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Code brown alerted Victorians to the crisis

Code brown alerted Victorians to the crisis

Paul Gilbert

In mid-January around 5000 nurses and midwives were furloughed from the public health system.

They could not work because they had COVID-19 or were a close contact.

The rising COVID-19 hospitalisations coupled with the high number of nurses and midwives unable to work created a perfect storm. A small number of hospitals had already moved to the surge workforce models; many more followed. Similar issues affected private hospitals and aged care.

Yet the public didn’t yet understand the crisis because, thanks to the vaccines, intensive care patient numbers were relatively low.

The measure for the crisis had rapidly changed. It wasn’t ICU patients. It was a lack of available nurses and midwives to care for patients.

ANMF had been advocating for the Andrews Government to declare a code brown. The declaration on 18 January signalled a once-in-a century crisis inside our hospitals. It enabled unprecedented co-ordination and prioritisation across the health system.

Throughout January, ANMF held hospital-wide and health service-wide virtual members’ meetings across Victoria. Thank you to every single member, Job Rep and Health and Safety Rep who attended. We know it was difficult to get to these meetings. We were still working to assist thousands of individual members. However, it was these meetings that helped us understand broader issues and patterns – such as lack of additional break areas for those returning early from furlough – that we could resolve at employer-, department- and government-level. Some of these issues are still a work in progress.

There are no words that can adequately describe the exhaustion and the pressure on our professions over the last few weeks, or the last couple of years.

We are watching hospitalisations and furloughing numbers closely. There may be more to come.

ANMF has issued a survey, via email and SMS, to all public sector nurses and midwives to understand the impact of surge models and management of leave, before and after the crisis. Your responses will inform our advocacy as hospitals end the surge workforce models and move out of this crisis.

Victoria cannot resume full healthcare services until we understand how we can assist the workforce to take a break and recharge. This may mean extending the pause on elective surgery.

The priority must be the health and wellbeing of nurses and midwives because Victorians can’t live without them.