Handling of visiting issue not sexy

Seeing Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern momentarily speechless when asked about the allegation a visitor had sex with a patient at Auckland Hospital during the Level 4 lockdown provided some light relief both here and overseas.

However, the issues surrounding too many visitors to Auckland Hospital were much more important than that hopefully aberrant instance of visitor behaviour.

It seems incomprehensible that the Auckland District Health Board was so out of step with visitor practices at its neighbouring boards, Counties Manukau and Waitemata, in the city where most of the Covid-19 cases were showing up.

The main nurses’ union, the New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO) was so concerned they issued a Provisional Improvement Notice (PIN) under the Health and Safety at Work Act to the board for putting staff and patients at risk in a policy nurses described as a ‘‘free for all’’. This notice would require the board to take steps within eight days to address the safety issues raised or face further action.

The union raised issues of lax physical distancing, visitors who were not wearing masks when they should, and mixing of people’s household bubbles.

But it appeared the board was not prepared to act quickly and the Ministry of Health’s approach to the fraught issue of inconsistency around visitor rules was hands-off, saying in typical health gobbledygook it was up to each DHB to decide how to ‘‘operationalise’’.

The situation heated up with the nurses, frustrated with the board’s lack of urgency on the issue, taking the matter to the Employment Relations Authority. From there the parties were directed to engage in urgent mediation but the DHB still seemed to be dragging the chain.

The board eventually saw sense and has altered its policy, restricting visitors to those able to fulfil compassionate grounds requirements.

Although in this instance common sense eventually prevailed, it is difficult to understand why these situations are not nipped in the bud when complaints first arise.

This matter went on for weeks without resolution.

It is all very well for politicians and health leaders to laud nurses’ efforts in the Covid-19 pandemic and at other times, but these are empty words if, when nurses raise genuine concerns, they are ignored.

It should not be forgotten that nurses comprise the largest part of the workforce in our hospital set-up and must be able to function safely, for the sake of patients, the wider community, the nurses themselves, and other health professionals.

We should all be concerned that increasingly, it seems, nurses are feeling they have to issue PIN notices and the like to get the attention their issues deserve.

In Dunedin, we had an instance at Dunedin Hospital’s emergency department earlier this year where staff, concerned about safety issues resulting from short staffing, issued a PIN.

It is well known that we are short of nurses and that our ability to boost nursing numbers on a large scale is not going to happen overnight. Therefore, we should treat those we have as a precious resource, not working them into the ground, or making them work in situations where they feel their practice is compromised.

Of course, it makes sense for nurses to use legal avenues when all else has failed, but this should not have been necessary in the hospital visiting case. District health boards across the country need to learn from this Auckland experience and resolve to do better when concerns are raised.


I am not sure that your editorial captures the reality of what was happening in Auckland Hospital at least. You make it sound like the hospital doors had been thrown open during a level 4 lockdown and all and sundry could come and visit their nearest and dearest at will.
It was not like that. Each patient admitted to hospital nominates a next of kin and a second person, who are contacted after surgery and told how you are recovering or if you died. Since Level 4 lockdown those two individuals and only those two individuals are provided with a letter containing a code that they can use to gain access as a visitor to the hospital. If you don't have a letter and you don't have a code you don't get in.
There is one access point and it is operated like a military checkpoint. As a visitor your ID is confirmed, your letter and code are checked, you are interrogated about covid19, symptoms, contacts and places of interest, you are given a mask if you are stupid enough to turn up without one and told you must wear it at all times and there are hand sterilisation stations every 20 metres or so along the hallways.
It was not as relaxed as you suggest in your editorial.



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