The NZ Nurses Organisation will not rule out strike action during the mass Covid-19 vaccine rollout if it is unable to reach an agreement on satisfactory pay agreements, it says.
The government revealed yesterday that it has bought enough Pfizer Covid-19 vaccines for the whole country and is hoping to reach herd immunity levels by the end of the year.
Nine hundred vaccinators have been trained to give the Pfizer injection, but the Ministry of Health wants up to 3000 extra full-time immunisers for the mass vaccine rollout, and most of them are likely to be nurses.
Nurses Organisation industrial manager Glenda Alexander says it will be a big ask to rally that many people.
“There’s a real effort being put into finding people with suitable qualifications, and even some of my colleagues who don’t work as nurses at the moment have been exploring whether or not they would be able to do some of that work as well.”
Alexander said prerequisites to administer a vaccine injection would include health sector work experience, but full training is provided.
“They’re certainly looking at sourcing candidates to do this work, from non-practicing nurses and doctors or pharmacists, you’ve got students, medical, nursing students, pharmacy students.
“There are other health professionals who may have had vaccinations in their scope of practice and that can include, for instance, dentists and physiotherapists. So there’s quite a wide range but you’d expect people to have that kind of minimum qualification to be able to do this work.
“Potentially down the track I think lay people could be trained and the emphasis is on training and qualifying, so there would be a standard required for people to meet before they would be allowed to do that, which includes not just the technique of giving injections and so forth but also in terms of making sure they know what to do if there’s adverse reaction or whatever.
“But also within the workforce that’s required there will be other people there to support the workforce. So, there will be a whole range of administration people who will be involved to make sure that the vaccinations are properly documented and recorded.”
Alexander said the number of nurses vaccinated and ready to go were up to 900.
“Nurses are flat out doing their normal work, so this is work that this time last year we didn’t even have on our agenda, so it was about demonstrating again the adaptability of nurses to whatever’s thrown at them.
“Are they really ready? I think they have to be ready because we know this is an important thing that needs to get happening out there and I’m sure they will find a way in which they will be able to support our communities by administering these vaccines.
“But it’s not an easy task… pretty mammoth when you think about the size of the task ahead of us really.”
Nurses are always in high demand, Alexander said. “We know how valuable nurses are every day and we certainly feel that the public has acknowledged that many times. But I think the reality is there’s never been enough of them, never will be, and we don’t think they get paid or valued what the worth of the work is. It’s a continuous battle that we have.
“We have contract negotiations or collective agreements going on right across the health sector. A couple are probably more notable than others. We’ve just at the moment concluded the bargaining around the primary healthcare MECA, which is the agreement we have with multiple GP practices.”
In response to a question about whether strike action would happen during the Covid-19 vaccine rollout, Alexander said: “I can’t guarantee anything along those lines because we’re not at that point yet.
“Last year there was some industrial action taken around supporting the primary health care one. This one is at a critical stage, we’re very hopeful that there will be a solution that doesn’t mean that we have to even contemplate that.
“We’re as aware as anybody in this country just how the situation is in regard to nurses and the value of their work, and we hope that we will find a solution that means we won’t have to go down that track. But I can’t guarantee you the solution will be found or that won’t happen.”
She said reaching herd immunity in New Zealand could be realistic, given the roll out plan.
“It is a programme that’s being really fast-tracked. I think there’s every likelihood we’ll reach somewhere around that level by the end of the year. But again, that’s based on things going according to plan.
“It’s also [based on] things not changing in terms of more interruptions by alert level changes, so we’re really hopeful this will help protect those delivering health care services and those in the communities that will have infections if it comes to that. So it’s really important that we get this roll out done to prevent further disruption in the future.”
Health Minister Andrew Little did not respond to requests for comment.