continue to work in unacceptable conditions, managing excessive workloads, increased sick leave, increased overtime and compassion fatigue. We self-manage that by talking to our hospital executive by taking leave and now that’s being stopped,” she revealed.
“Midwives are unable to provide the bare minimum standard of care that our women and babies deserve.”
Mental health nurse Skye Romer, a branch secretary and delegate, said nurses and midwives had taken the decision to strike to make the Premier and Health Minister accountable for their refusal to negotiate on safe staffing and dodging of responsibility.
Ms Romer, who required two spinal surgeries after being assaulted on the job back in 2019, argued that nurses and midwives hold a professional obligation to ensuring they provide safe and competent care, including addressing factors that compromise that care. Yet, they are still being told to “shut up”.
“Therefore, it is our professional obligation to pursue industrial action, to campaign for mandated nurse-to-patient ratios, for wage justice, and for a safe and sustainable healthcare system.”