Thousands of public hospital nurses across NSW have walked off the job in protest, saying they are stretched too thin to give patients the care they deserve, especially in a pandemic.
Staff at about 150 of the state’s public hospitals were involved in staggered strikes on Tuesday, with a skeleton staff working to ensure patient safety.
Nurses want one nurse to every four patients on every shift and a pay increase above the state government’s prescribed public sector offer of 2.5 per cent.
Protesters, including many who had travelled from outside Sydney, rallied outside NSW Parliament House on Tuesday, taking their message to MPs who were returning for the first sitting day of the year.
Wollongong midwife Emma Gedge was among them. She caught a bus to Sydney on Tuesday morning, along with 150 colleagues.
“We’re drowning…we’ve been drowning for a long time and COVID has really just pressed that point home that this health system is just not working,” she told the ABC.
The rally was one of about 30 across NSW.
Nurses, midwives and supporters – many of whom said they would have preferred to be at work – gathered in Queens Square, with the crowd spilling over into nearby Hyde Park before marching up Macquarie Street to Parliament House just after 10am.
The strike defied an 11th-hour ruling by the state’s Industrial Relations Commission, which had on Monday ordered the union to refrain from industrial action.
Health Minister Brad Hazzard met union representatives on Monday to try to avert the action and said he was disappointed that Tuesday’s strike went head.
“It’s unfortunate … there’s been all sorts of efforts to try to work our way through their principal issues,” he told Sydney radio 2GB on Tuesday.
NSW Nurses and Midwives Association president O’Bray Smith told members on Tuesday the union was offered nothing at the meeting.
“Those ‘crisis talks’ were merely a tickbox so they could go to the IRC and the media and say ‘oh, we tried’.”
Ms Smith said Mr Hazzard and health bureaucrats spent the meeting “mansplain[ing] about life in health”, saying it was striking that “there are so many politicians … making decisions that profoundly impact our working lives, yet they have no background in health”.
Union’s general secretary Brett Holmes said Premier Dominic Perrottet’s praise for health workers showed he “wasn’t in touch with the real world”.
He said the thousands of health workers who turned out to protest and the “tens of thousands of nurses … back looking after the patients trying to keep them alive” demonstrated the workforce was ready to fight and “stay fighting until we win”.
Nurse-to-patient ratios are the main point of concern.
Nurse Kathy Triggol, who was among the strikers, said health workers “deserve better”.
“Most of the time, the staff are overworked and stressed and it’s just not fair. We don’t ask for much, we’re asking for it to be fair,” she told the ABC.
“It’s gotten to the stage that every hospital is the same,” Ms Triggol said.
“We’re talking about nurses in the ICU and emergency department who can’t even stop to go to the toilet. It’s just ridiculous.”
Mr Hazzard agreed enough nurses were needed to ensure patients were safely cared for, but said meeting the union’s demands would cost about $1 billion.
“I still need to be able to manage taxpayers’ dollars and make sure it works,” he said.
Mr Perrottet said the patient ratios the union wanted weren’t effective, and the system hadn’t worked well in other states.
Some hospital workers, such as those at Byron Central Hospital, supported the strike but did not leave their nurses’ stations amid concerns they did not have enough staff to provide the required care.
Liz McCall, a senior nurse at Byron Central said many senior nurses had resigned or retired early during the pandemic because of their workloads, leaving a major gap in nursing experience.