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‘Make ratios law, or we’re walking out the door’: Nurses and midwives go on strike for third time this year

Thousands of nurses picketed at hospitals in NSW for 24 hours yesterday as the staffing and pay crisis continues.

Photo by Christine Lai.

The Nurses and Midwives Association (NSWNMA) went on strike for the third time this year yesterday, walking off the job for 24 hours in a bid to fight against the staffing crisis, demand safe working conditions and higher pay. 

Striking healthcare workers formed pickets  in front of Royal Prince Alfred Hospital at 7am. The USyd Education Action Group (EAG) and members of the USyd National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) branch attended the strike in a show of solidarity. 

Amongst the NSWNMA demands are a ratio of one nurse for every four patients to ensure adequate patient care and a seven per cent pay rise to keep up with the cost of inflation. 

NSWNMA President O’Bray Smith praised the union, declaring that they were federally the largest union in Australia.

Smith said that the strike action involved over 60 branches across NSW and saw thousands of nurses and midwives demanding an increase to staffing levels, better patient to staff ratios, job security and higher pay. 

“We can’t go on anymore. We’re exhausted and our patients deserve better. Our community deserves better. And if we don’t stand up for them, who else is going to?” Smith said.

Smith referenced the NSW Parliament’s  Rural Health Inquiry, which found systemic issues within rural health settings, calling for an increase of nurses, doctors and midwives to address staffing concerns. 

“We need to pay attention to rural health. There are absolutely critical shortages and their emergency departments are having to turn away emergency patients,” Smith said. 

As a midwife manager, Smith criticised the lack of access to adequate health care, stating that the basic right to receive medical aid should not be compromised by a failing health system. 

Greens MP Jenny Leong shared her outrage at the nurse-to-patient ratios and condemned the government for their role in leaving nurses and midwives to bear the burden of a “broken system”. 

“It’s a choice you make about whether you’re happy to let people go without healthcare, without mental health support, without emergency support and without crisis support because you are more concerned about budget balances,” Leong said. 

She declared that the Greens were in full support of mandated nurse-to-patient staffing ratios and committed to scrapping the public sector wage cap, stating that she recognised it was not just about wages and money  but also  resources, understaffing and lack of support given.  

Emergency department (ED) nurse Joshua Callaghan criticised the current healthcare system which had left paramedics waiting lengthy periods of time to offload patients who were seeking immediate medical attention. 

“It’s just unsafe in ED.  You’re waiting over an hour to see a doctor. Ambulances will wait up to 4 hours to offload a patient,” he said. 

Callaghan expressed regret about the lack of time that ED healthcare workers had to tend to patients before moving patients into wards: “We try so hard to get these patients cared for but we don’t have the time, or the staff.”

ICU nurse Tyrone Dallas described the unsustainable workload pressures nurses experience on night shifts: “My night shifts often consist of looking after two or three one-to-one patients. If your patient deteriorates, which they often do, you can say goodbye to a break.”

Dallas condemned the workload pressures which has left many nurses suffering from burn out and leaving their jobs. He noted that nurse-to-patient ratios are already being implemented in Victoria and Queensland

Former president of the Royal Prince Alfred Branch Cherie Desreaux condemned the demanding workloads by midwives: “Midwives in neonatal wards cannot continue to care for up to 16 people per midwife, only to have 8 acknowledged.”

Desreaux criticised the NSW government for failing to hire additional staffing and increase resources required to accommodate new workplace measures that came with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Where was the consideration for the time needed to ensure we fulfilled these new safety measures? Where was the consideration for staff required on the floor to ensure we achieved these new initiatives? There was none!” Desreaux said. 

She ended her speech by calling for ratios, safe workplaces and fair pay to reflect the importance of the work of midwives: “Midwives are sick and tired of feeling stressed, exhausted and undervalued.”

Nurses and activists chanted nurse-to-patient ratio demands including “1 to 3 in ED” and “1 to 4 on the floor” and “1 to 1 and 1 to 2 in ICU”.

The strike at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital was conducted in conjunction with strikes and pickets in other hospitals across NSW, such as Westmead Hospital, Newcastle and Bankstown.