AUSTRALIA is now threatening to fine health workers and their unions for coming out on strike, in a move which is set to be replicated by the Tory government in Britain which has also just passed new anti-union laws.
The NSW (New South Wales) Government has proposed new regulations that would increase fines for trade unions who take strike action not approved by the NSW Industrial Relations Commission.
The proposal comes after months of failed negotiations between the NSW government and public sector unions like the NSWNMA, leading to numerous strikes and industrial unrest over pay and conditions.
Over the past 12 months, nurses and midwives, along with teachers, bus drivers, cleaners and other public sector workers have gone on strike demanding the government deliver a pay rise that keeps up with inflation and addresses key safety and understaffing issues across various sectors including health and education.
In response to public sector workers’ demands, the NSW Finance Minister Damien Tudehope has instead announced increased fines for strike action.
The new fines would now see trade unions fined up to $55,000 for strike action taken in defiance of an IRC ruling and up to $27,500 issued for each day after. While unions who repeatedly breach orders would face fines of up to $110,000.
NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association Assistant General Secretary Shaye Candish has called the move by the government a ‘silencing tactic’.
‘The government does not want to face the realities of our health system and this silencing tactic is just another attempt to punish nurses and midwives who are speaking out in the name of patient safety.
‘Teachers, nurses and midwives and the majority of public sector workers are women. Women who have been working tirelessly throughout Covid, caring for our community in the hospital system or teaching our kids under extraordinary circumstances.
‘And these women are fed up with this government telling them to sit down, be quiet and put up with unmanageable workloads and low pay,’ she said.
Under NSW laws, the NSW upper house can vote down any new regulation within 15 parliamentary sitting days. The regulation is expected to be voted on in early August with Labour and the Greens aiming to block the government’s regulation.
They will however need the support of independents or the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers to defeat the NSW government’s latest attack on unions.
Unions NSW have mounted a campaign to lobby the crossbench in the NSW upper house, calling on them to reject the government’s regulation.
Meanwhile, nurses in western Sydney are walking off the job again, drawing attention to a staffing crisis.
After weeks of battling rising patient presentations and no reprieve from chronic short staffing, a group of emergency department nurses staged a walk out from Blacktown and Westmead hospitals on Monday morning.
Severe understaffing and a lack of support from the NSW government prompted the nursing staff to walk out at the end of their night shift, supported by other nurses from ICU, operating theatres, general wards and midwives from maternity.
NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association (NSWNMA) members braved the winter morning to call on the NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet to increase staffing in their emergency departments, and to raise community awareness of how the staffing crisis is impacting the delivery of safe patient care.
NSWNMA General Secretary, Brett Holmes, said patients were waiting for extended periods in overcrowded emergency departments and a lack of safe nurse-to-patient ratios was contributing to the strain.
‘With flu and Covid-19 presentations on the rise, these emergency departments are regularly overwhelmed and there has been little to no reprieve for our members because urgent measures are not being taken to help combat the issues,’ said Holmes.
‘Our members are reporting high rates of burnout and fatigue, due to the regular requests for overtime work and constant double shifts. This has prompted many senior ED nurses to reduce their hours, while others are leaving the profession altogether.
‘The NSW government cannot continue asking exhausted nurses and midwives to do more with less staff. The number of staff currently off sick or isolation themselves is climbing daily and the return of school this week could see those rates rise further.
‘We need the NSW Premier to acknowledge the staffing crisis and to stop taking nurses and midwives for granted, expecting them to continue working until they drop – it’s unsafe for the staff and the patients in their care.’
NSWNMA members reported between 50 and 100 unfunded beds were opened recently to help with demand at Blacktown and Westmead hospitals, but warned there were not enough nurses rostered per shift to care for patients in the extra beds.
NSWNMA Blacktown Hospital branch delegate, Jess, said nurses were sacrificing their own health and wellbeing while trying to care for their communities.
‘We are constantly short staffed, and the overcrowding is rife. We’ve had upwards of 40 or 50-plus people stuck in our ED waiting rooms during the night, sometimes more. We’re really worried about non-Covid patients having to wait alongside positive Covid-19 patients.
‘Bed block is a real issue. Patients are presenting more unwell, meaning they’re staying in hospital longer, which is disrupting the flow from the emergency department.
‘We want to provide safe care to all patients, but the overcrowding conditions are an enormous challenge,’ she said.
NSWNMA Westmead Hospital branch delegate, Denny Anderson, said members felt compelled to speak up and highlight current conditions inside their emergency departments.
‘We’re on the cusp of yet another wave of the pandemic, coupled with increased cases of flu and other viruses, but already we are treating too many patients in corridors, while others are sleeping on the floor,’ Denny said.
‘During the night shift, there are delays of between seven and ten hours for patients waiting to be seen and there’s been no let up. We all want to give patients the best possible care, but these challenges are making it increasingly difficult.’
Hayes said his greatest concern was losing the confidence of the community in health advice through inconsistent messaging, pointing to the Albanese government’s forced backdown on maintaining the original end date for Covid isolation payments.
The $750 pandemic leave payments for workers without access to sick leave will now be available until the end of September after sustained pressure from state leaders, doctors and unions.
Doctors have continued to raise their concerns over the decision to end rebates for dozens of telehealth services, as the Albanese government on Saturday agreed to create a new, temporary Medicare item to cover longer GP telehealth consultations to prescribe Covid-19 antivirals.
The decision came after the Australian Medical Association and Royal Australian College of General Practitioners pressed their case with federal Health Minister Mark Butler last Friday, but both organisations said the change did not go far enough.
AMA president Dr Omar Khorshid said older Australians and people without the means to make video calls for appointments could not afford to lose access to the other telehealth services.
Rebates for about 70 different telehealth-related consultations were cut on June 30, including for specialist items and GP consultations longer than 20 minutes, after the government elected not to extend them.
Royal Australian College of General Practitioners president Dr Karen Price said the decision to axe longer telephone consults was ‘crazy’ during a winter resurgence of the pandemic.
‘It’s actually shut the door to some vulnerable patients accessing health care and that includes aged people, but it also includes rural people. So it makes a nonsense out of equality of healthcare access.’