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NHS nurses wait for the next patient at a drive through Coronavirus testing site in a car park in Wolverhampton, England. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Student nurses cleared to work in aged care as sector braces for staff shortage

The Minister for Aged Care and Senior Australians, Richard Colbeck, has confirmed that the lifting of restrictions on the number of hours international student nurses are allowed to work also applies to the aged care sector.

Yesterday Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that 20,000 student nurses will not be bound to their current 20 working hours a week maximum and Minister Colbeck hopes this will help to fill any voids that may occur as Australia battles a fast-expanding virus.

“Residential aged care providers are limiting visits to help prevent and control the spread of COVID-19,” he said.

“Further restrictions are being considered – but it’s critical we plan for a scenario where a large part of the aged care workforce is unable to come to work.

“Today’s announcement expands existing temporary arrangements relaxing visa work conditions to the aged care sector, applying to both residential and home care.”

The measures will be administered by the Department of Home Affairs and are available to approved providers of Commonwealth-funded aged care services, only for existing employees.

Providers can register with the Department if they believe the changes will assist them.

Employers are still required to abide by all relevant Australian workplace laws. Students have the same rights under Australian workplace law as all other employees.

This news comes in conjunction with new guidelines for aged care providers regarding infection control, including limiting visit duration, the number of visitors a day, and banning school children and outside entertainment from homes.

Some providers are choosing to go further such as BaptistCare who yesterday announced that all non-essential access to their homes will be barred, including visitors and family members.

BaptistCare is the only aged care provider to have confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Australia so far and in a statement said: “We understand how difficult this will be for many of our families, and even for our residents who look forward to visits from their loved ones, however we appreciate all cooperation at this time as we do all we can to protect our residents and staff.

“While we do not know exactly what is to come with this pandemic situation, we do know that the safety and health of our residents, staff and the wider community, are our ongoing priority.”

With anxiety in the community running high, it is inevitable that aged care workers with cold-like symptoms will now think twice before entering their workplace and this is already putting the sector under strain.

Workforce stretched

Deborah Booth, chief executive at St Andrews Village aged care in Canberra, has already increased her workforce numbers, but believes the government’s guidelines on visiting – limiting time and two visitors per day – could further strain staff who will have to police residents and their friends and family.

“We’ve had to drastically increase our staffing including weekend reception so that we can monitor, and we’ve restricted visiting from nine to five. So, no evening visits and we’re fortunate that we’re fully camera-ed so that we can run those things on Monday just to see if there’s compliance, and then talk to families who haven’t complied.”

Booth is also worried about how aged care workers will fair economically during this crisis. Booth has asked her staff not to work across many facilities, as aged care workers often do, and she has lost numbers as a result.

“And the other thing which is causing some hardship to some staff is the relatively low wages that we pay. And I don’t think that’s a secret to anybody. Staff work over a variety of facilities and we’ve asked our staff to consider which facilities suits their needs best,” she said.

“So, we’ve actually lost some of our workers and we’ve picked others up.”

Booth is glad the government has, as yet, decided not to shut schools as this could have the biggest impact on her ability to staff her homes.

“I’m certainly concerned if schools shut because our carers will just disappear. They’re all got young school aged children. So I think, again, infection control-wise it’s sensible keeping the schools open. It’s really, really important so that you can maintain the workforce, but you need to do it because if they’ve got to stay home and schools can be closed through to Christmas. Who knows?” she said.

Mixed response from the sector

The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) does not believe the current government response goes far enough.

Instead of relying on 20,000 international nurses, it believes the government should be looking to unemployed or recent grad nurses to fill any workforce gaps.

“Engaging international students should only be one part of the solution. It will be essential that students feel confident and have sufficient training to deal with this pandemic. They must work under the supervision and guidance of a registered nurse at all times,” said ANMF acting federal secretary Lori-Ann Sharp.

“With more than 2,500 Australian nursing graduates unemployed, the Government should genuinely give them the first opportunity to be employed, before taking the option of recruiting international nursing students. We have unemployed graduates who are out there and willing to work.”

The union also believes that all aged care facilities should be on lockdown for the foreseeable future.

Sharp said that to properly protect nursing home residents, the Government must provide clear and consistent messages to avoid confusion amongst already worried residents and their loved ones.

“This Government is completely out of touch with the reality that currently exists in nursing homes,” she said.

“How are chronically-understaffed facilities, some without a registered nurse, going to supervise visits, to ensure they are of ‘short duration’? This is totally unrealistic when we already know that care staff are rushed off their feet trying to meet the basic needs of elderly residents.”

Sharp also said that providers should provide virtual and digital communications channels available for residents and their families to replace visits in the short-term.

COTA chief executive Ian Yates was more positive about the government announcements.

“These new guidelines on screening visitors and restricting visitor access provide clarity and consistency across residential aged care, an industry that will play a crucial role in keeping older Australians safe and containing the spread of disease,” he said.

Yates welcomed the opportunity for providers to implement measures on a case by case basis and emphasised the need for interaction among residents and their families. However, he says that providers implementing stricter measures than the government suggests, could be restraining the rights of their residents.

“My staff took a call from a resident who alleges she has been punished for leaving an arbitrarily ‘locked down’ facility to attend a grandchild’s baptism and has been told she cannot attend a medical appointment with her doctor outside the facility unless she goes into isolation afterwards.

“If an aged care facility can manage the health and safety of its staff, who come and go daily and could potentially pose a significant health risk to residents, then there is no reason it can’t also safely manage family visitors with strict control measures.

“So called ‘lockdowns’ are the opposite of a sensible and compassionate response and should only be a temporary emergency response to an internal or nearby community outbreak, while longer term measures are worked out. They should never be a long-term response. As a long term approach lockdowns are a lazy, alarmist and counter-productive reaction, the opposite of being compassionate and caring.”

Australian numbers climbing

Yesterday it was announced that a 6th Australian has fallen victim to the coronavirus.

NSW health announced that 86-year-old man was being treated in a Sydney hospital before he died on Tuesday night.

“Our condolences are with his family and friends at this time,” the health authority said.

Five of the six deaths have occurred in NSW with the other death coming from WA.

National coronavirus cases are approaching 560, however of the 81,000 people tested, 99.5 per cent have been negative.

Meanwhile the Johns Hopkins university in the US says that worldwide cases of the virus have passed 200,000.

The Johns Hopkins Centre for Systems Science and Engineering’s online tally showed 201,436 cumulative cases by Tuesday, with 82,032 listed as recovered.

It has recorded 8006 deaths.

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